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Op-Ed | Speak up, Hindus

Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 09:02


Last week, my Twitter timeline was filled with discussions on Penguin India’s decision to pull all unsold copies of “The Hindus: An Alternative History”(2009) by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger. The decision came after protests across India by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu hard-liners and a lower-court order. The publishing house decided not to contest the decision in a higher court.

Strong responses to books — or works of art — are not new phenomena in India. After the release of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in 1989, India was the first country to ban the book — ahead of countries like Pakistan and Iran. The great Indian gem — artist MF Husain — lived in a self-imposed exile between 2006 and his death in 2011, as a response to threats made against him for his portrayal of Hindu goddesses.

Professor Doniger focuses on the role of “outsiders” in Hindu history in the book (which is available in Tisch library). The status of women, pariahs and the “ogres” — elements of the Hindu society that conventional texts have paid little attention to, is analyzed as it has changed over the ages. Professor Doniger focuses particularly on female sexuality and the portrayal of female goddesses. Her critics have latched on to that point, arguing that she has “sexualized” Hinduism to sell her book. The second issue of contentment is the issue of the role of Islam in medieval India. Most serious academics in the field agree that the relationship between the Muslim rulers and Hindu subjects during the Mughal era was flexible, one of give-and-take. Elements of the Hindu right portray it as one of the foreign oppressor and the indigenous oppressed, portraying themselves as America’s Indians and the Mughals (and Muslims as general) as European oppressors. Professor Ayesha Jalal at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (and currently on academic leave) also argues in her books — and in her classes — that the “oppressor invader Muslim” theory is a recent one, espoused by the Hindu right to discredit Muslims in India. Most of Doniger’s thesis is water-tight, the protests are not against the academic weakness of the book but against the disproval of the historically-unfounded myths the right wing uses to mobilize its followers against anyone that comes in its path, which has included Muslims and Sikhs in the past.

Assume for a moment that “The Hindus” was absolute trash — a collection of fabricated lies about sex intended to sell the book (a religious history book using sex to sell in an age of online porn — go figure!). Even if not a single fact in the book were true, it is indefensible for a book to be banned for its merits. A critical, religious-historical perspective is absolutely necessary in understanding the way people have lived, and this book would still be an important addition to that field. Forget free speech — even within the Indian government’s narrow and vague define-as-you-go framework of free speech, it is an important piece for it opens up a discussion on the legacy of the religion on different social institutions. An academic work shouldn’t be destroyed because it’s not right — it should be corrected through more academic work. In that, the book is valuable even if it were to be absolutely false.

Speaking of academia, Tufts’ own Hindu Students Council has stayed rather mum on the issue. It’s quite surprising -- an article published in the Daily defending the open, accepting and assimilative nature of Hinduism was fiercely disputed with great zest. One would assume there would be greater interest in the issue. One is told that the author of the article defending appropriation of Holi received strong comments that were not entirely academic in nature. One has yet to hear about students getting up-in-arms about this issue.

In “The Hindus,” Doniger goes into extreme detail on adaptability of the religion. She explains how “Hinduism” wasn’t really a concept till the 1830s when the British decided to name all the peoples with vaguely similar belief systems after the river Indus. She shows how gods “travelled” from one culture to another, springing up out of nowhere in religious books of different communities at different times. There’s even the story of Santoshi Ma, a previously non-existing goddess who gained many followers in Indian women after Bollywood “created” her in the 1960s.

The Hindu Students Council has shown appreciation of the appropriation of Hinduism, including Holi and the Color Run. It has looked positively (from what I can tell of my friends involved with it) to the connecting of the Tufts Mascot to the Hindu god Ganesh. Considering that, it surely believes that if someone decides to appropriate Hindu symbols, the more power to them — there is no central authority to set the beliefs, and differences in beliefs are a part of the accepting bosom of the religion. Perhaps then, the organization should come out defending the book. This is especially important since a large part of the crowd that protests against the book is from the diaspora: Doniger had eggs thrown at her in New York in 2003 by an Indian man who disagreed with her. The HSC should explain why it agrees with Doniger and act as a beacon for greater discussion amongst Hindus at Tufts. If it disagrees with Doniger’s thesis, it should come forward to say what it disagrees with, and why. 

In liberal religious cultures, the “crisis” of religion is often talked about. The biggest crisis of religion today is that religious liberals choose to stay quiet, allowing the hardliners and fundamentalists to have the full say. As a result, religion often comes off as something unaccepting, irrational and narrow-minded — even though it is often the opposite for most followers. If the liberals talked louder and more often, it would be clearer that the religion can be more liberal.

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