Mesocosm

History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, Science

Penguin India’s Betrayal of its Authors and Readers

with 5 comments

I was shocked to read that Penguin India has capitulated to a lawsuit charging that University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus; An Alternative History should be withdrawn from print (see the New York Times coverage here). Doniger is a prominent and sympathetic scholar of Hinduism whose works include the best (partial) translation of the Rig Veda published in the last century.

After four years of litigation pushed by Hindu fundamentalists, Penguin India voluntarily agreed to cease publication, and will most likely destroy unsold copies of Doniger’s book.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Doniger’s book was targeted under a section of the Indian penal code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” (Tribune article here). That the courts should entertain for these long years the premise that Doniger’s scholarship constitutes a “malicious act” that is “intended to outrage” speaks extremely poorly of their interest in allowing competing but well-intentioned versions of history to be told.

Today I stand with Wendy Doniger, as should all people everywhere who love free expression and the pursuit of truth, and call on Penguin India to reverse their disgraceful decision. For shame, Penguin India.

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Written by Mesocosm

February 14, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Sri Aurobindo’s translation of the Rig Veda is, i think, a bit more insightful than Doniger’s.

    donsalmon

    February 15, 2014 at 3:59 am

    • I’m not aware of a translation by Sri Auribindo – just his commentaries. Can you refer me?

      In any case, your mileage may vary – my intention was to establish that Doniger is a serious and sympathetic scholar, not a crackpot.

      Mesocosm

      February 15, 2014 at 6:45 am

      • The Secret of the Veda – if you search for it, the first or second link should take you to a free PDF of the entire book.

        Doniger – ok, i guess we’ll disagree on this one. I don’t want to get into a long draw out argument, and I certainly have no sympathy with book banning. But then, I don’t find that most academics understand very much about spiritual texts in general. I can think of a handful of exceptions – Robert Thurman is certainly an outstanding one, but then, he is also a practitioner. There are a few dozen practitioners I’ve come across (mostly in Eastern traditions, but I know of a number of Orthodox Christian academics who appear to me to have a general contemplative understanding. Alan Wallace, in fact, may be the greatest living academic contemplative.

        But your standards may be different from mine. If you’re saying Doniger is a genuine scholar by conventional standards in most academic departments, I have no argument with that. In terms of what the Gita, for example, is really about, I would say Doniger’s comments are almost as bad as Zaehner, who i consider to have the distinction of having written the worst Gita commentary in the 20th century (if you go outside academia, I would have to say Rudolf Steiner’s commentary is even worse).

        But I haven’t (thank goodness!) been associated with any formal college or university for about 14 years, so I suppose I have the luxury of not having to adhere to their standards.

        But again, I do agree with what I would guess is the framework within which you’re writing – if you’re talking about conventional religion department standards, Doniger meets those, though even there, there are scholars of Hinduism even in America who, though not at all insightful in terms of contemplative understanding, are to me infinitely wiser just in terms of a emic (or is it etic, sorry I’ve forgotten) understanding of India culture.

        By the way, you have a really great site, and I enjoyed your nonduality essay in particular. I think we corresponded a year or so ago, and found we strongly disagreed on some things and had other very strong areas of agreement. I liked very much that we seemed to have a cordial, respectful back and forth whether or not we agreed.

        Thanks!

        donsalmon

        February 15, 2014 at 6:53 am

  2. I think perhaps we’re not communicating. I’m not saying that I think Doniger is a great scholar – I do not, although I value her translation of the Rig Veda. Much of her work leaves me indifferent – that’s not my point.

    What I intended to establish is that she is not a fringe author writing cranky, abusive pseudo-histories of Hinduism. She’s a mainstream scholar with a teaching post at one of the most prestigious religious studies departments in the world, University of Chicago, which once hosted no less a colossus than Mircea Eliade.

    In that context, it’s both absurd and disgraceful that any court could entertain the premise that she’s maliciously abusing Hinduism or the Hindus. That’s the sum total of my argument and my advocacy of her work, for what it’s worth.

    Thanks for your comments on my blog – it’s a labor of love and it’s extremely gratifying when anyone gets value out of it. Please feel free to strenuously disagree and/or correct errors whenever they occur!

    Mesocosm

    February 15, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    • Hmmm, i thought we totally agreed. “not a great scholar” “a mainstream scholar” “not a fringe author writing cranky pseudo-histories”. agree fully with all.

      “absurd and disgraceful” totally agree.

      So yes, I fully agree with your main points. I just wanted to add that being a mainstream scholar at a prestigious religious studies dept doesn’t necessarily conflict with someone being a fool – but again, just so it’s clear we agree on the main points, that in no way justifies the action of the Indian court.

      I was associated with Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation for a few years, and Rajiv, you may be aware, was at the time one of the most vocal of Doniger’s critics (she did do some pretty outrageous things in regard to her critics, I have to say). But Rajiv acted in all kinds of bizarre ways too. And in my own little “spiritual” world – in the Sri Aurobindo circles there is a very similar thing going on.

      Peter Heehs, a resident of the Ashram for over 30 years, had a book published by Columbia University Press, “The LIves of Sri Aurobindo.” It came out a few years ago. From a mainstream religious studies/history dept perspective, it’s a perfectly respectable, if not inspired, biography. In fact, it’s one fo the first biographies of Sri Aurobindo that is not written in a hagiographic spirit.

      Well, this has the traditional folks not just up on arms, but going to court to get Peter expelled – not just from the Ashram, but from India.

      So it’s the same silliness in many places. To me it’s in large part old fashioned religion – not fundamentalism, just old fashioned religion – coming in conflict with modernity.

      But it’s a little more than that and I don’t have time to go into detail, but if you look past the most immediate nonsense (of course neither of these things should ever have gone to court – no book banning, no Peter Heehs expelling), there is another issue.

      My sense is that we are poised at the edge of a revolution in science (I don’t mean in the New Age sense that it’s going to happen next month; my sense of the timing is that the seeds were planted in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century with quantum physics, the first openings in mainstream science were perhaps in the 80s, maybe the 90s, and it will probably take until at least the middle of this century – more likely the 70s or 80s of this century – before it becomes so indisputable that it will simply be a part of mainstream science).

      And one of the most powerful sources of a geniuine, in depth critique of materialist/physicalist science is in India. Now, I think what some of the people who are objecting to the misrepresentation of Indic spirituality feel – though some may react in silly, traditionalist, bigoted ways, like taking someone to court and/or banning a book – is the sense that they don’t want the secular, superficial, materialistic culture of the modern West to destroy what is beautiful and sacred in their tradition.

      I even think this vague (but profoundly distorted) sense is behind a lot of the Islamic protests. Unfortunately, what has the faintest glimmer of intuitive truth to it is covered over by hatred, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, so we get book banning and all kinds of other nonsense up to terrorism instead of insightful, calm, reflection and penetrating critiques of the limitations of a civilization obsessed with economics and a materialistic science.

      donsalmon

      February 16, 2014 at 4:06 am


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