ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Professor Wendy Doniger's 2009, an 800-page book on Hinduism was intended to be un-orthodox. The full title is "The Hindus: An Alternative History." The University of Chicago scholar is familiar with angry reactions to her work. A few years ago, during a lecture in London, an audience member who differed with the sexual thrust of her interpretation of a sacred text threw an egg at her. He threw eggs at other scholars, as well.
This time it's not an egg but the withdrawal of her book from India, where the head of a Hindu educational organization brought a court challenge against the publisher. The lawsuit claims that the book: Has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus and therefore violates Indian law. Penguin Books India has settled that lawsuit and agreed to withdraw copies of it from the country.
Wendy Doniger joins us from Chicago to talk about this. Welcome.
WENDY DONIGER: I'm glad to be here.
SIEGEL: And I confess that I've I only been trying to read bits of the book online today. But your nemesis here, a man named Dina Nath Batra, raises the charge that your work was preoccupied with sexuality, riddled with heresies and inaccuracies. What button did you press in this book or - and it's a big book - how many buttons did you press to arouse such anger?
DONIGER: It wasn't inaccuracies. All books have some and this doesn't have any more than the others. The parts of the book that he and his cronies singled out were things that are, as the other part of the lawsuit says: That offended the feelings of Hindus. So one passage, for instance, in the lawsuit says: That millions of Hindus are offended when they read - and he quoted - "The Ramayana is a work of fiction."
So there's nothing very sexy about that nor is it inaccurate. We scholars believe that "The Ramayana" was composed in or about the 2nd century BC, et cetera, et cetera. But it offended him to say so and therefore I broke a law by saying something that offended a Hindu. That's the problem - it's a crazy law.
SIEGEL: He told Time magazine, she - that is you - is insulting our gods and goddesses and religious leaders and text, and even our freedom fighters; I don't have any objection to sex and neither does our religion, as long as it's within the parameters of religion. How much of this is about sexuality, by the way?
DONIGER: There are very few passages in the book. Remember as teenagers, you'd find the dirty passage in a whole big, long book by John O'Hara? There's nothing about sex really in the whole book. There are references to women. And one of the agendas of the book, in its defense of Hinduism, is that although the text - the Sanskrit text - are all written by upper caste men, I argue that the voices of women in the lower caste are really there in the text, if you look for them.
And so, I looked for passages where you can see positive attitudes toward women and positive attitudes toward lower caste, and sometimes the voices of women. So I would say there is some gender in the book but sex in the sense of exciting interactions between human beings, no.
SIEGEL: Your publisher Penguin Books India issued a statement saying that it fought for the book four years, but ultimately it has to obey the law of the land where it publishes. And, in this case, there's a section of the Indian penal code that it's in violation of. Can you accept that position?
DONIGER: I think one has to. What should happen is that the law should be changed. When I tried to say in my own statement was that it was not the fault of Penguin; that Penguin did more than any other publisher in Indiana has done for any author - four years to fight a lawsuit.
SIEGEL: So you don't feel let down or sold out at all by the publisher here...
DONIGER: I absolutely do not. I'm sorry this has happened but I've expected it to happen for while. It was quite clear that this lawsuit was going on and on and that it had become a criminal case. When I'm delighted that is that the book is sold like hotcakes everywhere in the world, that Penguin New York is considering sending several thousand copies to India, because there's no law against Penguin USA selling the book - just Penguin India selling the book. Copies are circulating in India and Kindle is available in India.
If the purpose of these gentlemen was to keep people from buying my book and reading it, it has backfired quite wonderfully.
SIEGEL: Well, Wendy Doniger, thank you very much for talking with us today.
DONIGER: Thanks for asking me good questions. Bye-bye.
SIEGEL: Wendy Doniger, professor at The University of Chicago Divinity School and author of the book "The Hindus: An Alternative History."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.