Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, believes ancient Indian texts are open to interpretation by experts around the world. She was responding to questions regarding the ongoing controversy over the 2014 book, “Indra’s Net,” by Rajiv Malhotra, which has been attacked on social media for allegedly plagiarizing from a 2010 book, “Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History,” by Professor of Hinduism and Indian Philosophy Andrew Nicholson of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Doniger’s seminal work, “The Hindus, An Alternative History,” first published in 2009 in the West and later in India, was pulled off shelves in Indian in 2014, by Penguin India after a raging controversy and a suit alleging it was against an Indian law that prohibited “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of any religious community.” Still smarting from that attack, the University of Chicago professor who has been writing and teaching about Hindu religion for 50 years, said she decried any effort to stop the free flow of ideas and called the latest storm over Malhotra’s book, more of the same.
Doniger said there was no doubt that Malhotra had cited Nicholson verbatim in some cases and without attribution. “It does seem to me that a rather obvious case of plagiarism has touched off a much broader debate that is simply exhuming all of the old Hindu beefs [if I may use that word] about colonialism, and western scholarship, and all the rest,” Doniger told News India Times.
There appeared to be nothing new in the controversy, she said, one that appears intermittently between scholars and non-scholars in India and in the U.S. Particularly entrenched is the stand taken by some Hinduism scholars and laypersons, that Western scholars have over the centuries, appropriated Indian texts and set their own standards for evaluating whether others writing on the subject had professional standing to do so.
“I don’t think there is any substance to the argument about Western scholars “appropriating” Indian texts—the texts are there for anyone to write about them, if he or she simply takes the trouble to learn Sanskrit or Telugu or whatever, and a bit of the historical and social context,” Doniger contended.
One scholar’s work can neither prevent nor prohibit another scholar from using a text. “Western scholars can’t damage the texts they interpret, no matter how wrong their ideas about them may be,” she said, adding, “Indians can air their views at any time.”
However, she had strong words for Malhotra, who she said knows nothing about the subjects he writes about. “But he keeps publishing books, and I am all in favor of it—anyone who has something to say about an Indian text has a right to say it,” she qualified. By the same token, she disapproved of those who claim others should not write about Indian texts. “And there is my quibble with Malhotra. I have never tried to get him to stop writing, or to get people to stop reading his stuff, and he should not try to stop me, or to stop people from reading me.”