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Hindu activists protest professor Wendy Doniger's book

March 11, 2010 |  7:16 am

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The organization Hindu Janajagruti Samit gathered before a reading of finalists for the National Book Critics Circle awards Wednesday night in New York. At issue was the book "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Dr. Wendy Doniger, a finalist in the nonfiction category.

The group led a protest against Doniger's book, which they say contains "factual errors, mischaracterizations and hatred for Hindus." Her book, they say, "is a work that promotes bigotry, racism and intolerance. No civilized or decent human being, organization or society will ever support such a book given Dr. Doniger's persistent verbal violence against Hindus." Despite the strong language, the protest was cordial and peaceful; protesters planned to have samosas afterward.

Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, did participate in the reading, along with more than 20 other finalists. On the National Book Critics Circle blog, Eric Banks writes:

For all its historical sweep, The Hindus is a surprisingly personal text, written with vivacious pluck and playful verve. Doniger switches back and forth between a lens wide enough to pack in the panorama of several centuries of subcontinental dynastic history and conquest and one microscopically sharp enough to sort through the granular life in the hoariest myth. Whether writing on bhakti devotional practices of the South or the complicated aftermath of Raj Orientalism, Doniger never misses the bigger picture for the intimate or allows the broad view to get in the way of the key detail. Much as the dynamics of exclusion are a central — maybe the central — part of her interpretation and understanding of the religious complexes of South Asia, The Hindus is acutely sensitive to delve into much in addition to the canon of revered texts. (“To the accusation," she writes, "that I cited a part of the Hindu textual tradition that one Hindu ‘had never heard of,’ my reply is: Yes! and it’s my intention to go on doing just that.”)

The Hindus is the passionate distillation of a career’s work by one of the most accomplished Sanskritists of the past century, a generous and ambitious and gregarious book. As she writes about placing the Ramayana in its historical context, she amply shows how “the human imagination transformed the actual circumstance of the historical period into something far more beautiful, terrible, challenging, and elevating than the circumstances themselves.” At a moment when fundamentalisms of all stripes make absolutist demands on the imagination, Wendy Doniger’s gift of The Hindus stands as a blessed alternative.

The National Book Critics Circle awards are Thursday night in New York. Doniger is joined in the nonfiction category by Greg Grandin for "Fordlandia," Richard Holmes for "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," Tracy Kidder for "Strength in What Remains" and William T. Vollmann for his book about the California county, "Imperial."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Carolyn Kellogg


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