HAF Expresses Concern Over Penguin Group's Fact-Checking Process

New York, NY (February 23, 2010) - The Hindu American Foundation sent the following letter to Penguin Group's President, Susan Peterson Kennedy, in an effort to understand the publisher's fact-checking process and standards for non-fiction pieces, such as Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History.  A pdf of the letter can be downloaded by clicking here.
Dear Ms. Peterson Kennedy,
On behalf of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy organization serving the Hindu American community, I am seeking an understanding of the editorial and fact-checking standards that Penguin Group (USA) applies to its pieces of non-fiction.  Specifically, it has come to the attention of HAF that The Hindus: An Alternative History written by Professor Wendy Doniger and published by Penguin Group (USA) contains a number of factual and historical inaccuracies.
For brevity’s sake, I will refer to only a handful of factual errors and mistranslations in this letter.  A more comprehensive list can be made available upon request.

Page, Paragraph

Error in The Hindus


67, 1

“But from about 2300 BCE the first urbanization took place, as great cities arose in the valley of the Indus River…”

1. Archaeologists date the beginning of urbanization as early as 3200 BCE; 2. Evidence of the beginning of urbanization is not restricted to the valley of the Indus River. Excavation in the Ghaggar Basin has too revealed evidence of urbanization at the same time if not earlier than in Harappa.

107, 3

“All the poems of the Rig Veda are ritual hymns in some sense. Since all were sung as part of the Vedic ceremony.”

A considerable portion of the Rig Veda is not employed in ritual. See Jan Gonda, 1978, Hymns of the Rgveda Not Employed in the Solemn Ritual. (Amsterdam).

112, 2

“…but another [verse] says that a cow must be slaughtered on the occasion of marriage (10.85.13)…”

A correct translation of the Sanskrit in Rigveda 10.85.13 is not that the “cows are slaughtered”, but that the “cows are driven along”.

124, 2

“More substantial is the early evidence in this poem of a form of rape that came to be regarded as a bad, but legitimate, form of marriage: having sex with a sleeping or drugged woman.”

A correct translation and interpretation of the Sanskrit in Rigveda 10.162.5 that Doniger cites is a conversation between an evil spirit assuming the form of her husband, brother or assuming the form of her lover to come close to a pregnant woman to destroy her fetus.  There is no terminology in the mantra of sex with a sleeping or drugged woman. The woman in the mantra is already pregnant and the entire hymn contains imprecations against evil spirits who can cause her abortion.

130, 2

“Agni is the Brahmin, Varuna the Brahminical sovereign, Indra the warrior, and the Ashvins the Vaishyas. There are no Shudra gods in the Vedas.”

It is anachronistic to talk of castes of Deities in the context of Rigveda.

Still, in Shatapatha Brahmana;, the devatas are also divided into four castes. According to that text, Varuna is a Kshatriya (not Brahmin). And Pushan is a Shudra Deity, contrary to Doniger’s claim.

Jaiminiya Brahmana 1.68-69 associates Sudras with the Deity Vesmapati. Sometimes, the Vishvedevas are also associated with the Shudras.

In light of the number of errors in The Hindus: An Alternative History, HAF and its constituency are particularly concerned about Penguin’s fact-checking process prior to the publication.  We urge Penguin to reexamine its fact-checking process for non-fiction pieces, particularly for those, such as The Hindus: An Alternative History, which present Hindu philosophy inaccurately and have the potential of being highly offensive to a religious minority in the U.S.
Moreover, the Foundation suggests that Penguin, at minimum, respond to the individual errors brought to your attention above and consult an academic outside of the University of Chicago whose expertise is also in the area of Hinduism and Ancient Indian history to cross-check historical facts and translations, prior to any reprinting of this book.  HAF has regularly attended the American Academy of Religion conferences to stay abreast of the latest research in the field of Hindu studies and, as such, is familiar with the many academics, such as Prof. Vasudha Narayanan of the University of Florida and Prof. Arvind Sharma of McGill University, whose knowledge of Sanskrit, Hinduism and ancient India is well respected not only in the field, but by the Hindu community at large.  I, along with our Board and staff, will be more than happy to provide additional recommendations to this end.
I look forward to your prompt response to this matter and sharing it with Foundation’s members.
Thank you,
The Hindu American Foundation