Talibanising Hinduism

As you read this, in one of the warehouses of Penguin Publications, all the copies of the book titled ‘Hinduism: An Alternative History’, written by Wendy Doniger, are being destroyed and reduced to pulp. Penguin announced that it is unilaterally withdrawing the sale and distribution of this book with effect from today.

Only that the withdrawal was not all that unilateral. There have been stiff opposition to this book which claims to talk about the history of Hinduism. Of course, as usual, it claims that Shiva lingam is a symbolic representation of a phallus. That the ancient Hindu women were sexually liberated. And, curiously, perhaps most importantly, that RSS had a role in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

Now, I don’t know what RSS has to do with the history of Hinduism. Of course RSS claims to speak for all the Hindus, but I don’t think even 50% of the Hindus know what RSS’s key ideologies are. Perhaps the book covers contemporary history of Hinduism and feels it needed to talk about one of the most masculine brands of Hinduism, as practiced by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

How does one prove or disprove that the ligam was a phallic representation? I have read one too many works in the past where the lingam was directly equated with the male organ. Of course, I am incapable of carrying out any independent research to find out whether this is true, but Doniger is a scholar so I’m sure she must have researched sufficiently to make this claim. Personally, I reckon it’s cool to think that my ancestors thought it fit to ‘worship’ a phallic symbol. Ancient religions are crazy that way. Several ancient carvings in northern England show a woman with giant vulva. Referred to as Sheela Na Gig, a scholarly tradition believes that she could be the mother goddess in one of the pre-Christian Pagan traditions of England. So if the English worshipped a vulva, could Indians be far behind?

Anyway, we can understand why these could be offensive to contemporary sensitivities. So we’re upset that somebody has resurfaced this disturbing past of ours, whatever may be the interpretation.

There are other, seemingly valid, criticisms on Doniger. One of them is that she used any and every Sanskrit literature and claimed it as representation of Hinduism. If she has done this, it is very unscholarly of her. Sanskrit was the language of the ancient India. Every literature, and every religious work, such as Buddhist, Jain and even atheist, was written in Sanskrit. And works on economics, politics, science and mathematics and even sex were written in Sanskrit. Just because something is written in Sanskrit doesn’t make it a representation of Hinduism. It’s like saying anything ever written in the classical Arabic is part of Islam.

If she has done that it is objectionable. If she has misrepresented history with wilful intention of portraying Hinduism in bad light, it’s objectionable. If she has intentionally tweaked facts to paint Hinduism in erotic hues, it’s condemnable.

But nothing, none of these, is a reason to reduce the copies to pulp. If the Hindu scholars seriously felt that some or all of data from this book is incorrect, they should present their arguments to the public, not silence that voice. Those who have called for this ban should obviously have known more about Hinduism. If they had, then they should have known that this attitude, of silencing dissent, is not known to the Hindu tradition. Hinduism has celebrated ecumenism, multi-culturalism and debate. Upanishads are full of debates where groups of rishis (seers) have fought tooth and nail (only theoretically) with each other on their conflicting schools of thoughts. Even in Ramanaya, one of the greatest Hindu epics, differences of views are celebrated. Jaabali, an atheist sage, argues vehemently with King Rama about some of his orthodox practices. The seer dumbs down Rama quite aggressively. Of course, Rama being the hero wins the debate, but he wins it by arguing with the sage, not by asking his soldiers to arrest and silence him!

There are some religious groups in this world who are intolerant of criticisms and opposing viewpoints. If Talibans can’t tolerate differing viewpoints, we know why they refuse to emerge out of seventh century. But unfortunately, there are some people who are hell bent on talibanising Hinduism. And it is saddening that one of the respectable publishing houses like Penguin has fallen for that. It is the same publishing house that stood steadfastly behind Salman Rushdie when he attracted the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists in 1988. It’s shuddering to think that one could withstand militant Islam but not modern Hindutva. It’s a dangerous warning that the aggressive Hindu Right can prove more powerful, and more damaging, than Imam Khomeini.