Thursday, February 11, 2010


Wendy Doniger's Cross-cultural Vandalism


Vijaya Rajiva

Edited and modified by Shree Vinekar



Ms Jane Ciabattari,
National Book Critics Circle,
New York, U.S.A.

Dear Ms.Ciabattari,

Re: National Book Critics Circle Announces Finalists, Jan.23, 2010.

It has come to my attention that Dr. Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus : An Alternative History, has been selected as a finalist by the NBCC. in the non fiction segment.

I am writing to you as a Hindu academic, a Political Philosopher, and one well versed both in Western and Eastern Philosophy (specifically Indian Philosophy) and very familiar with the Hindu tradition, especially in its day to day practice by the everyday Hindu.

I would appreciate it if you could circulate among the 20 plus Board members of the NBCC my observations on this selection of Dr. Doniger's book and yourself to kindly take note of the same.

In my opionion the selection of Dr.Doniger's book is seriously flawed for the following reasons:

1. It is not clear whether Ms. Doniger considers her book a work of scholarship or a work of fiction.

It would seem that she wants it to be considered a work of scholarship, albeit a pioneering and controversial work in a non main stream tradition of Hinduism, as she likes to think of it.

However, her qualifications for writing such a work derive from her ongoing work as a Sanskritist. Here her work even as a Sanskritist has been criticised for being inaccurate by Sanskritists and scholars, both Western and Indian.

Hence, the first criterion is : Does she know the mainstream tradition well enough, although she has been working in the field? Merely blurbs, by publishers describing her as the world's foremost authority on Hinduism and Hindus, are not sufficient to establish her credentials.

This lacuna is not uncommon in many scholarly works on India. As an example I can cite A.L. Basham's well known book, "The Wonder That Was India" (1954). In this book the noted scholar who taught in the London School of African and Oriental Studies maintains that the Vedic tradition did not give importance to female goddesses. And yet, a reading of the 1008 plus verses of the Rig Veda, show innumerable important references to the female goddesses and their role in the Vedic rituals.

I cite this an example to illustrate how even an acknowledged scholar can commit errors of scholarship. Hence, Dr. Doniger is equally capable of making errors and these have been pointed out by scholars and critics.

That being the case, her comparative study of the high traditions of Hinduism and everyday Hinduism is at best shaky. Nor does she do much better in her knowledge of the 'little' traditions of Hinduism.

Since her work is inadequate on both counts, her attempts to chart a pioneering course is somewhat dubious, and seems to be the result of what she wants to do rather("wannabe")than what she is capable of doing. The book, therefore, is neither fish, fowl nor red herring.

2. Secondly, Dr. Doniger fails to understand that the distinctions she draws between the high and low traditions are not ones that everyday Hindus observe or endorse. After more than 5,000 years of evolution, the everyday Hindu's perspective is one of a synthesis of beliefs, some of it which cannot be extricated, even by careful analysis. A great deal of work has been done on the origins of Hinduism which would challenge Dr. Doniger's own orthodoxy, one which she has worked with during her academic career.

And so, one wonders what value her work has except as a higly eccentric work that falls perhaps only in the category of fiction. (It has no place in the category of scholarly non-fiction books)

3. And if it comes under the category of fiction then the NBCC would be well advised to rely not only on relatively new fiction writers such Pankaj Mishra to evaluate it, but also consult well known and well established writers such as Nobel Prize winner Sir V.S. Naipaul. He is not only one of the foremost fiction writers in the English language but is also a writer of travelogues which establish connections with cultures around the world.

And if Dr. Doniger's book is a hybrid of social criticism and Sanskrit studies then some eminent sociologist might be consulted by the Board for a review. Pankaj Mishra is an interesting and entertaining fiction writer but is simply not equal to the task of a reviewer in this category. The Board has relied on his review. We may suggest Aditi Mitra, Sociologist academician who is familiar with the Hindu tradition to provide a more objective review of this non-fiction work if Doniger wants to categorize it as a scholarly non-fiction work.

4. There is a further dimension to the entire question. Since Dr. Doniger has sailed into the topic of the alternative history of the Hindus without due consideration of the sentiments of millions of practising everyday Hindus who if they came to know about her work would be deeply offended and hurt, it might be advisable to withdraw her work from the list.

Ms. Doniger herself must realise how deep the wound would be to the ordinary everyday Hindu who takes her/his religion seriously.

One has to only see the millions who congregate at the Kumbh Mela or who go on pilgrimages to the temples in Kashmir, despite great risks from terrorism, or those who simply worship their gods and goddesses with deep devotion both privately and publicly.

These are the silent, everyday Hindus whose voices must also be heard. And there are 800 million of them.

Is Dr. Doniger prepared to accept the moral responsibility of this situation, especially when she herself says she loves Hindus and Hinduism ? Is it a responsible position for her to adopt?

This is not simply a question of writing to some peer group (she is in a "69 position" with members of her peer group; see "Wendy's Children" by Rajive Malhotra) who may cheer her on. Or, be part of some charmed circle. It goes to the core of who she is as a human being and a person.

In my view, she should herself decline the honour of an award from the NBCC.

800 million Hindus will undoubtedly survive Ms. Doniger's work, as they have for millenia from other scourges, more deadly than mere fiction or scholarship. But, does she also want to deliver deep cuts, when these same 800 million everyday Hindus are already threatened by a thousand cuts from not so friendly neighbours who have openly used such threatening language.

By no stretch of imagination can her work be considered inoffensive to the sentiments of 800 million Hindus. I do not want to go into the lurid details.

Hindu India has been kind to Ms.Doniger and her Jewish people since time immemorial, especially during their time of travail and woe. Should she not reciprocate at this hour?

I believe that she should do the most honourable thing and withdraw her book herself from the list of books selected for award by the New York Times.

I would earnestly and respectfully request the Director and the Board of NBCC to give serious consideration to the issues I have raised above and withdraw her nomination for the award.


Dr. Vijaya Rajiva


  1. what a lot of hooey. Why do you believe Sanatana Dharma is
    so fragile that points in Vedanta, & Code of Manu shouldn't be questioned? Hinduism is flourishing everywhere!
    I disagree w Dr Doniger's opinions frequently too, but why see her book as a threat to Hindus everywhere?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Injamaven.

    What a lot of hooey!!! Please read all the articles on this blog on this topic to get a proper perspective. Questioning points in Vedanta and Code of Manu is indeed very much a part of Hindu intellectual tradition and not an invention of Wendy. No Hindu objects to it. Hindu is not a religion of the book and any scripture or book can be legitimately questioned by a good Hindu, and in fact, he is encouraged to have independent thinking. Wendy's book is not a threat to Hindus. It is her fictional representation presented disingenuosly as non-fiction which creates a distorted world-view of Hinduism that will subject children in the schools to learn this derogatory view of Hindus because of the clout she carries and that is of great concern to Hindu parents. Wendy promotes herself as the foremeost scholar on Hinduism while lacking in authentic scholarship of Hinduism, Sanskrit, and also psychoanalysis with faulty scholarship as exposed on this blog. Giving her book an award as the best non-fiction work is what is objected to in the above article. You may have missed that point.