The Hindus: A Labour of Love Denied the Light of Day

When a book provokes, the only appropriate response should be to write another

Ratna Raman Delhi 

I stumbled upon Wendy Doniger’s Hindu Myths in the 1980s and was deeply grateful for the selection and translation of seminal myths from wide-ranging classical Indian sources into English. That the myths were accessible in an English translation and usefully condensed in a book was for me a matter of great delight. Sanskrit was my second language for the Class XII Board Examinations and the subsidiary subject of choice during my undergraduate years, when an able teacher helped me grapple with the Kenopanishad and the plays of Kalidasa in an otherwise empty classroom.  However, the formal study of a second language that is neither the language of power nor part of everyday use, often occupies the realm of double displacement.  In such a universe books that translated sources were always welcome, and Penguin translations in particular represented a benchmark of accessible authenticity.

Although Sanskrit has been part of school curriculum in North India, it has long ceased to be the language of power.  It was easy to put aside the language, learnt under duress at school and forgotten through sheer disuse, in the wake of the unending blandishments that life offered, both daily and through the printed word in other languages. My generation’s march towards modernity, away from mother tongues and classical tongues, also records the diminishing of poly-lingual sensibilities to bi-lingual dimensions.  Every language that is no longer in power edges slowly to the peripheries. Sanskrit perhaps suffered more, because unlike other languages that still provided functional keys to two dimensional living it was certifiably a dead language.

 So yes, at school we got the grammar right through the sustained cramming of shabd roops  (noun formations) and dhatu roops (verb formations in past, present and future tense). Outside of the grammar we engaged primarily with rather elementary and functional formations, except for the occasional verse. Some of the stories and the narratives that formed the treasure trove of this ancient language reached us, often from other oral traditions, those of Tamil (a language definitely on the backburner in North India) and Hindi in my case.

The reason Wendy Doniger’s translations in English were a revelation was because her journey was in the opposite direction, from the first world to the Indian subcontinent.  She was drawn to Indian culture, fascinated by its “excess” and bewitched by its stories as a young teenager.  She was curious enough to study Sanskrit as a seventeen-year-old, adding to her training in Latin. She also discovered in the course of her readings the wealth of puranic stories and drew attention to their simple, pragmatic narratives and revelled in their direct utterance.

It is always exciting to flirt with a new idea or a language. It is far more difficult to hold on to one’s curiosity about a culture and replace the initial excitement with a sustained familiarization that promotes a lifelong affair. It is easy enough to learn to use a language at a very functional everyday level. It is, far more difficult thing to master this language and translate its thought processes and ideas into another language. It is an effort to assimilate enough love for a language no longer in everyday use and make it an integral part of a personal and professional life. The Hindus is a high point in a labour of love that Wendy Doniger has been engaged with for over five decades.  Only someone incapable of appreciating the hard work  and dedication that translation demands; only  someone uncomprehending of  the rigor and discipline that  a lifetime devoted to reading, assimilating, collating and putting together stories and ideas from another culture, can be capable of asking for  Doniger’s publication The Hindus to be pulped.

This, in fact, uniquly qualifies Dina Nath  Batra and his associates, who have accused Doniger of wounding the sentiments of believers and of being motivated by missionary zeal.  Such trouncing of extant belief in order to supplant it with another dominant faith ended  in the  previous century and had been brought about  then by  efforts far more strenuous  than the writing and publication  of a book. Constitutionally, India today provides for the congregation of multiple religious identities.  Self-appointed saviours of religious sentiment in this new scenario only reveal an outdated insularity and bigotedness.  Messrs Batra, Kumar and Gupta would do well to recall that colonial Macaulayite perception about a shelf of European Literature outweighing all the literatures of India was eventually replaced with greater open-endedness in the twentieth century itself. Even in those ignorant times, enough admirers of the richness and multiplicity of Indian narratives and ideas, notwithstanding exotic\ idealized perspectives, existed. Doniger’s book, far from being a mockery of Indian inheritance is a composite attempt to put together sporadically occurring  data. That she speaks of an alternative history, teasing out the diverse voices and players in a long cultural period demands both admiration and gratitude.


A substantial number of academics have a sympathetic view of Hindu theology and Wendy Doniger is foremost among them. Academics in fact are distinguished for their extended study of material, the processing and analysis of which eventually establishes their expertise. Doniger’s book puts together a long history of ideas, interpreting from textual evidence that she has painstakingly collected and collated.  Her work is evidence of the wide ranging, extensive and eclectic reading she has done. This is a means of communication, of providing easy access to narratives shrouded in the very distant past. So many stories that would not have seen the light of day have been made available for posterity.  For a nation speedily heading in the direction of monolingual skills, access to the practices, beliefs and narratives of an ancient people whose terrain we inhabit through language is a great gift and one that has been generously bestowed.

 To lose sight of this pertinent detail and go off the rails, foaming at the mouth about irreverence and malafide intent, is most unfortunate.  Some of the stories are old and familiar and several of them add new insights and make for new connections. Doniger’s  mention of  Satya Pir, “a Muslim holy man (pir) who had come, by the eighteenth century, to be identified with a form of the Hindu god Vishnu (Satya Narayana)“  is drawn from her reading of Tony K. Stewart‘s essay in Religions of India in Practice.  Unfamiliar with the tradition of both the Pir and Satya Narayana, since my parents came of age in South India and initiated us in everyday practice, local to South India, Doniger’s narrative highlighted for me the rich cross-cultural fertilization that connects and sustains the syncretism between different faiths. The materials she places before the reader and the interpretations she offers are a committed exploration of the diversity and plurality, the wisdom and the sensuality of a culture she continues to engage with. The dots connect not merely Hinduism and Islam, but swirl outwards to include cultures all over the world, linking mythic beliefs in human thought in different periods.

If only Swapan Dasgupta had cared to read The Hindus before predictably joining the rubbishers of   Doniger, his  anti-left and anti-rational views would not have dovetailed  into a reactionary assessment of  an India   “on the cusp of a consensus-breaking transformation.” Dasgupta has issues with predominantly American analysts who discuss Hindu faith sceptically positioning themselves against a ”larger Indian inheritance.”  Dasgupta’s anti-Americanism has always been unabashedly right-wing.  It is therefore easy to understands why the rabid intolerance displayed over a book by acting members of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan is anointed in Dasgupta speak as  the representative voice  of  all Indians. Such as it is, the Shiksha  Bachao Andolan  does not represent  most Indians.

It is disheartening that Penguin caved in so quickly.  More so because generations of readers looked up to Penguin as a stable and perennial supplier of cultures in translation. It was exhilarating to read Sophocles and Euripides and Plato in English translations for the first time.  It was a quantum leap to re-read Russian Literature in translations published by Penguin after struggling through English versions from the Progress Publishers Press. The Penguin edition was invariably well packaged and the publishers seemed to have the acuity to find translators who effectively distilled the very essence of the original narrative through the translation. When publishing houses of such stature throw away goodwill and expectation built through sheer effort and become fearful and unwilling to defend a vetted and celebrated author by taking the path of least resistance, such behaviour translates as the unkindest cut of all, for every single writer and reader.

The protest against pulping The Hindus is not being made by the chatterati or by arrogant dyspeptic academics giving short shrift to faith in general, but by a vast number of literate Indians who are biblophiles and cannot bear the thought of books being mauled, destroyed, pulped, withdrawn or censored.  On the brighter side, this demand issued from a fringe group. Depressingly, their demand that a 790 page strong book, with maps, references, illustrations and an incredibly delightful, associative narrative thread be pulped has been accepted with promise of compliance in the near future.  This is a significant moment for stocktaking and reflection on the havoc that intolerant and bigoted fringe groups can wreak.

When a book provokes, the only appropriate response should be to write another. Attempts at obliterating the book’s very existence is nothing other than a display of chauvinistic insecurity.   Doniger has pointed out that in the age of the internet it is no longer possible to deny access to anyone who wishes to read any book. Copies of The Hindus will continue to be in circulation, as more and more people should and will be reading this book, now and hereafter.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014