On Professor Wendy Doniger’s Professional Reputation as a Scholar of Hinduism

14 February 2014

As the world’s publishers gather in New Delhi for the beginning of the 41st International Book Fair tomorrow (and until 23 February) at the Pragati Maidaan, many will already be discussing this week’s publishing bombshell news that, under an arcane Indian criminal law, Penguin India has finally acceded to the demands of a powerful group of right-wing Hindu activists in an agreement to recall and pulp all Indian copies of Professor Wendy Doniger’s highly acclaimed 2009 academic work: The Hindus: An Alternative History. (Also published in paperback by Oxford University Press, 2010.)

Media and individual comment is flowing in fast. One useful early comment noted is by G. Vishnu: ‘Pulped, Though Not Fiction’ (Tehelka, 22 February 2014).

At the Book Fair, many fellow publishers from India and overseas will doubtless express their sympathy with Penguin India, who, having lost or given up this long battle, have now expressed their grave concern for the health and continued progress of Indian publishing in the face of such restrictive laws.

With a general Indian election already in virtual full swing, it is to be hoped that this publishing issue, and the principles of freedom of expression, will gain renewed attention during the political debates and that, when the new government coalition is chosen, especially if, as is generally expected, it contains a strong right-wing component or majority, such issues will be fairly considered along with the many other initiatives which need to be put in place to provide India with more efficient and equitable governance and administration.

As a background contribution for new followers of these issues, and for those who may be perplexed in view of the serious charges laid against the author in India, I offer a list of opinions of Professor Wendy Doniger’s work by a distinguished group of reviewers. In my opinion, these amply demonstrate the quality and originality of her edifying (and engagingly written) 700 pages of research, which some have dismissed so lightly – along with her two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, from Harvard and Oxford, and her distinguished academic career dedicated to Hinduism and Indian studies.)

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On the back cover of the paperback (2010) (Copyright Oxford University Press)

‘Courageous and scholarly … Doniger exudes an infectious enthusiasm for her subject and ranges with confidence well beyond the Sanskrit corpus at the core of her analysis … The Hindus is a celebration not just of a personal way of seeing Hinduism, but of the boldness and vitality of a textual tradition.’

David Arnold, Times Literary Supplement

‘This is history as great entertainment! Unlike the usual, arid accounts of dynasties. Wendy Doniger’s double vision of Hinduism is about women, merchants, lower castes, animals, spirits and, of course, Dead Male Brahmins. This lively, earthy account explains why ancient India is the world’s richest storytelling culture.’

Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound

‘Wendy Doniger’s enthralling and encyclopaedic book reveals her vision of a Hindu culture that is plural, varied, generous, and inclusive. Hinduism, in her view, is an intricate weave of the diverse localities and communities of Indian culture. This is a rich text that will encourage dialogue and conversation among a wide range of scholars.’

Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

‘With her vast erudition, insight, and graceful writing laced with gentle wit, there is no one better than Wendy Doniger to convey the richness, depth and diversity of Hindu texts and traditions to international audiences. The Hindus is destined to become a classic that will be discussed and debated for many years to come.’

Sudhir Kakar, author of Indian Identity

‘She is the most eminent scholar in the field… I have read her and found her writing an invaluable source.’  Salman Rushdie, India Today

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The above are, on their own, quite overwhelming evidence of a very special scholarly (and easily readable) work, but in view of the extraordinary treatment meted out to Doniger’s  chef d’oeuvre in India this week, I feel obliged to add most of the brief comments printed inside the front cover of the 2010 OUP edition of the work, mainly in the hope that some who have misjudged – or may misjudge – her without reading any of her work, will pay a little closer attention to the topic.

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Staggeringly comprehensive book.

Pankaj Mishra in New York Times

This tremendously spirited, agile and learned book should be the standard history of Hinduism for many years to come.

Chandrahas Chowdury in Mint

Without doubt a monumental work that is awe-inspiring and humbling in its scale.

Devdutt Pattanaik in Mid-Day

[An] erudite ‘alternative history’… don’t miss this equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher.

Michael Dirda in Washintgon Post

Wendy Doniger … serves us a feast of tasty historical events and interpretative myths.

Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring in Feminist Review

Doniger is an unstoppable teller of tales and a briloant interprewter of them.

Sunil Khilnani in Outlook  [and author of The Idea of India]

Doniger’s is an amazingly breathtaking book in its sweep. Indeed, before this, one would have thought such a book could never be written.

Bibek Debroy in Indian Express

The narrative sweep is epic… Wendy Doniger, with exceptional brio, tells us how the story of Hinduism continues to multiply.

S. Prasannarajan in India Today

At last, there is a witty, elegant and academically rigorous volume presenting this multi-everything faith in an accessible form.

Salil Tripathi in Tehelka

There is no book like Doniger’s which so meticulously and faithfully interprets the Hindu spirit, which clearly distinguishes itself for its catholicity and comprehensiveness of approach.

A.K Bhattacharya in Business Standard

Doniger’s delightful style makes light work of a substantial subject and weighty ideas.

Verve

Doniger’s work, vast in scope, wide in its range, so captures the mind that it is difficult to put it down once one starts reading it.

M. V. Kamath in Sentinel

Masterful study of the evolution of Hinduism

Time Out

Anyone seriously concerned with Hinduism in the contemporary world will be well advised to read, enjoy, engage, and even argue with the book.

A.R Venkatachalapathy in Hindu

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One Comment on “On Professor Wendy Doniger’s Professional Reputation as a Scholar of Hinduism”

  1. eileenweed Says:

    It is ridiculous how a select powerful, ignorant and biased few, can control a nation speeding ahead into the modern age, who despair of such ridiculous actions. At least, this will make many more people interested to read the book (like me)!


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