Tuesday 16th April 2024,
HHR News

Lessons in Post-Wendy Donigerism

Lessons in Post-Wendy Donigerism

A possibly good side to the Wendy Doniger affair

At first sight, the withdrawal of Prof. Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, an Alternative History by her publisher Penguin is an all-round disaster for the Hindus. The nit-picking by some Hindu activists that the book wasn’t really banned by a Court but only withdrawn by the publishers themselves won’t wash, for this withdrawal was made under threat of a judicial ban invoking Indian censorship legislation, including Art. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and Art. 153A of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code. So, Hindu activists set in motion the existing censorship legislation in order to obtain the suppression of the book, which in the event came about by the publisher’s own intervention in order to avert an impending judicial ban.

Results of the book’s withdrawal

What has been the result? First of all, the whole world has heard of the affair, for the ban on a book exposing and attacking Hinduism is much to the media’s liking. It had the right role division: obscurantists of an already despised religion as the villain, a weak and opportunistic entrepreneur as their accomplice, a liberal professor as the besieged hero.

That it was a seriously flawed book with many factual errors and a less than academic approach, already detailed in a refutation by Vishal Agarwal in 2009, has barely been mentioned. Instead, the book has been covered with the halo of martyrdom, while the Hindu activists and to some extent Hindu society as a whole have been blackened as humourless touch-me-nots at best, or as dangerous fanatics in the more usual judgment.

For those who only understand material results: the sales of the book have gone up. For those more sensitive to the information flow: the ban on the book’s content is a total failure, for it remains perfectly available through the internet. The erstwhile monopoly on publication exercised by establishment figures such as Wendy Doniger herself has been broken by the uncontrollable internet, yet now we find the internet’s beneficiaries, the Hindus, making an internet heroine of the same Wendy Doniger.

Further, all the commotion about this one book could make us lose sight of the hundreds of books likewise lambasting or lampooning Hindu practices and Hindu figures of veneration. Some 99% of the academic books on various aspects of Hinduism contain stray anti-Hindu statements or an over-all anti-Hindu message: too many to ban them all, and passing cleverly below the radar of this Wendy Doniger affair. Anyone who has followed the problem of anti-Hindu opinion-making will be surprised to see all this excitement about one book.

Also, global public opinion, in so far as it cares, has taken notice of the crass ignorance among the Hindu activists. Many pro-Hindu commentators have called Wendy Doniger a Christian who writes in the service of the missionary apparatus. In fact, she is secular and Jewish-born and has nothing to do with the missionary project. To be sure, the missionaries too have used the affair to indict Hindus, and they welcome her book as another nail in the coffin of the Hindu enemy. This is because American liberals and Christians find a common enemy in Hinduism, but among themselves they have their quarrels. It is no big deal for an Indian Hindu to be ignorant of the ongoing ideological debates in American society, but if at all you insist on singling out an American book for your attack, it is not too much to ask that you inform yourself about these. So, world opinion learns with amazement that Hindu activism is led by people who don’t know the field they have to operate in.

Finally, one more drawback of this Hindu “victory” is that it strengthens a very harmful tendency among Hindu activists: Indian chauvinism and paranoia about the “foreign hand”. This does not strengthen the enemy nor his anti-Hindu animus, but it weakens the Hindu side. Since nobody else will elaborate on this point, I will.

Nationalism as a misstatement of Hindu concerns

The impression is created that Wendy Doniger wrote an anti-Hindu book because she is American, in keeping with the American imperialist project. However, she is not known to work for the CIA or other strategic services, and has repeatedly expressed her opposition to power politics and war. This should be very well known to the Hindus, because they often cite her disparaging remarks on the pro-war passages in the Bhagavad-Gita. The Indian Communists must be laughing among themselves because the Hindu activists are venting their anger along the anti-American lines laid down by the Communists themselves.

In fact, there is no American policy of lambasting or belittling foreign cultures, e.g. Ruth Benedict’s anthropological classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, analysing the Japanese enemy in World War 2, left it to Hollywood to lampoon the Japs and instead gave a factual and respectful account. There is no such systematic lampooning or bad-mouthing Chinese or Islamic “enemies” of the US in present-day American academic publications as there is in Wendy’s book regarding Hinduism.

Numerous Hindus imagine that Westerners (or what anachronistic Indians, even after the accession to the presidency by Barack Obama, call “whites”) impose an anti-Hindu policy, but the truth is that most Westerners don’t care one way or the other about Hinduism; even those involved with foreign policy might mention China or the Muslim world as areas of concern, but rarely India, let alone Hinduism.  Most anti-Hindu books are written by Indians, typically by born Hindus. Even the pressure at Western “Indian Studies” departments to profile oneself as anti-Hindu exists mostly in deference to the reigning ideology in India itself, viz. Nehruvian secularism.

The complex relation between pre-1947 British policies and the post-1947 Indian state ideology is an important topic for historians of ideas, but it is only of historical interest. Hindus falsely impute many evils to British influence when other factors account for them better. Thus, caste discrimination was indeed aggravated by British policies, but Hindu activists are plainly wrong to deny that caste is an indigenous institution existing since at least 25 centuries. The British did de-industrialize India and harm its economy, but it is Nehruvian socialism that made India a synonym of extreme poverty and corruption.

The vast majority of the Indians, from left to right, blame the British for the Partition, a Muslim plan which was emphatically rejected by the British administrators, and only accepted by the last Viceroy just months before independence, after the overwhelming majority of the Indian Muslims had voted for it and several Congress leaders had seconded it. But it is so much cosier to blame the long-gone Britons than to face the historical truth and the enduring challenge of Islam, so all cowards prefer to blame the Britons (you can make up your own mind whether you are one of them). Anyway, those are historical matters, and we want to deal with the present.

Indians have had 66 years to eliminate British influences if they so wished, and anything that prevails in India today is the handiwork of Indians. Thus, the reservation policy which has recently revived and strengthened caste consciousness, is entirely the doing of Indians, under no British (or otherwise outside) pressure. The problem of terrorism has been the handiwork of South-Asian Muslims. Only paranoid minds (like those Hindu activists on vijayvaani.com) would impute this recurring problem, created by Muslims who are both anti-Hindu and anti-American, to American influence. For another example, the Constituent Assembly decided that the language of administration should be native, either Sanskrit or shuddh (pure) Hindi, and took a vote between those two.

Everyone at the time took it for granted that an India independent from the British should eliminate the language of British colonial administration. And yet, the abolition of English, planned for 1965, did not take place. There had been no British or American pressure to stick to English, it was India’s own English-speaking elite (using the Dravidianist movement as cat’s paw) that had sabotaged the switch to a native language. That same elite enforces Western-style education and a Western way of life – but still it is Indians who do so, it does not happen under Western pressure. Hindu activists who refuse to see other enemies than whites, and who fantasize a white hand behind every brown-skinned action, are actually white supremacists: they think nothing meaningful can happen if there is no white hand behind it.

Lazy minds would like the enemy to be easily recognizable, especially by skin colour. It is so much easier for Hindus to oppose “whites” rather than to oppose Christians, or Muslims, or Marxists, who carry an ideology that forces you to actually think, and of whom the ones you have to deal with, are mostly brown-skinned. Let me tell you a little secret: most whites take no interest in Hinduism one way or the other. Perhaps most of them find it a bit weird, but if India chooses to be Hindu, then whites will adapt to that. It is not they who go out of their way to oppose “saffronization”.

So, the anti-Hindu discourse heard in all relevant places is now rarely the doing of white people, and when at all, these white people have mostly been relying on their Indian contacts. Some Hindus recently got worked up over the creation inside Berkeley University of an institute preparing for “human rights interventions” in India to protect the minorities in the event of violence against them. So far, so good: this is indeed a negative development and it is already good news that some Hindus are taking notice.

However, Rajeev Srinivasan and other Hindus who broke the news, started fulminating against the Americans and their supposed anti-Hindu policies, making links with past American Cold War policies. In reality, most associates and all working group members of this centre have Indian roots or are Indians (e.g. Teesta Setalvad).

They are Indian expatriates who have an Indian agenda and secondarily have managed to mobilize American institutes and money. An American intervention is dimly possible, the sacrifice of white soldiers’ lives is not impossible, but that will only come about because of the brainwashing of American foreign-policy makers by Indian secularists. This, of course, is a development that Hindu activists don’t understand, because of their own total failure to influence anyone anywhere. A limited number of Indian Marxists in the US have managed to mobilize American capitalists to fund an institute that will influence American foreign policy in the service of an Indian anti-Hindu policy.

A far larger number of practising Hindu Indo-Americans have not even succeeded in preventing moneybag Narayan Murthy from donating his millions to American anti-Hindu Sanskritists rather than to Indian pro-Hindu scholars. (If you want to get an idea of the magnitude of the Hindu activists’ failure, just compare with the roaring success of a far smaller number of anti-Hindu secularists.) It is not that Indians are congenitally unable to use their brains: while Hindus are successful at making money, anti-Hindus are wildly successful at strategizing and convincing others, even making American policy-makers do their bidding.

One step towards solving this fixation on what Indira Gandhi (and her faithful Hindu activist sheep) called “the foreign hand”, is a moratorium on every mention of “whites”, “Orientalism”, “colonialism” or “American imperialism”. Yes, historians of the last few centuries have to deal with these issues, but activists in the present don’t.

If you don’t close this door, Hindu activists will keep on clutching at straws and introduce their conspiracy theories through the back door. Today, the mention of the words cited invariably comes in the context of anachronistic reasonings (valiantly attacking the corpse of long-dead “colonialists” like Max Müller) and resourceful tricks to avoid facing the real challenges from native Muslims, native secularists and native Christian missionaries.

To be sure, as a white person I can tell you that anti-white feelings in the former colonies are considered quite understandable, and that we’ve all heard anti-white talk hundreds of times, so that in most whites it only evokes a yawn. Yet, here I am going out of my way to dissuade Hindus from indulging in anti-white discourse because it is harmful to Hindus themselves. It only confirms them in their lazy thought habits: blaming others to shirk their own responsibility; living in the past (with that comfortable moral high ground of natives against colonialists), refusing to evolve with the changing times; and avoiding to face their present-day challengers.

The non-results

The only ones not to notice the many disadvantages generated by the Hindu activist initiative against Wendy Doniger’s book, are the Hindus themselves. After all, this negative fall-out took place in the real world, and among Hindu activists it is deemed virtuous to shun reality and live in a cosy fantasy world peopled only by the like-minded.  In such a world, clashes of opinion have no place, and banning any dissident voice is considered to be only right.

One thing that didn’t happen so far is that, enlightened by the commotion around the book, a Hindu moneybag decided to set up an institute manned by scholars who would give a fitting reply to these anti-Hindu tirades. Everyone of them (if there was an exception, I wouldn’t be writing this) thought either that censorship constituted the correct reply, or that free speech means secularist writers and their Western allies filling the market with anti-Hindu books.

Hindus like to boast about how good they are at making money, how they are the richest immigrant community in the US, etc. Yet, when it comes to using this wealth, they are a dramatic failure. Basically, they spend their money on the powerful: on the gods by building temples, and on corrupt politicians by bribing them. If anything extra is available, it will be given to the enemy: intended Hindu think-tanks that end up manned by secularists, or US-based institutes for South-Asian Studies that flatter them by devoting attention to India while only being out to blacken India and Hinduism.

To be sure, it would be better if such scholarship could be provided by the state. But because the Hindu movement has not invested in scholarship, while the Marxists have devoted half a century to peopling all the history departments and other relevant institutions with their own agents, barring entry to whomever is suspected of pro-Hindu leanings, there is simply nothing.

Education is largely a competence of the state, so BJP state governments could have set up centres for history manned by pro-Hindu scholars, but judging by the results, they must have had other things to do. When the BJP controlled the centre (1998-2004), it didn’t create such centres that would have made a difference in the long term, but banged its head against the wall with its failed textbook overhaul. The secularists cried “saffronization!” when the BJP Government created a chair for Indian Studies in Oxford, but instead of naming a pro-Hindu scholar to the new post, it tried to prove its secularism (another predictable failure) by nominating yet another known anti-Hindu pamphleteer.

So, for the time being, the Hindus’ best bet would be an individual who has the means and is willing to transmute these into pro-Hindu scholarship. But those businessmen who make such a resolve, end up either being ineffective or ultimately supporting the enemy camp. The Doniger riot could have awoken someone, but apparently it hasn’t.       

Silver lining

However, it is another bad habit to be pessimistic. While there is enough in the Hindu activists’ performance to make an observer despair, there is nonetheless enough potential, and even some successes in other fields than the intellectual struggle. So, let us consider the silver lining in the dark cloud on the Doniger affair.

Some few insights may have travelled to places because of the Doniger book withdrawal that they wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Firstly, while most Indian secularists and their Western dupes may now vaguely have heard about “Hindu fanatics” imposing a ban on a book they didn’t like (old hat, we already know such things since Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989), a few of them may also have gained the impression that Hindus are really fed up with the wave of anti-Hindu discourse that they are constantly bombarded with. After familiarizing themselves with the false notion of “Islamophobia”, they now discover that there is a thing which by the same logic should be called “Hinduphobia”.

Secondly, a few curious people may have clicked on the links to Vishal Agarwal’s paper listing the factual errors in Wendy Doniger’s book. More than its insulting passages, it is these numerous errors that made the book indefensible, and hence convinced the publishers not to go to court for it. It is significant that in the book’s successive reprints, the author has not decided to intervene and correct at least the most conspicuous and least debatable of her mistakes. They certainly detract from the book’s scholarly value, and these few readers may have wondered what it says about the American India-watchers that they all defended Wendy Doniger against her Indian critics.

Thirdly, some book-banners who had not carefully thought things through, may have heard the debates provoked by the book’s withdrawal and the several reasons why it was a bad idea for Hindus to strike this humourless and repressive pose. The big loser of this “successful” book ban has been the Hindu tradition of open debate, to which great debaters like Yajñavalkya and Shankara are witness, and this has been pointed out not just by the usual suspects (who are resourceful and bring out everything that can win over Hindus, including Hindu references) but also by Hindus and pro-Hindu writers like Michel Danino and myself. It is possible, and it should be hoped, that this perspective has reached the ears of some supporters of the ban and made them think again.

Fourthly, the commotion generated by this affair may retrospectively highlight the cases where confused Hindus have tried to prove their “secularism” (in vain) by supporting anti-secular book-banning policies, e.g. when the BJP in the Andhra Assembly supported a resolution against the Danish cartoons exposing Mohammed. Of all people, Hindu nationalists should support the freedom to criticize or lampoon Islam, along with other religions. Instead they have been singing the blockhead’s dirge that “freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to insult”. At least a few people may think again.

Fifthly, while several petitions have circulated denouncing the de facto ban, one that attracted many anti-Hindu academics nonetheless made a valid and ultimately pro-Hindu point. It demanded the abolition of book-banning legislation, viz. Art. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and Art. 153A of the Criminal Procedure Code. These articles were not enacted by Hindus or in the service of a Hindu cause; on the contrary, they were meant to muzzle Hindus and prevent them from holding Christianity or Islam against the light. It is one thing that these articles, now that they happen to exist, should be available to Hindus as much as to the non-Hindus meant to benefit from them (a point understood by the Hindu book-banners); and quite another that these articles are essentially both anti-democratic and anti-Hindu. They are anti-democratic because every democratic decision-making presupposes the right of all citizens to express and receive information and opinions.

And they are anti-Hindu because Hinduism favours freedom and open debate while Christianity and Islam each pretend to already possess the truth and hence have no use for debate. While the Indian secularists and their foreign dupes, along with the Islamic militants, normally defend bans on “Islamophobia” (which is why some of them have come out in support of the banning of offending free speech under the Communal Violence Bill) and never made these law articles an issue when they were invoked to shield Islam, this Doniger affair made them oppose the articles. Which is where we want them: defend real secularism when it is violated by religious obscurantists, this time by Hindus but more usually by those who are not or don’t want to be Hindus.

Sixthly, and finally the point many Hindu readers have been waiting for: in some respects, this should still count as a Hindu victory. Not that the other side has been “smarting” under it, as some smug Hindus imagine: on the contrary, it enjoyed this episode for its potential to blacken Hindus and hurt Narendra Modi in his Prime-Ministerial ambitions. But at least Hindus went for something and got it. The judicial demands and ultimately the extra-judicial settlement were explicitly meant to be in favour of the cause of Hinduism. Not having scored a victory in a long time, this book withdrawal came as a boost to Hindu self-confidence.  

Now Hindus should take this boost and transmute it into a motivation for improving their performance.

About The Author

Dr. Koenraad Elst : Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.

Leave A Response

HHR News