The case of “The Hindus”: Freedom comes with responsibility

By Vandana Vasudevan.

I just finished reading Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An alternative history.”

There was one word which was on the top of my mind when I finished the book: responsibility. As an author I understand the importance of creative freedom. But equally I am aware of a certain responsibility in presenting the truth. In non-fiction there is a huge onus to not mix personal interpretation with facts.


This increases by many orders of magnitude when it is a scholarly work that will contribute to the work of other researchers in the field. Even more so when one is an influential academic in the world’s most influential country. And lastly, the responsibility becomes staggering when you are writing about religion because you are stepping into a very personal, sacred mind space of millions of practitioners of that religion.


In this book, there is no denying that Doniger has been irresponsible in her presentation of the history and mythology that shaped Hinduism, simply because she has blurred the lines between facts from ancient texts and her own fantastical interpretation of them. She works hard to bring in a determinedly sexual perspective to fairly straightforward things and situations in a stretch of imagination that would be the envy of a fiction writer. (Someone needs to tell her: Wendy, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, you know.)


I am not getting into the details on the fallacies in the book as Aditi Banerjee in an article in Outlook on October 28, 2009 has done that with far greater rigour than I can bring and Aseem Shukla has composed a dignified retort to the book in Both echo the voice of moderate, liberal Hindu. (yes, such a thing exists).


I am not even dwelling on her annoying attempts to be cool and funky in the oddest of places.(Sita looks at the golden deer and is “delighted that Tiffany’s has a branch in the forest” or that the monkeys in Ramayana once got drunk like a “frat party out of control”) It makes one suspect the book is a collection of classroom lectures Doniger gave to American sophomores in the University of Chicago, because no Indian needs these analogies. Neither do Doniger’s genuinely scholarly colleagues from academia like David Shulman or Diane Eck who has written the wonderful “India: A Sacred Geography.” .


(I heard both these Indologists in a literary festival last year and was touched by their complete intellectual honesty to their subject.)


So, despite Doniger’s detailed and expansive coverage of the subject moving from the geological formation of the sub continent to present day NRIs in the US, the book does have passages which are misrepresentations and flippantly fictionalise and speculate on events and characters.


Now, different readers may react to this differently. The degree of offense that is “right” to take in the view of self appointed guardians of freedom is really a moot point. While I was merely amused by the silly digressions into fantasy that Doniger indulges in, someone else may be offended, another outraged.


Who decides which response is valid and comfortable for everyone? To someone a Facebook post is enough, to another a 500 word blogpost is a form of protest. The man who went to court felt strongly enough to issue a legal notice. What is wrong with that- no one burnt buses or broke shop windows. Going to court is a legitimate form of expressing one’s protest.


Some of our erudite commentators are missing the distinction between taking offense and the outcome of that offense. For instance, in a horribly elitist piece for the Daily Beast, public school and Oxford educated Tunku Varadarajan has lashed out on the man who dared to sue Penguin by mainly commenting on the latter’s bad English. Besides, Varadarajan’s tone and words are just as intolerant and fiery as those in the legal notice.


Here’s what I am saying: Yes, books should not be banned because creative freedom should be protected. But that is different from saying no one should take offense. Just as anyone ought to have the freedom to write what they want, the reader has the freedom to react however he wants.


No one has said it better than a philosopher from Doniger’s own land of the free. In 1908, American thinker John Dewey whose work has been very influential in social thought, wrote in an essay called “Responsibility and Freedom”


“An agent is free to act; yes, but-. He must stand the consequences, the disagreeable as well as the pleasant, the social as well as the physical. He may do a given act, but if so, let him look out. His act is a matter that concerns others as well as himself…”


Authors should keep that in mind when they write books with all- encompassing titles like “The Hindus”. Or if someone dares to write tomes called “The Christians” or “The Muslims”, which of course, as British historian Patrick French points out, is an unlikely possibility.


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