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Oxford University Press to reprint controversial essay

Oxford University Press has decided to “immediately” reprint a controversial essay, after pressure from scholars and members of Oxford University.

OUP’s decision in 2008 to stop printing two books containing A.J. Ramanujan’s essay ‘300 Ramayanas’ coincided with certain groups in India looking into legal proceedings based on the claim that the essay was offensive to Hindu sentiments, with OUP India as one of the potential respondents. 

Members of the academic community in Oxford and abroad criticised OUP’s decision, with many claiming that it was detrimental to OUP’s reputation, and to Oxford University’s by extension. 

This had been reported on by Cherwell this term.

OUP claimed that its choice to stop printing the books was solely down to commercial factors, but this week changed their publishing decision, reprinting both books and a further book called Questioning Ramayanas, also on the topic. A spokesperson stated, “OUP has an important role to play in ensuring that the best scholarship is disseminated freely, and we hope the reprinting of these three important works will demonstrate our commitment in this regard.” The books will now be available in India and beyond.

Campaigners at Oxford University said they were “extremely glad that OUP recognised the importance of reprinting these books”.  The three organisers of an international petition to reprint the books issued a joint statement, stating “We whole-heartedly support this affirmation of OUP’s longstanding commitment to excellence in scholarship, to the broadest possible dissemination of knowledge, and to the right of scholars, writers, and artists to freedom of thought and expression everywhere.”

OUP also rejected allegations that they had “apologized” for publishing the essay and had not stood by their publishing decision. A letter sent in 2008 from OUP to the potential litigants apologized for offending the sentiments of Hindus, adding that OUP was not selling the book nor were there any plans to reissue it. OUP claims they have been “misinterpreted” and wish “to restate the fact that OUP does not and never has apologised for publishing any work by Ramanujan.”

The essay in question looks at different versions of the ‘Ramayana,’ a Sanskrit epic poem which is also a sacred Hindu text. One issue for the potential litigants in India was that one published version has the protagonists Rama and Sita as siblings, whereas they are husband and wife in Hindu tradition. The narrative is celebrated in the Hindu festival Diwali, and is part of Buddhist tradition.

The author of two of the books, A.J. Ramanujan was a distinguished historian who spent most of his career at the University of Chicago studying Indian culture and literature. He died in 1993. 

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