The Fate Of A Book

Adam and I have never steered away from banned books – in fact, if a book is banned, there’s a good chance we’ve read it or we want to, sometimes simply because it’s banned. Recently in India, however, there was a book that was not banned, but pursued by a lawsuit in a way that would make some of the overeager book-banners ecstatic.

According to NPR, the publisher (Penguin India) defended Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus for four years, but said it was “withdrawing the book because “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be” .

I am fond of this book – I read it when it was first released, and have shared my hard copy of it with others, as well as having it as an e-book. While dense and at times complicated and perhaps overly detailed about historical data, Doniger looks at Hinduism from its start through its present, and provides sources and substantiation for her claims. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always what is considered the standard orthodox view, but neither is Christianity (Paul, after all, was often in conflict with Jesus’ brother about how the church should be run after Jesus’ death!), Islam, or any of a number of other facets of various religions. It’s a disservice to any faith to try to whitewash it and make it eminently perfect: none of them succeed, and it often means there’s a loss of valuable information that informs us about how it developed, discarded in favour of politically correct appearances.

The problem appears to be that it offends some Hindus, and India has a law that makes it a criminal offence to insult another’s religion – which, allegedly, Doniger’s book does. The New York Times extends this to look at the changing politics in India as well, fear of nationalist pressure and a sentiment that is if not anti-anyone-but-Hindus, at least concerning. Some have called it the start of the silencing of liberal India, because if someone cannot write or publish something which risks offence… will serious academic material be able to continue to be published, when it risks being critical of a religion (or possibly something else)? Another Indian paper also criticized the move – the media certainly doesn’t seem sympathetic towards those who claim offence, and it’s no wonder: this is arguably associated with freedom of the press, and journalists are concerned about the way this will play out for laws around writing.

Doniger herself is resigned, but disappointed because she and her editor went through to make specific changes in the copy Penguin India released in order to decrease the risk it would be offensive to Hindus. This is also not the first time a book has experienced issues due to offence, and it’s likely not to be the last (the same man who filed the complaint about The Hindus intends to do so about another of Doniger’s books).

Unfortunately, [it looks like Russia is not far behind]( in terms of policies around publishing and text, as well as laws regarding religion – part of what got the Pussy Riot band members imprisoned was “inciting hatred against religion”.

Notably, Doniger has commented on the fact that there is an e-book of The Hindus… and that the Kindle is available in India. She also doesn’t seem to have a problem with the book being passed around by other methods.

2 Comments on “The Fate Of A Book

  1. Very disappointing indeed. It’s sad that the publisher didn’t wait for the final verdict and decided to withdraw the book instead, but that must have been an economic decision. I for one, would love the read the book. It’s always useful to hear and understand different points of view on religion (though Hinduism cannot be defined as a “religion” in our common understanding of the term), and especially a tradition as ancient as Hinduism, where so much is open to interpretation.

    • I can understand the willingness to withdraw it rather than keep fighting; it’s done amazing things for publicity for the book, though, so I’m sure that people will still find a way to read it if they want to. 🙂 I have yet to find as comprehensive a book on other religions as Doniger’s _The Hindus_, though… I’m still looking.

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