By Vidushi Singla:
It hurts my religious sentiments to know that my religion is being used as a trope to profess unacceptable orthodoxy, that it is being misinterpreted to promote outrageously conservative views, that it is being misconstrued to restrict freedom of expression in a nation that calls itself “democratic”. The most recent victim of religious intolerance has been Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. The book has been withdrawn by its publishers, Penguin India with a view to settle a law suit filed in 2011 by the president of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS). His major objection to the book is “eroticisation” of Hindu mythology which made the ‘self-proclaimed custodian of Indian culture’ assume that it is “insulting to Indian Gods” and thereby hurts “the religious feelings of millions of Hindus”. The indirect legal proscription of this book adds to the laundry list of other books whose legal circulation have been forbidden in India – Arthur Miles’ The Land of the Lingam, Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold, Rangila Rasul, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and so on.
Now, what is extremely problematic is that our country is becoming increasingly conducive to a culture of religious intolerance. There are a group of right-wing organizations which consider themselves to be the so-called guardians of Indian pride and find encouragement in legal settlements like these where the radical perspectives are silenced. As in this case, Dinanath Batra, the president of SBAS has proudly proclaimed the pulping of the book to be a “big victory” which has fueled his spirits “to keep fighting for the cause”.
Considering that so many books are proscribed in the interest of “safeguarding Indian mythology”, it has led me to question the etymology of ‘mythology’. The word ‘mythology’ comes from the word ‘myth’ which even in its most simplistic connotation has the underpinnings of a being a human construct and not a given. For something that spreads through word of mouth and for decades has been orally transmitted, it is hard to determine the veracity of the myth when it had first begun (think of ‘Chinese whispers’ to be played over generations). In such a case, pluralistic versions and not just interpretations are but a natural outcome.
Now what Wendy Doniger does in her book is to explore the erotic aspects in Hindu mythology such as considering a relation between the erect penis and ‘Shiv Lingam’, which in fact is well documented. Also, the jacket of the book shows Lord Krishna sitting on naked women which Batra has strongly objected to since he considers it offensive to Indian sensibilities. This brings into question the idea of what is offensive and what is not. Since ‘offensive’ is a subjective term, the best solution is to leave the text open to public access, debates and discussions. It is definitely not utopic to ask for a society where one has the right to read and then choose to like or dislike a text.
Decisions which result in silencing of unusual interpretations as in this case are a blot on the secular and democratic image of our country in the world. This makes us feed into the stereotypical image of the ‘conservative orientals’ who curb, restrict, control creative expression and thereby, limit growth. Also, when these organizations initiate such petitions to “guard our culture”, what they blatantly ignore is that India was the first country to impart sexual knowledge to the world and that it is the country of the Ajanta Ellora Caves and Kamasutra, a treatise on sexual relationships. Therefore, if there is a culture that needs to be protected, then that culture is of a liberated past that celebrated sexual desires rather than brushing them under the carpet.
However, in an age of the internet, there is hope, for it is not possible to completely inhibit the proliferation of a text since it continues to be available on Kindle and in other electronic formats. And as they say, a forbidden fruit is always sweeter, I am sure the pulping of its copies would have led to inflation in its profits. After all, even infamy contributes to fame and tickles the curiosity of many an aberrant soul like mine. Here’s hoping that soon our country would learn to not just accommodate, but also respect, debate and celebrate varied view points.