On Hinduism. By WENDY DONIGER. Oxford University Press, 2014, 680 pp. $39.95.
The Hindus: An Alternative History. By WENDY DONIGER. Penguin Press, 2009, 800 pp. $25.00.
In February, Penguin Books India pledged to cease publishing The Hindus: An Alternative History, a 2009 book by Wendy Doniger, a prominent American scholar of India and Hinduism. The publisher also promised to recall and pulp all copies of the book available for sale in India. Penguin’s decision was prompted by a complaint filed by Dina Nath Batra, a retired schoolteacher who heads a right-wing Hindu nationalist group, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Campaign Committee to Save Education, or SBAS). The group claimed that Doniger’s work denigrated Hinduism and Hindus and thus violated Indian laws prohibiting “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Batra’s organization is affiliated with the hard-line Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Patriotic Organization, or RSS), which is driven by an ideology of Hindutva (Hinduness) and envisions India as a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) -- a state defined by and restricted to Hindus.
The SBAS alleged that Doniger’s work was riddled with factual inaccuracies and deliberate misrepresentations of Hindu deities and Scriptures that amounted to “heresies.” The group’s most vehement objections concerned Doniger’s interpretations of sex and sexuality in Hindu traditions. In her five decades of scholarship, Doniger has sought to highlight and reclaim the earthy and even erotic elements of Hinduism that were suppressed during the colonial era by British authorities and missionaries -- and by some Indians who sought to “modernize” their country’s religious practices.
For instance, Doniger argues that the lingam, a symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva that is found in temples, should be understood “unequivocally as an iconic representation of the male sexual organ in erection, in particular as the erect phallus” of Shiva. Similarly, Doniger notes that the Mahabharata, one of the two Sanskrit epics, portrays the deity Krishna as “a prince with many wives,
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