I was under the benign influence of “Gates of the Lord,” the Art Institute’s exhibit of traditional Krishna paintings by Pushtimarg artists, when Wendy Doniger’s high-profile troubles popped into mind.
The Pushtimarg, centered for hundreds of years in the remote Indian village of Nathdwara, practice a deeply aesthetic form of Hinduism. Their representations of the god Krishna, focused largely on the stories of his childhood and youth, are both an essential part of their religious practice and a historical record of it.
The works on display in Chicago include elaborate temple hangings on cloth and antique miniature watercolors. They show the distinctive black or blue god (“Krishna” means dark) playing a flute, hiding in a tree, dancing in a circle with an adoring group of milkmaids, and, most frequently, holding up a mountain with the fingertips of his left hand. They are exquisitely detailed visual narratives, stylized and chaste.
Doniger, a University of Chicago history of religion professor and a prolific writer on Hinduism, is the author of the prize-winning 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Its cover features a more rambunctious painting of Krishna, happily perched side-saddle atop a composite animal—a horse made of the bodies of beautiful, discreetly naked women.
Last year, that cover, and some of the content of her book, put Doniger at the center of an international literary brouhaha sparked by Dinanath Batra—a former teacher who’d successfully campaigned against other books, as well as sex education in Indian schools—and other Hindu fundamentalists who didn’t find Doniger’s book chaste enough. The book had been the target of multiple lawsuits since it was published in India in 2010; Batra alleged that it violated an Indian law (Article 295a) that makes it a crime to deliberately “outrage” anyone’s religious sensibilities.
Doniger’s publisher, Penguin Books India, defended The Hindus for four years. But in February 2014, the publisher announced that, as part of a settlement, it would never again publish the book in India—and would pulp any existing inventory.
The announcement drew its own outrage from writers and academics in India and beyond who were concerned about freedom of speech. In a New York Times op-ed a month later, Doniger explained it this way: “I think the ugliness of the word ‘pulp’ is what struck a nerve, conjuring up memories of Fahrenheit 451 and Germany in the 1930s. The outrage had been pent up for many years, as other books, films, paintings and sculptures were forced out of circulation by a mounting wave of censorship.”
The censorship of the book was reflective of the national mood: two months later, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected prime minister.
At the time, Doniger was taking her situation in stride. She noted in the Times piece that nothing spurs book sales like being “banned”—copies of The Hindus in Indian bookstores promptly sold out, and its online sales soared.
As I made my way through the scalloped arches and intimately-lit galleries of the Art Institute show (mounted with major funding from the charitable arm of Indian corporate giant Reliance Industries), I wondered if anything had changed for Doniger. As it turns out, it had.
The Hindus is back on sale in India. Ravi Singh, who headed Penguin Books India when the book was published, has launched a new company, Speaking Tiger. Now Singh has the Indian rights to the book and brought out a new paperback edition last month. When we spoke, Doniger had just received photos of it, prominently on display in airport bookstores in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore.
“The Indian government . . . only approves of a certain, narrow band of all that Hinduism is—a sanitized version that excludes reference to anything erotic.”
—University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger
The cover, however, had a do-over: Krishna and his voluptuous steed have been replaced by an ancient statue of the god Shiva—an image that could only be a problem for those offended by the idea of androgyny, or the sight of an extra arm or two.
“There’s a split right now in Hinduism,” Doniger told me in a phone conversation last week. “The Indian government, which is right-wing and fundamentalist, only approves of a certain, narrow band of all that Hinduism is—a sanitized version that excludes reference to anything erotic. But for centuries, Hinduism has had a great deal of eroticism built into it.”
Ironically, Doniger said, the brand of Hinduism the fundamentalists are promoting is one that was shaped by 19th century British Protestants, who objected to “the sex, the sacrifice, and the sorts of things that reminded them of Catholicism, like the worship of multiple deities and the use of images.” They influenced “a thin layer of Hinduism that happens to be prominent politically now,” she said, while “most of Hinduism stayed as it was”—the earthy, diverse, and vital culture that has been the subject of her voluminous scholarship.
Gates of the Lord curator Madhuvanti Ghose writes in a catalog essay that the Nathdwara artists carrying on the Pushtimarg tradition are struggling in the 21st century. Without new patrons, she fears, the richly embellished world they continue to portray could come to an end. We have another month to see what would be lost; Gates of the Lord closes January 3. v