Bad Girls and Goddesses, Censorship, Good Press and the Dream World   Leave a comment

donigerWendy Doniger’s gotten some extensive press lately. Not on the scale of Kim Kardashian, but still … Whether or not Doniger or anyone accepts the half-truth that “all press is good press,” recent books by this University of Chicago professor of Hinduism have aroused the ire of vocal Hindus variously called fundamentalists, conservatives and Hindutva-vadis, supporters of Hindutva or “Hindu-ness.”

Penguin Books in India recently recalled Doniger’s 2009 study, The Hindus: An Alternative History, because the Delhi-based group SBAS — Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (“Save Education Movement”) — characterized the book as “malicious,” “derogatory and offending to Hinduism” and containing “faulty representation of Indian history and historical figures.”  SBAS advanced its case with a successful push for the withdrawal of a second book of Doniger’s as well, On Hinduism, published in 2013.

hindubkprotest1The legal footing that SBAS stands on appears in the Indian Penal Code.  SBAS spokeperson Dinanath Batra benefits from the code which states that “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs shall be punished with imprisonment or fine, or both.”*  We’ll sidestep for now the apparent dangers of granting such strong legal recourse to anyone whose sensibilities might be offended.  After all, outrage is the stance du jour of much of the political conversation in the States.

Of course, censors and free-speechers have been waging these and similar battles for a long time, with no likely end in sight.  When Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still the fourth most frequently banned book in the U.S., as well as a “Great American Novel,” such controversy comes as no surprise. (A 2011 edition of the Twain classic removes the 200+ instances of the word “nigger” and replaces them with “slave.”)**

opmythsDoniger, now 73, is a respected scholar, having taught at Chicago for 36 years, and published dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles.  Even before publication in India, she worked with editors to soften potentially inflammatory wording.  But as Doniger remarks in a February ’14 New York Times article, her focus is on popular Hinduism.  She wanted “to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks … It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about meditation, it’s about stories, about animals and untouchables and women. It’s the way that Hinduism has dealt with pluralism.”  The Times article continues:  “Asked if she could sympathize at all with those offended by her work, Ms. Doniger said: ‘In general, I don’t like people saying nasty things about other people’s religion, but this is something else. This is fundamentalism, which says that parts of its own religion are bad. In a sense, I’m defending their religion, and they’re attacking it.’”

As Slate notes, “The Hindus, which is still available internationally, is currently the number 11 bestselling book on Amazon, which is not too shabby for a four-year old religious history book by a University of Chicago divinity professor. The worst enemy of censorship is always curiosity.”

Columnist Swati Sharma in the 20 Feb. ’14 Washington Post concludes,

There are some concerns when it comes to Doniger and Western media articles about the backlash against her work. While you can disagree with the book and still want it published, Doniger repeatedly blames any criticism of her work on the right wing, sweeping aside any real concerns about it. It’s almost too easy to frame those who are religious as religious fundamentalists — when some on the far right try to ban “On the Origin of Species” in the United States, it doesn’t mean all Christians support such drastic measures. In the same sense, there are many Hindus, scholars and academics who disagree with her writings but believe the book should be published. Those voices get trampled by an easily digestible battle between religious fundamentalists and secular liberals. But that’s what happens when a book is basically banned; the debate on the actual content is lost and is focused instead on free speech. That’s where Doniger is in the right.

That doesn’t mean the right-wing party isn’t pushing this debate — after all, elections are coming in May. That said, Penguin’s decision to not wait for a judgment and to settle is disappointing. It’s easy to publish books that are safe. It’s for the ones that challenge us that the concept of free speech exists.

Doniger doesn’t shy away from the provocative remark.  She gets off a few zingers, for instance, in her article in yesterday’s 5 March ’14) NY Times, “Banned in Bangalore“:

I must apologize for what may amount to false advertising on my behalf by Mr. Batra, who pronounced my book “filthy and dirty.” Readers who bought a copy in hope of finding such passages will be, I fear, disappointed. “The Hindus” isn’t about sex at all. It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.

“Hotter than Sex” would make a great book or blog title.  Yes, you’re welcome.

And in her  blog post “Respect For Women Yes, Worship of Goddesses No” Doniger observes:

But the goddess feminists are whistling in the dark when they argue, first, that everyone used to worship goddesses (some people did, but many did not) and, second, that this was a Good Thing for women, indeed for everyone, their assumption being that women are more compassionate than men.

In fact, when men as well as women do worship goddesses, as they have done for centuries in many parts of India, the religious texts and rituals clearly express the male fear of female powers, and the male authors of those texts therefore make even greater efforts to control women, as if to say, “god help us all if these naturally powerful women get political power as well.”

There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women. Nor are the goddesses by and large compassionate; they are generally a pretty bloodthirsty lot.

Goddesses are not, therefore, the solution. Equal respect for human men and women is the solution.

But if our deities mirror ourselves, as they seem to do, we can be grateful for changes in both.  We can be grateful that slavery is now illegal, that racism no longer gets such an easy pass, that women’s rights are a live issue, that the beginnings and ends of life are being examined critically, despite our weariness with the wars of political correctness and with conservative-liberal polarization.  Does morality evolve?  Just what absolutes are you looking for?

I like to let my subjects have the last words (even if I chose them to illustrate my own post rather than letting them make only their own points).  So here’s an excerpt from another of Doniger’s blog-posts, “The Mutual Dream,” which offers a polytheist perspective worth examining for its explanatory power:

A better idea, I think, is captured by several of India’s many philosophies of reality and illusion, which suggest that we do indeed create god (and therefore religion) in our imaginations, as we create all of our reality, but that at the same time god creates us in god’s imagination, that god is, like us, constantly dreaming into existence a reality that includes us imagining god. We are mutually dreaming, mutually existing.

A modified, slightly rationalized, version of this belief would be the assertion that, although we do not make god ex nihilo, nor does god make us ex nihilo, we are the ones who bring god fully to life, while god in turn is what brings us truly to life, makes us fully alive to the phenomenal world, dream world though it may be.

This is not an idea that is easy for people trained in Western philosophical ideas to swallow, and it all depends upon how you define god, but for me it is rich in meaning.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Times of India 2 March ’14 article and 11 Feb. ’14 article.

**Daily Mail, 5 Jan. ’11.

Image: Doniger; book protest; Other People’s Myths.

Updated 8 March 2014

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