Why did Penguin recall a book on Hindus?

Wendy Doniger Image copyright Wendy Doniger
Image caption Wendy Doniger said she did not blame her publisher Penguin India for withdrawing her book The Hindus

"Now here's this book. And there will be more. After half a century of studying and engaging with Hinduism, I'm not about to be silenced by a few (bad) eggs," academic Wendy Doniger wrote in her latest book On Hinduism, published last year.

Doniger, who teaches at the University of Chicago and has written nearly half a dozen books on Hinduism, including a translation of the Kama Sutra, was writing about how her 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History quickly became a lightning rod for Hindu anger.

Doniger wrote that bloggers had accused her of attacking Hinduism and sexualising Hindus, flooded Amazon with their "lurid opinions of the book" and sent her obscene and threatening emails. There was even a protest outside the US embassy in Delhi calling for the book, which was climbing the best-seller non-fiction list, to be banned. The book had also prompted a legal challenge from Hindu groups and attracted at least two separate criminal complaints.

But Tuesday's news of her publisher Penguin India deciding to recall and destroy all remaining copies of The Hindus is being seen as the unkindest cut of all.

The publisher appears to have come to an out-of-court agreement with a little-known Hindu campaign group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), which had filed cases against the book.

The man behind the campaign is Shiksha Bachao Andolan leader Dinanath Batra, a former teacher and school principal. After retirement, he told a newspaper, he began to devote his time to a "mission to see distortions removed from books taught to schoolchildren".

Since then, he says, he has filed some 10 lawsuits involving "objectionable passages" from various textbooks. He filed another demanding an essay on Ramayana by the late poet and scholar AK Ramanujan be dropped from the history syllabus of Delhi University. That was followed by a legal notice to a newspaper for publishing a story on Hindu terrorism. Then he trained his guns on the Doniger book.

Image copyright Wendy Doniger
Image caption Mr Batra finds the cover of Doniger's book "vulgar"

"The book is in a bad taste right from the beginning," Mr Batra told a BBC Hindi colleague on Wednesday. "If you see the front page [cover], the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in a vulgar pose. The book is slanderous and even facts have been distorted."

The Hindus is a magisterial 779-page work that attempts a narrative that is different to the one constituted by the famous texts in Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India.

Doniger writes that it also tells an alternate history to "show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the [Hindu] tradition - women, untouchables [Dalits]- did actually contribute to Hinduism". Reviewers who liked the book described it as "history as entertainment" and "staggeringly comprehensive". They praised Doniger's "vast erudition, insight, graceful writing laced with gentle wit".

Mr Batra doesn't think so.

He finds it objectionable that Doniger writes in the book that independence hero Mahatma Gandhi had a "habit of sleeping beside girls young enough to be called jailbait in the United States"; and that 19th Century Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda "set himself against all forms of caste distinction and advised people to eat beef".

Mr Batra's pride is also hurt by Doniger's assertion that Maharashtrian queen Lakshmi Bai "claimed loyalty to the British" and sought their help when a local rival to the throne invaded her kingdom. And he also does not believe Doniger when she writes that "there is no Hindu canon", and that ideas about major issues such as vegetarianism, non-violence, even caste, are "subjects of a debate, not a dogma".

The fact that a top publisher has acceded to the demands of a fringe Hindu group has come as a shock to many. (Penguin has refused to comment so far.)

"This is deeply disappointing," historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted. "Penguin should have appealed in a higher court."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hardline Hindu groups have often protested against what they perceive to be an affront to their deities

Journalist and commentator Swapan Dasgupta said he was "very uneasy" about Penguin's decision. "Ideas and academic studies, however contentious, can't be handled by censorship."

Doniger has, however, has been kinder to her publisher.

She said in a statement that she did not blame Penguin Books, which had made an effort to save the book by defending it in the courts for four years - both as a civil and criminal suit - unlike other publishers, which have quietly withdrawn books.

What's seen as a bigger worry is the erosion of India's liberal tradition.

Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that the country's reputation as a bastion of liberal values is "dimming by the day".

He makes the point that the courts have also failed liberal India "because of a law that signals that it is open to banning books", a point Doniger also makes in her statement. Mr Mehta despairs that liberal India has also been "silenced" by "professional offence mongers". He blames the educators for the "extraordinary failure of the project of liberal education".

Mr Mehta writes: "Wendy Donniger could not have damaged Hindus. But if liberal India dies, Hinduism will die as well. It's a frightening message for one of the world's largest religions."

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