Some people had not heard of Wendy Doniger. Among those who had, some were not fully aware of her body of work and her stature as a scholar and teacher -- both of which are spectacularly formidable.
Doniger, 73, is an academic at the University of Chicago. She is the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions, with appointments in the university's department of South Asian languages and civilisations, the Committee on Social Thought, as well as in the institution's undergraduate division.
She has two doctorates, one from Harvard University in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, and one from Oxford University in Oriental Studies, as well as seven honorary doctorates. The book that Penguin has withdrawn was the second most recently published of 17 books that Doniger has written. She has one more book in press and is working on four more, including a book on Hinduism for the Norton Anthology of World Religions.
Penguin took the decision to withdraw the book in response to a case filed by six people, including Dina Nath Batra, convenor of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which describes itself as an educational institution. They claimed that Doniger's book had been disrespectful to Hinduism.
But scholars with formidable reputations themselves have come out in her support. "I have read Wendy Doniger's work for several decades," said Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University. "She is a superb scholar, with a vast knowledge of the Sanskrit puranas and epics. Her knowledge of the Mahabharata has brought generations of scholars into a deeper familiarity with the epic. She has tackled some of the most perplexing issues in Hindu myth and narrative with a depth that is formidable, and in this sense she is a scholar's scholar."
In Doniger's Siva, the Erotic Ascetic, the transcendent deity's expression is complex, both in his erotic and ascetic revelation, said Eck. Doniger's Dreams, Illusions, and Other Realities, which looks at dream narratives in both Indian and Western classics and contains a wonderful study of narratives of illusion in the Yogavasistha, and her translations of Vedic texts, the Laws of Manu, etc, are just a few examples of her formidable scholarship, Eck added.
"Her recent book The Hindus: An Alternative History is a broad-ranging contribution to a field that is often dominated by a more simplistic and reified view of Hinduism," said Eck. "The [so-called] 'offence mongers' have what amounts to a shallow and absurd catalogue of complaints against a complex and creative scholar. Penguin India certainly should not have withdrawn this book. That is the biggest offence."
Doniger's Siva: The Erotic Ascetic is based on the structuralist theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, said David Shulman, a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and one of the world's foremost specialists in Indian languages, who was one of her first students. "It was absolutely brilliant work that changed the field," he said.
"That was possibly the first book written about puranic materials that had any punch at all," he added. "I know what it was like making my way in this field before the book was published. It was hard and dull. It is to her credit, one nobody can deny, for enlivening the field with a wit and intelligence that was sorely lacking before."
Her book The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology was also a pioneering work, which presented very new material and presented it in very engaging ways, he said. "It is fair to say that it was controversial. But that's a good thing. It adds to the debate. It is an appalling mistake to physically suppress and destroy a book because you disagree with the opinion of the author. That's what the Fascists in Nazi Germany did."
Said Christian Lee Novetzke, associate professor at the South Asia Program and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington in Seattle, in a brief email reply: "You should have no trouble finding ample testimonials of Wendy's importance. She was president of the American Academy of Religion and the Association of Asian Studies!"
By all accounts, including Doniger's own, she was fiercely independent as much in life as in her scholarship. For her doctorate at Harvard, instead of focusing on Panini, kavya or vedanta, the fields then considered worthy of study by a serious Sanskritist, she chose the puranas. "When I started off as a Sanskritist," she said in a video interview last year, "all the things you were supposed to be interested in, I wasn't particularly good at or not interested in. But I loved the stories...so I started writing about the puranas."
Doniger has been especially interested in the voices of the marginalised and suppressed, such as animals, women and lower castes. "I've always been interested in people who work against the grain, or against the hair, as the Sanskrit expression so nicely puts it," she said in the same interview.
Some of that has to do with who she is, she explained: A Jewish woman who grew up in the US at the beginning of World War II, when anti-Semitism was much more of an issue than it is now, during the Civil Rights movement and under the influence of a left-wing mother during the virulently anti-communist McCarthy era. "The world that I grew up in sensitised me to issues of the underdog," she said. "I particularly liked the stories in which I sensed a voice that was still there despite the overlay of the almost always Brahmin scribe who wrote the story down."
Apart from looking for and highlighting voices of the subaltern, she has used psychoanalytical theory to interpret ancient stories. "She always held highly prestigious positions, but made her own way and rules," said Ananya Vajpeyi, historian and author of Righteous Republic who did her doctorate at the University of Chicago, although not with Doniger. "She undertakes very difficult projects. On top of this, she has a spin. You may not agree with it, but that's what makes her work interesting."
For Doniger's heterodoxy, she has attracted the attention of self-styled Hindu watchdog groups in the US that police intellectual life on university campuses. "They have a list of people who need to be watched, and she has been high on that list for a long time," said Uday Chandra, who has been a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen in Germany since June, after finishing his doctorate at Yale University in the US.
Besides producing a staggering amount of research and writing, Doniger has also been a prolific mentor. She has supervised 72 doctoral candidates, including Bangalore-based writer, translator and educator Arshia Sattar. "She is a great mentor," Sattar said. "She pushed me when I needed to be pushed, she held back when I was struggling. Nothing got by her -- not a lazy comma, not a lazy typo, certainly not a lazy thought. I would not have finished my PhD without her. More to the point, I would not think of those PhD years as among the best in my life without her. Because of her, I have learnt to be compassionate to my students."
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