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This article was first published 10 years ago

'When Westerners make fun of our gods, they're instigating trouble'

February 17, 2014 10:43 IST

Image: A Hindu woman seeks a Naga sadhu's blessings in Kolkata.
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters Arthur J Pais

'In theory, yes, Hindus are very open. I'm one of them. I've coined the phrase 'open architecture'.'

'But I think the Wendy Doniger group is not allowing open architecture. They are closing this architecture.'

'They are bringing a point of view in such a heavy-handed way that it tends to dominate and it tends to suppress the alternative points of view. So some kind of counteraction is necessary and using the law is a decent thing to do.'

Rajiv Malhotra, one of Wendy Doniger's most vociferous critics, speaks to's Arthur J Pais about the prejudices created by American scholars about Hindu gods and Hinduism.

Rajiv Malhotra, left, a constant critic of Wendy Doniger and what he calls her Chicago school of writers and thinkers, retired at age 44 some 20 years ago and put his money into the Infinity Foundation, an one-man think-tank.

The Indian-American writer of books on India has devoted himself, for more than a decade-and-a- half, he says, to "clarifying the many misperceptions about Indic traditions in America and among Indians."

When did the fight against the book start? How did it go through?

My involvement with this started in the year 2000. My kids went to Princeton Day School and one day the teacher asked me for information on Vedanta, (Swami) Vivekananda and Ramakrishna (Paramhamsa) because in their teaching of world religions they wanted to have knowledge of Hinduism.

One of the teachers told me that he has been advised by some American scholar not to teach Vivekananda and Ramakrishna because the parents would object to this. When I asked why the parents would object, he said it has been declared that Ramakrishna had a relationship with Vivekananda.

I have never heard of such a thing. We started investigating this and asked which scholar had said this and that is how I discovered a whole genre of scholarship which has this kind of view that Wendy Doniger and her students came up with. So, they used Freudian psychoanalysis to psychoanalyse (Hinduism).

Which book has talked about Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramhamsa?

A book called Kali's Child by Jeffrey J Kripal. Then I found Paul Courtright, one of Wendy's students, had a similar book called Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. They had this very vulgar kind of view.

So, I tried to take this around to the religious, Hindu community and they did not want to touch it. Many of the Hindu leaders in this country (America) maybe were too arrogant, too cocky, or too embarrassed or too scared to talk about it. They did not think it important to take any action.

So I took it upon myself to start writing articles expressing that these are not correct interpretations...

This issue has nothing to do with Christianity versus Hinduism, because most of these people are Jewish, anyway. They are using a Marxist lens, a Leftist lens, a Freudian lens. The kind of theories they are using are completely inapplicable to the Indian way of life.

Then, I started attending the conferences of religion to see why this is happening. It was very strange. All religions had people represented from within.

You would see rabbis from Judaism, Buddhist monks, imams talking about Islam. In the case of Hinduism, there was hardly any practising Hindu speaking for it. It was entirely non-Hindus who felt that they have understood the text, learnt Sanskrit and they were able to interpret it. So, I felt that this is a huge untold story.

I started writing articles. These articles created a huge stir. And, this is the situation with these people. We compiled these arguments in a book called Invading the Sacred that came out in 2007, and since then I have come out with three more books that are not on Wendy but other issues related to Indian civilisation and Indian philosophy and thought and so on.

I personally moved on beyond Wendy Doniger. But I have created a huge awareness and awakening among the Diaspora and among people in India. So many other groups started getting immersed and started taking up my cause and they are the ones who started litigating on Doniger and her book and so on in India.

There has been quite a bit of criticism against the group that filed the case against Doniger's book.

The person who filed the case is a woman called Monika Arora. She is a very reputed Supreme Court lawyer in Delhi. She filed this case.

Some people are trying to portray the Hindus involved in this case as some kind of savages, violent people and all of that. The point is that the Hindus who filed this case used the rule of law; they used the courts. There is no hint of any violence. They are very cultured, sophisticated people. They went to the court and filed a case.

The case has been going on for over two years. There was never a hint of any violence or anything indecent. It was a let's go to court and fight. So, the Hindu site put out a petition in the court citing many, many instances of errors in the book, citing page numbers. Some of these are not matters of interpretation, but factual errors and these are available online.

There is a petition that lists many, many pages of errors and so the opposing side of Penguin gave Wendy Doniger's point-by-point response. This went back and forth several times.

It was not like it was an uncivilised mob. It was a very civilised legal due process going on.

I'm not privy to what was the thought process of the Penguin side. But they must have concluded that they have the risk of losing. So, they reached an out-of-court settlement to withdraw the book.

Now, somehow, the Western scholars are making it sound like some kind of a Hindu mob pushed them and forced them with violence. There is no evidence of such thing; on the contrary, the entire evidence is that it was a legal due process by which a civilised country manages disputes.

Kindly ...

'I basically lit the fire in the beginning'

Image: A Hindu priest performs evening prayers on the banks of the Ganga.
Photographs: Ahmad Masood/Reuters Arthur J Pais

Were you part of the litigation?

I deliberately decided that this should run its course through the legal system. I do not want any part of it. I'm available as a scholar. My criticisms of the writings are very publicly available. I've always said anybody can quote them freely, but I don't want to be drawn into a legal matter myself.

The reason being that Wendy is one of the issues that I have raised, you know, Wendy and her whole lineage. But I'm a scholar with many things to write about. That is not the only thing I'm concerned about.

I'm writing about Indian history of science and technology; I'm writing about comparative philosophy; I'm writing about India as a nation and what are its narratives.

I'm writing on many topics and I don't want to get stuck in one issue that will exhaust me. I realised that I should not personally get involved and I therefore decided to stay behind.

How else did you support the case?

I did not support them in any tangible way, but they have my ideas. They are pretty self-sufficient in how they funded it; the group has funded it, got the lawyers, and done the whole thing on their own. I basically lit the fire in the beginning by highlighting that these are issues.

I also hope to create a process in which Hinduism is properly interpreted and presented not only to Hindus, but to anyone.

The thing is that every religion gets criticised. But other religions are where they are producing people who are very qualified to represent their own religions and therefore these seminary products become scholars and they get launched in different universities for support. For Hindus, they never set up a seminary. So, I am a kind of a one-man show. I can only do so much.

Given the number of Hindus in the world, there are a thousand people like me who are standing there to study this, represent it, debate it, go and argue and be available to the media. But, right now, there aren't that many Hindus who are really well read, highly sophisticated and being able to represent because we don't have seminaries.

So, the real solution to all this is that Hindus should use seminaries which can produce a high calibre of leaders and then these leaders can go out there to take a stand.

A good education system should respect the non-Western culture, be it India, China, Japan, the Middle East -- whoever. They should respect those people because Americans will be trading with them, having partnerships with them, having different relationships with them.

It will be good for America to train the next generation of Americans to be really appreciative of various cultures.

Kindly ...

'What Hindus are now doing is possible only because of the Internet'

Image: American Indologist Wendy Doniger's book, 'The Hindus: An Alternative History' has been withdrawn by Penguin India following a lawsuit.
Arthur J Pais

What kind of education did you have in India?

I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten to the end of high school. I went to St Columbus School, a Catholic school, and I got a very good education from there. I have many Christian friends and now some of my closest friends are Christians.

I feel that the Western mischief of intervening and creating disruption inside India is a sad thing because Indians have had a long history of being able to get along in a very pluralistic society.

When these Westerners get in and start making fun of gods and goddesses -- all these vulgar writings about gods and goddess, all the vulgar writings about many of the symbols, the festivals, making fun of the gurus -- obviously, they are instigating trouble. I see it in that way.

I see it as a very sophisticated form of intervention that causes internal problems in India and then they can blame it on Indians, as the British used to do.

Have you tried to engage with American scholars?

I have always told the American Academy that for each religion you should always have certain people who are insiders at the table. The American Academy of Religion has 12,000 members at their annual conference.

You go to the panel on Hinduism, they should have a few Hindus able to represent their faith: Teachers, preachers, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, there are people from the Ramakrishna Mission, the well-known old-established organisations.

When they are describing something about Hinduism, they can bring in many kinds of people. But right now they do not bring outsiders of the academy. They only bring people who are qualified academics.

These qualified academics have very Western training and have a very narrow point of view on other religions because they are relying only on the texts.

Hinduism is not a religion of the book where you can learn everything by reading a text. You have to also understand how it is practised and how the people who practise it, see it and interpret it.

The proper way to learn Hinduism is not only to read the text as seen by outsiders but also what is the insider practitioners' perspective. I've suggested to them that every time there are four speakers, three of them could be the normal American academic types; but one of them could be a practitioner who is brought in as a voice of the Hindu community -- who will kind of represent their point of view. But they have never accepted this.

There is a kind of a power, arrogance and a sense of 'We know more than you guys know about your own religion'. This kind of colonial hangover continues. I think these problems that we are now noticing are examples of things getting out of hand because people feel very insulted.

So many Hindu parents complain that when their kids go to school, they are made fun of because they are asked all these kinds of questions: Do you worship a monkey, why do you have this dot on your head, and so on. So these kids are vulnerable and are embarrassed.

I've become a kind of clearing house for these Hindus. People bring their problems to me and I refer them to somebody who can help. I get approached for advice by Indian students in colleges who write to me that they are facing a certain issue and then I get involved.

But one man cannot do this. This should not just be my job. So I organise this representation of people who are interested in this.

Was there any other way to deal with the Doniger book instead of asking for its withdrawal?

If Penguin had said that we are going to issue a new edition, thank you for telling us, sometimes books have an error issue, I think that would have made things OK.

But, my feeling is that Wendy Doniger, as a matter of principle and arrogance, did not want to change a single word.

Her books have been printed and stored in airport shops. Some Indian group in Mumbai also gave her awards. These awards were given by businessmen and industrialists who do not know anything about religion.

I know she has a good lobby firm. She gets her students to promote her work worldwide: In the US and the Indian press. She has all of us who have given her a privileged position where she is beyond criticism.

And so what has happened is because she enjoys this high prestige, it is not acceptable to her that all of a sudden -- in the last 10 years -- a lot of Hindus have started complaining about her.

But this is the reality of the Internet. And, what I have done and what Hindus are now doing about this was only possible because of the Internet. On the Internet, because of social media, people creating blogs, people tweeting.

In the last 24 hours, I've been tweeting, a lot of people have been re-tweeting and it has become a huge thing.

So, if it had not been for the Internet, they would have simply ignored us and continued and said who are you, we won't bother about you. Now, they cannot ignore. I think that is a big part of it.

Kindly ...

'Personally, I am not in favour of banning any book'

Image: A bookstore in Siliguri, West Bengal. Penguin has committed to withdrawing all unsold copies of Wendy Doniger's book and pulping them within six months.
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters Arthur J Pais

Several people from Princeton University and elsewhere in America, including devout Hindus, said they like the book.

I personally am not in favour of banning any book. I have never called for a book ban in my life. I will never do that. I'm more interested that my counter-position should get an equal voice.

My complaint is that they have banned me from all academic forums. The same Western people when discussing religions of south Asia, they do not include me in their reviews, in their panels, in their conferences.

The academic presses will not publish me; the literary festivals in India are so controlled by Wendy Doniger's wavelength and fan club that people like me who represent an alternative point of view are not allowed.

So, there is a frustration that one side controls the forums. Their people control: They are on the editorial boards, they are on the selection committees, and their particular point of view gets in and the opposing voice does not.

It's not a free market of ideas. It's a market controlled by certain monopolistic ideas and the opposing ideas are not given a fair share.

I can write and sell to my Hindu followers. But they will not allow my books into the academy; they will not allow my books to be read in the courses and even in the mainstream media.

So what is happening is that as a matter of practical reality, one side is being represented in the mainstream channels of communication and the other side is blocked.

The argument is that Hinduism is an open-minded faith and so are Hindus. It doesn't reflect well on Hindus.

Mahatma Gandhi was also using satyagraha against a big empire because they had too much control and power. And he was disrupting them and bringing them down. I consider what I'm doing is a kind of satyagraha against a very corrupt system of knowledge because it is misrepresenting knowledge: They control the printing presses, they control the academic presses, they control the journals, their friends are running the media.

So, their ideology is the one that gets in and therefore that is a kind of a monopoly that has to be broken.

If there was a similar monopoly in business, it would be an anti-trust case. In the business of the humanities and knowledge, you can (have) a monopoly and there's no anti-trust law that covers that. So, that is an issue.

In theory, yes, Hindus are very open. I'm one of them. I've coined the phrase 'open architecture'. I fully support it.

My new book is called Hindu Open Architecture. It says it is an open architecture, people are welcome to join, all kinds of different points of view are invited, we can criticise one another, we are evolving, we are not fixed in time, all that is fine.

But I think the Wendy Doniger group is not allowing open architecture. They are closing this architecture.

They are bringing a point of view in such a heavy-handed way that it tends to dominate and it tends to suppress the alternative points of view.

So some kind of counteraction is necessary and using the law is a decent thing to do.

Kindly ...

'To bring the book down is more of a moral victory'

Image: The cover of Wendy Doniger's controversial book
Arthur J Pais

Could the withdrawal of the book create more demand for it? People could be reading it for the first time.

I think that is always the case. But both sides will get something out of it. The people on the other side will play victim, that the Hindus are bad people, they banned us; they are bad guys, so they will try to get some sympathy.

But, on the other hand, the Hindu side will also get mileage by saying we know our fight... We can win. It will give more publicity.

More people now want to reprint my books because they want to understand what exactly was the criticism about Wendy Doniger. So, people on both sides will be interested in the published materials.

Some people will get interested in what Wendy Doniger is about because she is controversial; she always was. More people will also be interested in what I have to say. I keep getting calls from people in the last 48 hours wanting to get more of my stuff out.

It is more a matter of principle; we're trying to make a statement. I don't think that they're expecting that the book will disappear because certainly you can buy it as an e-book.

The point is that the book has been out for so many years, a lot of people have bought it and it has done very well.

Penguin has made it into a bestseller. To bring the book down is more of a moral victory.

It's not a victory in a practical sense that will make a difference. It makes a moral statement that we have a point against this very iconic author and we are able to make this point in a legal forum.

And we are able to make it so effectively that even the publisher agrees with that.

Arundhati Roy has talked about a fascist government coming to power and has suggested it was a factor that made Penguin withdraw the book.

I think that's stupid. I think people are trying to link too many things. These are overdone. These are people trying to over-sensationalise. Everything you can link with Narendra Modi and fascism, you can try to get headlines.

I would not even waste time with her because that is stupid. Arundhati Roy is not a scholar of religion. She has not read either Wendy Doniger or critics of Wendy Doniger. They are just trying to get some quick mileage out of it.

None of the people who are criticising this move have actually read the petition and seen what the complaint was in the first place.

They are just trying to link all these petitions as some kind of Hindu goals and Hindu terrorists and fascists and Taliban and so on.

I know that these people are decent people. They are regular professionals and they have hired a very well-known, prestigious Supreme Court lawyer who has filed this in a very legal, correct way. They prepared an argument and they got counter-arguments back and forth and so this is how Penguin decided to settle it.

Penguin is interested in big deals and they would not have bowed down. I don't think they would have settled for this kind of reason. They have many other titles that are very controversial. They have titles against Modi. They are not withdrawing those... So why would they withdraw only this one title?

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