Beyond Doniger: A Response to Ananya Vajpeyi's "Rise of the Hindu Right" - Hindu American Foundation

Beyond Doniger: A Response to Ananya Vajpeyi’s “Rise of the Hindu Right”

By October 6, 2014 November 7th, 2019 4 Comments

Ananya Vajpeyi’s review of noted Hinduism scholar Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism and The Hindus attempted to explain the long complicated social and cultural histories of both Hinduism and India. In many ways, Hinduism’s development has mirrored that of India’s, and vice versa; in others, they diverge, particularly the development of Hinduism in its Diaspora, both Indic and non-Indic.

Vajpeyi’s assessment of the Doniger controversy and the larger issue of the often volatile mix of religion and politics in India is, for the most part, nuanced. However, her review also has several major shortcomings and doesn’t adequately contextualize the complex convergence of religion, nationalism, and cultural identities in India and across the subcontinent. For starters, the censorship of Doniger’s work is outrageous, but the controversy over the Penguin decision obscured the many academic criticisms of her research. Doniger is indeed considered an expert on some aspects of Hinduism, particularly references to sexuality, but it has been highly problematic to see her become the voice in the study of Hinduism, given the ocean of diverse voices who have sought to explain its theological development.

While the response from right-wing Hindus to Doniger has been condemnable (and unfortunately has reached the level of personal threats) and often misogynistic, her critics can’t be lumped in together, as Vajpeyi seemingly does. When she mentions the Hindu American Foundation’s criticism of Doniger’s work, Vajpeyi takes a quote out of context and places it within the realm of those who are firmly opposed to Doniger’s right to her research. In fact, HAF was opposed to academic groups honoring Doniger’s work despite its numerous factual inaccuracies, which were themselves pointed out by a number of her counterparts in the American Academy of Religions. Since The Hindus was published in 2009, HAF has consistently supported Doniger’s academic freedom without supporting the content of her work, a nuance that Vajpeyi clearly overlooks or omits.

Further, it’s a bit questionable to claim that Doniger is attempting to undercut Orientalist assumptions of Hinduism when in a number of instances, she simply reinforces them, including her overstating of Vedic violence and her exoticization of Hindu worship. In this regard, Vajpeyi does make an important point: Doniger attempts to write with sympathy, but she lacks the empathy from which to truly understand the expanse of Hindu philosophy and practice. No matter Doniger’s intentions, her writing sometimes comes across as patronizing, and, for some, reflective of a sublime racism that – even if unintentional – reinforces the worst assumptions of a certain group.

Moreover, Vajpeyi’s analysis underscores a major shortcoming of Doniger’s work and a flaw in the rationale of many of her Indian liberal supporters. Doniger focuses on India without understanding how and why Hinduism came to be and how it spread, sometimes even despite itself, to other parts of the world as a non-proselytizing faith. While she is a heavyweight scholar, Vajpeyi and other high-profile Indian supporters of Doniger are intellectuals whose perspectives are shaped profoundly from the vantage of Hindu majoritarianism. Even the idea of Hindutva as presented by Vajpeyi has been limited to the northern part of India and overlooks the complex demographics of the country as a whole, including in states such as Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, where Hindus are minorities. As Indian historian Ramachandra Guha notes, the focus on Hindus as a perennial majority based purely on India overlooks the often traumatic experiences of Hindus in other parts of the subcontinent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, for example) and across the Diaspora. Moreover, post-partition violence has come from many communities in India, whether it be from the Sikh separatist movement of the 1960s to 1980s, the Kashmiri Islamic militancy from the late 1980s, or the ongoing Naxalite rebellions whose frontlines are often manned by Christian tribals. It’s also problematic that Vajpeyi assesses Hindu nationalism as a Diasporic phenomenon when Hindus in the West Indies, South Africa, Europe and North America have generationally struggled to escape marginalization and being viewed as the Other.

The rise of Narendra Modi might be problematic for Indian liberals, but in some ways, it has come of their own making. India’s liberals have in recent years lacked the vision to transform India, owing in large part to the fracturing of India’s political system along regional, class, and ethnic lines, and the construction of governing coalitions that have done a lot of nothing over the years. For me, as an American liberal, the position of my Indian counterparts now is in many ways reminiscent of American liberalism in the mid-1970s through the early 1990s: devoid of direction and full of hand-wringing. Additionally, as noted Indian liberal public intellectual Shiv Viswanathan wrote shortly after Modi’s election, the Indian intelligentsia long downplayed and trivialized the very real concerns of practicing Hindus, especially the selective concept of Indian secularism and the fact that the worst of Indian social practices were being thrown solely at the feet of Hinduism (contrary to what Vajpeyi claims, caste is not central to Hinduism and isn’t unique to Hindus in India; all faiths in India observe one form of caste-ism or another).

Hindu nationalism in India has taken on numerous iterations since Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s time, and like any political ideology, the nationalist camp includes the spectrum of pragmatists and ideologues. The RSS’s communal rhetoric can’t be overlooked or downplayed, but it’s worth noting that thousands of the RSS’s most fervent loyalists come from minority religious groups such as Muslims and Sikhs. Homogenizing the experience of any religious group in India carries with it the great danger of misdiagnosing the actual challenges a society faces. Modi – dogged by the human rights concerns Vajpeyi notes in her piece – shrewdly calculated that a pro-economic development message devoid of communalism would bring him to power, and he was right.

The Indian liberal response to Modi’s victory requires a more inclusive strategy that doesn’t lump together all practicing Hindus as Hindutva supporters, as some liberal writers have done in the wake of the elections. It would require an acknowledgment by Vajpeyi and others such as Pankaj Mishra that while Hinduism can be problematized, its core philosophies deserve some credit for the sort of secularism they so long for in India. In the meantime, Doniger will continue to be famous, Modi will rule India, and much of the Diaspora will remain galvanized, divided, or indifferent on the question of India’s political future.


  • शरण् कुमार् says:

    I think that there is a feeling of restraint among Hindus, owing to fear of inviting ridicule in associating themselves with the Hindutva movement. It is time Hindus understood that just as there are violent and pacifist elements among the adversaries, there should also be space for the not-so-intellectual people among the Hindus to voice their opinion in an apposite manner. Let us not forget that it was a combination of pacifism and bellicosity that helped us win our long cherished independence. There was a Gandhi; there was also a Bose and Lal-Bal-Pal. While utmost care has to be taken so as not to misconstrue this as an open call for armed struggle against our detractors, it would be worthwhile to bear in mind that some among the adversaries only understand the language of terror. Hindus should not attach much importance to the so-called Human Rights Violations that are imposed on us from time to time. Such restrictions are squarely aimed at protecting the interests of the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews. They rarely apply to Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jains, Yazidis, Darazis and other religious minorities. It is well known that when it comes to protection of the vital interests of the countries that slap such indictments, there is no question of violation. Apropos of the censorship by the courts of Doniger’s work, one wonders if India is a free country at all. The day we allow our detractors to voice their sentiments without the fear of being proscribed, we can call ourselves a free country. I am of the opinion that intellectual openness alone can give us the moral high ground to refute the baseless claims of our detractors. As long as censorship prevails, the enemies of Hindu-tattva can always point a finger at our intellectual dishonesty and claim that we have something to hide.

Leave a Reply

10/28/22Dr. Anandibai Joshi

Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshi is credited with being the first woman from India to study medicine in the United States. Born in Bombay in 1865, she was married at the age of ten to an older man who had been her teacher. Dr. Joshi had a child at the age of 13, but the child died when only 10 days old. She believed that with better medical care, the child would have lived, and she frequently cited this as motivation for her desire to attend medical school. Her husband encouraged her in her academic pursuits and in 1883, Joshee joined the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now known as the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She graduated in 1886 with her degree in medicine; her M.D. thesis focused on Hindu obstetrics. Unfortunately,  Dr. Joshi was only able to practice medicine for a few months before passing away from tuberculosis.

Science in Hinduism

10/2/2022Gandhi Jayanti

Gandhi Jayanti marks the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘Father of the Nation’ for India and the Indian Diaspora. To honor Gandhi’s message of ahimsa (non-violence), volunteer events and commemorative ceremonies are conducted and statues of Gandhi are also decorated with flower garlands. Gandhi and the satyagraha (truth force) has inspired many of America’s most prominent civil rights and social impact movements and leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. The United Nations declared October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence in honor of Gandhi, whose work continues to inspire civil rights movements across the world.

Examining the Impact of Mahatma Gandhi on Social Change Movements

Why we should not tear down statues of Gandhi

10/1/2022First Hindu temple in US

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 facilitated the journey of many Indian immigrants to the United States. In this new land, many created home shrines and community temples to practice and hold pujas (services). As Hindu American populations grew in metropolitan and rural areas, so did the need to find a permanent temple site for worship. In 1906, the Vedanta Society built the Old Temple in San Francisco, California but as this was not considered a formal temple, many don’t credit this with being the first. Others believe it is the Shiva Murugan Temple built in 1957 in Concord, California, whereas others believe it is the Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devanstanam in New York that should be considered the first. Today, there are nearly 1,000 temples in the United States . Regardless of where you live, you have the right to practice your faith.

A Guide To Temple Safety and Security

5 Things to Know About Visiting a Hindu Temple