Outsider vs. Insider, Revisited

Yesterday it was Wendy Shalit who was taking on representations of Orthodox Jews in fiction. Today, Edward Rothstein reviews a biography of Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Hindu mythology who’s been attacked for her work.

A Sulekha.com article posted in 2002 accused Ms. Doniger of denigrating Hinduism in her article written for the Encarta encyclopedia. Microsoft, the encyclopedia’s publisher, ended up replacing Ms. Doniger’s contribution. Meanwhile threatening e-mail messages were sent to Ms. Doniger and her colleagues. And in November 2003, an egg was lobbed at her at the University of London, after she lectured about monkey imagery in “The Ramayana.”

In India things have become even more serious. Hindutva, a form of Hindu orthodoxy, was enshrined during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s reign (from 1998 until this May). But even with that party’s fall from power, violence from Hindu groups has grown along with violence from radical Muslims. Scholarship about Hinduism has also come under scrutiny. Books that explore lurid or embarrassing details about deities or saints have been banned. One Western scholar’s Indian researcher was smeared with tar, and the institute in Pune where the scholar had done his research was destroyed. Ms. Doniger said one of her American pupils who was studying Christianity in India had her work disrupted and was being relentlessly followed.

In an interview Ms. Doniger explained that this kind of fundamentalism was not new to Hinduism: the strain has run through the religion for centuries, but now it has a political cast. In May, she addressed some of these issues in The Times Literary Supplement, reviewing “Kiss of the Yogini,” a book by David Gordon White about the origins of tantric sex. Mr. White argues that Tantra’s origins were in a South Asian sexual cult that required the consumption of all manner of bodily emissions, a hypothesis that Ms. Doniger found plausible, if overstated. But, she pointed out, the book also had “political importance” because it was “flying in the face” of a revisionist Hindu tradition that had led to intemperate attacks on European and American scholars.

I can’t comment about the value of Doniger’s scholarship and whether or not she denigrates Hindus in her work, but the moment an author is censored, attacked, or otherwise molested, you’ve lost me.

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