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Dozens of Indian scholars, writers, and artists have found their work in the cross hairs of such self-appointed guardians of faith, as have the British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, whose novel editor Joseph Lelyveld, whose biography of Mahatma Gandhi was banned in the Indian state of Gujarat.
For decades, the fight over freedom of expression has divided Indian intellectual opinion, with little middle ground between the two most vocal camps: secular liberals on one end of the spectrum and religious conservatives on the other.
For instance, Doniger argues that the , a symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva that is found in temples, should be understood “unequivocally as an iconic representation of the male sexual organ in erection, in particular as the erect phallus” of Shiva. Similarly the Gopis double themselves, leaving shadow images of themselves in bed with their unsuspecting husbands." The SBAS’ claim to find such ideas offensive might have been easier to take seriously were it not coupled with overt misogyny: Doniger’s approach to her topic, the group’s legal complaint explained, revealed her to be “a woman hungry of sex.” Had the lawsuit against Penguin and Doniger proceeded, it is likely that a higher court would have ultimately upheld their rights to write, publish, and sell .
Similarly, Doniger notes that the , one of the two Sanskrit epics, portrays the deity Krishna as “a prince with many wives, sixteen thousand by some counts,” and points out that other Hindu texts "depict Krishna as a handsome young man who dances with the many Gopis, the wives of the cowherd men. But Penguin decided not to pursue that route and instead capitulated, agreeing to an out-of-court settlement with the SBAS that required Penguin to withdraw the book from the Indian market.
In fairness, of course, Hinduism is a vast, complex topic, more difficult to pin down, in many respects, than the Abrahamic faiths.
In fact, the term “Hinduism” is of relatively recent coinage; only since modern times has that single word been used to refer to what is in reality a huge variety of faiths, sects, and cults.
The convergence was hard to miss: just as the RSS and its allies gained the upper hand in their crusade against Doniger’s supposed heresies, their champion, Modi, was marching toward victory at the ballot box.
But there was also some irony to the way these two stories played out in tandem.