Rajiv Malhotra’s interview on the controversy of Penguin’s book withdrawal

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Most of you know of the recent media controversy over Penguin’s decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus“. Almost daily there have been extensive TV and major print media discusions in India. In the USA, NPR, CNN, New York Times, New Yorker and various other media majors have featured this story in a big way.

Rediff recently interviewed me because I was the one who first started this debate around the year 2000 in a series of articles. (Article-1Article-2)

Soon after my initial articles,Wendy Doniger’s own University of Chicago Magazineinterviewed me and did a large and balanced coverage. It was their leading story. (Read)

The debate quickly ignited the Indian diaspora and the American academy for a few years, with numerous mobilizations and accusations from both sides. This fight was one of the defining moments in the awakening of Hindu thinkers about the way their discourse was controlled and distorted by others. The academic study of Hinduism has not been the same since.

The drama quickly intensified. With the help of her hordes of powerfully placed students, Doniger fought back furiously. She arranged a front page article in theWashington Post and another feature article in the New York Times. Unlike the magazine of her university, these were PR jobs tilted in her favor.

The theater widened across the academic and litarary circles of Europe, North America and India. More players join in on both sides.

Martha Nussbaum, the prominent feminist and University of Chicago colleague of Doniger, wrote a scathing book against Hindus with a whole chapter dedicated to me – without bothering to interview me even though that was suggested to her. She and Doniger have consistently ignored my requets for a live debate in public.

In response to what I felt was a one-sided portrayal of the events, I compiled a new book, titled, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America”, and it was published in 2007. Its launch video gives a good idea of our side of the story. (Video) And so does its web site.


The fallout of all this was very significant:

  1. Wendy Doniger lost her clout in the American academy, and being on the defensive, she lost most of the students who earlier thronged at her doorstep for PhDs in Hinduism.
  2. The American academy made numerous changes (still not enough) to become sensitive to Hindus’ views concerning Hinduism, or at least these academics become less blatant in their denigration of Hinduism.
  3. The most significant change was that there emerged a new appreciation among Hindus and a new mobilization of their leaders. It became widely accepted that it was a bad idea to outsource the study of our tradition to scholars whose lenses  were programmed with Judeo-Christian and Marxist premises. In fact, no other major world faith is studied by outsiders with the same authority and power as Hinduism is.

A brilliant compilation of these debates and controversies has recently been turned into a web site for those who want to get an good overview. (Read)

Meanwhile, I moved on to many other projects of research and publishing, pretty much forgetting Wendy Doniger as a closed chapter. But the story does not end here.

Some years back, Doniger struck a new alliance to help her make a dramatic comeback: She positioned herself with the Indian Left as their “expert on criticizing Hinduism”. Since Indian secularists are uneducated in Sanskrit and only superficially informed about religious studies, Doniger was a useful ally to supply them “masala” which they could use.

In turn, the well-connected Indian secularist/leftist media and writers helped reposition Doniger in India as a great authority on Hinduism. Soon she was winning awards in India, even though back home in USA her own academic colleagues had distanced themselves because she was seen as a tained scholar with a bad reputation.

Then yet another new chapter began. Some Hindus in India decided to contest her relatively recent book. They filed a lawsuit in Delhi alleging that it was biased and insulting to Hindus.

After four years, an out of court settlement was recently reached under which Penguin agreed to withdraw the book from India. But the terms agreed to, do not ban electronic copies or foreign editions from being sold in India. Doniger’s massive PR machinery went to work overtime to put the matter into the limelight. The largely ignorant Indian media and its love for sensationalism served her needs. As a result, her book is once againt selling in India even though the Indian edition is withdrawn.

Bottom line: I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the litigation and settlement. My own approach had been entirely through a scholarly debate. This takes a lot more hard work, rigor and creativity. Undoubtedly Doniger and her followers had retreated. But now she has made a comeback, ironically using the withdrawal of her book, to position herself as a victim.

The recent interview appearing in Rediff.com is the first time I have spoken on this  development over the past month. I wish to give my 15 years of perspective on this issue.

I hope you will read it with an open mind and form your own views.





Click here to read Rediff article



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