India's Etiquette Police — A Post by Peter Heehs

“Should a historian or biographer writing about a religion or religious figure follow the protocol of the temple or of the university?”—Peter Heehs

The following post is by Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo:

Peter HeehsIn the beginning of February, Penguin India reached an out of court settlement with a man who had filed a criminal complaint against the company for publishing Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin agreed to withdraw the title and pulp all unsold copies. For the remainder of the month, the affair was widely discussed in the Indian and foreign press. Public intellectuals bemoaned yet another strike against freedom of speech in India; religious conservatives, who hope for gains in the coming national elections, crowed that this was just the beginning. (On March 1, news sources reported that the same complainant has threatened legal action against another of Doniger’s books.)

The Doniger affair caught my attention for personal as well as intellectual reasons. The release of the Indian edition of my book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published in May 2008, was blocked by a temporary injunction that November, and still has not appeared. Since then I have had to contest two criminal cases (both stayed) and one civil suit demanding my deportation (dismissed). When I looked at a copy of the complaint against Doniger’s book, it all seemed terribly familiar: the ad hominem attacks; the misreading of inoffensive statements; the cloaking of personal vendetta in legal language.

The complainant in the Doniger case averred that her book was “riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies,” but by my count only two of the thirty-three points he itemized dealt with matters of fact, and in both the problem was imprecision rather than inaccuracy. Of the other thirty-one points, fifteen were theological: statements about sacred texts or readings of passages that many orthodox Hindus would not accept. Six were political: negative remarks about socio-political organizations that the complainant held in high esteem. The remaining ten had to do with approach, tone, and taste. The complainant claimed that Doniger’s treatment was selective (she acknowledged this in the book); betrayed a Christian, anti-Hindu bias (she is a non-observant Jew); and demonstrated that she is obsessed with sex (she admits her professional interest in the subject).

I’d like to take this a little further and suggest that all of Doniger’s “inaccuracies and heresies” are actually perceived lapses of taste. She and other writers who books have been challenged have fallen afoul of India’s Etiquette Police. In using the term “etiquette,” I do not mean to trivialize the matter. Anthropologists and sociologists take questions of social protocol very seriously because people in the societies they study take them seriously. Protocol governs the social life of Manhattan offices as much as that of Amazonian villages. In India, I have found, the rules of etiquette are more elaborate than those I learned in the United States. The fixed laws of caste are gone (at least in urban public spaces), but not the unwritten laws governing the relations of juniors and seniors, females and males, outsiders and insiders. Doniger, I and other victims of the Etiquette Police (Indian as well as Western) are viewed by our critics as uncouth boors trying to gatecrash a ceremonial space.

The French “étiquette,” the source of the English word, means, among other things, “label.” Etiquette requires that the right labels be used when speaking of certain things to certain people in certain contexts. You have to be especially careful in your choice of words if the context is religious. Doniger called forcible sexual relations between gods and humans “rape.” This, according to the complainant, was not just crude but an offence against section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits words or acts that “outrage religious feelings.” Violations are punishable by up to eight years in prison. The same section was cited in criminal complaints against me. Among my verbal blunders: to refer to Mira Alfassa, Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator and the “Mother” of his ashram, as his “partner.” Partner, you see, can mean spouse in other-sex or even same-sex marriages.

Polite people avoid saying things that might disturb members of the communities they belong to or come in contact with. But most people belong to with several communities at once, and each has its own social code. I speak in different ways to members of my family, my friends, and my professional associates. Each academic discipline has its own protocols, and these can be as strict as the rules of caste. Academic biographers can be sympathetic toward their subjects, but they can’t just shower them with praise. They have to look for material in the archives of their subjects’ enemies, and examine what they find with care. They have to look for flaws in the established biographical narratives, reinterpret known facts, and introduce corrective material that previous biographers overlooked – or decided to ignore. When evaluating their subjects’ writings, they have to be as aware of their weaknesses as of their strengths. To avoid doing so would be to diminish their subjects’ significance.

Should a historian or biographer writing about a religion or religious figure follow the protocol of the temple or of the university? Or try to do both at once? My approach with Aurobindo was to follow academic protocol but to make the presentation as palatable as possible for his followers, who I assumed would make up part of my readership. Predictably, reactions were mixed. Some academic readers thought I was too sympathetic, many devotees thought I was too harsh.

In India, you are not supposed to say anything unfavorable about national heroes or spiritual leaders. Aurobindo was both. When a prominent public figure learned that I had provided a “critical” (I would say balanced) account of Aurobindo’s works, he asked: “What would people say if a priest had criticized the Pope?” I did not think it prudent to tell him that priests (and bishops and nuns) criticize the Pope all the time. The gentleman was, after all, an elderly, high-status man, and it would have been a breach of etiquette for me to speak.

1 Response

  1. The author is an insider as regards his subject while the same cannot be said about the Professor and therefore the two books stand on entirely different grounds. How strange that he has no remorse for injuring the intimate feelings of thousands of people who choose to adore The Mother! [TNM55]

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