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'Hindus will suffer most from the withdrawal of Doniger's book'

By Arthur J Pais
Last updated on: February 26, 2014 12:05 IST
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'For over a decade, the United States has been shaping the contours of Hinduism. It has been doing this from the perspective of upper caste and conservative interests,' Professor Shefali Chandra tells's Arthur J Pais.

Shefali Chandra, left, professor at one of America's best known schools, has used Wendy Doniger's The Hindus in her class, and will continue to do so. She is outraged at the reaction to the book and its withdrawal from bookstores in India.

At Princeton, Professor Gyan Prakash, who had named the book one of the 10 best books he had read the year it came out some five years ago, wondered about the political climate in India that lead to its withdrawal.

Chandra said she has taught Doniger's book over the years.

"At Washington University in St Louis -- a private, research university with an extremely selective undergraduate population -- we study the text for its detailed and informative account of the syncretic and dynamic religious traditions of the subcontinent," Chandra wrote in an e-mail.

"Doniger reveals the close imbrication of religion with politics and art, and furthermore, establishes the vital connection between Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam, between all religions and Indian politics," she adds.

"Those opposed to the book are actually opposed to acknowledging the porous relationship between religion, culture, politics and argumentation in India."

"Doniger teaches us to appreciate the religion we now know as Hinduism for its adaptability and resilience," she felt.

"Ironically therefore," she continued, "it is Hindus who will suffer most from the withdrawal of the book. It will be a tremendous loss to the intellectual and cultural life of India to have that book removed from public consumption. The move by this small NGO is not only doing a disservice to knowledge, but it is doing a disservice to Hinduism itself."

The decision reached by Penguin India is deeply distressing, she said.

"A publishing house is supposed to create debate and to widen knowledge for the reading public," she said. "It must provide us with the widest array of opinions and information from which we can shape our own ideas."

"Instead, by caving to arbitrary pressure, Penguin has revealed that its only purpose is to soothe majority opinions. This decision thus reveals the nexus between corporate interests and rigid culturalists, between neoliberalism and conservative religious elements."

The reaction against the book cannot be seen in isolation, Chandra believes.

"For over a decade, the United States has been shaping the contours of Hinduism, she said.

"Moreover, it has been doing this from the perspective of upper caste and conservative interests."

The reaction against the book has to be seen in the larger context of a reaction by a certain section of the Indian-American community, she said.

"For instance," she continued, "in 2006, Hindu-American parents represented themselves as possessing the credentials to critique the view of Hinduism contained in school books. They rejected the information compiled in these books because they claimed the information was produced by anti-Hindu scholars, and that it favoured colonial stereotypes on Hinduism."

"It was shocking that they believed that simply on the basis of feeling insulted, that they had the right to dispute information culled by scholars and teachers. Instead these Hindu Americans claimed that as parents of young Hindus, they should have the benefit of shaping the image of Hinduism," she said.

"It is interesting that Hinduism is being negotiated in the US, and that too by the United States's most wealthy immigrant group, white collar Hindu Indians. The information they disputed was hardly insulting, but they have begun to use the terminology of 'hurt' and &'embarrassment' to shape the knowledge of Hinduism and India."

"There is a connection between the US and India as theatres for Hindutva," she asserted.

Gyan Prakash, a historian of modern India, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University, and author of Mumbai Fables, a part of which is being adapted into a film starring Ranbir Kapoor by Anurag Kashyap, said he had found Doniger's book to be informative and thought provoking, and wondered if Penguin caved in, fearing the ascendancy of (the Bharatiya Janata Party's) Narendra Modi as India's next prime minister.

"But I am also sorry to see the Congress (party) giving in when such demands are made," Prakash said.

"It has no guts to support dissenting scholarship. Did the Congress party do anything when four years ago, Rohinton Mistry's book, Such a Long Journey was withdrawn from the syllabus of Mumbai University after Shiv Sena officials complained that the book insulted Bal Thackeray?"

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