WENDY DONIGER begins The Hindus: An Alternative History with Wittgenstein’s famous image of “the duck who is also a rabbit,” using it as a “metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.” These are the dual visions found in traditional histories of Hinduism, derived from Sanskrit texts, and an alternative history derived from the same sources. The latter involves Doniger’s creative reinterpretation aimed at recovering voices she argues have been silenced — those of women and oppressed castes. An Alternative History argues that both groups have made significant contributions to Hinduism: a faith that is therefore not merely the construct of an elite, priestly class of Brahmans, but the collective expression of a civilization. This thesis, however, is not entirely novel, nor is it the reason Doniger’s book has evoked outrage among many Hindus, with some even calling for its banning.

The duck who is also a rabbit is an apt image for the book itself. A quick perusal of its reviews might easily make one wonder if its critics were actually reading the same book. For some readers, The Hindus: An Alternative History is an engagingly written, often witty, occasionally brilliant, always interesting exploration of an enormously complex literature. For others, it is a condescending diatribe, a neocolonial assault that trivializes an ancient, dignified tradition by reducing it to a collection of dirty jokes.

So which is it? The duck or the rabbit? The magnum opus of a scholar who has devoted much of her life and considerable energy to the exposition of Hindu texts with feisty intellectual passion, or a monumental denigration of the same texts and the Hindu community that holds them sacred? As Stephen Colbert would say, “Pick a side, we’re at war!”

That, however, is precisely the conundrum this book poses; for like the duck that is also a rabbit, its precise nature is in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, it depends on one’s approach to the texts to which Doniger devotes her scholarly attention.

What is it about Wendy Doniger’s work that so deeply disturbs many Hindus? One charge — found on the internet, and which can be easily dispensed with — gives some idea of how offensive many find her work to be: namely, that she is an agent of Christian missionary interests bent on destroying Hinduism by presenting Hindu texts as nothing but pornographic stories of fictional gods and goddesses.

Ironically, an underlying fact, not only of The Hindus: An Alternative History but of her entire career, is that Doniger sees herself to be on the side of Hindus against the colonial Christian missionaries. The latter, in her view, infiltrated Hinduism and infused it with their Victorian values; she presents her work as a liberating corrective. The ancient Hindu tradition, on her reading, was far more sexually liberated than today. The sharpest barbs in her Alternative History are reserved not for Hindus, but for the British, who were “totally dismissive of them [the Hindus] as irredeemable heathens, with no hope of ever becoming human beings.”

Doniger loves Hinduism. But like the duck and the rabbit, the Hinduism she sees is not that of most Hindus. Is the Shiva linga a phallic symbol, as she asserts, or is it, as devotees believe, the abstract representation of the formless, nirguna nature of ultimate reality? Is the story of young Krishna’s love play with the gopis a titillating erotic tale, or a deeply insightful glimpse into the loving, non-dual relationship between the supreme soul, the divine paramatman, and the individual soul or jiva? And most urgently, is there room for both interpretations to coexist? This question is critical both for the author, whose freedom to circulate her work is under fire, and for Hindus, who feel the academic establishment is biased against them and fear they lack a fair representation. The fact that textbook accounts of Hinduism focus so much on problematic social issues and so little on major achievements and insights, compared to how other religions are presented, helps to frame the context in which this book has been received: a context in which many Hindus feel the academia is out to undermine their traditions, even to the point of filing legal cases in California over the content of middle school textbooks.

It would be simplistic, untrue, and condescending to dismiss the outrage this book has generated in India and globally as stemming solely from right-wing Hindus attempting to impose a single interpretation upon Hinduism, or the offended sexual mores of uptight, modern Hindus, ignorant of their own textual traditions. The fact of the matter is that discomfort, even fury, with her work is far more widespread, spanning the political spectrum (though there are also Hindus who have responded to it appreciatively, objecting to the call for its banning). Bharat Gupt, of Delhi University, has written a paper, actually a rebuttal, detailing errors in Doniger’s book, which he presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Hawaii in 2011 — a presentation that he invited Wendy Doniger to attend (though she unfortunately declined).

To assert that the outrage produced by Doniger’s Alternative History cannot be easily dismissed, but has a foundation worthy of serious analysis, is not to defend the movement to have her book banned, in India or anywhere. At minimum, Hindus should know that the Indian law against offending religious sentiments is a double-edged sword. A Hindu author writing critically about Islam or Christianity could find her work banned as easily as that of an author on Hinduism; Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code were banned in India due to cases brought by Islamic and Christian groups, respectively. (Technically, Doniger’s work has never been banned, just pulled by her publisher, Penguin Books, under threat of legal action.) The law in question, imposed by the British to prevent disruptions under their rule, runs counter to a millennia-old tradition of vibrant, open intellectual debate, in which Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains vigorously (and on the whole, peacefully) ripped apart each other’s arguments and cherished views in the name of advancing the search for truth. Shankara or Nagarjuna would laugh at the idea of their relentless logical arguments being “hurtful to religious sentiments.”

It should also be noted that Hindu outrage, while resulting in angry blog postings and calls for book banning, has not resulted in calls by Hindu leaders for harm to come to its author. A similar book about another religion might have evoked far worse reactions than calls for censorship. At the same time, to say a book should not be banned — because no book should be banned — is not to say that it cannot be critiqued. The problem with book banning is that it makes debate nearly impossible. All books should be critiqued, a sentiment with which I am confident Doniger would agree. And there is much both to debate and appreciate in her book.

I would suggest that the outrage felt by many Hindus towards Doniger lies deeper than any of the usually cited reasons: her preoccupation with sexuality, with Hindu identity politics, and the sense that her work is continuous with the condescending colonial-era writing on Hinduism, which denigrated it as the product of an inferior civilization. (In this version, the author sees herself, paradoxically, as rescuing the tradition from itself.)

For devout, practicing Hindus, sacred texts are forms of what Huston Smith calls “spiritual technology.” They are read (and chanted, and sung, and meditated upon) in ways that facilitate the practitioner’s access to transcendental realities. Such texts, to use an image provided by the nineteenth century Hindu saint, Sri Ramakrishna, are like holes in a wall through which one glimpses the beautiful garden on the other side. The wall is the barrier of avidya (primordial ignorance), which separates man from the spiritual realm: something already present at the core of each person’s being. This is true whether we are referring to the ancient Sanskrit writings that have been the chief focus of academic scholarship on Hinduism in the West, or the better known (to Hindus), more accessible vernacular, and often oral, works of devotional poets (many of whom, as Doniger would be quick to point out, have been women and members of so called “lower” castes). It also applies to the “texts” that consist of statuary, temple architecture, folk art, song, and dance. Hindu texts are, in short, vehicles for the realization of the true nature of reality, beneath its many superficial layers of sensory and mental experience, and the attainment of true, spiritual freedom — moksha, or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

From this perspective, consider one of the statements from Doniger’s Alternative History that some Hindus have found objectionable: namely, that one of the most beloved and popular Hindu sacred texts, the Ramayana, is a work of fiction. “Placing the Ramayana in its historical contexts,” she writes, “demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times.” There are, of course, some Hindus who believe the Ramayana to be a historical account and their objection is obvious. Yet even for Hindus for whom this is not an issue, the claim that the Ramayana is a work of fiction is jarring, for it suggests that this text is merely a work of fiction, rather than a medium for accessing higher spiritual truths.

The factual or fictional character of the Ramayana (or the Bible, for that matter) is certainly a valid topic for scholarly analysis and debate, and scholars and practitioners are entitled to express their views upon it. The point is that the categories of “fact” and “fiction” are too simplistic to adequately address the complexity of how a sacred text is experienced by devotees. A scholar may not be interested in the devotional lives of Hindus per se, but in what transpired in such-and-such century BCE, and how an ancient text relates to that history. While free to pursue such a focus, she should not be surprised if her work meets with outrage by practitioners who feel, at best, that it has missed the point, and at worst that it is an assault upon the core of their being.

Indeed, it could be argued that the academia itself is not free from its own forms of privilege and marginalization. As Doniger has acknowledged more than once, Hindus have rightly perceived an absence of empathy in representations of Hindu traditions in academic writing — particularly in school textbooks — when compared with representations of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. What is needed is not the silencing of scholars who hold perspectives such as that of Doniger, for whom Hindu texts and practices are only, at best, ingenious constructs of the human intellect. In addition to the prevailing scholarship of today, there is a need for new scholarly approaches, including the perspectives of those who seek transformational readings of texts, as noted above.

This need is grounded not in the desire to avoid offending religious sensibilities — for these will inevitably be offended in a free society — but in the fact that academic discourse and public intellectual life are impoverished when the voices of devotees are absent. Such an inclusion does not mean setting aside standards of scholarly rigor and rationality, placing simplistic fundamentalist, literalist approaches on par with serious academic work. It does mean being open to alternative scholarship rather than a rejection of spiritual beliefs and faith.

One form of such an alternative discourse already exists in academia: Christian theology, which continues to have a foothold due to its historical role in the dominant culture of the West. In the United States, Christian theological seminaries and major Christian universities (like my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Notre Dame) exist in sufficient numbers to enable scholarship that takes Christian texts seriously on their own terms, alongside the more secular scholarship. No analogous space exists in the academia for constructive Hindu thought, either in India or in the West. The development of a discipline of Hindu theology remains a work in progress — and, at present, the obstacles before it are many. That, however, is a story for another day.

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Jeffery D. Long received his PhD in the Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School (where he was a student of Wendy Doniger’s) and is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.