Dead Peoples Tell No Tales

Locating Doniger in the discourse of power

“I set out to grasp the mechanisms of the effective exercise of power; and I do this because those who are inserted in these relations of power, who are implicated therein, may, through their actions, their resistance, and their rebellion, escape them, transform them—in short, no longer submit to them.” Michel Foucault

Apparently Hindus are hurt at Doniger’s book and at American academia. They want the American academy to be fair and balanced in its portrayal of Hinduism. This is a naive aspiration. Once we understand the dynamics of power, we may even conclude it to be undesirable. We locate American academic writing about Hinduism as part of the dynamics of power and knowledge—when does the mass of opinion emanating from the Western academy shift to praising something and when is it disparaged? Without understanding the power relations that create the stage for Doniger penning this op-ed in the New York Times[1], when scholarly criticism of her work is all but absent from academia and mainstream American (and Westernized Indian) media, is to labor under the illusion of Hinduism and South Asian studies in American being a place for “fair play” rather than as an extension of the institutions of imperial power.

To see this we examine the case of another set of “Indians”, the Native Americans. For many centuries, when the lands of the Natives were being conquered and their destruction was part of Manifest Destiny, the overwhelming thrust in the depiction of Native Americans in Western media and academia was decidedly negative.

From the first images and descriptions available to Europeans in the early sixteenth century, the Natives were depicted as “savages.” The best of these created the image of the “noble savage.” One of the early works in “establishing the early conception of the Indian was an oft-reprinted tract of Amerigo Vespucci.”  In Vespucci’s Mundus Novus, Indians are graphically depicted as without religion (and therefore without morals) lecherous cannibals. These images became popular in European literature as in the Dutch pamphlet “And they ete also on[e] another[.] The man eteth his wife[,] his chylderene…”[2]

These quotes are “Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present,” by Robert Berkhofer. The book shall itself became an artifact in our study.

Before we return to Doniger and the Hindus, we have to understand that both the “left” and the “right” of American scholarship created their separate demonization of the Natives. The “left” branch of Western academia moved on to ”Scientific” Racism in nineteenth century social sciences in its depiction of Native Americans, created theories of the “Idea of Progress and the State of Savagery in the History of Mankind” and extended the theories of Evolution to classifying “Primitive Peoples” in nineteenth century anthropology.

From the “right” the picture was obvious. God had given “true religion” to His people and everyone else was in the clutch of Satan. This imagery is still alive, though in a hidden form in Doniger’s narrative.

To understand the Indian context of this, we have to remember that the left and right are aligned in this demonization; just the vocabulary is slightly different. One flavor may cite the influence of Satan and the other the “natural inferiority” of the race. As those expressions become politically incorrect, alternatives terminology such as “third world” or “developing countries” and “restoring human rights” are now preferred. We will dig into these in a future work. The image creation serves a similar objective of primitive, backward savages.

Without diving too deeply in the modern image creation of the “savage Hindu”, the pertinent question for this thesis is—when does Western scholarship about Native Americans start to change? Western scholarship towards the Natives starts to shift once they are seeing as a dying race and the threat perception from them has decreased. The first shift is romanticizing the erstwhile “demon” as the “noble savage.”

“To pity truly the poor dying Indian, American authors and artists had to transform him from a bloodthirsty demon into a Noble Savage. That transformation occurred late in the United States compared to Europe. Except for a few examples among eighteenth-century accounts, the Noble Savage in the United States is really a nineteenth-century fashion. Just as it has been said that the Europeans could easily ennoble the Indian because of their remoteness from savage warfare, so commentators have argued that American authors and artists of the Eastern United States only conceived of the Indian as noble after that section of the country had eliminated its Indian problem. Even so, the number of truly Noble Savages in book or painting was relatively few and relegated to the far away or the long gone.”[3]

Spotty instances of the “noble savage” start to appear because even though the savage was dying, he still had the ability to put up a fight. The end of the nineteenth century see the death of “Sitting Bull” and the massacre at Wounded Knee where over three hundred Natives, including women and children were killed after they had surrendered their weapons. Wounded Knee was the last armed resistance by Native Americans against extermination. Soldiers responsible for the massacre were given the highest US Army award, the Medal of Honor; twenty were given out for this battle alone.

The dead Indian can be a good Indian

Western scholarship towards Native Americans starts to shift once they have, for all practical purposes, been exterminated and no longer pose a threat. Still as late as the 1960’s, official reports were being written about the “Indian problem.”  When it is clear that the “Indian problem” is largely solved through a combination of extermination and disenfranchisement, “liberal” scholarship can now resurrect the nostalgia.

“If Whites regarded the Indian as a threat to life and morals when alive, they regarded him with nostalgia upon his demise— or when that threat was safely past…”[4]

Of course, this book written by Berkhofer in the 1970s’s, despite its good intentions cannot emerge till the late twentieth century. I call it “oops we were mistaken” scholarship. The Western civilizational impetus would simply not allow it to become mainstream before its time.

The interesting point is when does “oops we were mistaken” scholarship emerge. It emerges when the civilizational genocide of Native Americans is complete. Christianized, confined to reservation and dis-armed the Native American poses no threat. There is no danger in extolling his civilization. In fact, praising him helps in reinforcing the self-image of the contemporary enlightened non-prejudiced liberal academic, no longer consigning the other as Satanic. Except for the next civilization that is not yet quite dead.

Why is the Hindu considered a threat?

What has all this to do with Doniger and Hinduism and “South Asian” scholarship in the academy? Well, as is apparent from Doniger’s book, the Hindu is not dead yet and is still perceived as a threat.

For Judeo-Christian monotheism, deeply buried in the Western psyche in both its religious and secular versions, Hinduism is the “other.” From the first injunction of the god of Moses “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Hinduism with its myriad incomprehensible gods serve as the polytheistic other, the strange, the savage, the backward to support the self-image of the progressive, Judeo-Christian, enlightened West.

As Jan Assman states in “The Price of Monotheism,”

“Polytheism is a concept suitable only for describing monotheism as a counterreligion that polemically distances itself from other religions.” [5]

Hinduism is the “other” for Western Civilization in both its Judeo-Christian and secular variants.

Invoking Satan has gone of out fashion so the liberal academy has transcribed it to a new motif. Let us hear Doniger speak in her New York Times essay:

“My case has helped highlight the extent to which Hindu fundamentalists (Hindutva-vadis, those who champion “Hindutva,” or “Hindu-ness”) now dominate the political discourse in India.

Two objections to the book cited in the lawsuit reveal something about the Hindutva mentality. First, the suit objects “that the aforesaid book is written with Christian Missionary Zeal.” This caused great hilarity among my friends and family, since I grew up in a Jewish family in Great Neck, N.Y.

But when I foolishly decided to set the matter straight — “Hey,” I wrote to an accuser, “I’m Jewish” — I was hit with a barrage of poisonous anti-Semitism. One correspondent wrote: “Hi. I recently came across your book on hindus. Where you try to humiliate us. I don’t know much about jews. Based on your work, I jews are evil. So Hitler was probably correct in killing all jews in Germany. Bye.”

This narrative is both carefully and craftily done for the New York Times reader. Doniger, as she has done for years, avoided all mention of scholarly criticism from the Hindu community that have found her narratives, shoddy, prejudiced and ridden with flaws. [6] Since it is no longer politically correct to depict the savage by how he decorates the body or by using references to Satan, the contemporary motif of pure evil, Hitler, is invoked instead. Hitler is Satan secularized. Citing an anonymous conversation, she shadow boxes with her straw man Jew-hating Hindu, never mind that Hindus are one of the few peoples that have no record of persecuting Jews.

This is of course, standard fare in the American academy (and its Westward looking Indian counterpart). The interested reader can simply do a search for academic articles and books with “Hindutva” in the title to see how consistently Satanic it is. I attended a talk given by Paul Brass at the University of Washington some years ago, which I thought was a pretty one-sided understanding of religious conflict in India. I went up to him and asked him what he thought of Ashutosh Varshney’s work that I thought was a bit more even-handed in tracing parties in India beyond “Hindutva” that also played a part in fanning religious conflict. Brass’ voice dropped to a whisper—“didn’t you hear he (Varshney) is a BJP man.”  It helped me see the civilizational impulse that produced the inquisition and, much closer to home in America, McCarthyism. I almost found myself mumbling, “I am not, and never have been, a member of the Bharatiya Janta Party.”

Returning to Doniger, she knows exactly how to hit all the right notes. She also brings out the “good Hindu” and the bad Hindu motif.

“I have long been inured to the vilification of my books by a narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus.”

Ah yes, the narrow-minded Hindu. And who is the narrow-minded Hindu? Anyone who criticizes her scholarship, of course or who objects to her fantastic depictions of Hinduism is narrow-minded, not unlike any Native American resisting extermination, who was obviously “violent.” Here she invokes the imagery of the “savage other” vilifying her books rather than referencing the many scholarly criticisms of her work by practicing Hindus, including the compilation in the book “Invading the Sacred.” This is hardly new. Doniger has repeatedly refused to engage with scholarly critiques of her work coming from the Hindu community, preferring to shadow box with her caricatures of the savage other.

I had first encountered Doniger’s work when I read the article on Hinduism that my children would read in Microsoft’s Encarta. That time I did not know who Doniger was. But apparently she was the authority on Hinduism. What I read had practically no resemblance to the Hinduism I grew up with. It could only subject my children, growing up in the US, to further racial prejudice and unfounded stereotypes. This is what Doniger thought that US children reading Encarta should know about Hinduism.

“Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member.

As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual acts were performed ritually.”[7]

This in an essay that had no references to puja, yoga or satsang, practices that are more commonplace practices of Hindus. The imagery of this account writing for children, while well aware of her audience, can be well be compared to the fantastic descriptions of the Native peoples as cannibals and sexual threats to White purity while preparing the grounds for slaughter. My criticism of Doniger’s piece at that time had resulted in Microsoft Encarta removing that article in subsequent editions. [8]

Of course, anyone pointing out that American children may benefit from a more contemporary and commonplace understanding of their Hindu neighbours must be a “narrow-minded” bad Hindu. And who is the good Hindu? Doniger continues:

“The dormant liberal conscience of India was awakened by the stunning blow to freedom of speech that had been dealt by my publisher in giving in to the demands of the claimants“

Here Doniger comes in as the White savior, her work resulting no less than in “waking the dormant liberal conscience of India.”

Doniger could have mentioned in her op-ed that the colonial era law, section 295A, which she mischaracterizes as a “blasphemy law”, which allows books to be banned for injuring religious sentiments came about because of Muslim protests, and has, more often than not used to ban books objectionable to Muslims including Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.  Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s work “Lajja” that documents the genocide of Hindus in Bangladesh was banned by the Communist (Left) government of West Bengal since it was objectionable to Muslims and the writer herself was hounded out. That many of the books banned in independent India were banned by the Congress Party either due to sensitivities of non-Hindus or of its own political sensitivities. That, if the equivalent of Doniger’s book on Hindus had been written about other religious communities in India, there would major agitations in the streets, such as the violent protests about an American film about Mohammad some years ago.  None of this would, of course, have helped Doniger make her point about “savage right-wing Hindus.” A violent action from Hindus regarding her book would have delighted Doniger and made her job easier for the “Hindu as savage” portrayal, but unfortunately the Hindus did not oblige.

As it turns out, her book was not even banned, and she had to make up for a bad situation. The book was withdrawn by the publisher due to a peaceful, legal, civil action by a mild-mannered Hindu school teacher. Nonetheless, what she lacks in facts she makes up in imagination, much like her other scholarly writing.

“I think the ugliness of the word “pulp” is what struck a nerve, conjuring up memories of “Fahrenheit 451” and Germany in the 1930s. The outrage had been pent up for many years, as other books, films, paintings and sculptures were forced out of circulation by a mounting wave of censorship.

My case was simply the last straw, in part because of its timing, just when many in India had begun to view with horror the likelihood that the elections in May will put into power Narendra Modi, a member of the ultra-right wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.”

To make the case for her Western liberal audience—she again, invokes Satan, in the figure of Hitler, that has been carefully grafted onto the popular Indian leader Modi and her self-important hubris makes the withdrawal of her book the “last straw” in a chain of Satanic acts. Of course Satan as Modi had absolutely nothing to do with her book or its withdrawal, but evidence was never really the strong suit of witch-hunts. A post on a white supremacist bulletin board from 2010 provides more evidence of Doniger being a soldier in that army than her anonymous citation of a Jew-hating Hindu in the New York Times op-ed. The following bulletin board thread is a query from a white nationalist on how to show “Asians” in a bad light.[9]

Posted by jorrdannn 

I go to a school which is heavily diverse and liberal, (dont worry im leaving for texas in 4 months). I expressed my beliefs particularly on asians and recieved many ‘dont hate’ speeches and was called a joke. How do I get my point across standing alone? 

Response by greatviking

Use references by Professors who have written about Asians. Not sure which group of Asian you are talking about (Middle Eastern, Indian, Far Eastern), but Prof. Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago has written a lot about Indians and Hindus that annoy them. She is a true White Nationalist soldier which is why Microsoft Encarta targeted her and once removed her article from their encyclopedia.

Check her out though —

I should also add that she is one of the WNs who is from the left (there is another thread which deals with the subject of whether one can be a White Nationalist and a Communist). Her method is primarily to point out the negative influence that Hindus have had on the world in general, but this does not mean that she does not highlight White pride. She does that too in her books when she gets the chance.

If you were talking of Middle Eastern Asians, you should be able to use he works of any number of scholars. If it is the far-eastern Asians you speak about, then it is a little more difficult to find scholarly stuff on them.

Using authoritative works by Professors always convinces most students. That is what you should do.

Still, that bulletin board post does not past scholarly muster as evidence and we can hardly hold Doniger guilty because of it. Nonetheless it is still more credible than Doniger’s New York Times anonymously quoted correspondence with the Hitler-esque Hindu that she uses to embellish her image of savagery, much like the embellishments in her academic work.

There is clearer evidence that Doniger’s vilification of Hinduism is not accidental; it has a long history and is quite deliberate.  In the op-ed she comes as the great White hope to rescue Hinduism, no doubt much like the Native American traditions were “rescued” by settlers over the ages:

“That’s the Hinduism that Hindutva-vadis are defending, while they deny the one that the Christian missionaries hated and that I love and write about — the pluralistic, open-ended, endlessly imaginative, often satirical Hinduism. The Hindutva-vadis are the ones who are attacking Hinduism; I am defending it against them.”

Doniger lies. If that lie is not evident from her deliberate Encarta article, it is even more evident from the introduction in “The Laws of Manu,” her translation of the Manusmriti. In that introduction her antagonist is Nietzsche, who she takes on for his favorable view of Hinduism. She contends that Nietzsche is using his reading of Manusmriti “as a stick to beat Christianity with.” [10] She then provides a long explanation with quotes to prove Nietzsche wrong, including a Manusmriti quote on how Hindus despise the human body. It is a funny introduction to a book by an author who claims to be in love with Hinduism, though it would be quite apt for a White nationalist soldier defending Western civilization from Nietzsche’s attack.

Then there are the “good Hindus” as opposed to the savages. Though she doesn’t go as far as to use that term, the good-Hindu bad-Hiindu dichotomy is clear. There is a long history in Western colonization of the “Uncle Tom’s”—the “good natives” that turned collaborators to conquest since they had mentally acquiesced to slavery.  Here the Doniger draws on the “more liberal” for her good Hindu.

“Their voices had drowned out those of the broader, more liberal parts of Indian society.”

Hindu society is liberal society. Book banning is a monotheistic sport—there is a long history of Christian book burning and banning. However, here Doniger counts as liberal Indians, those who do not challenge her scholarship. The good Hindus are the dead Hindus. Who is a dead Hindu? A dead Hindu is one who does not challenge, one who cannot speak for the Hindu tradition because of lack of grounding in it, or has been “secularized” into ignorance of it or will not speak because of the avuncular Uncle Tom myth of sameness [11]. Anyone who does speak up, who is alive, will be quickly conflated with “right-wing Hindutva”, a worshipped of Hitler, demonstrably Satanic.  In the Judeo-Christian myth the “other” is the worshipper of false gods, in the clutch of Satan. Doniger’s defense is a simple transposition. If this were not the case, Doniger should readily be able to supply us with a list of Hindus critical of her work that she does not club with Satan.

In effect, Doniger invokes a picture of the savage other to deflect criticism to what she writes. A whole lot of Indian scholars, sepoys in South Asian departments in the US academy and “secular” Indians, willingly fire on her behalf.  The only good Hindu is a dead Hindu. The Indian sepoy army comes very handy in this respect to certify the legitimacy of the white gaze as it did to perpetuate its hold in its Indian Empire.

In the end I do not blame the American academy for being agents of US imperialism, whether in “left liberal” or “Christian right” incarnations, but I do blame Indians for falling for the idea that the knowledge projection of the academy is not part and parcel of Western hegemony. The image of the liberal scholar is a necessary asset for American academia. And the Satanic Hitler motif of savage right-wing Hindutva Hindus is effectively used to muzzle any criticism.

We can end with another quote from “The White Man’s Indian.”

“Although many White liberals may think that the nation has entered a new era of cultural pluralism and tolerance of ethnic differences, most native leaders are far from sure that such professions of idealism are anything more than the passing fancy of a few alienated Whites who talk one way while their many fellow Whites think and act quite another way. ”[2]

The Western liberal scholar (and his Indian sepoy) is part of the empire and legitimizes it. This does not take away from the fact that there are plenty of decent, sincere, well-meaning Western and Indian scholars in the academy that are not Donigers. It is a question instead to the civilizational thrust and the balance of the work emanating from the Western academy and its historical context and relationship to power, rather than of individuals.

When the Western academic enterprise starts writing “fairly” about Hinduism is when the only Hindus left would be dead Hindus, fossilized artifacts in a museum.  Hinduism would be dead. All Hindus would be converted, killed or secularized in the Western model and a few specimens preserved as curious for tourism. Then they can be good Hindus since the power project would be accomplished and any perceived civilizational challenge eliminated.

p.s. Don’t expect this article to be in the New York Times any time soon. Look for Pankaj Mishra there.

P.p.s. For what it is worth, I do not support the banning of Doniger’s or most other books.  The colonial era law under which this book was banned should be rescinded and freedom of speech respected for this and other banned books without bias.

This article was originally published on Manushi.


  1. Doniger, Wendy, Banned in Bangalore, New York Times op-ed, March 6, 2014.
  1. Berkhofer, Robert F. (2011-08-03). The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (Vintage) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  1. Ibid
  1. Ibid
  1. Jan Assmann. The Price of Monotheism, Kindle Edition.
  1. Ramaswamy, K et al, Invading the Sacred, Rupa Publications, 2007.
  1. Doniger, Microsoft Encarta, 2002.
  1. Sanu Sankrant, “Are Hinduism Studies Prejudiced, from “Invading the Sacred”, Rupa Publications, 2007.
  1. Doniger, Wendy. The Laws of Manu, Penguin Books, 1991.
  1. Malhotra Rajiv, Being Different, HarperCollins India, 2011.

Image: The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

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