Penguin Books India has been forced to recall and possibly destroy all copies of this book — The Hindus: an alternative history, by Wendy Doniger — in order to settle a lawsuit brought about by a fundamentalist Hindu group that says the book over-eroticizes the religion.
In case you are wondering, Wendy Doniger is not exactly a sensationalist. She’s the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School (and despite that formidable title, writes well).
What she does do is trace the many strands of Hinduism, and argue that “the greatness of Hinduism — its vitality, earthiness, and vividness — lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny.”
The basis of the lawsuit was not that Doniger’s book was wrong. It was that it hurt the group’s feelings (see the quote above, from page 2). It didn’t present Hinduism the way they wanted it presented. I’ve heard this same argument from fundamentalist Muslims about both my books on Islam, to which the only sensible response, since I’m neither Muslim nor fundamentalist, is “But of course not!”. Such arguments leave no room for anything but what’s politely called “devotional literature” — the apparently endless stream of pious pamphlets read only by “true believers” of whatever faith. Though I often wonder if even they have the patience.
The logical conclusion of the hurt-feelings argument is that publication of anything at all — books, newspapers, websites, whatever — should be banned, because someone somewhere may have so little faith that their feelings can be hurt by even the most empathetic outsider eye.
Doniger’s response to all this on Facebook was gracious yet to the point:
I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.
Penguin India, I should add as a declaration of interest, also distributes The First Muslim, which elsewhere has been subject to a quieter and less newsworthy form of censorship, as happened when the Turkish-language publisher backed out a month before publication for fear of a fundamentalist backlash. But at least he committed to publish in the first place. In other countries, publishers and literary-festival organizers have quietly refrained from expressing any interest, cowed not by specific threats, but by their fear of possible threats, and the book, like so many others that do not meet the requirements of conservative piety, appears to be semi-officially banned from public sale in most Arabic-speaking countries. (I say “appears to be,” because there’s no website called BannedInTheMiddleEast.com where one can get a complete picture.)
This is how censorship works: it creates an atmosphere in which good people are afraid to publish, speak, listen, read, even think. When it succeeds, it brings everyone into line.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t succeed. Not any more. Not when you can order books online, or listen to talks on YouTube, or access blogs, newspaper articles, opinion pieces from all over the world.
So guess what: Doniger’s book is now Amazon’s #1 bestselling book about Hinduism. The fundamentalists seem to have forgotten one basic element of publishing: sex sells. By insisting that the book be pulped because they think it too erotic, they’ve managed to give it a huge sales boost.
And that is the kind of unintended consequence I adore.