Books & Reading

What’s going on at Penguin India?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…

– William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

Thus begins my copy of Hindu Myths, published by Penguin with introduction and notes by Wendy Doniger. I had bought Wendy Doniger’s book while at university, inspired by a module on South Asian religions and my lecturer’s effusive praise for Doniger’s research and textual scholarship. I remember looking specifically for the Penguin edition because I held them to the highest standards. Now? Not so much.

Wendy Doniger (November 20, 1940), a prolific translator of Sanskrit texts, has published Vātsyāyana Kāmasūtra, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook among others,

Wendy Doniger (November 20, 1940), a prolific writer on the Hindu religion and translator of Sanskrit texts, has published Vātsyāyana Kāmasūtra, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook, among others.

In an out-of-court settlement with a Hindu nationalist group, Penguin India has agreed to recall and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History within India. The lawsuit in which her book is implicated claims that Doniger is accused of hurting “the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction”. provides a succinct summary of events thus far:

In 2011, the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a civil case against Penguin India over The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago. The group claims the book offends Hindus by, among other things, inaccurately representing the religion and offering an overly sexual interpretation of Hindu texts. This, it contends, violates a section of the Indian penal code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

However Penguin India chooses to justify its decision, the fact remains that there was no court order and that the great publishing house could definitely have fought its case further and harder. Naturally, we’re all furious with Penguin’s chickening out. But despite our alarm, fury, outcry and protestations, I wonder if Penguin India is the real villain here.

William Dalrymple pointed out that “real villains are the laws in this country, which were old colonial laws drawn up in the 1890s, and which make insulting religion a criminal offence… The reality is that it is very difficult to defend yourself because the law is stacked very heavily on the side of any lunatic.”

Adding to Dalrymple’s voice of reason, Doniger herself defended her publishing house. Despite her anger and disappointment, she believes Penguin India was “finally defeated by the true villain of this piece – the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book”.

A copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History within India will be recalled and pulped.

All copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History within India will be recalled and pulped.

However, Arundhati Roy appears has a different opinion on the matter. In an open letter to Penguin India, she has demanded an explanation of their decision. And to be perfectly honest, as someone who’s seen Penguin as a hallmark of great literature, I cannot help but agree with her. Who else is going to fight for free speech when senseless, arbitrary laws threaten writers and readers with censorship? What a heart wrenching, agonizing irony it is that the purveyors of speech are the ones undermining free speech. If Salman Rushdie’s fatwa issued by the Ayatollah had sent a tsunami wave of shock and disbelief through the literary world, I can’t imagine that the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s books in the Indian subcontinent won’t do any less. The only point this proves is that fascists have no creed or nationality, and that sometimes, they do win.

As a citizen of the world and a woman of Indian origin, I am deeply concerned and a little frightened about the future of the freedom of speech in India as long as saffron-robed fascists are in power.


2 thoughts on “What’s going on at Penguin India?

  1. I think you need to be very clear on few issues here. I am a bit puzzled and surprised at your last line “I am deeply concerned and a little frightened about the future of the freedom of speech in India as long as saffron-robed fascists are in power.”

    Who are these saffron-robed fascists and where are they in power exactly?

    First of all I fully stand by the right of Wendy Doniger to write whatever she feels like and am against any kind of ban or restriction on freedom of speech.

    I am a Hindu and have serious issues with the kind of stuff people say about Hinduism but I will always stand by the right of everyone to say/ write/express their views whichever way they would want to. Even if it is a pack of lie, a figment of their imagination and hurtful things which may not be liked by me. I will challenge the writing with writing not by banning.

    Secondly, it is fashionable specially among the Left leaning people, who would like to call themselves liberals to cast aspirations on others (all those who may not agree with their point of view) as non-liberal or fascist. I think it is a big fraud which all left leaning so called intellectuals indulge in so often.

    I do not support the organization which took Peguin to the court on this matter, as I said, I am never in favor or any bans. I think it was very stupid on their part and they have given unnecessary publicity to this book and the writer. But before labeling them as saffron-robed fascists and wagging your finger on majority of Indians (specifically Hindu), please understand few facts.

    1. The book has been in circulation for more than 5 years now. It is not banned in any part of India. I repeat, not even in those state where Right leaning (which you and most other confuse with Hindu) political party BJP is in power. Even these guys (Siksha Bachao Andolan = Save Education Agitation) did not burn the book or indulge in creating ruckus all around but peacefully went to the court to challenge it using the civil legal right that they have under the constitution of India.
    2. This law to curb the freedom of speech and expression was not there in the original constitution of India, but put in there by the darling of Left intellectuals India’s first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru to stop people who were critical of him, as an amendment later on.
    3. Left leaning organization, hard core Christian and Muslims organization have been misusing this provision in law get things banned which does not suit their point of view. No left leaning intellectual will ever utter a word against Jawahar Lal Nehru or his party (the Congress) or the dynasty of rulers he left behind.
    4. Hinduism is one of the most open ended religion of the world, there are no restriction on criticizing any part of the faith. In fact there are so many versions of the books and scriptures of Hindu religion. It is not necessary for everyone to follow any strict code of conduct or specific set of rule, I guess you as an Indian must be already aware of that. Its a shame if you are not.

    I really take offence to the last line of your blog because it casts aspiration on a lot of people in India and is factually incorrect. The people in power today are hard core left leaning one’s. They have actually ruined the Indian growth story by their leftist ideas. More rules are being framed in India every day to make Hindus feel vulnerable, even though India is one of the only two Hindu majority countries in the world. There is no state sponsored religion in India – it is the magnanimity of the Hindu religion that despite their large numbers the minorities not just survive but flourish. It is here only that so many religion, sub-religion have survived but evolved and grown over the centuries. Just think of the countries across the world and tell me where would you find a similar example like India where a person from minority community is a) the Prime minister for last 10 years, also the most powerful political leader for more than a decade, minister for Defense, minister for foreign affairs, chief commander of Army.

    I know it is so fashionable to criticize and indulge in name calling towards Hindus, because they do not react. Try doing that towards other religions like Muslims and Christian for a change you will get a different kind of reaction all together.

    For 1000s of years we remained under occupation by foreign invaders, of other faiths. Still after getting independent we decided to live in peace with all, declaring ourselves as a secular country, respecting all religion, punishing those who would say anything negative about minority religion. And what do we get as reward. Constant name calling, constant insult to Hindu faith, constantly raising of the bogus threats of Saffron fascism.

    The day saffron becomes the color of fascism or even a little bit of intolerance, you will see a totally different kind of world, maybe it will not even survive. Why we call hinduism as a sanatan dharma (a religion which never ends) is because it is flexible, it is not hardcore, it has no place for intolerance, it has no place for fascism.

    Raise your voice if you want to against Penguin books, because they are the culprits here, they are the one who chickened out and did not pursue the matter legal, Because they are not making enough money from the book sales in India to spend the money on fighting the case. They are the one looking at the profitability and not the morality of the issue here. But the leftist wont do that, because they get their bread and butter from Penguin and such organizations.

    Raise your voice against the amendment to the Indian constitution done by Jawahar Lal Nehry and Congress party. Let there be complete freedom of speech for all, no restriction for anyone. Then I will also raise my voice with you.

    I am sorry for this long a comment. Enough insults are being hurled at Hindus community and politically and economically Right leaning Indians without any basis lately, and now particular on this issue. Just wanted to clear the air.

    Thanks and warm regards,


    • Hi Bhuwan,
      Thank you for your comment. I have no intention of changing your mind but I will respond to your emotionally charged accusations accordingly.

      How am I “wagging my finger at majority of Indians, specifically Hindus,” by saying that banning a book is what fascist or extreme right-wingers do? Are you saying that all Hindus are, by default, extreme right-wingers? I hope you do realize that you just implied that to be fascist and to be Hindu are one and the same. I get the feeling that you’re confusing your points here.

      It appears to me that you’re especially discomforted by that phrase, “saffron robed fascists”, and that your entire diatribe revolves around this one specific phrase.

      I thought my meaning was obvious, but I will happily explain it for the benefit of those who might misunderstand. When one demands to ban and destroy a book or publication that doesn’t agree with one’s worldview, as the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti compelled Penguin to do with Wendy Doniger’s book, then one is displaying fascistic behaviour.

      A fascist is someone who:
      a) Sympathizes with fascism
      b) Is part of a fascist movement
      c) A person who is dictatorial and has extreme right-wing views.

      Taken from: For the record, I meant the term as explained in point c. I am interested in how you think that BANNING a book because it offers a different perspective is not dictatorial. Essentially, the message you are sending out to the world is: “I don’t like what’s in here, so no one else is going to get to read it.”

      Also: a fascist is not the victim of an individual with left-leaning political views, something you keep repeating as though it was a personal slight.

      When the laws of one’s country, regardless of who put the laws there, allow a publication to be banned because it offers a different perspective of the country’s majority, then yes, there is definitely an element of fascism in play.

      I say they are in power because they have managed to muster enough authority to get a book pulped and banned. This is the same nationalist group that has campaigned against sex education in schools. This is the same organization that has tried to get schoolbooks (I’m not sure how successful this campaign was?) to reflect a history that, in Batra’s words, “reflects India’s pride” (

      I didn’t mean the ones in the parliament running the country are the fascists. I concede that this point could certainly have been made clearer.

      To address your points 1 – 4:

      1. Yes, it has been in circulation for more than 5 years. The point is that it’s not going to be any longer. Also, how nice of them to not indulge in book-burning. Why, they simply outlawed the book. Between the two, I really don’t know which is the worse evil.

      2. As I mentioned earlier, it is irregardless who added the law into the constitution. The point is that it is being used in such an ugly and ignorant manner. I understand perfectly if this law was used to ban a publication that promoted rape or pedophilia. Anyway, it would be great if you could support this point with evidence. Just for the general edification of those reading this.

      3. I’m very sorry to hear that this law have been misused in the past, but that hardly justifies what’s happening now.

      4. This is starting to feel like a personal attack. So. Yes, I know it is an open ended religion and there are no restrictions on criticizing any part of the faith… IN THEORY. The reality is completely different, isn’t it? I mean here you are badgering me for something I said in my personal space. That’s fine, I left the comment function here for a reason. (And I’m kind of enjoying this too.) And there Wendy Doniger is getting her book on an alternative history of the Hindu religion pulped because a Hindu political party doesn’t agree with what she wrote. I doubt she’s enjoying it, though.

      I do think that even though the Hindu religion doesn’t prescribe a set of strict rules to follow, some basic decency applies. Are you telling me that because Hinduism has no strict rules about necrophilia, that it is permissible? Your point here is pretty much a deus ex machine. Very convenient but not at all convincing.

      Finally, I’m not calling ALL Hindus fascists, as you insist on misunderstanding. I have only the highest regard for this faith. The fascists are those who brought Wendy Doniger to court, threatened her publishers, and appear to have done something to have finally gotten her book banned in an out-of-court settlement. Unless the entire Hindu population in India took part in this reprehensible act of censorship, I highly doubt what I wrote is offensive to all Hindus, as you so passionately claim.


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