The tradition of sexuality in ancient Indian culture is what the attackers of Wendy Doniger’s book fear most, writes Janaki Nair


It is our good fortune that our knowledge of Hinduism does not come from the authorized versions that Dina Nath Batra and his Shiksha Bachao Andolan wish to propagate. Neither does our collective imagination remain reined in by his fantasies about the Indian past. This large and luxuriantly complex society, even when all else has been brutally taken from its wretched millions, has its imagination intact. And, we fervently hope, for some time to come. Therein lies the challenge to our desperately needed “historical temper”.

As an 18-year-old, I had read the sexually frank passages of the Rig Veda with wonder and amazement. In a small village called Sanehalli, Karnataka, where the performing arts have been vigorously patronized by Swami Panditaradhya, I recently watched, along with the people from surrounding villages, the Kathakali performance at the annual theatre festival, in which Shakuntala incrementally raised the decibel level and shouted “Anarya!” at Dushyanta, violating all norms of womanly behaviour and appropriate performance voice. There was thunderous appreciative clapping at the end. I have filed past, with lots of ardent devotees of Krishna, the brilliant murals at the Cochin Palace at Mattancherry, where Krishna does not waste a single digital extremity of his eight hands and two feet in pleasing his gopis (his two flute playing hands excepted). Ditto the Guruvayur Temple, whose sexually explicit murals are now, alas, being modestly covered in (NRI-sponsored) gold plate. The erotic sculptures at the Nellaiappar Temple at Tirunelveli, the great Chalukyan temples at Aihole Pattadakkal and Badami, all visited daily by hundreds of chattering and irreverent school children, continue to stand as testimony to what our illustrious forebears were also preoccupied with. One could go onad nauseum, about the little and great traditions of Indian mythology which are not only sexually explicit but bloodstained to boot. It is Wendy Doniger’s triumph that she brings us these complexities in just one book.

To be fair to Dina Nath Batra, he does not deny that the luxuriant growth called Hinduism has yielded many embarrassing fruits: indeed he even admits that there is much that is shameful in Hinduism up to the present day. This is among the many charges Batra made against Wendy Doniger: “That the entire list of the books authored by YOU NOTICEE shows that YOU NOTICEE concentrate, focus and write on the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism.

Therefore, his argument is that we should shield our young/vulnerable/women from such knowledge. Therefore, genuine terror about the Indian past underlies Batra’s recent campaign, and his success in getting Penguin to pulp the remaining copies of the 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History. What if this text actually reveals to the deracinated urban school child or NRI reader that there is much shameful ambiguity in “ancient Indian culture” to which we should be reverently and unquestionably wedded? What if women learn that contemporary Indian sexuality has deep roots in, not the Wicked West but our own ancient Indian culture?

So, in the laziest and most predictable way, Doniger’s gender and race identities are used to trump her formidable language skills, scholarly acumen, and academic experience. This is an ironic echo of the proscriptions against certain genders and castes that Doniger herself has highlighted as a central feature of centuries of Indian “censorship”. Doniger’s “crime” is not her preoccupation with sex and sexuality as “ancient Indians” knew and practised it: it is rather her unwillingness to participate in eliminating these aspects from our collective memory. What the AIDS epidemic, the review of Section 377, and the December 16, 2012 incident all brought into the public sphere was an unprecedented focus on sex/violence/sexuality that ripped open what for so long had been strenuously denied and brushed under the subcontinental mattress. Now Dina Nath Batra wants to put this ungovernable sexuality back into the toothpaste tube.

In his insightful work on the “formations of the secular”, the anthropologist, Talal Asad, rightly highlights a particular problem posed by claims of sacredness (and therefore, in our current context, the luxuriant claims of “hurt sentiment” that ensue): is a book inherently “religious”? Or is it inherently malleable? In short, can it be read as both a literary and a religious text? If not, it raises the further question: is it the book, or the reader, whose religiosity is at stake?

The Shiksha Bachao Andolan seems to be claiming a bit of both, like many current protests. Of late, we have been continuously enjoined to delete, ban, boycott or abstain from certain representations/practices, not because the bearer of the “hurt” asserts the “believer’s right” that “I must not see it” (that is much easier achieved, by self-imposed abstinence). Rather, we are continuously told that “It must not be seen/ heard/taught/thought”, and therefore, the text/sculpture/painting/ movie must, if necessary, be violently removed from the public sphere.

Unfortunately, the list of books/artifacts/movies/paintings that Batra and his shock troops, (including the ardent long-distance Hindu nationalists of the United States of America), will have to censor/delete/destroy/alter will be a long one indeed, beginning with the Rig Veda itself. Although this will be an arduous task, we have too many uncomfortable historical reminders of the extent to which zealots will go to cleanse and rewrite public memory. This claim of “hurt sentiment”, it must be pointed out, is quite different from the democratic demands for collective reflection on truly disabling “historical wounds” arising from statements and representations on the underprivileged/oppressed. But it will not do to rely on the inherent wiles and cunning of those inhabiting the subcontinent, or on private memory, to survive and resist such public onslaughts of a dominant political, religious and social majority. Our demand to remember, hear, see, know, and above all be heard, be seen and be known must be vociferously defended from such infringements by beginning an urgent and long overdue discussion on the lineaments of a new civility, and a thoroughly revised “historical temper”.

The author is Professor of History, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU

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