Beyond Batra and Doniger: Reflections on the study of Hinduism in the American academy

For anyone aware of the militant Hindu Right’s hounding of academics whose research engages with Hinduism, the recent events related to Wendy Doniger’s Book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, must appear as a predictable sequel that replays the plot of the original with minor, if equally unpleasant, variations; a Grudge or Insidious set at the intersection of the American academy and transnational Hinduism, in which, eventually, the malevolent spirits get their victims or, to put it less dramatically, the bad guys eventually wear the good guys down.

A decade ago, another book on Hinduism, Paul Courtright’s Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, had similarly incensed some Hindus in the US and India. The litany of charges leveled against Courtright, a professor at Emory University, was similar to that against Doniger—disrespecting Hinduism, an obsession with sexuality, promoting a Christian agenda, and the like. And like the ominous suggestions of violence contained in the lawsuit against Doniger, some of the comments related to Courtright’s book in online petitions (long since taken down) were borderline threatening.

I was a graduate student at Emory University at the time, working on a dissertation on how Hindu communities were using the Internet to articulate conservative understandings of Indian identity. I had developed an interest in the topic while working for rediff.com in Bombay in the late 1990s right before I moved to Emory. rediff had tapped into, and, to an extent, shaped an online right wing Hindu culture, with star columnists like Varsha Bhosle, Rajeev Srinivasan, and Francois Gautier. Essays by Arvind Rajagopal and Vinay Lal had already drawn attention to the Hindu nationalist attempt to mark cyberspace as its own domain. Important work by Paula Chakravartty and Sunil Khilnani had mapped the complex web of relations between liberalization, diaspora, and shifting ideas of nationhood among global Indian communities. (Sorry, Indian media, your recent discovery of “Internet Hindus” is neither original nor nuanced). My argument was that there was a long and complex history of the relationship between technology and nationalism in India, rooted in the nineteenth century, that informed online Hindu nationalism and that the phenomenon, accordingly, needed to be seen in the light of both this history and the logic of online communication.
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In Defense of The Hindus: An Alternative History

It seems like only yesterday that I was present in Foster Hall for Wendy Doniger’s book launch. After I posted on it on CM, a healthy discussion happened, to which Wendy graciously responded. The generosity of her response showcases her unmatched pedagogic spirit and how, with humor and humility, she has shaped our collective understanding of the past.

In the aftermath of Penguin’s rather shameful decision to pull the book from India, a number of responses have emerged. I happen to concur with EPW’s take.

Below is a statement from some of her students at UChicago, to which CM adds its name:
This statement expresses the views of the individuals listed below and does not represent the views of the University of Chicago or any of its departments.

We, the undersigned, as students of South Asia, strongly condemn the withdrawal by Penguin Press India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from distribution in India. We believe that this work has been attacked because it presents a threat to orthodox Brahminical interpretations of Hinduism. We believe that this attack is part of ongoing attempts by upper­caste extremist Hindu forces to stifle any alternative understandings of Hinduism. As students in the United States, we are acutely aware that North American organizations of the Hindu right initiated the protests against Wendy Doniger’s scholarship. Hindu right wing organisations in India have worked in tandem with their North American counterparts to suppress alternative voices in India and too often violently. We are deeply concerned about the alarming increase in attacks on any academic study of Hinduism that does not fit these groups’ narrow and exclusionary vision of Hinduism which is part of their desire to create a Hindu India that excludes the religious minorities of Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.
Wendy Doniger, a respected scholar who is devoted to the study of Hinduism, has astutely recognized the great danger to human life and the plural practices and beliefs of Hindus posed by these groups. She has courageously refused to bow to their pressures to curtail her scholarship and has consistently challenged the Hindu right. By tracking the formation of myth through history, her work undermines these groups’ exclusionary claims on the past.

As researchers we know that a singular narrative of Hinduism, as of any living tradition, is completely untenable. This incident is indicative of the genocidal imagination of these groups that seek to extinguish the idea of a plural and secular India. This attack on Wendy Doniger’s scholarship is reminiscent of the earlier attacks on the scholarship of AK Ramanujan carried out by Hindu fundamentalist student organisations. We protest the rise of majoritarian narratives that curtail different ways of knowing the world and urge scholars, researchers, academics and people of all persuasions to call for Wendy Doniger’s book to be brought back into circulation in India. We join others who have articulated their protest against the withdrawal in refusing the singular, elitist and exclusionary imaginings of the past that are used to do violence to our shared present.

Signed:
Shefali Jha
Malarvizhi Jayanth
Ahona Panda
Aakash Solanki
Sayantan Saha Roy
Tejas Parasher
Suchismita Das
Abhishek Bhattacharyya
Joya John
Emma Meyer
Kyle Gardner
Erin Epperson
Victor D’Avella
Joseph Grim Feinberg
Ranu Roychoudhuri
Ishan Chakrabarti
Margherita Trento
Adam O’Brien
Madlyn Wendell
Jeff Wilson
Jetsun Deleplanque
Leah Richmond

In solidarity:
Ankit Agrawal