The Doniger Book Controversy

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Kalavai Venkat

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book What Every Hindu Should Know About Christianity. Follow him on Twitter: KalavaiVenkat

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Penguin India reached an agreement with a litigant and agreed to voluntarily withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from the market within six months. Doniger decried the decision, denounced the Indian law which supposedly criminalizes the publication of “a book that offends any Hindu,” and alleged that Penguin withdrew the book fearing “it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks.” Arundhati Roy worried that authors would be compelled to write “only pro-Hindutva books” in the future. Western media and Indian leftists portrayed this incident as the silencing of an allegedly scholarly American academic by the supposedly intolerant Hindutva movement. The litigant was portrayed as a “dyed-in-the-wool RSS supporter” who had earlier successfully campaigned “for the removal of eminent scholar A K Ramanujan’s essay (Three Hundred Ramayanas) from a Delhi University history course.”doniger_kv_header

Dubious Scholarship

Doniger is a provocative though not always scholarly writer. The Harvard Sanskritist Michael Witzel and the Greek Sanskritist Nicholas Kazanas have criticized her understanding of the Vedic Sanskrit as deeply flawed. She atrociously claims that the medieval Islamic fanatic Aurangazeb and the infamous architect of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre General Dyer “brought about profound transformations in Hinduism [1].” Imagine an American academic claiming that Hitler, who caused the Holocaust of six million Jews, “brought about profound transformations in Judaism” or that George W. Bush, who caused the genocide of 1.3 million Iraqis, “brought about profound transformations in Islam.” Would the media or university administrators remain mute spectators or portray the academic as the victim in that case?

She also sanctifies and disseminates the false Christian propaganda and libel that “in 52 CE, Thomas landed in Kerala or Malabar and there established the Syrian Christian community that thrives there today; he then traveled overland to the east coast, where he was martyred in the outskirts of Chennai [2].”

The Syrian Christians of Malabar had no memory of Thomas visiting India and founding the Christian community in the aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus (which could very well be a cruci-fiction) until they were informed so by the Jesuits in the 18th century. The story is patently absurd and diabolical. Its evolution is rooted in the biblical prophecy (Isaiah 66:19) that the chosen people will one day carry a divine sign given them by god and proclaim the glory of the messiah to all Gentile nations. The Church fabricated myths to fulfill such prophecies. One such myth is the mission of Thomas to India.

The myth makes a peculiar beginning in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, where Jesus asks his twin Thomas Didymus to go to India to preach his message. Thomas refuses on the grounds of poor health. Jesus is annoyed, goes to the marketplace, and sells Thomas into slavery for a mere three silver coins. Not exactly an exemplary behavior and one is tempted to remark that even the much maligned Judas Iscariot took thirty shekels, i.e., silver coins, to betray Jesus whereas Jesus devalued his own twin brother, who was thought fit to be his apostle to the Indians in the first place. In the 4th century, ‘Saint’ Ephraem, evidently unaware that Thomas had been sold into slavery, makes him the apostle to the Indians and a martyr in a hymn he wrote where the Devil bemoans:

“Into what land shall I fly from the just?

I stirred up Death the Apostles to slay, that by their death I might escape their blows.

But harder still am I now stricken: the Apostle (Thomas) I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa; here and there he is all himself.

There went I, and there was he: here and there to my grief I find him.”

Ephraem is the first to invent the fiction that Thomas was martyred in India and that his bones were brought from there to be buried in Edessa (located in the Kurdish part of Iraq), where his tomb is venerated. He is oblivious to an earlier claim made by Origen, the 3rd century Church father, that Thomas was an apostle to Parthia (i.e., northeast Iran). Early Church fathers went berserk and added fantastic elements to the myth of Thomas. John Chrysostom claims that Thomas, on his way to India, first went to Ethiopia and “made the Ethiopians white.” Theodoret claims that “the Parthians, the Persians, the Medes, the Brachmans (i.e., Brāhmaṇa), the Indoos (i.e., Indian or Hindu), and other bordering nations received the Gospel of Christ from Thomas [3].” Such fantastic myths have been useful in misleading the gullible to pray to the relics of dead saints as cure for illnesses and to fill the coffers of the church.

Marco Polo, who visited India in the 13th century, further embellishes this fable. According to his account, one day, Thomas retired to pray in a forest. A hunter of the Gaui tribe, while hunting a peacock, inadvertently killed him. His body was then interred in the province of Malabar in a very inaccessible place which only the Christians and Muslims (i.e., Saracens or Arabs) visit. The Muslims regard him as a great saint and call him Ananias [4].

The story of the inadvertent killing of Thomas at the hands of a hunter is evidently modeled after the Hindu literary motif where Krṣṇa too is inadvertently killed by a hunter’s arrow. There has never existed a tribe by the name Gaui in Tamiḷnāṭu or Kerala. Islam, while recognizing Jesus as a prophet, does not venerate saints. It is only with the advent of Sufism in the 10th century that the veneration of saints started. So, the allusion that the Christians and Muslims worshipped the same saint whom they called Thomas and Ananias respectively confirms that this person, if at all he existed, could have only appeared after the 10th century and that he could not have founded the community of Syrian Christians of Malabar earlier. Christian narratives impossibly require Thomas to have been simultaneously martyred in two places, Chennai and the Malabar, and buried in three places, Edessa, Chennai and the Malabar.

The Jesuits embellished this myth even further and added the libelous claim that the Brāhmaṇa murdered Thomas and that his body was buried in the San Thome church (in Chennai). They also fabricated local testimony to support this allegation. The fact that so much ‘evidence’ to support the visit and martyrdom of Thomas was uniformly invented in the 18th century did not escape the attention of Prof. Forster, who, while translating Fra Paolino’s Voyage to the East Indies into German, remarks tongue in cheek, “It is very singular to find people in the 18th century bringing forward evidence to prove that the Apostle Thomas was stoned to death and interred 1,700 years ago.” Forster argues that the myth of Thomas might have been built upon a real 6th century historical character, Thomas Cana, a Syrian or Armenian, who came to Kerala and became one of the prelates of the Syrian Christians of Malabar [5].

The San Thome Church, where the remains of Thomas are allegedly buried, was built by the Portuguese Jesuits after demolishing the Mylapore Śiva temple dedicated to Kapālῑśvara. This temple is highly venerated in the ancient Tamiḷ literature from the 6th century onwards. Christian missionaries also demolished the adjacent Jaina temple dedicated to Neminātha Swāmi in the 16th century to build the present day San Thome Church. This is confirmed by the presence of inscriptions discovered in the church compound. The distinguished archeologist and epigraphist R. Nagaswamy points out:

“A few Chöḷa records found in the San Thome cathedral and bishop’s house refer to (the) Kapālῑśvara temple and Pūmpāvai. A Chöḷa record in fragment found on the east wall of the San Thome cathedral refers to the image of Lord Natarāja of the Kapālῑśvara temple. A fragmentary inscription, a twelfth century Chöḷa record, in the San Thome church region refers to a Jaina temple dedicated to Neminātha Swāmi [6].”

If the San Thome Church only came into existence in the 16th century and if Hindu and Jaina temples had existed in that spot until then, one can categorically rule out the possibility of the burial of Thomas in that site at an anterior date. This explains why the Syrian Christians had no memory of Thomas until they swallowed the 18th century Jesuit propaganda.

However, this calumny serves three ignoble purposes:

  • Add one more to the list of Christian ‘martyrs’ to deceive the gullible among the faithful. 
  • Demonize the Brāhmaṇa, an ethnic minority that has often borne the brunt of vicious hate campaigns by Christian missionaries and the fronts they fund. 
  • Whitewash the historical fact of the demolition of the Temple of Kapālῑśvara. 

The Catholic archbishop Arulappa even unscrupulously commissioned a person and paid him huge sums of money to forge ‘evidence’ on palm-leaf scrolls for Thomas’ visit to India [7]. Unfortunately for the Church, the fraud was exposed and the court sentenced the forger to prison which Arulappa then got commuted through an out of court settlement [8]. Very few canards have been so thoroughly debunked as the myth of Thomas in India.

Doniger wouldn’t have presented a false and libelous myth that unfairly implicated the Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, or Muslims as history out of fear of being called anti-Semitic, racist, or Islamophobic. Why did she spread a canard that unfairly implicates a section of the Hindus? Was the motive to aid the imperial-funded proselytizing efforts of Christian missionaries? Doniger mocks Hinduism with the line, “If the motto of Watergate was ‘Follow the money,’ the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ [9].” One is tempted to ask whether she has been ‘Following the missionary money’ since she has portrayed the Christian canard about Thomas as historical fact.

Unholy Alliance

Doniger has reportedly donated money to a group in which important leaders were members of the racist organization Ku Klux Klan. The members of the white supremacist group, Stormfront, admire her as a “a true White Nationalist soldier” and “one of the white nationalists who is from the left” and assert that her “method is primarily to point out the negative influence that Hindus have had on the world in general, but this does not mean that she does not highlight White pride. She does that too in her books when she gets the chance.” The white supremacist group recommends using Doniger’s writings to belittle Hindus.

One may protest that I am unfairly portraying Doniger as a racist based on frivolous associations. Let me make it clear that I am not concluding that she is a white supremacist. She may or may not be one. I do not have evidence to conclude either way. I can only cautiously note the disturbing fact that among her admirers are the most rabid white supremacists in the world. They are emphatic that her writings are the best weapons to belittle the Hindus. On the other hand, Doniger and her leftist supporters abandon all scruples to portray the Hindutva movement as fascist or intolerant of free speech based on a tenuous association between the litigant and the broad-based movement. May I remind Doniger that it is a self-defeating ploy to disingenuously portray ‘Hindu nationalists’ as intolerant when your own white supremacist admirers hail you as a “true white nationalist soldier?”

Free Speech

Doniger and her supporters perceive this incident as an attack on their freedom of speech. But, is only Doniger entitled to freedom of speech? Freedom of speech is as much about having the right to choose a book to read as it is about having the right to write and distribute it.

Who reads (or, is rather compelled to read) Doniger’s books in India? It is mostly students who major in history in universities or those who prepare for the Civil Services examinations. Unfortunately, these students cannot choose their authors. They are forced to follow the writings of the likes of Doniger and India’s Marxist historians whose scholarship is dubious and motivated by the pseudoscientific methods of psychoanalysis or class struggle. If these students and examinees interpret historical data, texts, and traditions using the rigorous methods of sciences, probability, reason, linguistics, and philology to arrive at interpretations which conflict with these authors’ opinions, they wouldn’t earn their degrees or pass examinations. The fear of persecution compels them to fall in line with the ideological stances of this small cabal of militantly vocal leftist academics. This curtails the freedom of students and examinees to reasonably choose their authors and interpretative methods. Why should that be tolerated?

An overwhelming majority of India’s educational institutions are publicly funded with tax money. It is only reasonable that students in these institutions are empowered to choose books of rigorous scholarship and interpret religion, culture, and history using methods consonant with reason and science. These institutions cannot be the fiefdom of a small cabal of leftist ideologues. One should not allow the use the pseudoscientific interpretative methods of psychoanalysis or class struggle in these institutions. So, books of dubious scholarship authored by Doniger and the Marxist historians should be disqualified from being used in universities. However, Doniger and her supporters should be free to publish whatever they want and sell it in the open marketplace. A gullible reader or white supremacist admirer should be free to read such works of dubious scholarship.

Doniger and her leftist admirers invoke free speech only as a fig leaf to attack the Hindus. They didn’t complain when Harvard infamously issued a fatwa to Subramanian Swamy because he expressed his opinions on curbing Islamic terrorism. They didn’t care about free speech when the Catholic Church ruthlessly banished the rationalist Sanal Edamaruku for exposing a fraud they were perpetrating on India’s gullible poor. Free speech was not on their minds when the Christian Church successfully suppressed the Da Vinci Code and the Lost Tomb of Jesus in India. It is only invoked to attack the Hindus. However, as the writer Arvind Kumar argues, this incident may not even have anything to do with the curtailment of free speech. Penguin India appears to have voluntarily withdrawn the book upon realizing that Doniger made false claims in the book which violate India’s consumer laws so as not to incur liabilities.

Western imperialists and their Indian leftist minions have no moral right to lecture the Hindus on free speech. Hindus have a tradition of irreverently portraying their divinities and critically examining their own beliefs. However, this doesn’t mean that one incorporates A. K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas in university curriculum whereas a factual discussion or critical examination of Christianity or Islam is disallowed. Very few students of history or religion in India would be aware that the oldest gospel – that of Mark, originally contained no references to the resurrection of Jesus, even though this truth claim is now fundamental to Christianity. The Church fabricated the verses that announce the resurrection and added them to the Gospel of Mark only in the 3rd century. As Metzger points out, “Clement of Alexandria and Origen (early 3rd century) show no knowledge of the existence of these (forged) verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage (referring to the resurrection) was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them [10].”

The leftists collaborate with the Christian Church and Islamists to actively prevent any scholarly examination of Christianity or Islam. They are intolerant of free speech when it portrays Christianity or Islam unflatteringly. They only use it conveniently and selectively to attack Hinduism and the Hindus. On those rare occasions when they are challenged by the Hindus, they cry foul and play the victim. The humanities departments in the West as well in India are overwhelmingly dominated by anti-Hindu demagogues. On the other hand, departments of Christianity or Islam are staffed with ardent believers or sympathizers. It doesn’t take a lot to understand that this imbalance is not accidental but the result of careful design.

These anti-Hindu demagogues wouldn’t stop until Hinduism is destroyed and replaced by Christianity. Next time they play the victim and complain about the violation of free speech, tell them: “Welcome to the club! We Hindus have little freedom to criticize or examine Christianity or Islam. Now, it is your turn to experience the law of karma in action. What goes around baby eventually comes around. Even selling your soul to the missionaries (or is it ‘follow the missionary money?’) doesn’t negate this cycle.”


[1] Doniger, W: An Alternative Historiography for Hinduism, The Journal of Hindu Studies, March 2009, 2, pp. 23-24.

[2] Doniger, Wendy: The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 366.

[3] Yeates, Thomas: Indian Church History or an Account of the First Planting of the Gospel in Syria, Mesopotamia, and India with an Accurate Relation of the First Christian Missions in China, p. 19.

[4] Komroff, Manuel and Lapshin, Nikolai Fyodorovitch: The Travels of Marco Polo, pp. 382, 389, 396, 397.

[5] Yeates, Thomas: Indian Church History or an Account of the First Planting of the Gospel in Syria, Mesopotamia, and India with an Accurate Relation of the First Christian Missions in China, p. 75.

[6] Goel, Sitaram: History of Hindu-Christian Encounters (AD 304 to 1996), pp. 425-427.

[7] The main purpose of the forgery was to support the fraudulent claim that the celebrated Tamiḷ Hindu philosopher, Tiruvaḻḻuvar, whose works were inspired by the Bhagavad Gīta and the Mῑmāṁsa doctrine, was a disciple of Thomas whereas its secondary purpose was to lend credence to the lie that Thomas visited India.

[8] Goel, Sitaram: History of Hindu-Christian Encounters (AD 304 to 1996), pp. 432-433.

[9] Doniger, Wendy: The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 40.

[10] Metzger, Bruce: A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 123.

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book What Every Hindu Should Know About Christianity. Follow him on Twitter: KalavaiVenkat


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