On Wendy Doniger’s Alternative History

On Wendy Doniger’s Alternative History

Note: This is a reprint of Aseem Shukla’s 2010 essay. Also appended is the exchange he had with Wendy Doniger.

History empowers and history emasculates. History, like art, is beautiful or odious to the beholder. There are winners and losers when history is assessed, and there are protagonists and antagonists. Historians recognize the onerous burden of their profession in these times when a spare use of the word “genocide” in the House of Representatives to describe events in Armenia decades ago led Turkey to recall its ambassador. And politics infuses the narratives of history. Anti-Semitism, Marxism, white supremacy, all are known to prejudice renditions of peoples, cultures and religions.

Historian Wendy Doniger, professor of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, finds herself in the midst of a history book kerfufflle of her own. Doniger, long enjoying exalted status as the doyen of Hindu studies in the American academy, faces scrutiny now in an unfolding drama involving her latest book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History.” An online petition asking Penguin Press, the publishers of the book, to hold publication and demand revisions is approaching 10,000 signatures. And when the book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Hindu activists staged a rare protest outside the award ceremony last week (the book did not win).

Hindus know that Doniger was derailed before. In 2003, Microsoft retracted a chapter on Hinduism written by Doniger for its online encyclopedia after a heavily publicized internet campaign protested factual and interpretive errors in her essay. In the end, a Hindu writer, providing the emic, or insider’s perspective, wrote an entry that depicted Hinduism in the light that practitioners would actually recognize.

This latest “alternative” history book was released a year ago, but opposition has escalated after a newer edition was released in India a few weeks ago and the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award (she didn’t win).

That there would be trouble was apparent right from the preface of her book. There, Doniger asserts that hers is not a history of how Hinduism is lived today, but rather offers a “narrative alternative” to the one found in Hinduism’s holiest scriptures. This 780-page tome is set as Doniger’s rendering of Hinduism’s history based–we are to assume–on her own interpretations of scripture, her own biases and inclinations. Infamous for her penchant to sexualize, eroticize and exoticise passages from some of the holiest Hindu epics and scriptures–often invoking a Freudian psychoanalytic lens–Doniger has been accused of knowingly polarizing and inflaming. She does not disappoint.

I revisit her work now not just because Doniger provokes so many of us in the Hindu American community. Doniger represents what many believe to be a fundamental flaw in the academic study of Hinduism: that Hindu studies is too often the last refuge of idiosyncratic and irreligious academics presenting themselves as “experts” on a faith that they study without the insight, recognition or reverence of, in this case, a practicing Hindu or even non-Hindu–striving to study Hinduism from the insider’s perspective–would offer.

As a surgeon working in the medical school of a large university, I hold my academic freedom as sacrosanct. My own writings, even here on OnFaith, are a reflection of the liberty I presume and cannot compromise. But this freedom comes with a sober responsibility. When I publish manuscripts and books, I am personally responsible for the veracity of the contents, statistical calculations, and scientific conclusions. These are not always empirical, and much editorializing is demanded. But my freedom is predicated on the accuracy of my work and the fairness of my conclusions. And errors, or playing fast and loose with editorial privilege in fact, if purposeful, can lead to harsh legal and ethical repercussions.

An “alternative” rendering is, of course, Doniger’s right. But when venturing into the alternate, if the factual is deprecated and editorializing privileged, if the treatment of a religion adhered to by over a billion is rendered unrecognizable in its iteration, a door is opened to bias, spin and errors. Over the last year, these are what many believe to have uncovered, and the ramifications are real.

“Tell me where I have interpreted something wrong,” Doniger challenged her critics and the gauntlet was picked up. Factual inaccuracies in her latest book were detailed in a prominent Indian media outlet, and a lay historian, Vishal Agarwal, posted a detailed, chapter by chapter riposte to Doniger’s history that has been widely circulated. Not phrased in the niceties of academic parlance, perhaps, but Agarwal’s methodical work opens the door to questions about Doniger’s research, attention to detail, methodology, and more disturbingly, intentions behind her latest venture. Another detailed rebuttal to a single chapter spanning over twenty-two pages was posted by another writer this week.

Parallelisms in her book conjure up obsolete anecdotes comparing the sacred stone linga representing Lord Shiva to a leather strap-on sex toy, and Lord Rama, one of the most widely worshiped deities, is psychoanalyzed to have acted out of fear that he was becoming a sex-addict like his father. As Agarwal shows, Doniger’s prose is replete with cutesy, perhaps, but offensive and jejune turns of phrases such as, “If the motto of Watergate was ‘Follow the money’, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ or, more often ‘Follow the horse’.” And in another section, her interpretations of the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas that Hindus consider sacred, Doniger sees incest and adultery with a pregnant woman in a verse praying to God for protection and safe delivery.

A Danish cartoonist would be hard pressed to match the disturbing parodies of a believer’s faith that Doniger offers throughout the book. The great Hindu yogi, Patanjali, cautioned in the 2nd century BCE against falling into the trap of false “meaning making” when reading scriptures that contain subtle, esoteric meanings as well as moral edicts. Doniger’s book, then, could be read as an idiosyncratic exposition that is “meaning making” out of profound revelations perhaps not meant for the spiritually untrained, untempered, and non-seeking mind.

It is not just that there are documented errors in fact predicated on errors in interpretation and context, but Hindus argue that Doniger seems to delight in celebrating the most obscure and arcane of anecdotes or stories from the hoary expanse of Hindu epics and scriptures. Privileging the absurd–dissembling it as an alternative–comes across as a specious exercise of a motivated author seeking spice to sell books.

It would seem a given that a book on religious history–intertwined with all of the inherent faith, emotion, and sensibilities that religion evokes in believers–would be approached with a modicum of restraint and sensitivity, if not deference. But instead, Doniger delights in inverting the filial into the incestuous, devotion into eroticism, and pride into chauvinism.

Whether such a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsiblity for copious factual and interpretive errors.

This demand from Hindus to combat Doniger’s view of their religion cannot be reduced to an unhinged ban-the-book crusade. Asking a publisher to hold publishing of a book until errors are corrected carries strong recent precedent. Recall that publication of the Jewel of Medina was abruptly dropped by Random House last year when fear grew that a story about one of the wives of the prophet Muhammad would spark violence from the Muslim community, and just last week, publisher Holt and Company halted publication of Last Train from Hiroshima when factual errors were uncovered in critical parts of the book.

Doniger’s alternate version of Hindu history, now playing in over 700 libraries in North America and Europe, raises a real fear that her “alternative” will become the mainstream. This issue is important to a minority striving to take control of its own narrative–a struggle repeated by generations of Americans as their voice grows and progeny prospers.

It remains to be seen if Hindus will prove their latest case against Doniger in the court of public opinion, but analagous allegations of academic bias are well known. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to wage a public campaign against an anti-Semitic professor at Cal State Long Beach, and open protests continue against a faculty member holding white supremacy views at the University of Vermont. Each professor has academic freedom, but an agitating laity is wondering if institutions must support the mendacity of bigoted players devaluing that freedom.

Doniger has tended to dismiss criticisms from Hindus as politically motivated, chauvinistic, sexist, casteist–the list is long. It is as Vamsee Julluri, Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote:

“The academy has gone almost directly from the Orientalist myth of Hindu superstition to the postmodern concern about Hindu fundamentalism, without even a notice of the great Hindu religion in between, and what it means to its followers and admirers. The academy must engage with Hinduism more positively.”

Academic freedom is sacrosanct. But academic legitimacy in the eyes of the public sets a much higher bar.

Appendix: Exchange between Aseem Shukla (referred to as “My response”) and Wendy Doniger

This essay was shared with Prof. Wendy Doniger prior to its publication. Her response to some lines from Dr. Shukla’s post are as follows:

 The Indian Edition was published originally in October, 2009. Just for the record, it was #1 on the best-selling list in India for non-fiction for a while and has received numerous positive reviews in Indian journals and newspapers; I’m told it has sold over10,000 copies in India, but I haven’t verified this.

Of course I did not say that my narrative was alternative “to the one found in Hinduism’s holiest scriptures.” No one would say that even if it were true, which of course it is not. What I said was this:

First, it highlights a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit (the literary language of ancient India) and represented in most surveys in English. It tells a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people–people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women).

That is, my criterion was not holiness but the representation of texts in English-language surveys.

My response:
 The English language surveys Doniger refers to are, in fact, commentaries on Hindu scripture that are holy to nearly a billion. Holiness cannot be divorced from scripture, and to presume to present an alternative perspective–that of women, other religions or animals (?) would requires a balanced presentation of varied aspects of Hindu tradition not presented in this book. Doniger chose lines from scripture, often out of context, and then took unlimited literary license to deconstruct verses, anecdotes and stories to suit her biases and predilections.

Doniger: [Regarding this line in the essay]:

…Lord Rama, one of the most widely worshipped deities, is psychoanalyzed to have acted out of fear that he was becoming a sex-addict like his father.

Correction: There is no psychoanalysis in the discussion, just ordinary literary interpretation, nor did I say that Rama was afraid he was become a sex-addict; on the contrary, I said he was acting because he feared that people would think, wrongly, that this was the case. What I said, on p. 225, was:

Rama said, “Sita had to enter the purifying fire in front of everyone, because she had lived so long in Ravana’s bedrooms. Had I not purified her, good people would have said of me, ‘That Rama, Dasharatha’s son, is certainly lustful and childish.’ But I knew that she was always true to me.” Then Rama was united with his beloved and experienced the happiness that he deserved. [6.103-6]

“Dasharatha’s son is certainly lustful” is a key phrase. Rama knows all too well what people said about Dasharatha; when Lakshmana learns that Rama has been exiled, he says, “The king is perverse, old, and addicted to sex, driven by lust.”[2.18.3] Rama says as much himself: “He’s an old man, and with me away he is so besotted by Kaikeyi that he is completely in her power, and capable of doing anything. The king has lost his mind. I think sex (kama) is much more potent than either artha or dharma. For what man, even an idiot like father, would give up a good son like me for the sake of a pretty woman?” [2.47.8-10] Thus Rama invokes the traditional ranking of dharma over sex and politics (kama and artha) and accuses his father of valuing them in the wrong way, of being addicted to sex. He then takes pains to show that, where Dasharatha made a political and religious mistake because he desired his wife too much (kama over artha and dharma), he, Rama, cares for Sita only as a political pawn and an unassailably chaste wife (artha and dharma over kama).

My response: A response to this very contention was published here. This response highlights one of the interpretive errors that I argue are widespread throughout the text. And these clear errors are serious for together they constitute a sad mockery of a faith. Take the example of her interpretation of the Sanskrit word kama to mean “sex.” This sheer blunder in interpretation is repeated throughout her translations of scripture. In fact, kama is understood by every Hindu to mean “wish, love or desire.” Love or desire for a woman or man is just one type of kama. A man may have kama for his wife, and one must ask if Doniger considers that love a sex addiction. Defining kama to mean sex is an offensive simplification that debases the subtle passions implied in the term . Applied to a depiction of Lord Rama, an incarnation of God to Hindus, the outrage over this passage is obvious.

Doniger: I do not “see” incest and adultery in the hymn referred to above; I quote the hymn, on p. 124, which refers not only to protection and safe delivery but to incest and adultery:

Some spells, like this spell to protect the embryo, are directed against evil powers but addressed to human beings, in this case the pregnant woman: The one whose name is evil, who lies with disease upon your embryo, your womb, the flesh-eater; the one who kills the embryo as it settles, as it rests, as it stirs, who wishes to kill it when it is born–we will drive him away from here. The one who spreads apart your two thighs, who lies between the married pair, who licks the inside of your womb–we will drive him away from here. The one who by changing into a brother, or husband, or lover lies with you, who wishes to kill your offspring–we will drive him away from here. The one who bewitches you with sleep or darkness and lies with you–we will drive him away from here. [10.162]

There is precise human observation here of what we would call the three trimesters of pregnancy (when the embryo settles, rests, and stirs). Though the danger ultimately comes from supernatural creatures, ogres, such creatures act through humans, by impersonating the husband (or lover! or brother!) of the pregnant woman.

My response: Doniger’s own response omits the next few sentences in this very paragraph on page 124 in her book. Referring to ‘this poem’ (Rigveda 10.162), she says:

More substantial is the early evidence in this poem of a form of rape that came to be regarded as a bad, but legitimate, form of marriage: having sex with a sleeping or drugged woman. It appears that a woman’s brother too is someone she might expect to find in her bed, though the Rig Veda severely condemns sibling incest.

So, Doniger does see ‘evidence of rape and incest’ mentioned in this verse. Actually, though, translating directly from Sanskrit, the verse does not state that the brother or anyone lies with the pregnant woman in her bed. Scholars studying this Mandala section of the Rig Vedas know that many items are addressed as human beings – herbs, amulets, gems, animals, malevolent spirits, germs, etc. So I believe strongly that Doniger misrepresents this particular verse and arrives on a conclusion not intended in its writing. It speaks to a disturbing pattern of surmising the most provocative, outrageous and sexual out of verses, texts and scriptures holy to a billion people globally. That would be objectionable enough, but being wrong in these interpretations makes it that much worse.