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.

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  1. India’s Christians also use the country’s criminal laws to stifle wrong thought, even the questioning of whether a “miracle” is actually anything of the sort. When people blather about their inviolable freedom not to be offended, I like to use India as Exhibit A.

  2. Indian Christians are more sinned against than sinning:


    1. Even if you’re right (and that doesn’t look like the most trustworthy source), therefore, what?

      1. He asks our Christian troll.

        It’s EVH dude.

      2. “that doesn’t look like the most trustworthy source”

        The same story from an Indian source:


      3. He was pointing out Christianity doesn’t get in on the “banning” action very much, but instead is the recipient of persecution in much of India (although not quite to the extent of the Muslim world’s persecution of Christians like the massacre of Christian Copts in Egypt).

  3. The Hindus have picked up on the victim culture thing – I’m weaker than you therefore you have to do what I say.

    On a related note – I’m getting my popcorn ready for once the Bible-thumpers win the right to refuse to serve teh gayz on religious grounds and then find out that them damn Mooslims are going to refuse to serve *them* on religious grounds, and the Mooslims have a thousand times more religious objections about Christians than the Christians have about gays. It’s gonna be fun watching the mental gymnastics required to explain why only Christians have the right to object on religious grounds.

    Kinda like that Louisiana legislator that pushed so hard for funding for religious schools right up until she found out that Islam is considered by some people to be a religion and that funding Christian schools would necessarily mean funding Muslim schools as well. (I never have been able to find out if she ever tweaked to the fact that some people consider JOOOZ! to be a religion as well.)

    1. Since one of the oft-used charges by fundamentalists against humanist is that atheism & humanism are religions, they could find themselves in the interesting position of arguing for the funding of schools that are dogmatically opposed to their basic premises.

    2. They have the right; First Amendment, bitches.

      1. Most Americans are blissfully ignorant that the First Amendment actually INTENDED for state-run churches. It only barred the FEDERAL government from establishing a state religion. This is why there were many state religions in the Northeast until the late 19th century. Heck, in one of the Northeast states, black men gained the right to run for office before white catholics.

        The Founding Fathers were puritans after all, they viewed themselves in the tradition of Cromwell. Massachusetts (in the 17th century) for example banned Christmas, like Cromwell.

        1. I think your understanding is a little confused. As you note, Puritans were active during the 17th century; however, by the time of the Founding Fathers, Puritanism as a religious movement had burned out almost 80 to 100 years prior. The vast majority of the FFs were either Anglican (the mainstream English church that the Puritans had left) or non-denominational Protestants. To call the Congregationalists and Presbyterians of 1776 “Puritans” might be technically correct, but in the daily practice of their religion, they were far from the Puritans of the century prior.

          1. They sure changed, but it seems that many of the Puritans’ descendants kept their fervor for reforming the heck out of the world around them. On the positive side, this led to anti-slavery activism; on the negative side, it led to blue laws, prohibition, and nativism.

        2. Most Americans are blissfully ignorant that the First Amendment actually INTENDED for state-run churches.

          Constitutional History Fail. The FA was based on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777. The statute was specifically written to disestablish the Church of England (aka Episcopalian Church) as the State Religion in the newly independent Virginia.

          The Founding Fathers were puritans after all.

          US Colonial History Fail. The actual Puritans were in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Various other religions were dominant in the other colonies – Dutch Reformed Church in NY, Quakers in PA, Catholics in Maryland, Church of England in Virginia.

          1. scary how much people think that they know about the country which simply isn’t so. Shows how poor education has become in this country

      2. Oh you mean the right to discriminate? Got confused there since the First Amendment covers both Freedom of POLITICAL Speech (there was no freedom of expression), and religion and restricts the federal government from establishing a “state church” (although it did not restrict states from doing so and the 10th amendment reserves all powers not prohibited to the states).

        But there is no Freedom of Expression in the constitution. The Founders banned obscenity for example, and would be outraged to see the 1st Amendment protecting pornography.

        Even Thomas Jefferson, the most “libertarian” founder, was for cutting off the genitalia of homosexuals (just for being homosexuals).

        1. The Founders banned obscenity for example, and would be outraged to see the 1st Amendment protecting pornography.

          – 1 Benjamin Franklin

          1. Yea that points out the one ODDBALL exception, “Hellfire Club” member Benjamin Franklin raised by odd liberal puritans and who was busy with his secret orgies (and all those dead bodies of children found under Ben’s residence in England).

            Franklin was just a Freemason opportunist, he stole/plagiarized the idea of his famous “Poor Richard’s Alamanack” from his brother’s book “Poor Robin’s Almanack”, and was a loyalist until he realized he wasn’t climbing the political ladder in England so when the new nation of America was forming he saw an opportunity to climb to the top like many Freemasons in the colonies.

            His only son William was a far better individual, who fought on as a loyalist guerrilla risking his life in extremely risky operations (rather than opportunistic Benjamin never once fighting in any war) on principle. Benjamin was so spiteful he cut his son out of his inheritance and basically ostracized him.

    3. I believe Christian activists have been aware since 1993 (when the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts began to be enacted) that Muslims get the benefit of these laws. Contrary to what you might think from the Arizona coverage, these activists have been promoting such laws for years, and their initial inspiration was not from teh gayz, but from certain Native Americans who wanted to use peyote in their religious rituals.

      Again, several fundie groups, like the Baptist Joint Committee, joined a pro-RFRA brief in the Supreme Court in the case of a drug-using non-Christian religion.

  4. Wow man that makes no sense at all dude.


  5. “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.”

    “Free thinkers are unlikely to enter fields ruled by narrow dogmatism where certain interpretations have already been declared illicit.”

    Do these statements strike anyone as self-contradictory? I am not enlightened by the whatever is the cause of this controversy and I am not sure why I should care. What I do see is Dalmia having perhaps a different vision of Hinduism than what the reality is. Also, that India has inherited the horrible libel laws of the British.

    I am not sure why I should care.

    1. No, they aren’t contradictory.

      In the first quote Dalmia is making the point that Hinduism is, on par, a not very rigid belief system, which one would expect from a religion that encompasses such a large number of divinities. It’s difficult to “know” what God wants when there’s multiple gods to choose from.

      The second quote regards the use of libel laws to stifle free expression vis-a-vis the religion. In other words, while Hinduism writ large is not all that dogmatic, individual members of the religion might well be very dogmatic and willing to defend their own views of the religion by attempting to silence dissenting views in the courtroom. If they are generally successful in pursuing these claims, then the effect would be to discourage those who would otherwise be willing to follow their research wherever it leads from engaging in the study of Hinduism because you are likely to find a roadblock in your path regardless of which way you go. Most people won’t knowingly devote their life’s work to the study of something that will possibly bring them large amounts of grief. That’s the primary reason why the state of economics and history in the Soviet Union was in such a horrible condition after the pre-Soviet economists and historians had either died/been executed, been imprisoned, or left the country.

  6. Notice how Dalmia chose to libel a random sadhu, that is, a Hindu who chooses to live a life of aestheticism. Dalmia has no idea what that sadhu‘s particular views on the subject are, but she had no compunction against labeling him as an example of “fanaticism”. Because, look at that picture, right guys? What an ooga-booga Brown person witch doctor he is!

    I cannot think of a better exemplar of the term “cultural cringe than Dalmia when she gets into her self-hating Hindu mode. However, I do appreciate that Dalmia didn’t attempt to smear the peaceable lobbying efforts of orthodox Hindus through employing the rhetoric of Islamic holy war to describe their actions, as she had done in previous articles. It’s absolutely fair to criticize these orthodox Hindu zealots for their moral priggishness; unfortunately, Dalmia has consistently choose to frame her criticisms within a larger scaffold of vicious anti-Hindu, and even anti-religious, polemic.

    1. You’re referring to the photo accompanying the article?

    2. I don’t know that Reason’s authors select the images for the web articles. I doubt it.

      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.

      Agree with this part. It’s just an embarrassment for these Bowdlerized modern Hindus, though, and not Hinduism writ large–imagine what Christianity would’ve been like had the gnostics and other unorthodox Christ cults been run off early on and you might have something approaching the diversity of Hindu-Buddhist tradition.

    3. Asceticism, not Aestheticism, Heroic. Big difference.

      1. I noticed that too, but I enjoyed the feeling of silent smugness. Silent smugness being much preferred to social smugness, as you get the innate satisfaction of being smug with an extra helping because you’re so confident and awesome that you don’t have to rub everyone’s nose in it.

        It’s like meta-smugness.

        1. Well, I noticed a whole bunch of other stuff that I’m not going to tell you about.

          Met your smugness and raised it.

    4. I, too, wondered about that “ooooh, lookie at the strange furriner” thing going on there.

  7. most religions/political/social ideologies are sensitive to any criticism of their beliefs and have used or are using coercive methods to protect their orthodoxy.
    good example is the orthodoxy of the green movement with Global warming/climate change. The left has attempted to shut down all debate on the subject declaring it established science while much evidence exists to refute it.
    Of course the Muslims oppose any examination of their religion and kill anyone who opposes them
    The same with communism, socialism liberalism multiculturalism ect…
    It seems that the only ideology that encourages debate and criticism is libertarian capitalism which is why I am on this website

  8. If you meet anybody from India ask him “What Is Your Caste?” If he answers it, then you’re doomed. Because he has already injected Cancer into your society. Caste is like Cancer. It cannot be Cured. It has to be Cut-Off.

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