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India: Up to us to ensure that our bookshelves remain filled with challenging, dissenting, even conflicting voices | Prof. Kum Kum Roy

7 March 2014

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[Text of statement by Prof. Kum Kum Roy addressed to participants at ’Speaking of the Hindus’ seminar and the 2nd AK Ramanujan Lecture at Ramjas College, Delhi University on 6 March 2014]

Like many others of my generation and class, I grew up in a household where Penguin (and the now extinct Pelican) books were virtually indispensable. One can almost visualize the spaces occupied on our bookshelves by the well-worn paperbacks, with their distinctive blue, orange and black spines. Even a random glance at the volumes that have survived with us through the decades, handled with intensity if not care by two generations, is revealing. These include Leon Trotsky, 1905, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, Pablo Neruda, Memoirs and Selected Poems, Simone de Beauvoir All Said and Done, and, one that I particularly treasure, A.K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva.

I have no doubt that the family and friends who bought, lent and borrowed these little treasures would have survived without these books. But we would have lost the occasions when we persuaded one another to read, read out bits aloud, argued about what passages ‘really meant.’ In other words, our lives would have been impoverished. It is from this sense of what Penguin has meant to so many of us as readers that one is both angered and anguished at the decision of the publishers to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s Hindus: an Alternative History, a book that one can argue with, debate about, discuss, and read for both profit and pleasure, as indeed has been done by several people.

We learn that the grounds for withdrawing the book are related to a notice served by Mr Dina Nath Batra, who has charged the author with“a haphazard presentation riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies.” Factual inaccuracies can be fairly easily rectified in a revised edition; they are not irreversible disasters. Heresies are clearly more complicated—and here we seem to be sliding close to an inquisitorial mode. Who will define for us what the ‘true’ Hindu faith is? And do we indeed need such a definition? The attempt to fit an extremely rich and complex as well as diverse faith, an amalgam, often uneasy, of several traditions has implications that affect Hindus as well as others. Can these be adjudicated in courts? And how will out of court compromises of the kind that seems to have been arrived at in this case impact on us? We learn that another book of Doniger’s, On Hinduism, has also been targeted. This silencing of discussion and debate needs to be resisted at all levels. Succumbing to this insidious pressure will lead to a further shrinking of spaces, where discussions on religious traditions will be reduced to a reiteration of banal and meaningless platitudes.

One of the issues that has agitated Mr Batra is that of nudity, which for him, is automatically synonymous with vulgarity. Discussions on sexuality are, according to him, an indication of a ‘perverse mindset.’ The second concern expressed by Mr Batra revolves around the infallibility of the Vedas, which, according to him, is insufficiently acknowledged by Doniger. There are several other specific concerns, but these, in a sense, constitute the core of what he regards as heresy.

There have, can, and need to be, many ways of responding to such charges. One possibility is to remind ourselves of precisely what Doniger’s book was about—alternatives to a monolithic idea of Hinduism. It seems both apposite and poignant to return to Ramanujan in this context, to the access he provided us to the poems of men and women within the Virasaiva tradition. Succinct to the point of being cryptic, these poems remind us of traditions of contestation, critique and dissent that have been part of histories of religion.
I will conclude by citing just two instances from that extraordinarily rich corpus. The first, attributed to Basavanna, provides a scathing critique of the Vedic sacrificial ritual, which centred on the fire, Agni, recognized as a god of supreme importance. Basavanna refers to Siva, the deity who was central to his belief, as the lord of meeting rivers, an evocative name that transcends the barriers of translation.

In a Brahmin house
where they feed the fire
as a god
when the fire goes wild
and burns the house
they splash on it
the water of the gutter
and the dust of the street,
beat their breasts
and call the crowd.
These men then forget their worship
and scold their fire,
O lord of the meeting rivers!
(A.K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.67).

As one can see, the critique of Vedic ritualism is unsparing and incisive. We can dismiss it as another instance of heresy, or bring it into our discussion to examine how the sacrificial ritual was viewed by dissenters.
Finally, let us turn to Mahadeviakka, the defiant woman poet within the Virasaiva tradition, who abandoned her clothes and adopted nudity as part of her practice. As in the case of Basavanna’s works, we are indebted to A.K. Ramanujan for making Mahadeviakka’s compositions accessible to us. Once again, as for Basavanna, her devotion to Siva is intense and personalized, evident in a distinctive mode of address for the deity as Lord of the White Jasmine:

You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?
Or peel away every strip
you wear,
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?
To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool,
where’s the need for cover and jewel?
(A.K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, p.111).

Clearly, the meanings of the erotic and the sexual cannot be constrained, nor can critiques of the Vedic tradition be dismissed as heretical. Both the general principle of freedom of expression, and specific expressions of that freedom are at stake, and need to be safeguarded. We can debate about the most effective strategies of intervening. Legal responses remain an option as do other alternatives. We need, however, to ensure that our interventions are creative and sustained. It is up to us to ensure that our bookshelves remain filled with challenging, stimulating, dissenting, even conflicting voices.

Kumkum Roy
Centre for Historical Studies,
JNU, New Delhi,
March 4th 2014