Civil Liberties

Hindu Fanatics Will Dumb Down Their Religion

Censoring uncomfortable interpretations is bad for a faith's health


Last week, a Hindu extremist group forced Penguin to purge from India all unsold copies of University of Chicago divinity professor Wendy Doniger's, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The book, it claimed, had "hurt the feelings of millions of Hindus" with its overly erotic interpretations of their faith.

But by using censorship to salve Hindus' imaginary wounds, it'll ensure that the best scholarship about its own religion won't happen in its own country. It'll happen elsewhere, especially America.

Book banning has become a sport in India since 1988 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi became the first leader—ahead even of repressive Islamic theocracies—to outlaw Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses to appease India's Muslim minority. Since then, Hindu fanatics have jumped in on the action too, banning books and art that give the slightest offense.

This is not because Hinduism, India's dominant religion, is particularly prickly. To the contrary, it is a non-dogmatic faith with no real concept of heresy or blasphemy.  It's because India's ill-conceived libel laws have spawned an offense industry. These laws, which violate India's commitments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, make libel a criminal rather than a civil offense. And they don't require a high burden of proof. Hence Penguin—chicken-like—chose to settle out of court.

Hindu fanatics, jubilant, have already announced plans to go after Doniger's other books. But the harm they'll do her will pale in comparison to the damage they'll do to their religion.

One of their arguments is that the study of Hinduism has become dominated by American scholars and smacks of neo-colonialism that denies, as one put it, "Hindus their own experience of their own religion." There are two problems with this accusation:

First, it gets things backwards. One of Doniger's key aims is precisely to free Hinduism from the puritanical distortions imposed by Victorian British colonialists.

Second, it is an admission of their own intellectual bankruptcy. Hindus feel threatened by contrarian interpretations because they haven't developed a critical mass of scholarship of their own for genuine engagement.

Indians excel in math and science. But for decades the humanities have been denigrated as subjects for losers. Doniger, an American, mastered Sanskrit and several vernaculars to read Hindu texts in the original. Few Indian scholars ever deign to do so, much less learn, say, Hebrew or Aramaic to study the original Old Testament. Religious studies as a discipline is virtually non-existent in India, an odd omission for a country that takes religion so seriously and prides itself for its learnedness.

The upshot is that the fate of Hinduism has been put almost entirely in the hands of gurus in ashrams whose goal, understandably, is preaching rather than studying the faith.

The main reason for this sad neglect is that post-Independence, the country's rulers, eager for rapid industrialization, poured scarce educational resources into scientific fields. But as India gets wealthier, one would have expected this imbalance to naturally correct itself.

But that won't happen in a political environment hostile to open inquiry. Free thinkers are unlikely to enter fields ruled by narrow dogmatism where certain interpretations have already been declared illicit.  And if they do, it won't be in India. They'll likely to come to America, whose wealth and commitment to academic freedom has resulted in the greatest flowering of the liberal arts in our times. They'll study with Americans like Doniger and get initiated in American norms of scholarship.

This is hardly "neo-colonialism" but it is not ideal either. An authentically Indian framework would be useful to counter the limitations of a foreign perspective—and vice versa. Outsiders are inevitably struck by the most alien aspects of a culture and don't fully take into account the self-understanding of insiders. And insiders take for granted beliefs that deserve further interrogation. "Both the insider and the outsider observe the truth," observes Arvind Sharma, a McGill University professor of comparative religion. "But genuine understanding may be said to arise at the point of intersection."

Censorship, however, is the enemy of such understanding. Instead of resorting to it, Hindu obscurantists should concentrate on addressing their own inadequacies.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.