Kuni Takahashi/The New York Times/Redux

Dina Nath Batra, the retired headmaster whose lawsuit against Penguin India led the company to agree to destroy copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, in his office beneath portraits of right-wing Hindu nationalists K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwakar, Delhi, February 2014

The Event

In February of this year, after a long career of relative obscurity in the ivory tower, I suddenly became notorious.1 In 2010, Penguin India had published a book of mine, The Hindus: An Alternative History, which won two awards in India: in 2012, the Ramnath Goenka Award,2 and in 2013, the Colonel James Tod Award.3 But within months of its publication in India, a then-eighty-one-year-old retired headmaster named Dina Nath Batra, a proud member of the far-right organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had brought the first of a series of civil and criminal actions against the book, arguing that it violated Article 295a of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” of citizens.

After fighting the case for four years, Penguin India, which had recently merged with Bertelsmann, abandoned the lawsuit, agreeing to cease publishing the book. (It also agreed to pulp all remaining copies, but—as it turned out—not a single book was destroyed; all extant copies were quickly bought up from the bookstores.) When Penguin told me it was all over, I thought it was all over, and was grateful for the long run we’d had.

There wasn’t anything special about my book; Batra had been attacking other books for some time. But what was special, and unexpected, was the volume and intensity and duration of the outcry in reaction to Penguin’s action: other authors withdrew their books from Penguin, defying it to pulp them, too; people accused the publishers of cowardice for giving up without even taking the case to court, in contrast with their former courage in successfully (and at very great expense) defending Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. One Bangalore law firm issued a legal notice suggesting that the Penguin logo be changed from a penguin to a chicken.

The Law

Some writers argued that Penguin could have won the case had it seen it through to the end. After all, these accusers said, how can you prove malicious intent in a book? Alas, in some courts it could be very easy. To satisfy the terms of Indian law, statements in the book in question need merely be expected “to outrage religious feelings.” If you got the wrong judge—and India is a place where the Supreme Court has recently reinstated a law criminalizing homosexuality—you’d be convicted just for publishing a statement that you had good reason to believe might well offend someone. It’s hard to imagine how you could write about any subject as sensitive as religion or history without outraging someone; such a rule would mean the end of creative and original scholarly thought. Any new idea offends people who are committed to the old idea, which is to say, most people. Even in the hands of someone as intellectually challenged as Batra, Article 295a is a weapon of mass cultural destruction.

The Lawsuit

I still believe that the Indian law is the main villain in this case, but of course there is also another, secondary villain: Batra. A closer look at some of his arguments in the original Penguin lawsuit reveals aspects of his mentality that obviate any possible hope that one might escape his denunciations by pulling one’s punches and avoiding “sensitive” aspects of Hinduism—for instance, to take a case at random, sex, which Batra has objected to in my book (perhaps confusing it with Lady Chatterley’s Lover).

Obscenity is not the issue here. Nor is it a matter of truth or falsehood. For instance, the lawsuit insists: “The book also defames youth icon Swami Vivekananda when it states that on being asked what he will eat, Swami Vivekananda replied ‘give me beef.’” The objection is not that this quotation is false, or insufficiently documented; it is true, and well documented. The objection is simply that repeating that statement in the book defamed Vivekananda.

Batra has other objections to the book’s citation of certain Hindu texts. He complains:

That in this book all books written in Sanskrit by all and sundry are treated as sacred scriptures at par with the Vedas. That the book does not inform the readers that Vedas are the supreme scriptures which supersede anything and everything which is in conflict with the Vedas.

And then, at greater length:

That in this at Page No. 106 the author has correctly stated that text of Vedas did not undergo any change of correction during thousands of years. When the text remains the same, it is oblivious [sic] that its meaning and message have remained the same. Therefore the core principle of Hinduism has remained the same as enunciated in Vedas. In other words, the core principles of Hinduism are eternal (Sanatan). Distortions and deviations do not constitute the core of any religion. That in the aforesaid book, the author has made basic blunder of equating and mixing core principles of Hinduism with the stray distortions.

This pious view simplistically declares most of Hinduism heretical and therefore irrelevant. The “stray distortions” may very well be irrelevant to some forms of Hindu worship, but they are highly relevant to any serious understanding of Hindu history.


Much of my work, including the book under attack, has been devoted to the representation of aspects of Hinduism that the Victorian Protestant British, when they ruled India, scorned as filthy paganism: polytheism, erotic sculptures, spirited mockery of the gods, and rich, earthy mythology. In the wake of the British, in their shadow, many Hindus who worked with the British—I am tempted to call them sepoys—came to share these sentiments. They also took on the British preference for the Sanskrit texts created and perpetuated by a small, upper-caste male elite, regarding as beneath contempt the vast oral and vernacular literatures enriched and animated by the voices of women and lower castes.

It is this “alternative” Hinduism that is denied by Batra and by many Hindus in the fundamentalist movement known as “Hindutva.” Pankaj Mishra, in his review in The New York Times Book Review, expressed the hope that my book would “serve as a salutary antidote to the fanatics who perceive—correctly—the fluid existential identities and commodious metaphysic of practiced Indian religions as a threat to their project of a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.”4

In 1999, the Bharatiya Janata Party–Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJPRSS) government put Batra in charge of a project to “Saffronize” all the history textbooks in Indian schools (i.e., to make them confirm with Hindutva ideology). They deleted passages dealing with the caste system and beef-eating in India, and added arguments that ancient India had both airplanes and the nuclear bomb.5 Now Batra is trying to do it again.

Another passage in my book “outraged” Batra’s “religious feelings” for a different reason. I wrote, “Placing the Ramayana in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times….” And this was his complaint:

That in this book at Page No. 662 the author has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayan is a fiction. This act of the author breaches various sections of IPC [Indian Penal Code].

To eliminate all the books that share this understanding of the text as fiction, we would have to ban just about all of the extant scholarship on the Ramayana. And indeed, it is no accident that Batra was among those who attacked A.K. Ramanujan’s famous essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in 2009. Nothing could bring into clearer focus the threat to freedom of speech in contemporary India than the fact that a serious political attempt was made to remove this classic essay from the BA syllabus of the History Department at the University of Delhi and from the in-print list of Oxford University Press India; and, until now, nothing gave more hope for the survival of democracy in India than the qualified success of the protest against that attempt.6

The Argument: Religion and the Academy

This argument has nothing to do with religious civility; it is about the clash between pious and academic ways of talking about religion and about who gets to speak for or interpret religious traditions. The misunderstanding arises in part from the fact that there is, in India, no real equivalent of the academic discipline of religious studies. With only a few recent exceptions, students in India can study religion as a Hindu or Muslim or Catholic in private theological schools of one sort or another, but not as an academic subject in a university. And so the shared assumptions underlying this discipline are largely unknown in India.

Batra and I are talking past one another, playing two different games with the textual evidence. But he thinks there is only one game, and is determined to keep me off my own field. To debate a book you disagree with is what scholarship is about. To ban or burn a book you regard as blasphemous is what fascist bigotry is about.

The American Academy of Religion recently issued a statement of support for me, which said, in part:

But to pursue excellence scholars must be free to ask any question, to offer any interpretation, and to raise any issue. If governments block the free exchange of ideas or restrict what can be said about religion, all of us are impoverished. It is only free inquiry that allows a robust understanding of the critical role that religions play in our common life. For these reasons the AAR Board of Directors fully supports Professor Doniger’s right to pursue her scholarship freely and without political interference.

In response to this, a member of the Hindu American Foundation posted a comment on a blog in which he stated, in part:


Four words in the AAR statement—to offer any interpretation—leap out at me. To a lay person who deeply respects my religious tradition, it is this unconditional and self-proclaimed right “to offer any interpretation” which lies at the root of what is wrong with religious studies today.7

The notion that one might “ask any question” but not offer interpretations, that there are questions—and, indeed, facts—without interpretations, reveals a nineteenth-century concept of history that is no longer viable. It betrays a basic misunderstanding of the nature of academic inquiry, the same misunderstanding that is at the heart of Batra’s misreading of my books.

It Can Happen Here: The Textbook Controversy

The fight in India has emigrated to the United States, for the Hindutva movement now dominates the political discourse in the American diaspora as well as in India. Out of a mounting sense of political entitlement and a heightened consciousness of the American phenomenon of identity politics, a small but growing group of Hindus in the American diaspora is raising objections to the work of a number of American scholars writing and teaching about Hinduism.

The situation in the US is not the same as the situation in India, for many obvious reasons, nor are the American protesters simply responding directly to events in India. Still, there is a strong, if indirect, connection between the rise of the Hindutva movement in India and in America. When books published by American scholars—including Jeffrey Kripal, Paul Courtright, James Laine—were attacked in India, and the Indian editions were suppressed, the books remained in print in America, but the offending scholars received death threats here.


Shangri I Ramayana Series, Bahu, Jammu/Private Collection

A late-seventeenth-century illustration from the Ramayana—which Doniger referred to as ‘a work of fiction’ in her book, to the objection of Batra—showing the sage Vasishtha (center) instructing Rama in the correct purification rituals to be performed before his investiture as king, such as preparing a fire offering (left) and taking nourishment before fasting (right)

America has also seen unsuccessful Hindu attempts to censor books in a manner alarmingly similar to the way that Batra has attacked books and censored textbooks in India. In 2000, two of the leading historians of ancient India, Romila Thapar and Michael Witzel, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about Hindu attempts to alter school textbooks in the US:

Initially, the goals of these pressure groups seem benign, and even righteous. They aim to rectify culturally biased and insensitive depictions of India and Hinduism, and they would like Hinduism to be treated with the same respect as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.8

These concerns are entirely justified. Time and again, when I give a public lecture in the United States, no matter what I talk about, the first question from the American audience is: “What about the caste system?” Most textbooks, too, dwell upon, and exaggerate, the human abuses in the caste system and pay insufficient attention to the rest of Hinduism. But some of the Hindu interest groups have demanded that textbooks not mention the caste system at all, which can be as bad a distortion as the overemphasis on it. And this is not all that is at stake, as Thapar and Witzel went on to point out:

If such reasonable changes comprised the full extent of the desired amendments, there would be no controversy. There are, however, other agendas being pushed that are oddly familiar: the first Indian civilization is 1,900 million years old, the Ramayana and Mahabharata are historical texts to be understood literally, and ancient Hindu scriptures contain precise calculations of the speed of light and exact distances between planets in the solar system.

In 2005, the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation met with an ad hoc committee that included a consortium of California Department of Education staff and persuaded them to approve a number of changes in the way that school textbooks presented Hinduism. The changes involved such matters as pushing back the dates of major milestones in Indian history and erasing or minimizing features of Hinduism that could be perceived as negative, such as the caste system, the social category of untouchables (dalits), and the status of women. A great many prominent historians and scholars of South Asia protested against this, urging the board not to allow the religious chauvinism of some Hindus to become the policy of the state of California.9

Eventually, the scholars won; most of the proposed changes were not made. In February 2009, the Federal District Court of California ruled resoundingly against the Hindu interest groups that had brought a subsequent suit. Here I should also note that many Hindu Americans testified against the proposed changes, siding with the scholars10; the range of opinions among Hindus in the American diaspora is as diverse as it is among Hindus in India.

But serious damage had been done. Charles Burress, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, commented:

Even though the board resisted many of the changes sought by activist groups this time, the conflict could still impact future textbooks with publishers being tempted to soften the content on their own initiative, said Stanford University professor of education Sam Wineburg.

“Publishers will tread on this territory ever more lightly,” Wineburg said…. “The result,” said Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, “is textbook editors censor themselves. They fall all over themselves to try to cater to one pressure group.”

This sort of bullying and the resultant self-censorship have indeed caused many scholars, especially young scholars still without the armor of tenure, not only to bite their tongues and hold back their true judgments on many sensitive issues, but even to refrain from tackling such topics at all—until, they tell themselves, they get tenure. But the sad truth is that generally by the time they do get tenure they have forgotten what it was that they wanted to say.

And the brush fire is spreading. Hindu parents of children in American schools, supported by messages from India, have brought concerted action against several school districts, objecting to the treatment of Hinduism in textbooks and insisting that they be altered to include such patently incorrect statements as that Sati (suttee)—the burning of women on their husbands’ funeral pyres—is a Muslim practice imported into India, or that the caste system is just a suggestion without any real effect.11 As one case is settled, another crops up somewhere else.

Who Speaks for Hinduism?

Members of the Hindu community in America have also made a concerted effort to limit the academic study and teaching of Hinduism to people who are themselves Hindus. This stems in part from their resentment of non-Hindu scholars who are seen as dominating the field inappropriately, shutting out Hindus. That claim is not true. Hindus are on the faculty of many religion departments all over the country; Hindus as well as non-Hindus teach Hinduism in American schools.

But the claim that only Hindus should teach about Hinduism betrays the same misunderstanding of the nature of secular education, of the academic discipline of religious studies, that colors Batra’s contentions. Growing up in a tradition does not necessarily produce the knowledge and understanding required of a scholar of religion. There is an essential difference between preaching and teaching, between teaching religion (which the parents or, more often nowadays, grandparents of many American Hindus may do) and teaching about religion (which Hindu or non-Hindu instructors in school may do).

Comparative religion—such as the study of Hinduism by someone who may not be Hindu, always an implicitly comparative enterprise—is not the same thing as interreligious dialogue, in which only Hindus can publicly speak for Hinduism. Both approaches—comparative religion and interreligious dialogue—are valuable, but they have very different goals and limitations. Of course there is always bias, from inside or outside the religion. But writing and teaching in the academic study of religion should never depend upon the faith of the writer or teacher. Otherwise it’s interreligious dialogue all the way down, and the equally valuable work of comparative religion is lost.

The Threat in India

Scholars in America must therefore deal with problems quite different from those that threaten scholars in India, but for that very reason they have a vital role to play in combating the threat to intellectual freedom posed by people like Batra. His lawsuit against my book also asks the court to

pass a decree of mandatory injunction directing the defendant no. 2 and 3 [the publishers] to issue appropriate instructions and guidelines ensuring that such objectionable books containing defamatory and derogatory passages should not be published in future.

Furthermore, he said, the court should act so that “she [me] may also be restrained from dissemanting [sic] misleading and fictitious facts.” Presumably he wants me to show future drafts of my books to him to be vetted; the schoolmaster would have me hold out my hand to receive the blows of his ruler. Dream on.

But Batra has also stated, in The New York Times, his intention in future to vet all of the books written for India’s children:

He dreams of creating a panel to review textbooks for the first 12 grades of India’s government schools. Asked how many he would like to replace, he waved a hand: All of them.

“Alternate books will come out,” he said. “We shall give them guidelines.”12

He has done it before and would do it again. Wherever he finds literature that he perceives to be not in line with the “cultural and spiritual heritage” of India, literature that “is found to disrespect the sentiments or distort facts, we will agitate at the State level and pursue legal action.”13

Indeed, he has already gone after another book of mine, On Hinduism, originally published by the Aleph Book Company in Delhi and available worldwide (except in India) from Oxford University Press. Even if, as I hope, Batra’s attacks on books are ultimately stopped, and the books are restored to bookstores, the trouble that he has made may well discourage courageous publishing in India, for the very same reasons that, as the San Francisco Chronicle reporter feared, the thwarted Hindu attacks on American textbooks might discourage American publishers: to avoid a potentially depressing and expensive fuss.

What We Can Do

Batra uses martial language: “We have won the battle, we will win the war.”14 And indeed, scholars of Hinduism must now fight a war on two fronts. In India, journalists, activists, novelists, historians, lawyers, writers, and scholars of all shapes and sizes are fighting against RSS leaders and the Hindutva rank and file; in America, it’s primarily scholars versus Hindu lobbyists. In India, astonishingly, the media are staying on the story, in part to keep alive the issue of free speech. Literally thousands of people have written articles and signed petitions and blogged and tweeted and posted on Facebook about the broader problems exposed by the alleged banning of my books. Several lawyers have volunteered to carry on the fight pro bono, and several publishers have offered to publish my books in India; one brave soul among them even wants to translate The Hindus, all 779 pages of it, into Tamil.

Moreover, e-books and PDFs of “banned” books circulate widely in India. There’s irony in the fact that the same Internet that exacerbated the original problem, by broadcasting the words of people like Batra who would never have met the standards of academia or responsible journalism, now—like the brown paper wrappers that modestly veiled Lady Chatterley’s Lover before 1960—allows academic books to slip past the self-appointed moral police. But what if India follows China into that dark place where the Internet, too, is blocked? As the editor Sandip Roy has remarked, you can’t download freedom of speech.15

Well, we still have those low-tech brown paper wrappers. On March 24, I received this delightful message from a colleague in a major city in India:

You’ll be happy to hear about an interesting transaction I witnessed today: my friend walked into one of the larger bookstores and asked for a copy of your book. Within a minute the paperback edition of The Hindus: An Alternative History, discreetly packed away in a paper bag, was produced from some back area of the store and handed over to her. So the book is still being sold right here. This is India.16

Readers, God bless them. You can’t stop them.

Still, there is much work to be done. Last week, Vishakha Desai posted this thoughtful paragraph on the Asia Society website:

It’s heartening to see that all major newspapers, especially those in English, are full of major stories and editorials by well-known writers and thinkers, all condemning the decision by Penguin. Initially, I felt a sense of relief reading these articles. Aha, the debate is alive, I thought. But that sense of mild satisfaction quickly turned into a greater concern. Clearly, the intellectual urban elite was ready to criticize such acts. But where was the organized effort to ensure that the climate of fear and intimidation would not continue to allow the destruction of more books deemed to have a view of Indian culture different from the right-wing Hindu zealots?17

There are, however, a number of initiatives gathering force in India right now to combat the laws that enable the Batra Brigade to bully Indian publishers.18 Batra may have held up Penguin with a toy gun. It seems that Article 295a may not actually be applicable to this case at all, and that Article 153a of the code is more relevant; or, indeed, that the book might not have been liable under any extant Indian law.19 Penguin was badly advised by its lawyers. But it has now joined forces with both the Indian chapter of PEN and PEN International to form a network to help authors and publishers in dealing with legal problems in India.

After the elections coming in May, there will be a high-profile conference to discuss the limits of free expression in India, and the PEN network will undertake to be in contact with whatever government has come to power.20 The Supreme Court of India has asked the Law Commission to look into the issue of hate speeches made by leaders of political, social, and religious organizations.21 It’s not enough, but it is, at least, a start in the move to end the tyranny of the blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile, we must do our part in the US, where, despite the alarming rise of American reactionary and repressive tendencies (for India has no monopoly on the incursions of religious conservatives into public life), blasphemy is not—yet—a criminal offense. While continuing to support those who are fighting the good fight in India, we must speak out here. It is the particular responsibility of scholars with tenure—an increasingly rare luxury, nowadays—to write about topics that might “outrage religious feelings” in India. We can’t expect our students to take such chances, to risk their own possible tenure, probably to jeopardize their chances of getting Indian visas, or simply to be prevented from carrying out their research in India.

For my part, even before The Hindus was published, I had begun selecting and annotating Hindu texts for a large anthology that will be published in the US this coming autumn. As I became more and more aware of the need to make widely available substantial textual evidence for the alternative Hinduism that I continue to document, I realized that an anthology—a collection of texts, not a grandstand from which I might express my idiosyncratic opinions—would provide the ideal ammunition for the Hindu voices of reason that continue to speak out against the Hindutva shrinkage of their religion.

And so, after rounding up the usual suspects, the texts usually presented as representative of Hinduism—passages from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the works of Tulsidas and Gandhi—I balanced that literature with lesser-known texts from Hindu writers, including many from Dalits and tribals, from ancient women poets and modern women novelists, the sorts of texts that Batra would call “distortions and deviations.” It is another big book—over six hundred pages—and I do not expect it to be published in India at this time. Still, you never know; life is short, but the fight for freedom of speech is long.