The Catholic Church, for example, instituted an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) until it was abolished in 1966. But this is not surprising: religious communities often limit or restrict exposure to unapproved texts, and one way to implement such restrictions is to condemn texts that conflict with those that are authorized.
Such religious censorship easily bleeds into secular censorship in democracies. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), for example, spearheaded in 1985 by Tipper Gore — at that time wife of the of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore — targeted Frank Zappa, among others for their “offensive” music.
So, it ought to be less shocking that religious communities in India, marketing their own idea/ ideal of a unified (neo) Hinduism, target an author, Professor Wendy Doniger, whose perspectives conflict with their own, delusional or otherwise. And, ironically, their censorship is reliant upon laws that can (and perhaps ought to) be changed. Even more ironic, the Indian law may have its origins in colonial laws created by the British…
Equally ironic, if not more, is that although one might want to embrace a fantasy that Penguin and other publishers are engaged in their trade for the greater intellectual good (whatever that might be), it boils down to money and economic choices. Or perhaps it was a clever marketing ploy that pulping the book in India has drawn the world’s attention to it and has increased sales astronomically. Wouldn’t this be a publisher’s and author’s dream? During the earlier part of my career my peers and I used to joke cynically that the way to make it in the academic world is to offend Muslims or fundamentalist Hindus, or both… Cynical speculation aside, why is anyone surprised that Penguin would act in ways that seemed beneficial to their highest goal? Or even academic authors whose motives may be economic, rather than altruistic?
But I think that the greatest error is made by the elite, wealthy, and educated Hindu community in India and in the Diaspora. Studying Hinduism as a scholarly activity is largely ignored and denigrated by these groups. Pushing their children to the so-called STEM fields has allowed the academic study of Hinduism to remain a largely “Western” discipline and construct which remains within its colonial history and confines, despite the valiant efforts of many. It is not that insiders ought to be given a louder, or the only, voice. Rather that the academic study of Hinduism would be different if, like the academic study of Christianity and the academic study of Judaism, there were more voices, both from within and from outside. The academic study of Hinduism would be different if it received support from the global Hindu community, as has, for example, the academic study of Judaism has received from the Jewish community.
What would it be like to embrace and support an alternative future, rather than history, of Hindu studies?
It seems that this moment is muhurtham (auspicious time), of sorts. Not only is it an opportunity to change some outdated and dangerous laws in India, but it is also an opportunity for the elite, wealthy and educated Hindu community in India and in the Diaspora to consider supporting the study of Hinduism by their children and in academic institutions across the world.
Perhaps the academic study of Hinduism ought to have an alternative future.