Whose Religion? Whose Speech? Whose Freedom?
By Sugata Ray
In February 2014, Penguin Books withdrew University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” from the Indian market and destroyed all remaining copies of the book in response to a lawsuit filed by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save Education Campaign Committee), a Delhi-based Hindu activist group. The self-proclaimed guardians of Hinduism found Doniger’s 2009 book a “shallow, distorted and nonserious presentation of Hinduism [that focused] on the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism.” Doniger’s scholarship, the Samiti and Hindu sympathizers in Europe claimed, present a skewed view of the religion – one that underscores both sexual and caste violence – to malign the great traditions of Hinduism. Note that Doniger is not accused of fabricating a history of Hinduism. Rather, the scholar is accused of selectively reading texts to present only the “negative” and “evil” aspects of the religion. The problem, then, is that scholars such as Doniger are revealing the “dirty”, indeed minor, secrets of Hinduism that insult, offend, and affront practicing Hindus globally. Whose secrets, one might ask?
The Doniger incident unfolded at a time when I, along with a group of twenty art historians from across the world, had just returned from a research trip to India organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien. At the tenth-century temple complex of Khajuraho in central India, we had discussed religious iconographic programs, histories of Hindu temple sculpture, and the theological imperatives that had contributed to the making of this magnificent complex. With an ever-growing culture of coffee table books and global tourism, Khajuraho is now most readily associated with libidinous celebrations of the erotic and the sensual in ancient India. We could not overlook the overflowing surplus of erotic imagery either. Neither could we disregard the sexual violence represented in the sculptures: A man penetrates a mare while another with an erect phallus approaches the mouth of the animal. Elsewhere, an ascetic fondles a woman beside a scene of anal intercourse.
Generations of scholars have analyzed the theological, metaphysical, and aesthetic purport of these sculptures. We have been told that the sculptural frieze with images of war, trade, and sexual acts embellishing the platform of the Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho denote the routine practices of everyday life that devotees strive to overcome as they move closer to the divine. Others have seen these images as visual puns or talismans to deter the evil eye. The staircase to the sanctum, thus, leads the devotee from the mortal domain of war, sex, disease, and wealth into the realm of the divine. The question of bestiality and violent excess, however, is carefully elided. Instead, the encroachment on the female body is mapped by art history as both transformative and generative. Indeed, the transformation of the sexual into the aesthetic-spiritual, that is the act of reading the violation of the female body as a metaphor of sublime allegories, salvages Hinduism and its visual cultures from accusations of patriarchal misogyny.
What exactly is at stake then? While aesthetic-spiritual readings of such images are palatable to the Hindu right-wing, the Samiti and Hindu sympathizers find Doniger’s use of a painting of the god Krishna riding a horse composed of women, a well-established iconography of the nari ashva, on the cover of her book an outrage to Hindu sentiments. For in The Hindus, Doniger proposes: “[A]nimals often represent both women and the lower classes; the tension between sexuality and renunciation results in an ambivalence toward women as mothers and seductresses; and violence is first addressed largely in the form of violence against animals.” This, certainly, could be one way of reading the iconography of a male ascetic penetrating a mare’s anus while the animal pushes her ear back in displeasure.
The Samiti and their transnational supporters are outraged. Certainly, there is much to be outraged about. The mutation of the bodies of women into a horse that is then mounted triumphantly by the male divine is disturbing, to say the least. But are images of violence to the woman’s body merely aesthetic devices that invoke spiritual contemplation? Or did the iconography uphold the politico-ethical phallocentricism of Hindu upper caste male conceit? Such questions are barely addressed in contemporary debates, despite their obvious relevance to an understanding of the visual images invoked in the current controversy. Critics, of course, have little to say about the violation of the female body. It is only Doniger that they have a quarrel with. Doniger’s culpability lies in taking an image that routinely circulates within regional contexts in India and re-presenting it to a transnational global audience.
But, Hindu goddesses and gods, they say, are tricksters. They lead manifold lives in incommensurable temporalities. Such is also the case with The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book catapulted the text into the non-place of the Internet where it is now being briskly circulated, downloaded, mutated. The many incarnations of the book that have recently surfaced only reiterates the resilience of Hindu goddesses and gods despite valiant attempts by the right-wing to discipline them. This is yet one more of the many recalcitrant secrets of the religion called Hinduism – a secret that the Hindu right-wing perhaps cannot comprehend. The Hindus can be downloaded here.
Sugata Ray (PhD, University of Minnesota, 2012) is Assistant Professor of South Asian art and architecture at the History of Art Department, University of California, Berkeley, and Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Fellow 2013/2014.
This text was produced in the context of the Travelling Seminar in India in January 2014 organized by the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices.
Citation: Sugata Ray, Whose Religion? Whose Speech? Whose Freedom?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.04.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/789.