At a public lecture in London, England, an angry Hindu threw an egg at eminent Sanskritist Wendy Doniger. The person missed, but Doniger never forgot. The Hindus: An Alternative History is her response.
Doniger has been translating and interpreting Hindu texts for decades and has been both celebrated for her work on cross-cultural mythology and vilified by those on the other side of the academic-versus-believer divide.
A self-described "recovering Orientalist" who knows her Latin and Greek rather than Urdu and Tamil, she stands accused of being a sex-obsessed Westerner who defames the faith. At the London lecture, where she dodged the egg, she had the temerity to suggest that Sita, the heroine of the epic poem Ramayana, was lusted after by her brother-in-law. (Doesn't Doniger know? No sex please, we're Indian!)
- The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, Penguin Press, 779 pages, $41.50
Many Hindus live in a sort of religious hyper-vigilance, like post-traumatic stress disorder survivors, waiting for the next attack. The trauma was the British colonial experience, where their religion was seen as merely a grotesque series of idols. Abolitionist William Wilberforce was not alone in thinking Hinduism "mean, licentious and cruel." Like Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana who must prove her purity to her husband Rama many times, Hinduism is constantly under trial.
It is to this maelstrom that Doniger brings her skeptic's eye, more interested in what can be teased out of stories than revelation as a fact. She is careful to state frequently that readers who are expecting a thorough understanding of Hinduism as a living faith should look elsewhere. Her agenda, she explains, is different: "It's not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the [Bhagavad]Gita."
Instead, what interests Doniger are those moments when the Others, which include women, Pariahs - a.k.a. Dalits, a.k.a. Harijans, a.k.a. Untouchables, a.k.a. Scheduled Castes - and animals (horses and dogs) puncture the traditional high-caste, male-centred narrative. The parts of Hinduism that interest her are pluralistic and hybrid, full of ideas and stories and themes that jostle against one another, such as violence and non-violence, renunciation and house-holding, sexual restraint and libido throughout Indian history, the kind the "egg faction would deny."
It's a formidable challenge, particularly as Hinduism is a religion that takes the poly in polytheism very seriously. In fact, polytheism may be a misnomer, since the gods and goddesses are not quite separate but equal, but rather manifestations of a larger Supreme Being, which itself is described in different ways depending on the philosophical school. Just like Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian , some Hindus even dispute the name Hindu, complaining that outsiders named them as the people who lived east of the Indus River.
Doniger brings a sly sense of humour to her subject, poking holes where she can, starting from the continental drift and moving to present. "Follow the horse" is one approach to determine whether the Vedas, the scriptural bedrock of Hinduism, is indigenous to South Asia. Because its language is particularly horsey, and because horses were always imported to India, Doniger says, there is merit in seeing the people who composed the Vedas just like any other group who came to India and contributed to its many traditions.
It's here in the stories that Doniger shines. The Hindus is quite the compilation, astoundingly diverse and self-referential; themes get re-written and re-invigorated through the ages, a strike against the stereotype of a never-changing, eternal Hinduism. For example, there's the tale of two women whose bodies and heads get accidentally transposed - the Brahmin body with the Pariah head, the Pariah body with the Brahmin head. Ancient gods like Indra and Surya, with their elaborate cosmologies, the Vedic superstars, fall by the wayside as new ideas about worship take form. Doniger presents a delightful reading of the Ramayan from Sita's point of view (she "is not a doormat"), taking her beyond the ideal, loyal wife.
Doniger also does a good job tracking how the Vedic era, with its animal sacrifices dependent on Brahmins, was superseded by new movements such as the birth of Buddhism and Jainism in the fifth century BC, and how, in turn, the ideas of non-violence and vegetarianism are reabsorbed into Hinduism, such that even the Buddha becomes an avatar of Vishnu.
However, The Hindus does have its problems. As she says herself, Doniger is no historian. The further she strays from Sanskrit interpretation (the subjects of her many previous books and translations), the more questions arise. Her many caveats, like self-protecting amulets, wear off. As Hinduism transforms itself, the Buddhists virtually disappear. Do they revert back to earlier affiliations or do they find a totally new faith as Islam arrives on the scene?
And Doniger can't quite shake the Indian-Sanskrit bias toward the north, emphasizing the south only when Tamil scholars conceive of new schools of thought in the 10th century, or, when in the sixth century, the Bhakti poets continue the move away from Brahminical religion through their intensely personal devotional style.
Doniger's choices can be idiosyncratic. While she highlights the poet-saint Kabir, who saw no difference between Hindu and Muslim, and the Rajput princess Mirabai's love songs for Krishna as part of the flowering of the devotional under Muslim rule in South Asia, she ignores Guru Nanak, who was just as pivotal. By the British period, Doniger works to redeem Rudyard Kipling's reputation while nonchalantly admitting she is not going to "even try to cover" the many texts by Hindus who confronted by British prejudice and reforms against practices like sati (or suttee as she is determined to call it), looked back to the Sanskrit corpus and found a faith to reclaim in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
While The Hindus is a reasonable first attempt at an alternative history, Doniger gamely tries to include Dalit voices and show the variety of Hindu experience. However, its promise is marred by a sloppy misreading of secondary sources and some overstretches of analysis. By the time she suggests that "the Vedic reverence for violence flowered in the slaughters that followed Partition," near the end of the book, I simply wanted to throw up my hands in defeat. When looking for transcendence, hyperbole is such a turn-off.
Piali Roy is a freelance writer and book reviewer in Toronto. Her two-part documentary, The Bhagavad Gita, aired on CBC Radio's Ideas.