In taking a controversial book off the market, Penguin Books India has capitulated to a Hindu group's demands. Photographer: Maral Deghati/AFP/Getty Images
In taking a controversial book off the market, Penguin Books India has capitulated to a Hindu group's demands. Photographer: Maral Deghati/AFP/Getty Images

Is there a practice more dismaying to citizens of a liberal persuasion, or more destructive to the idea of an open society, than censorship? There is: self-censorship, or the buckling down before fundamentalist groups of those very institutions -- newspapers, publishing houses, universities -- most closely associated with freedom of thought.

Thousands of Indians of a liberal mind-set (long habituated to fighting against the encroachments on freedom of thought by the Indian state and fundamentalist groups) were left speechless this week by Penguin Books India, the prominent Indian arm of global publishing behemoth Penguin Random House LLC, which made an abject out-of-court settlement with a Hindu group that sought the termination of one of its titles: the massive work "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Wendy Doniger, the American scholar of Hinduism. Was Doniger really indefensible? What exactly was the case against her?

In the lawsuit filed in 2011, Doniger was accused of malicious and obscene misrepresentation of Hindu texts and traditions by Dina Nath Batra, an educationist who runs an organization called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (“Rescue Our Education Movement”) that, in theory, promotes “value-based education.” In practice, it seeks to cull from all textbooks and academic works arguments that take a less-than-worshipful attitude toward Hinduism. His charges, like many such allegations, seem to betray a mind-set much more lurid than that to which they object.

Batra held in his lawsuit that "The Hindus" was “written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light.” He charged that Doniger’s “focus in approaching Hindu scriptures has been sexual” and revealed (and this is where he was crudest) an attitude “of a woman hungry of sex.” Batra also activated a by-now-substantial tradition of right-wing Hindu groups attempting to suffocate scholarly interpretation of the Ramayana, the Indian epic, by claiming that Doniger had “hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction.”

The recall of "The Hindus" made Penguin the second Indian publishing house and third liberal institution in recent times to capitulate to a Hindu group: In 2008, Oxford University Press agreed to cease publication of a scholarly essay on the Ramayana, and in 2011, Delhi University agreed to take the same essay off its syllabus. In giving in to the demands of Batra’s organization, Penguin implicitly conceded that a book that offends someone's religious sentiments cannot be made available to anybody, and that the study of religion can never entail saying things critical of religion.

This is a position that, taken to its logical conclusion, portends a society in which groupthink and religious dogma can never be challenged, and every act of dissent to the status quo is interpreted as a deliberate breach of the peace. That a publisher with a tremendous roster of freethinking writers (who have written many books on Hinduism) and considerable financial resources could fail to see this was, to many, far more troubling than a right-wing group's demands that a writer’s voice be silenced. Horrifyingly, Penguin not only agreed to withdraw Doniger’s book from the market, but it also agreed to have them "pulped" (destroyed) “at its own cost” -- a terrifying image of sense being beaten into incoherence by rancor and prejudice, and one that suggests the publisher will not take on in the future any work on religion that might be remotely controversial. The columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta could not therefore be accused of exaggeration when he wrote in a stinging column that the pulping of Doniger's book "is the pulping of liberal India.”

Doniger herself was more sanguine than most about Penguin’s decision, writing in a statement that the publishers had agreed to publish the book even though they knew the book would “stir anger in the Hindutva ranks.” Penguin, she wrote, was “finally defeated by the true villain of this piece -- the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu.” (Actually, the relevant law, Section 295A in the Indian Penal Code, makes it an offense to insult the religious sentiments of members of any religion.) She wrote:

Finally, I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book. The Hindus is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation.

People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.

True enough, but I disagree with Doniger on one count. The law makes it relatively easy, no doubt, for religious groups to attack scholars and writers for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

But when a law is so worded, its use to punish or exculpate must rest (as with religious texts) on human interpretation of the words “deliberate,” “malicious” and “insult.” After all, if religious groups hold that the freedom of expression is subject to reasonable limits, whatever they are, then it must surely hold, too, that the right to take offense on religious grounds must also be subject to reasonable limits. It was up to the prosecution to prove that Doniger’s arguments and interpretations amounted to “deliberate and malicious acts,” but an out-of-court settlement actually amounted to Penguin, shockingly, admitting them to be so -- or just admitting that it didn’t much care for controversy and would rather focus on making profits.

If anything, the real offense to Hinduism consists in one of the best recent books on Hindu myth, memory, narrative and practice being made unavailable in the very country where it would have the most power to affect the tradition it describes and interprets. I read Doniger’s book in 2009 and found it a tremendously fresh, nuanced and productively revisionist view of Hinduism. It is a book for the 21st century: an attempt, in Doniger’s own words, “to bring in more actors, and more stories” upon the stage of Hinduism (especially women and lower castes) than one would know of if one adhered only to the Sanskritic, Brahmanical, male-dominated narrative handed down during history. I read it both as someone interested in the history of religions and as a practicing Hindu myself, one who loves some aspects of his faith and disagrees with others.

There is much in Doniger’s text to learn from, but what I also found particularly salutary -- and what Doniger’s opponents have found particularly provoking -- was Doniger’s argument that the “narrative of religion” can only be understood within “the narrative of history.” Which is another way of saying that religious traditions are continually being reshaped by time, human practice, textual interpretation, political power and ideas in the secular sphere, and any student of a faith should also try to study these changes instead of becoming obsessed about some trans-historical essence to be promoted as the One Truth.

Of course, Doniger does make some claims that might be thought unorthodox. But as a longtime student of a many-sided tradition going back thousands of years and proliferating with sects, riddles and paradoxes, that is her right. Even here, she is happy to cede authority as much as to claim it. Frequently in "The Hindus," when the interpretation of an event is disputed, she is quite happy to lay out the alternatives; where she subscribes to a particular position, she is happy to include the criticisms made of it. In a way, then, Doniger demonstrates the way that historical narrative (which, after all, is based on interpretation as much as it is on facts) is developed through debate and a scholarly give and take. That’s a strategy completely foreign to the mindset of the radical Hindu, obsessed with bodily and textual purity, and himself or herself the product of our slightly fundamentalist times.

And last of all, the matter of sex. Batra charges Doniger with writing about Hinduism in a manner that shows her to be “hungry of sex.” The truth is that Hinduism itself is “hungry of sex” -- hungry, unlike many other religious traditions, to think about the erotic impulse as a force of creation, insight, transcendence, revelation and mystery, not just as procreation, shame, sin and silence. It’s one of the most beautiful things about the religion. (A wonderful book to read on this subject is Richard Lannoy’s "The Eye of Love: In The Temple Sculpture of India," in which he makes the compelling argument that “Indian temple art is almost consistently erotic and this eroticism has a sacramental character which in the Western world seems almost to constitute a contradiction.”)

In accusing Doniger of misrepresenting the Hindu tradition, Batra shows nothing but the extent of his own alienation from that tradition and his displacement onto an “outsider” of what he would most like to see eliminated from his own cultural history. Of course, he’s more than entitled to persist in this illusion, as well as try to jog the Indian law into endorsing it. But any victory for him and his ilk -- such as the kind unfortunately handed to him by Penguin this week -- is not just the opposite for free speech in India. It also hollows out Hinduism in ways that even the so-called enemies of the faith could not manage. That’s a battle of really high stakes, one a major publisher has just admitted it doesn’t really want to fight.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.