The Indian blogosphere is up in arms today against Penguin's decision to withdraw University of Chicago Divinity School Professor Wendy Doniger's 2009 The Hindus: An Alternative History. The 700-page-plus tome offended Hindu
nationalists, a scourge on humanity not quite as bad as the Ebola virus, who took exception to its description of the Shiv Lingam, a representation of God Shiva that Hindus worship, as a phallic symbol, among other things.
Folks at the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti — the self-appointed guardians of Indian knowledge — filed a suit in 2011 demanding a ban. They charge that the book had "factual inaccuracies" and was written with "a Christian missionary's zeal" to denigrate Hinduism and show it in a poor light." Never mind that Doniger is not a Christian and is actually a great admirer of Hinduism, which she regards as a far more existentially profound faith than monotheistic religions. In fact, her aim in writing the book was to save Hinduism from misinterpretations of both hostile alien interlocutors and nativist Hindutva boosters.
Here is a flavor of the book from a review by Daily Beast columnist Tunku Vardarajan, former Newsweek international editor:
A religion without a central church or pontiff — and with no predominant sacred place (a la Mecca)—Hinduism has spawned hundreds of competing devotional sects and theological strains. Ms. Doniger does a deft job of tracing their few unifying tenets — those of karma (actions) and dharma (righteousness) and a merit-based afterlife and of holding these beliefs up to critical examination against the obvious injustices of the caste system. Her most beguiling chapters, though, are the ones in which she examines the impact on the Hindus of India's numerous foreign invaders—from the earliest "Aryans" in the second millennium B.C. to the imperial British, the last and perhaps greatest external shapers of Hindu society.
But before the Indian courts could rule (and it is bad enough that they allow such suits to even go forward), Penguin not only agreed to pull the book from India but destroy all hard copies within six months.
Penguin is a private publisher and can do what it wants. It previously held the line against Islamo fascists demanding a ban on The Satanic Verses.
It is not clear whether it is purely bottom-line considerations that are driving it this time. But if they are, one just hopes there is a special place in hell for it — or it reincarnates as a cockroach, as per Hindu tradition.
The silver lining in all this, as Doniger told England-based Salil Tripathi last night, is that in the age of Internet, Penguin can't actually ban the book. "Anyone with a computer can get the Kindle edition from Penguin, NY, and it's probably cheaper, too."
So go for it dear readers. It's for a good cause.