It was with great anger and sadness that many readers in India heard yesterday of Penguin Books India’s decision to enter into an out-of-court settlement with a group of busy-bodies led by one Dina Nath Batra of the so called ‘Shiksha Bachao Andolan’ (Save Education Movement) – one of the many poisonous heads of the RSS hydra – to recall and pulp all extant copies of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” (Penguin India, 2009).
Dina Nath Batra (infamous for leading the campaign that led to the withdrawal of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from the Delhi University syllabus) and others, through their advocate, one Monika Arora, had filed a suit in a Saket, New Delhi against Wendy Doniger (whom they address, as ‘You, Noticee’) and Penguin Books on the grounds that Doniger’s book offends their religious sentiments.
As of now, the court has neither pronounced a verdict in the matter, nor has the trial been widely reported in the media. We do not even know whether the judge district court has made any pronouncements during the course of the trial. If he or she has indeed passed a prohibitory order, then the thing to do would be to immediately challenge such an order in a higher court. The book has neither been banned, nor censored, nor proscribed by any authority in this country. (And were it to be banned, proscribed or censored, in any manner, it would also amount to a serious blow to the freedom of expression and enquiry, that would need to be rigorously challenged on its own terms, but that, in fact, is not yet the case.)
What we do know is that Dina Nath Batra, represented by advocate Monika Arora, had sent Wendy Doniger, Penguin Books USA and Penguin Books India a legal notice on the 3rd of February, 2010. This legal notice is available on the website of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan and contains the following gems :
That the entire list of the books authored by YOU NOTICEE shows that YOU NOTICEE concentrate, focus and write on the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism. That the words used by YOU NOTICEE for referring to various Hindu Gods are highly objectionable.
…the approach of YOU NOTICEE has been jaundiced, your approach is that of a woman hungry of sex.
…That YOU NOTICEE at page 667 have denigrated Ramayana too and have stated that political use of Ramayana is to make India free of Muslims and Christians and any Others. That YOU NOTICEE have further written that:
“Repressive telling of the myth use the mythological moment of Ram-raj [Rama’s reign] as an imagined India that is free of Muslims and Christians and any others, in the hope of restoring India to the Edenic moment of the Ramayana.”
That YOU NOTICEE has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction.
“Placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times……….” (P.662)
This breaches section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
That YOU NOTICEE- the author, the University and the Publisher (Penguin, USA and Penguin, India) should be concerned that they are creating and spreading pornographic and hate literature while defaming the Hindus and Hinduism.
That the University of Chicago should be aware and cautions in allowing an author to spread pornography and hate literature in the University. The author, University and the Publisher alike are accountable to the law as well as to the Society. This book is a disgrace on the academic reputation of the University of Chicago.
That YOU NOTICEEs by the aforesaid book have intended to cause fear and alarm among the Hindus that their religion and religious beliefs are not safe any more and can be trampled with and denigrated, distorted & insulted and hence you have intended to induce and incite them to commit offences against the State and against Public Tranquility.
The legal notice cherry picks fragments and passages from the book, (all of which are backed by authoritative textual citation by Wendy Doniger) to try and foist as valid its own simple minded and puritanical interpretation of the Hindu canon on those who have read or might yet want to read the book. As someone who has deeply enjoyed reading this book, it does not bother me at all that some imbeciles might have one or several bones to pick with it. What bothers me is that they are using a language of threat to prevent other readers who might want to read the book from accessing it.
Even a cursory reading of the language of this legal notice would demonstrate that it is neither backed by scholarly understanding, nor by common sense, and that all that it stands on is the implicit threat contained in the last extract – that if the author and the publishers do not give in to their disgusting demands, the people that Shiksha Bachao Andolan defines as ‘Hindus’ will “commit offences against the State and against Public Tranquility”.
In other words, Dina Nath Batra is saying to Doniger and Penguin something that simply amounts to “Withdraw the Book, or else face the consequences of OUR criminal misconduct.” Which definition of the rule of law would ever take such a low threat seriously ?
And yet, Penguin Books has found it fit to (surreptitiously) crawl and obey the purely fascist and criminal diktat of the so called Shiksha Bachao Andolan. Whatever compulsions Penguin Books may offer in defense of its disgusting behavior, there can be no denying the fact that their action is an affront and insult to their readers and constitutes, in itself, a serious assault on the freedom of expression, scholarship and enquiry in this country.
Readers also have sentiments, and our sentiments can also be hurt, and we too can mobilize on the basis of the injury we perceive to our consciousness and intelligence. We can do so without threatening to commit crimes. Perhaps it is time we did this with as much passion as our adversaries, who generally tend to be men of faith (of all faiths, as is evident from the fact that the animus of Hindu fundamentalists against Wendy Doniger is no different from the prejudice by Muslim fundamentalists against Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen). But what publishers who kow tow to the demands of fundamentalist goons forget is that for us readers too, there are some things that are sacred. One of the things that is sacred to me, for instance, is the right to read a book, any book, undisturbed by busybodies, particularly those infected by the halitosis of religious zeal. If you do not like a book, or an author, by all means write and publish your own tract against it, and shout as loud as you like from your pulpit, but do not dare to take away from me my right to read what I want to.
I particularly like reading books about religion and sacred traditions. All religions, all traditions. Because, despite being an unbeliever, I find a great deal to recommend in taking religion, religious behavior, religious texts and myth seriously as a source of understanding the nature of our histories, cultures and the fabric of our social life. One of my favorite authors when it comes to books about religion and myth , particularly about the religion and beliefs of some of my ancestors, is the Mircea Eliade Professor of Religion at Chicago University, Wendy Doniger. I have a steadily growing collection of her writing, within which, her magisterial book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ is in some ways the centre-piece. I turn to its more than seven hundred pages often in my effort to understand the world in which I live, and the traditions that I usually resist, sometimes admire for their poetic grandeur and visionary majesty, and that often try to lay claim on me.
I have recently been trying, for instance, to spend some time in trying to understand what appears to be the sudden upsurge of racism in our society. First a racist Minister in Delhi’s AAP government leads an attack on African women, and then we witness what seems to be a cascading series of assaults on young people from the North East in Delhi. Is this a new phenomenon, or does it point to the persistence of something far more disturbing?
In this case, reading Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” has been helpful to me in thinking about some of the sources of racial prejudice in our society. (Just as it has been helpful to me in thinking, in completely different ways and in other contexts, about how the relationship between say, human beings and nature, especially animals, or between the rigor-mortis of rules and the life-breath of contingencies, has been expressed by some of the many Hindu traditions that Doniger cites and encounters with abundant attention and affection.)
But let us return, momentarily to the question of racism, the color line, and aspects of the broad Hindu canon and see whether a book that is rich in detail about things written and thought of hundreds of years ago can still be of contemporary relevance. Here is an extended quotation (pgs. 286-287) from ‘Dharma in the Mahabharata’ – the 11th Chapter in the roughly 780 page long manuscript of ‘The Hindus” An Alternative History’. Here are Doniger’s own words, which I offer for your consideration as an example of her scholarship, and her method.
The Mahabharata both challenges and justifies the entire class structure. The word for “class” (varna) here begins to draw upon the meaning of “color”. In the course of one of the long discussions of dharma, one sage says to another, “Brahmins are fair (white), Kshatriyas ruddy (red), Vaishyas sallow (yellow) and Shudras dark (black).” The adjectives can denote either skin color or the four primary colours that are symbolically associated with the four classes as well as with the tree qualities of matter plus yellow (saffron? ocher?) for the transcendent fourth of spirit. IN one passage, someone asks a series of questions that show us something of the perceived need, at this time, newly to justify the (mis) treatment of the lower classes:
The Origin of Class Colors
“If different cools distinguish classes among the four classes, how is it that there is a mixture of colors in all classes? Desire, anger, fear, greed, sorrow, worry, hunger and exhaustion affect all of us. How then are the classes distinguished? Sweat, urine, feces, phlegm, mucus and blood flow out of all out bodies. How then are the classes distinguished? And how can you tell one class from another among all the species (sati) of the countless creatures, moving and still, that have such various colors?” The sage replied: “Actually, there is no difference between the classes; the whole universe is made of brahman. But when the creator emitted it long ago, action/karmas divided it into classes. Those Brahmins who were fond of enjoying pleasures, quick to anger and impetuous in their affections abandoned their own dharmas and became Kshatriyas, with red bodies. Those who took up herding cattle and engaged in plowing, and did not follow their own dharmas, became yellow Vaishyas. And those who were greedy and fond of violence (hinsa) and lies, living on all sorts of activities, fallen from purity, became black Shudras. And that’s how these actions/karmas split off the Brahmans into a different class, for there were never any interruption of their dharma and their sacrificial rituals (12.181.5-14).
The implication is that in the beginning, everyone had not only the same general makeup (the Shylock argument: Cut us and we bleed) and the same general dharma of good behavior, but the same sva-dharma, “one’s own dharma,” the particular dharma of each class (and later, each caste), and tha the primeval sva-dharma was the sva-dharma of the Brahmins: maintaining dharma and sacrificial rituals. But then each of the other classes voluntarily took up other activities – the Kshatriyas indulged in pleasure and anger (a contradiction of the earlier statement that we all share these emotions), the Vaishyas in commerce and the Shudras in violent and unclean professions – leaving the Brahmins alone in possession of their original dharma that had been meant for everyone, that had been intended as, in effect, the common (sadharana) dharma.
Krishan’s declaration to Arjuna in the Gita that “it is better to do your own duty poorly than another’s well”, ( echoed in Manu [10.97] ) ignored the fact that Arjuna’s own duty as a warrior would forever doom him to relative inferiority vis-a-vis Brahmins whose sva-dharma just happened to conform with the universal dharma that dictated non-violence. Here is the catch-22 that Manu perpetuates: the hierarchically superior prototype is also the generalizable archetype. Although, in reality, power was largely in the hands of the rulers, the Brahmin imaginary relegated the violent ruler to a place inferior to that of the nonviolent prototype – the Brahmin.
The conversation about the colors thus brings the argument about equality into the open – where it must have been at this time, when various social barriers were being challenged – but the old argument from creation comes to the rescue, and thus the class differences are affirmed in new ways. Now the class system is not created ab initio, by the gods, as in the Vedic “Poem of the Primeveal Man” ; now it results from bad karmic choices of the classes themselves. Its their own damn fault. This is a major transition from authoritative decree to apologia.
The four classes were the central concern of a broader social agenda that included (by excluding) both Pariahs (even lower than the Shudras) and tribal people, epitomized by the Nishads. A typically cold-blooded disregard for the Nishads is evident in a story told early in the Mahabharata.
The House of Lac
When the Pandavas were still young, and living with their mother, Kunti, their enemies tricked them into staying in a highly combustible house made of lac (a kind of natural resin ) which they intended to burn. Yudhishthira decided that they should put six people in the house, set fire to it, and escape. Kunti held a feast to which she invited a hungry Nishad woman and her five sons. The Nishadas got drunk and remained after the other guests had left; the Pandavas set fire to the house and escaped, and when the townspeople found the charred remains of the innocent Nishada woman and her five sons, they assumed that the Pandavas were dead (1.134-37)
Only the single word “innocent” (“without wrongdoing” [1.137.7] )suggests the slightest sympathy for the murdered Nishadas. They are sacrificial substitutes, whom the author of the text treats as expendable because he regards them as subhuman beings. Perhaps their drunkenness (one of the four addictive vices of lust) is meant to justify their deaths.
I offer this lengthy quotation to the reader’s consideration in order to demonstrate how vital it is to undertake serious critical readings of traditional and faith inspired textual material. While contemporary racism in Indian society may have many reasons and causal factors, it cannot be denied that it ties into traditions that underpin caste, which in turn has a direct relationship with a reading of people’s bodies, of skin color and physiognomies in a ritualized setting. This is why, reading Doniger, and other scholars like her strikes me as a vital necessity. And it is this vital necessity, crucial for healthy discussion and debate in our society that Penguin India has just undermined with its totally unforgivable decision to pulp Doniger’s book.
Perhaps Penguin India believes that by acting as it has done, it has saved its property (material and intellectual) from damage by fascist thugs. The people who man the legal and corporate benches in large publishing houses are usually idiots. Their decisions are rarely based on actual market research. They do not know the pulse of readers. They only pretend to do so, and they most certainly never read the books that they promote or suppress with their decisions. I know for a fact that they also habitually intimidate the smart people who actually commission books and do the hard work of real publishing.
I am sure the scenario in Penguin is not very different from what I have sketched out here. Some jackass on the legal and/or marketing/finance team that Penguin relies on has probably brokered an out of court settlement (which has no basis in law) with a sleazy Hindu fundamentalist extortion racket. Consequently, an impeccably wise editorial decision (to publish Doniger in the first place) has had to take a beating. In all probability this has been done in the name of protecting the company’s best interests.
But what if, in effect, by doing this, Penguin India has just effectively made itself vulnerable to the possibility of a really damaging readers rebellion? Would that be in the company’s best interests?
What if I, and the countless others like me who love books, (especially Penguin books) and buy Penguin books, simply decide to no longer offer it our business?
What if, disgusted by Penguin’s decision to patronize mediocre chick-lit, inane self-help books and other banalities, and its disturbing willingness to crawl in front of fascist thugs when it comes to the matter of un-publishing the kind of titles that many of us have hitherto been loyal Penguin readers for, we simply refuse to buy any more Penguin titles, or buy far fewer than we would otherwise?
What if we, readers, persuade first class authors, new writers and scholars to simply no longer take their manuscripts to Penguin and its ancillaries?
What if an effective consumer boycott of Penguin India titles (that spreads virally through social media platforms) makes its business model falter, and ultimately crash ?
What if, instead of gate-crashing Penguin book launches, eager and really passionate readers simply desert and stop attending events organized by Penguin altogether ? What if reviewers began ignoring Penguin titles ? What if they began falling off best seller charts, and began being stocked on bottom shelves, and in the back of book stores ?
All of this could happen just as easily, and over a much longer period, (if even a few highly motivated readers with wide-spread social media influence got really angry) as the imagined harm that would occur if a few thugs were to gather in front of the Penguin India office and shout a few cheap slogans, and maybe smash a couple of windows before they were whisked off by a few police constables for tea and a few hours of detention (for breach of peace) to the Hauz Khas police station. And believe me, the consequences of prolonged (and exponentially scalable) reader and consumer apathy is far more damaging, fiscally speaking, than the possible cost of a few smashed windows.
If those who run Penguin India have not yet lost all their marbles, they can still argue their case against Dina Nath Batra in court, and prevail on the law to act against any attempt to intimidate all those who stand by the freedom of expression, scholarship and enquiry. Actually, it is really easy. All Penguin India needs to do straight away is to cancel their out of court settlement (which, as I have said already, has no legal basis, and is indefensible) and order an immediate reprint of Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’. If my estimate is correct, (and judging by the increasing number of attempts to download the book’s pdf’s) under the present circumstances, it would be an immediate best seller, and the smart people in editorial might still show the idiots in legal and marketing that they actually know what the business end of publishing really means.
Were this to happen, then Penguin India will have rightfully won their place in ‘Publishing: An Alternative History’. if on the other hand, good sense does not ultimately prevail, Penguin India may lose their market share and their claim to history. The choice is theirs. Dina Nath Batra will continue to peddle his hate and idiocy anyway, it is up to Penguin India to decide what it has on offer.