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Interpreting Form and Reality

Amiya P. Sen

By Wendy Doniger
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 626, Rs. 995.00


In 1976, within a year of its publication, Wendy Doniger’s Hindu Myths met with a bad press. ‘The title (of the book) is offensive’, a reviewer of Indian origin wrote, ‘to the Hindu, the stories of his sacred literature are not myths: they are as much reality and are as sacred as are the stories of the miracles of Christ or of Adam and Eve or Noah to the Christians.....’ K.S. Narayan Rao, the reviewer in question, ended with the observation that the author was but an old time missionary in a new garb—the academic. Closer to our time too, Doniger’s writings have met with some indignant protest and injured pride, mostly at the hands of Indians settled abroad. By 2007, the U.S based Indian philanthropist, Rajiv Malhotra, had a blog directed at Wendy Doniger (RISA-Lila-I, Wendy’s Child) followed by Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hindu Studies in America (2007) and more recently, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to American Universalism (2011). Such works have had a twin agenda. First, there was the anxiety to actively contest the ‘prejudiced’ reading of Hindu religion and culture by scholars who exhibited a distinct ‘Eurocentric’ bias. More generally speaking, such works also attempted to shake off neo-colonialist, postmodernist and subaltern readings produced within South Asia itself. Second, Malhotra and his fellow-writers also sought to re-examine Indian culture in the light of indigenous categories of thought and presuppositions. My intention behind inserting this prelude is to press the point that of the two professed objectives, the first has now rather aggressively overtaken the second. I also worry over the growing tendency to equate Doniger’s idiosyncratic methods of confusing Hindu myths or other aspects of religious culture with an arrogant dislike for things Hindu or Indian. Admittedly, Doniger does not quite help her own cause: her wit can easily be mistaken for irreverence and the argumentative directness for cultural condescension. Some of her critics on the other hand have resorted to extra academic considerations in judging what is at heart honestly intellectual and academic. In 1976, for instance, Rao appears to have blurred the distinction that must be made in academic discourse between myth and empirical reality as also between form and meaning. Also, contrary to what he alleges, no evangelist, to the best of my knowledge, has displayed a comparable range of scholarly interest and depth. Perhaps it could be justly ...

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