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An “Alternative History” That Derails Factual History

Source: newsweek.washingtonpost.com

USA, March 17, 2010: [HPI note: There has been an ongoing debate in the Hindu community about Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: an Alternative History.” this piece from Aseem Shukla summarizes the issue well.]

Historian Wendy Doniger, professor of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, finds herself in the midst of a history book kerfufflle of her own. Doniger, long enjoying exalted status as the doyen of Hindu studies in the American academy, faces scrutiny now in an unfolding drama involving her latest book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. An online petition asking Penguin Press, the publishers of the book, to hold publication and demand revisions is approaching 10,000 signatures. And when the book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Hindu activists staged a rare protest outside the award ceremony last week (the book did not win).

Hindus know that Doniger was derailed before. In 2003, Microsoft retracted a chapter on Hinduism written by Doniger for its online encyclopedia after a heavily publicized internet campaign protested factual and interpretive errors in her essay. In the end, a Hindu writer, providing the emic, or insider’s perspective, wrote an entry that depicted Hinduism in the light that practitioners would actually recognize.

That there would be trouble was apparent right from the preface of her book. There, Doniger asserts that hers is not a history of how Hinduism is lived today, but rather offers a “narrative alternative” to the one found in Hinduism’s holiest scriptures. This 780-page tome is set as Doniger’s rendering of Hinduism’s history based–we are to assume–on her own interpretations of scripture, her own biases and inclinations. Infamous for her penchant to sexualize, eroticize and exoticise passages from some of the holiest Hindu epics and scriptures–often invoking a Freudian psychoanalytic lens–Doniger has been accused of knowingly polarizing and inflaming. She does not disappoint.

I revisit her work now not just because Doniger provokes so many of us in the Hindu American community. Doniger represents what many believe to be a fundamental flaw in the academic study of Hinduism: that Hindu studies is too often the last refuge of idiosyncratic and irreligious academics presenting themselves as “experts” on a faith that they study without the insight, recognition or reverence of, in this case, a practicing Hindu or even non-Hindu–striving to study Hinduism from the insider’s perspective–would offer.

It is not just that there are documented errors in fact predicated on errors in interpretation and context, but Hindus argue that Doniger seems to delight in celebrating the most obscure and arcane of anecdotes or stories from the hoary expanse of Hindu epics and scriptures. Privileging the absurd–dissembling it as an alternative–comes across as a specious exercise of a motivated author seeking spice to sell books.

Academic freedom is sacrosanct. But academic legitimacy in the eyes of the public sets a much higher bar.

Courtesy: http://www.hinduismtoday.com

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