Sunday 16 February 2014

Why Wendy Doniger’s Book Offends Hindus

Why Wendy Doniger’s Book Offends Hindus

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar 

16 February, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


I have already written a blog article on this controversy.   The focus of my earlier article was that the reactions by left-leaning liberals in India and overseas to Penguin's withdrawal of their book were overblown and ridiculous.  The fact is that India's laws are intolerant and allow any religious group to put pressure on any book to be withdrawn because it "offends" them.  Penguin's withdrawal is not symptomatic of India becoming any more intolerant than any other country.  

When you write a book on religion that is unconventional, some group will be offended - the real question is whether your country's laws contain adequate protection for free speech to protect you from such groups.  India's laws do not.  That a small group of Hindus was able to pressurize Penguin to pulp Doniger's book is not proof that India is intolerant; it is proof that free speech in India is conditional.  The remedy to that is to abolish section 295A of the IPC.

The Ignorance of Hindus About Hinduism

But there is a second point to address here, and that is the question of why, actually, Doniger's book even offends Hindus.  As a person who has had a lifelong interest in Hindu epics, I have a fair idea of the reasons.  The first reason is that most Hindus know little about their epics.  Most Indians have never read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata in full; for most of them, the knowledge of these epics comes purely from Ramanand Sagar's and BR Chopra's teleserials.  The fact is that the actual books are HUGE.  I can testify to this personally - several years back I bought the full English translation of the Mahabharata in four huge volumes by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, and I have not yet found time to finish all four volumes.

Second, if one does read these epics in full, one finds all kinds of interesting information - information that is often shocking and not told to children by their parents and grandparents when growing up.  There are fairly stark sexual episodes that are mentioned in a matter-of-fact way in the Mahabharata that would make most conservative Indians turn a deep shade of red, despite their brown skin.  These are not stories you can tell your kids.  But it is a fact that our epics contain these R-rated or X-rated portions.

The Sanitizing of Hinduism

In modern days, there has been a clear attempt by rightwing Hindu groups to avoid any mention of these R-rated portions of the epics - to present Hindu epics as clean, wholesome, and without contradictions.  Modern TV presentations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata take generous liberties with the epics, to the extent that they even falsify what is in the epic.
For example, Rama in the Ramayana, although an avatar of the God Vishnu, sees himself, and is portrayed in the epic, largely as a human, albeit an exceptional one.  The times that he realizes in the epic, or is made to realize his divinity, are rare.  This is unlike Krishna in the Mahabharata who, in general, is more conscious of his divinity than Rama in the Ramayana, though, again, not all the time.

Given this backdrop, consider this scene that I saw in one TV representation of the Ramayana a couple of years ago.  This was the scene where Rama breaks Janaka’s bow of Shiva and claims Sita as his wife.  The original poem by Valmiki, the entire unabdridged English translation of which is available online (due to Ralph Griffith), simply details, in lovely poetry, the sequence of events as Rama lifts the bow and breaks it, and as others watch this feat in awe.  But the TV serial went much further than this.  It showed Rama walking towards the bow, and as he did, all the assembled kings saw him in the form of Vishnu, with his four arms, holding the conch, the discus, the mace, and the lotus, and realized that this was Vishnu, and bowed to him.  The TV serial makers want to hammer the idea that Rama was divine all along, and have deliberately added things that the epic does not contain.  The “TV Rama” often makes statements that the Rama of the real epic would never make – for example, often stating himself that he is divine – whereas, in fact, those who have read the original know that Rama mostly describes himself as a human being, and has to be reminded by the Gods (as they do so when he subjects Sita to the Agni-pariksha or the trial by fire) that he is divine and should act accordingly.

This may seem like a subtle point, but it is very important nonetheless, because it dehumanizes Rama – and by dehumanizing Rama, robs him of much of his achievement.  The dehumanization makes it hard for us to understand, for example, why he would do such a thing as ask his wife, who had already proved her fidelity through the trial by fire in Lanka, to leave the Ayodhya palace again because a washerman said insulting things about her.  

Indians have a right to know their epics the way they were written, with both the good and bad parts.  It is wrong for someone to print lies about our epics; it is equally wrong for a TV channel to show an epic with lies in it simply because they think and decide it is more “appropriate” for us to watch.

To a large extent, Doniger's attempt is to present a more balanced version of Hinduism - to say that what are present in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are much more complex than the "Cliff’s Notes" abridged versions that are presented on Indian TV and in abridged texts.

How Doniger Offends Hindus

Since the controversy, many twitterati have given links where Doniger’s book could be downloaded electronically, and I did download a copy so I could find out what the fuss is all about.  What I discovered was a book that tried to present many different angles on the epics, the Vedas, and the Upanishads – not complete translations of them, but select passages that bring out things that might surprise the average Hindu about his religion.

That brings me to the main topic of my post – why Doniger’s book offends Hindus.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that, as I said, Indians are ignorant of what is in their epics.  As Doniger recounts in the book, one person threw an egg at her once when she was giving a lecture.  She found out that he was offended that Doniger had stated that Sita accused Lakshmana of having sexual designs on her. 

Offense was taken here in ignorance, because the listener was clearly unaware that Sita did, indeed, accuse Lakshmana in the Ramayana of wanting her for himself when Rama had gone after the golden deer and had not returned and, when pressed by Sita to go look for Rama, Lakshmana refused, saying that nothing would happen to Rama and that his orders were to guard Sita.  In fact, Sita's unfair accusations about Lakshmana are critical to the story, for they are the reason he disobeys his brother's command not to leave Sita alone - he is so horrified that Sita would level such charges against him that he leaves to look for Rama, unable to bear any more such accusations.

Part of the reason this person took offense was that he was unaware of what the great epic actually contained; part of it must also certainly be that he was only exposed to highly sanitized versions of the epics where any mention of sexuality is censored out.  The remedy to avoid this kind of misunderstanding, clearly, is for Indians to educate themselves better about their own epics.

The other reason why Hindus are offended by what Doniger and people like her (other professors of Hinduism) is that often, they bring western interpretations to Hindu epics.  This is treading into extremely dangerous territory, because while presenting parts of epics that people are normally unaware of might shock some people, these are still part of the original epic and all the professor has done is shine light on hitherto poorly-known facts; interpretation, on the other hand, is adding new material that is not contained in the epics; and no two people need agree on any interpretation.

A prime example of such interpretation that has annoyed many Hindus is when Doniger refers to an Oedipus complex when referring to Ganesha’s relationship with his father Shiva.  Now clearly this is a foreign concept, coming from the Greek myth of Oedipus, who desired his mother sexually and killed his father since he viewed him as a competitor for his mother’s affections.  Doniger interpreted the story of Shiva killing Ganesha as a reversal of the Oedipus myth – the father killing the son instead of the son killing the father as they compete for the same woman.  For a staunch Hindu, trying to project the relationship between the highly-revered God Ganesha, his mother, the goddess Parvati, and his father, the most powerful God of Hinduism, Shiva, in incestuous terms, is an unbearable sacrilege.

A Christian Parallel: The Last Temptation of Christ

To understand how serious such an aspersion is, consider the parallel in Christianity.  In 1988, Martin Scorcese brought to film Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1960 masterwork, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in which Jesus is presented as a human being with the weaknesses that all human beings have, but rises above them.  The story talks about Jesus on the cross being tempted by Satan, exploring the temptation that is offered to him of a happy domestic life with Mary Magdalene in what seems like a dream, and then rejecting it to die on the cross.

The movie caused a commotion in the western world, with many countries banning the film, including Turkey, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, and Singapore.  In one savage expression of intolerance for free speech, the Saint Michel theatre in Paris was attacked by Molotov cocktails, which severely burned 4 people, injured 9 others, and forced the closure of the theatre.  There was also a huge campaign against the film in the United States, which severely affected the commercial success of the film, as many theatres were forced to stop screening the film.

If so much anger can erupt simply for saying, in a relatively permissive western society, that Jesus, a human manifestation of divinity, with all the allowances that a human may be permitted,  may have had a consummated marriage with Mary Magdalene in what was, essentially, a dream, how much more anger can one expect from the (fairly conservative) followers of a religion who have been told that their Gods (not even a human son of God, but the Gods themselves) are in an incestuous relationship?

Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

Wendy Doniger’s fatal mistake, and that of her students and academic followers who imitate her ways, was to show extreme insensitivity in dealing with the sentiments of Hindus about their religion while choosing to “interpret” it.  That this kind of insensitivity came from someone who has spent her lifetime studying this religion and interacting with Indians has made several people suspect that the insensitivity was deliberate and mischievous, which has caused them to intensify their attacks against Doniger.  I do not know enough about this, as I have not read enough of her works, so at this point I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she did not know how offensive her interpretations might have been to Hindus at large.

All of this is rather sad for, as I am discovering, the vast majority of her book is rather interesting and reflects a high level of scholarship.  Very few of us have actually delved into the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads, and the two major epics in such detail as Doniger has, and the insights she presents from a lifetime of study are quite interesting and revealing, and helpful in constructing a unified synthesis of Hinduism from these diverse sources. But then, I am the kind of person who is capable of ignoring things that I consider as far-fetched or unnecessary and pick out what I like in a book; others may not be so easygoing.

A Need for Cultural Sensitivity – and Open-Mindedness

So Hindus, in their rage, are throwing out the baby with the bathwater; but in fairness, if Doniger had only shown a little sensitivity, none of this need have happened.  Accounts from people who have read the book corroborate this – that they started reading it, encountered these offensive sections at the very beginning – the reference to the Oedipus complex occurs fairly early on, for instance – and then get so offended that they completely disregard the rest of the book, regardless of its merits.

Some may accuse me of endorsing self-censorship, but that would be an immature response, and an impractical one at that.  As I said in my previous article, the right to free speech in India is not an absolute one, and if one can make a reasonable case that what someone has written hurts the sentiments of followers of a religion, it may be all the ammunition needed to ban the book or put pressure on the publisher, as in this case.  Until such time as section 295A of the IPC is removed, such abundant caution as I suggest here has to be exercised.  Merely informing Hindus of what their epics contain, and helping them understand the details of their ancient and complicated religion, on the other hand, cannot in any court be deemed to be deliberately offensive.  Had Doniger stuck to just that, she would have been hailed unanimously as a person who helped Hindus understand their religion better, instead of being accused as a Hindu-baiter.  It is even possible that instances like the Oedipus complex are very few and far apart in the book; most of what I saw as I flipped through the pages was highly revealing and interesting.

Hindu society, for its part, needs to educate itself better about its own epics and scriptures, and realize there is more to them than the flashy, packaged versions of the epics that they see on prime-time TV.  Reading the work of important academics (whether Indian or otherwise) provides Indians with the necessary perspective to appreciate their own religion in the completeness that is essential to prevent prejudice and closed-mindedness.


  1. Kumar, Jammi here..... While I liked your article because it espouses open mindedness and sensitivity, there are certain assumptions you have made that are not allowed by definition when understanding vedic and upanishadic texts. One - the complexity AND subtlety of the sanskrit language. As per the rules set out in various portions of the vedas themselves, any word is entirely context dependent. The self same word could mean two entirely different things based on context. Example - soma means moon, also means an elixir. Siva means auspicious, Lord rudra and Lord vishnu.. And so on... You get the drift. So it is imperative that study of shastra is to be done under a guru ONLY. Again, this is not my opinion. It is dictated in the vedas. So Internet shastra, English translations, TV serials are All inaccurate and do not get to the actual meaning of the intended word. So Doniger and/or any author who has not studied under a bona fide guru will naturally make mistakes because they use dictionary based meanings of sanskrit words... My point being kumar, that a serious student of shastra alone should attempt such translations and books. While I agree with you about being open minded in general, it's like telling me... "Hey Jammi... Be open minded about kinetics. A great professor of history who has spent the last several years studying first order rate constants and their importance, has written a book on why only proteins can be enzymes while RNA cannot"... To which my response will be.... No dice... One... Challenge me, two.. be ready for a debate... Neither of which Doniger was ready for. Just because there are several end note pages, does not mean a work is well researched. It only means it is well referenced. Huge difference. The difference between Doniger and our ancient gurus is this. They were ready to debate on polemic and put their money where their mouths were, while she is not. In fact several purvapaksha (loosely meaning followers of previous theories) followers admitted defeat and changed schools of thought. That sort of intellectual integrity does not exist anymore. Therefore, I find it hard to be as easy on her as you have.

    1. Jammi,

      Thanks for the comment; much appreciated.

      I agree with you that in Sanskrit, words can be context-dependent. But you make a logical leap when you say that "so it is imperative that study of shastra is to be done under a guru ONLY."

      No. The implication of the fact that words are context-dependent is that one must understand the context well before understanding the meaning (and, following on, before translating it.) Now many great teachers have already interpreted the shastras and helped us understand the context in which words must be understood. Many of these are in Sanskrit itself. So, for one to understand the correct context of the words present in the scriptures, it is enough to read different commentaries. As an example, so many great teachers have written commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita itself - Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Jnaneshwar, and many others. If someone with knowledge of Sanskrit were to read and understand the explanations given by all these great teachers, he or she would doubtless understand the meaning of the Gita. And so it is with all the scriptures. Language need not be a hindrance to this. And so, your conclusion that "English translations do not get to the meaning of the intended word" is too general. A bad translation will not get to the meaning of the intended word; a good translation will.

      As far as the Vedas dictating that shastra should only be studied under a guru, keep in mind that in those days they did not have printed media, they did not have as much literature as we do now and were extremely dependent on the oral route of transmission of knowledge. So the chances of someone not understanding things well without a teacher were greater.

      By the way, the same kinds of arguments are often made with respect to music; that music cannot be understood without a guru. This is not an absolute truth. In the old days, students did not have tape recorders or CD players, so they may hear something at a musical performance, and then they only had their own memory to remember it and maybe sing it themselves. Memory is imperfect and over-dependence on it can lead to mistakes. But today's students have the luxury of re-playing the recording over and over until they get it right. So it is possible to learn compositions and musical performance from listening to recordings alone; though how much can be accomplished is a direct function of the aptitude of the student.

      But if a western scholar were to understand Sanskrit and understand all the relevant Sanskrit texts talking about any shastra, I am sure he or she can do a good translation. I disagree that simply because they may not have studied under a guru, they will necessarily use only "dictionary meanings" of words. What is your basis for saying so?

      The real measure of academic integrity is not whether one learned from a certain kind of teacher or not; it is whether prior work was properly consulted and whether works are understood in the general context of the discipline. You talk about kinetics. If someone, anyone, wrote a book on kinetics which does not consider what has been published earlier in the field, then I would consider it half-baked. So the real question wrt shastra is, has this person said something that is contradicted by the mass of how people have interpreted this shastra previously? If so, there is cause for concern. The simple fact that this is a translation cannot disqualify a work's scholarship.

  2. I am a Christian and not a Hindu. But the little that I read of Doniger's book, offended me. I don't know enough of the Hindu Scriptures to be critical of her work, but I was disturbed by the lack of sensitivity and grace in her book. Therefore, I agree with what you have written in this article.


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