Earlier this month, Penguin Books India agreed to recall and destroy copies of a book by American scholar Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin did so in order to settle a four-year old lawsuit by a Hindu activist group, Shiksha Bashao Andolan, alleging that publication violated Indian law, which forbids insulting the religious beliefs of a class of citizens. In a statement, Penguin maintained that it had an obligation “to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.” Doniger concurred, stating that Indian law is “the true villain of this piece.”

The main complaint seems to be that Doniger’s book presents a hypersexualized, distorted version of Hinduism. Here’s Shiksha Bashao Andolan’s president, Dinanath Batra, in a Time magazine interview, describing what his group finds objectionable:

Doniger says [in the book] that when Sanskrit scriptures were written, Indian society favored open sexuality. The jacket of her book shows Lord Krishna sitting on the buttocks of nude women. She equates the shivlingam, worshipped all over India by millions, with sex and calls it an erect penis. She calls Gandhiji strange and says he used to sleep with young girls.

What I find most interesting in this controversy is the incomprehension each side has for the other. The activists, with Indian law on their side, think they are striking a blow for cultural and religious freedom. They are standing up to tactless outsiders who mock sacred things. Most Western observers, by contrast, are simultaneously repulsed and amused at the notion that people would find Doniger’s book off-putting and actually try to stop its publication. The activists must be rubes and obscurantists. The condescension comes through very clearly in the questions Time put to Batra, including the last one: “Don’t you worry that your objections might seem outdated in today’s modern world?” Batra’s answer is revealing, too: “We are not against modernity, but we are against westernization.”

Once again, we see the conflict between the values of WEIRD cultures–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic–and those of more traditional societies. WEIRD cultures stress individual expression and fulfillment; traditional cultures value authority, community, and sacredness. To someone from a WEIRD perspective, it’s impossible to believe that serious people could be morally outraged by Doniger’s book, or think destroying the book a proper response. By contrast, people embedded in a traditional Hindu culture find Doniger’s interpretation disgraceful and foreign—an insult that should not be borne.

Of course, cultures aren’t uniform. Some Indians have WEIRD values; some Westerners are traditionalists. Some well-known Indian writers objected to Batra’s lawsuit; here in the US, the Hindu American Foundation issued a statement basically endorsing Penguin’s decision. But, on the whole, the WEIRD/Traditionalist divide is a useful way to understand our world. It explains many current controversies, like blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan, proposals to ban circumcision in Scandinavia, anti-homosexuality laws in Africa, and the dispute over Doniger’s book.

As I’ve written before, it seems to me that three possibilities exist. First, WEIRD values will come to dominate worldwide. WEIRD culture has many benefits, and America projects it around the world relentlessly, through movies, advertising, the Internet, and so on. Second, Western culture will become less WEIRD. This could happen, too, especially if large numbers of people from traditional societies immigrate to the West. Third, and most likely, WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures will continue to face off against one another for the foreseeable future, with inevitable clashes and occasional compromises. Buckle your seat belts.

Articles by Mark Movsesian

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