It isn't your typical bestseller-an 800-page monograph on the history of Hinduism.
But Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History shot to the top of India's nonfiction charts, attracting praise and sparking discussion in both India and the United States.
Doniger's work will be one of the many topics of the Divinity School's upcoming conference "Hindus in America: Hinduizing America; Globalizing India." The conference, from Monday, May 17 to Wednesday, May 19, will bring together many of the University's top scholars in South Asian studies to discuss a variety of issues in contemporary Hinduism.
Speakers will include Doniger; Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History; Leela Gandhi, Professor in English Language and Literature and the College; and Rochona Majumdar, Assistant Professor in South Asian Languages and Civilizations.
Sonam Kachru, a PhD candidate who helped organize the conference, said the Hindu community, both here in America and in India, has in recent years undergone significant changes that track socio-political shifts in India. "Not the least of these changes has been the fact that Hindu communities now show a concern for the ways in which their religion and its history are represented in the academy," Kachru said. "As a function of this change, Hindus have begun to express their interest in academic work that reflects the self-conception of their communities."
Doniger and Kachru both pointed to a 2006 controversy over the portrayal of Hinduism in California's textbooks as evidence of the mounting influence of Hindus in the public sphere. Two American Hindu groups objected to the textbooks' descriptions of the caste system and the status of Hindu women. Several scholars, however, objected to the groups' proposed changes, saying they were historically inaccurate.
"What you're seeing happening is a concern about who gets to write about a religious tradition," Kachru said.
It's an issue that Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, also has faced. Some Hindus objected to her portrayal of their religion in The Hindus.
In the book, she brought attention to scriptures that focused on ritual and on texts about and sometimes from women and Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables. These forms of Hinduism, she argued, were deemphasized under British colonial rule and by some Hindus worldwide.
"They didn't recognize their own religion in [the book], and I have sympathy for that," Doniger said. Still, she stands by her portrayal. "It was not their Hinduism, but…it was someone else's Hinduism."
"I felt I had stirred up a lot of things," Doniger said of her book. "I hoped this conference would help to clarify them."
The conference is also an opportunity to highlight the University's strong South Asian scholarship.
"We have textual scholars, historians, anthropologists-it's a really interdisciplinary conference. It's nice to show how strong Chicago is in the study of India in general and Hinduism in particular," Doniger said.
"It is a chance to get everyone talking to each other," agreed Kachru.
"Hindus in America: Hinduizing America; Globalizing India" will take place Monday, May 17 to Wednesday, May 19, in Swift Hall. For more information, please visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/conferences/hia/index.shtml.