Why Wendy Doniger’s book should not have been withdrawn
by Adity Sharma on 06 Mar 2014 5 Comments

Identifying the issue in a case is the key to success in legal studies. Once the issue is determined, arguments and counter-arguments can be propounded to understand and untangle the broader implications of law. But issue spotting is also helpful in identifying a problem that needs to be solved in a non-legal context. Keeping this in mind, let us determine the issue in the recent withdrawal by Penguin Books India of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History.”


So far, the loudest outcry has come from self-styled and self-serving intellectuals. They are screeching at the top of their lungs that freedom of speech is in peril. But we need not allow these secular halfwits like Arundhati Roy, or Vijay Prashad, or even Wendy Doniger herself to dictate terms of the controversy surrounding the withdrawal of the book. We are very well aware of the true extent of their concern for free speech. Selective outrage at instances of censorship does not make one an unflinching proponent of free flow of ideas, it just makes one a shameless hypocrite.


Where was this much needed denunciation when Taslima Nasreen’s book “Lajja” was partly censored, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” or Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” banned? The left-leaning academia has been at the forefront of suppressing the free flow of ideas. They have substituted real debate with rhetoric and abstract theory dressed in Marxist garb. Hence, given Hindu Dharma’s indomitable and rich philosophical past, was the withdrawal of the book necessary? For this, we must examine the creativity and argumentative spirit of ancient Vedic society with the contemporary non-argumentative Hindu who refuses to conduct serious fact-finding research to adequately address challenges faced by Hindu society.


Hindu ingenuity of a bygone era


From time immemorial, Hindu Dharma has always given the highest value to discussion and argument. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Rishi Yajnavalkya of Mithila participated in king Janaka’s assembly where many esteemed scholars and sages were gathered. Here he debated on the subject of Atman and realization through meditation. Gargi, a learned female philosopher began her interrogation of Yajnavalkya by asking the question: “This earth here is woven, like warp and woof, in water. In what is water so woven?” To this, Yajnavalkya replied, “In air.” With every answer Yajnavalkya gave, Gargi asked another question substituting the word air with sky, sun, moon, stars, gods, Indra, Prajapati, and lastly Brahman. Yajnavalkya’s impatience with the never-ending stream of questions did not deter Gargi. She continued to pursue her line of questioning until she was satisfied.


But debates in ancient Vedic society were not completely centered around the spiritual aspect. There was the Lokayata, or the atheist/materialistic school of thought that believed that there was only perception, rather than inference which ruled the world. They also believed that human beings should “enjoy pleasure and avoid pain.” This school of thought often faced severe criticism from the mainstream currents of Hindu philosophy that shared characteristics like reincarnation, Karma, and Moksha. At no time were wars fought to propagate one philosophy over another. It was done through the power of debate alone.


Hindu logicians developed hypotheses, elaborated on theories, and provided proof and counter-proof for those theories. Sometimes these debates centered on the spiritual world in conflict with the material world, and sometimes around the concept of sensory perception in contrast to dreams. Diverse schools of thought such as Mimamsa, Sankhya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, and Vedanta, all contributed to developing ancient India’s scientific, linguistic, mathematical, and Yogic prowess. It was only the free flow of arguments and counter-arguments that allowed ancient Hindu society to thrive, and to question, and to draw independent conclusions based on deep meditation, and a rational and scientific approach.


What happened to the argumentative Hindu?


During the medieval period gender and caste inequalities took root, and greatly reduced the poignancy of the Hindu mind. The arrival of Islam muted creativity altogether. Today, not even a forlorn echo of a Rishi Yajnavalkya-style polemicist remains. Instead, Hindu society has contented itself by identifying controversies and issues of importance in nonsensical bite-sized slogans, and then surrounding those slogans with meaningless politically correct fluff.


A contemporary example is Christian missionary propaganda. Missionaries have made it a mission to harvest as many souls for Christ as possible in India. Hindu opponents of proseletization have utterly failed to critically engage with this problem. Only a handful of Hindu and non-Hindu intellectuals have offered a comprehensive ideological refutation that questions the very dogma of the Christian belief system.


But how much of this irrefutable work is appreciated? How much of it is actually utilized in engaging the missionaries in an honest discussion on the untenable tenets of Christianity? On the other hands, Christians have raced ahead with inculturation. Many evangelists these days are of native descent.


Doniger’s twisted representations a threat to Hindu dharma?


In the legal profession, or any profession for that matter, deception can result in serious consequences for the deceiver. Wendy Doniger purports to be a scholar, and yet she has behaved in completely the opposite manner. Stifling dissent, making erroneous claims, and then calling herself an expert is unbecoming of the noble profession of academia. Doniger should introspect on how she is inventing tales just to be on the dominant side of things, where anything anti-Hindu, no matter how untruthful, is considered scholarly work.


Moreover, if Doniger wants to indulge in creativity, then she has definitely wasted her time all these years. She should have written fiction where her inaccuracies, her obsession to give everything a sexual tint, and her flagrant unsupported assertions would have been enjoyed as just another twist to the plot.


We need not emulate monotheistic dogmas by silencing criticism, because that would do injustice to an ancient and venerable tradition that was able to withstand all manner of imperialistic barbarism in the last 1,000-plus years. Hindu Dharma is not a cheaply tailored piece of cloth where pulling one thread unravels the entire piece at the seams. Placing a protective shield around our glorious heritage will not render it a beacon of enlightenment and inspiration for the world. But instead, let us spare no effort in reviving the argumentative style of debate borne out of science, reason, and meditation that our ancestors cherished. Hindu Dharma is not threatened by Doniger’s ignoble attempts at academic glory, but it is very much threatened by the intellectual stagnation and lethargy that has taken hold since Islamic and Christian imperialism came to India.

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