Reflections on Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An alternative history, The Penguin Press, 2009


                                                                                

The following is NOT a review of the book, but REFLECTIONS on the book as I read through it. In recent weeks, quite a number of Hindu scholars/specialists have brought to public attention several serious factual errors and unacceptable interpretations of Hinduism that they have uncovered in the book. In the light of those revelations my reflections may seem to be unacceptably generous to many. I understand that sentiment. One highly respected internet scholar on Hindi-Hinduism has commented that my scholarship is as shoddy as Doniger’s. It is not often that I receive ad hominem attacks. So  that is fine. But, as I said,  I have just stated my personal reactions as I read the book.
(Note added on March 17, 2010)

Introduction

Wendy Doniger is a scholar of repute among academic Indologists, known especially for her many translations and interpretations of various classical Sanskrit texts. She is also a person of ill-repute among a large section of modern literate Hindus in whose estimate her Freudian interpretations of traditional (Hindu) symbols are obsessive, offensive, and plain wrong. And she may be fairly unknown to millions of others with only a peripheral interest in matters Hindu or Indian.

One thing the outside world knows well about Hinduism is that it is steeped in the infamous caste system in which the upper caste Brahmins (used to) hold sway. The widespread impression one gathers from notifications on the caste hierarchy is that the Brahmins possessed all the knowledge while they oppressed and exploited the lower castes. Then again, as in most other traditional societies, women held only a second place in the Hindu world. Though there may be more than a few grains of truth in such assessments, what is far less known is that vast numbers of women and members of the so-called lower castes have also made significant contributions to Hindu culture and civilization. Their voices have been heard, their perspectives have been preserved, and their writings are read and recited in the fascinatingly complex that is Hinduism.

The author of this book has done a marvelous job of setting the record straight on this matter. She does this with the erudition that is expected of her, with an understanding that only an insightful scholar can muster, and an empathy that might come as a surprise to some of her harsh critics from the Hindu world. She presents her alternative history, not by recounting who did what, when and where; her chronological narrative is constructed with profuse quotes from important and sometimes little known texts, to which she has added her own commentaries.

The book is strewn with wit, wisdom and word-play, as also nuggets of insights on Hindu visions. Doniger reminds us of the Hindu capacity to entertain contradictory views, which also enables one to see both sides of an argument (p. 11). Perhaps this springs from the recognition that this finite world of ours is replete with dualities which are sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary. She presents this as an explanation, if not as an excuse, for studying the culture as an outsider while fully recognizing the right and relevance of those who study it as insiders. Ironically, this enlightened vision comes from an outsider today while there are voices from within that decry the outsider whose views are said to be skewed by colored and callous lenses through which they peer. While I can well understand why and how a great many Hindus may be outraged and infuriated by Doniger’s frequent Freudian interpretations, upon reading this book, I am inclined to trust her when she says: “… I intend to go on celebrating the diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus that I have loved for about fifty years now and still counting (p. 16).” By the way, there are not too many hints of  Freudian perspectives in the book.

Doniger makes some keen observations on the Indian mind: “In Indian history, individuals have turned the tide against tolerance or violence even against the current of the zeitgeist (p. 21).” She has a clear grasp of myths and symbols, and gives as intelligent a commentary on the linga as one can find anywhere (p. 22). She discusses at length the diversity that characterizes the Hindu world (p. 24) , and she has revised the ithyphallic interpretation of the Indus Valley seal (p. 34). She brings out the role and relevance of women in the evolution of the Hindu world, as seen in texts and references, as also of the variety of non-caste Hindus who have borne a range of (not very complementary) epithets. Unlike most writers on India by Western scholars, Doniger devotes an entire chapter to the Tamil (South Indian) tradition. Here, if one may point to a sin of omission, the names of Auvaiyar and the epic of Kannaki (Silappatikaaram) are glaringly absent. She also makes us aware of the central role that animals have always played in Hindu culture, and points out that the trinity of power, purity, and pollution are symbolized in Hindu lore and literature through the horse, the cow, and the dog (p.40).

The beginning

The history begins from the geological Gondwanaland which rests on the continental drift model and the mythical Lemuria to which some Tamil enthusiasts still trace their distant and all but forgotten ancestry (p. 51 et seq.). Few modern texts on Indian history – mainstream or otherwise – even mention these. There are then discussions of the first of the avataras (the Mastya) (p. 58), and the four major eons (yugas) of Hindu mythic chronology (p. 57). But right here Doniger makes the well-known observation about the Hindu world: the “rich hybrid or multiple mix is precisely what makes Hinduism the cultural masterpiece that it is (p. 64).”

The world knows about the cave paintings in Altamira and Lascaux, but not many may have heard about Bhimbetka cave paintings that date back to 30,000 years and more. So the history appropriately begins with a brief report on these. Then follows a coup d’oeil of the Indus Valley Civilization which is the ur-civilization of India, never mind its current national location in Pakistan. Speaking of the controversial interpretations of the seals, Doniger suggests the possibility that” the people of the IVC had no religion at all, in trhe sense of a state cult or an enforced dogma., Is it possible that this was the first secular state, anticipating the European Enlightenment by four thousand years (?) (p. 80).” This seems certainly more probable than the claim that Vedantic philosophers knew all about quantum mechanics.

On origins

A whole chapter (5) is devoted to a discussion of various theories as to the origins of Vedic civilization, and Doniger is careful not to openly take any side. She does point to the problems that the various conjectures face. In the course of these discussions she has no problem conceding (like modern Westerners) what many Indian nationalists sometimes tauntingly reiterate, namely that “the people of the Indus were building great cities and the people of the Vedas creating great literature at a time when the British were still swinging in trees (p. 93).” She does present the absence of any horse evidence to suggest that at the very least the Vedic civilization was not a direct continuation of the IVC. Nevertheless, she notes the worldviews and visions of the people of IVC being deeply embedded in Hindu culture. As she puts is, “The non-Veda is the fons et origo of Hinduisam; new ideas, new narratives, new practices arose in the non-Sanskrit world, found their way into the Sanskrt world, and, often, left it again, to have a second or third or fourth life among the great vernacular traditions of India (p. 100-01).”

In a chapter dealing with aspects of the Rig Veda (5) attention is drawn explicitly to the violence implicit in the sacrificial rites, and the tension between the upper and lower layers of society. We are told that the marginalization is characteristic of people of “all classes who fall pray to addiction and/or intoxication … (p. 104).” But she also points out that the Vedic mindset is pluralistic, and open-minded. She sees the very pluralism (in the context of social classes) as being at the root of the caste system that has become an intrinsic, and almost in-erasable aspect of Hindu society. Her reflections on the Rig Veda is not for the orthodox, certainly not for those who regard the hymns as revealed truths that have vibrated since the first tick of time, heard by only by the privileged few rishis. But if the reader approaches them as the inspired poetry of eminent sage poets of a pastoral and prevailing people, her analytical commentaries may sound both interesting and insightful.

The following chapter (6) discusses sacrifices: their origins and impacts, and here we are told how post-mortem theories were slowly refined since Vedic mythopoesie. She reminds us that “sacrifice is about death and sex. Rituals tend to tame those dangers (associated with sex and death) … and to make them public, to make them safe for the sacrificer (p. 160).” Here too the role of women and dogs is mentioned. We are reminded that meat (beef) eating by ancient Hindus was not uncommon, as also of the possibility of human sacrifice in those distant times. In this chapter we get to know about one Hindu theory of theodicy: “Evil on earth in general results from fallout from heaven, and the cosmic struggles of gods and antigods (p. 162).”

Renunciation and spirituality

In a chapter on renunciation in the Upanishads (7) various meanings of karma are explained (p. 168 et seq.), as also a possible reason for the reincarnation concept, perhaps to account for the fact that the heavens are not overcrowded with the souls of the dead (p. 170). We are told that “Hinduism was violent not only in its sensuality but in its reaction against that sensuality – violent, that is, both in its addictions and in the measures that it took to curb those addictions… p. 194).” Here she also reiterates the central thesis in most of her other writings: “… sensuality continued to keep its foot in the door of the house of religion; the erotic was a central path throughout the history of India (p. 195).” But more importantly, much perhaps to the disappointment of those Hindus who are convinced of their unique spirituality and to the satisfaction of Neo-Hindus who want to show the world that Hindus are as this-world–minded as any people, she informs us of recent evidence that seems to suggest that “Hinduism … on the ground was less concerned with soteriology and more with worldly values than textual scholars had previously assumed (p. 195).” This just shows how misleading interpretations from texts alone can be.

In an interesting listing of various triads in the Hindu worldview: gunas, doshasm, lokas, arthas, etc. we read how a fourth one was often added. Thus, as in the Tirukural (which, strangely, is not mentioned even once in the book), there used to be only dharma, artha, and kama. Moksha was added as a fourth principle only later. Doniger points out that likewise a fourth was added to the other triads also. With her usual wordplay she calls this squaring the circle: impossible mathematically, but achievable on the philosophical plane. The rules of dharma are nicely formulated, but we are reminded that “these rules were not meant to apply to women, whose only sva-dharma was to obey their husbands, and their only sacrament, marriage (p. 210).” She could have added in fairness that in this matter the classical Hindu world was not any different from any other cultural scene.

Women in the Ramayana and violence in the Mahabharata

The chapter on women and ogresses in the Ramayana (9) is somewhat disappointing. Aside from the fact that the epic itself is not summarised in the most respectful tone, there is no reference to Urmila or Mandodhari. Manthara (without whom there would have been no book beyond the Balakanda) is disposed of as the hunchback woman, and the noble Ahalya is simply called “the archetypal adulteress (p. 232).” I would have expected some deeper and more interesting analyses of these women.

As a prelude to a chapter devoted to violence in the Mahabharata there is a (not very hearty) summary of Ashoka’s conquests and edicts, and the rise of sectarian worship in the Hindu world. Then she goes to discuss the chronology of the MB with respect to the Ramayana, and the unified anthology of stories that the epic is. She wisely notes that “The contradictions at its heart are not the mistakes of a sloppy editor but the enduring cultural dilemmas that no author could ever have resolved (p. 264).” Then she draws a parallel between the “ambivalence towards nonviolence (ahimsa) expressed in the Ashokan edicts and in the Mahabharata (p. 265).” She also sees a core pessimism in the epic when she declares that “The Mahabharata sees a vice behind every virtue, a snake behind every horse, and a doomsday behind every victory (p. 276)”: as Doniger herself often sees a hidden sexual meaning behind every episode, one might add.

But in a following chapter (11) she reminds us that there is also dharma in the Mahabharata. That dharma is the central motif in the epic is well-known to any student of the epic. But often one also tends to focus on, and take literally, the story line of the epic. In this context Doniger draws a beautiful simile: “To say that the long sermons on dharma are a digression from the story … would be like saying that the arias in a Verdi opera are unwelcome interruptions of the libretto; dharma, like the arias, is the centerpiece, for which the narration (the recitative) is merely the frame (p. 177-78).” She could have added in this otherwise apt analogy that the opera belongs uniquely to the aesthetic dimension of culture, Mahabharata has an ethical dimension too. Then again, through this parallel which will be hardly clear to a good many Hindu readers, we can see that this book is not addressed to a Hindu audience, but to a Western. The root of the frustrating enigma of the Hindu world is also stated here: “The Mahabharata both challenges and justifies the entire class structure (p. 286).” The chapter which includes among other topics a detailed discussion on Draupadi and polyandry, and concludes with some insightful reflections on the two major (Sanskrit) epics of the tradition (p. 302-03).

On shastras, bhakti and Puranas

Doniger succinctly describes the shastras as the body of writings that “spelled out the dominant paradigm with regard to women, animals, and castes (305).” She brings out the chaos and creativity of the so-called age of darkness, and talks about Manu and all the associated restrictions and penalties, and how women are regarded in the dharmashastra and in the Kamasutra. In this chapter (12) she refers to Manu as “the flag bearer for the Hindu oppression of women (p. 327),” and points out that through Vatsayana’s text we can hear women’s voices telling us that “women have no voices (328).” She lists modes by which sexually challenged males were described, and the conventional penalties for the same. One important aspect of the shastras, which has perhaps been a saving grace for the Hindu world – saved from the horrors of medieval punishments for misbehavior such as obtained in other cultures – was that “The shastras present, from time to time, diametrically opposed, even contradictory opinions on a particular subject, without coming down strongly in favor of ne or the other (p. 334).” Recognizing that not everyone really or literally followed the shasras, Doniger pays a tribute to those writings when she describes them “as theoretical treatises (that) constitute one of the greatest cosmopolitan scientific literatures of the ancient world (p. 337).”

In the chapter on bhakti in South India (13) we read a brief history of the Tamils, descriptions of temples, sculptures, and architecture, as also of the habitual slaughter and brutality of the Chola army. This simply reveals that when it comes to conquests and subjugation, the peoples of the world were/are basically the same. Doniger points out that in the bhakti movement, the feminine virtues of gentleness, sacrifice, and love replaced the masculine traits of intelligence and scholarship (p. 353). She rightly remembers Antal in this context who was to inspire many a later-day woman saint in the tradition; but of whom few Northern Indian Hindus have even heard. She writes Periya Puranam without an m (p. 357 et seq.) suggesting that her knowledge of Tamil, unlike Sanskrit, is only second-hand. Her narration of the legend of Kannappar (which she suddenly retells as if it is history) is somewhat glib, with statements like “Kanappar does not understand metaphor (p. 358).” Clearly, with all her deep scholarship, she either doesn’t seem to understand or inadvertently trivializes bhakti. On not infrequent occasions like this, Donigar unwittingly (or is it wittily?) tarnishes her otherwise interesting, profound, and insightful reflections. She reiterates the now doubtful episode of the appalling Jain persecution at the hands of Hindus in the Tamil country, only to concede  in the end that “there is no evidence that any of this actually happened other than the story (p. 365).” Then why tell this story?

In the chapter on the Puranas (14), she lists a few early Hindu mathematicians. She spends more lines on the Mahabharata version of Shakuntala which portrays King Dushyanta in ugly terms, and barely says a line about the greatness of Kalidasa as a poet. In this chapter again, there is a cold, not to say sarcastic, listing of the vahanas of the Puranic deities, which many practicing Hindus might find offensive, even if she might not have meant it to be; and Non-Hindus might find it  inscrutable, if not comical. However, in the end she does seem to get it when she says that the association of animals with the godheads “may be seen as a more particularized expression of the basic Hindu philosophy (belief?) that the ultimate principle of reality (brahman) is present within the soul of every living creature (atman) (p.p. 400).” She could have started the section with this intelligent observation.

Sects, sex, and philosophical schools

One gets a scholarly overview of the Tantric tradition from chapter 15 of the book: its history, its bases, its ramifications, and its interpretations. There is even a clever substitution for equivalence of the conventional Sanskrit five M’s of the Tantric framework with five English F-words (p. 424). But even with all the female-flattery in the texts (“Women are gods, women are life, women are jewels, etc.” as embodying “the secret of all the Tantras”), on final analysis, as Doniger curtly puts it, “for the most part the (Tantric) rituals were designed to benefit people who had lingas, not yonis (p. 433).”

In a chapter on different philosophical schools, provocatively entitled, Philosophical feuds (18), we have a succinct survey of some major philosophical systems wherein the role of Shankara is well brought out, and the impact of the South Indian Saiva-siddhanta on Kashmir Shaivism is carefully articulated.

On Moghul impacts

While most Hindus are rightly outraged by the plunders and pillages of the likes of Mahmud of Ghazni and Ibrahim Lodi, not many may know that, like the British centuries later, Muslims first entered India as innocuous traders (p. 448). And we are told that “despite the evidence of persecution of varying degrees in different places and times, Hinduism under Islam was alive and well and living in India (p. 459).” This, however, may be poor consolation to millions of Hindus whose life and culture have been led to face the most intense existential challenges as long-range consequences of Islamic imperialistic intrusions into the land of the Hindus: something she doesn’t think is necessary to point out, perhaps because she doesn’t want to dwell on the negative sides of these interactions which are marring the global scene today .

In her recounting of the history and variety of the Puranic avataras Doniger not only exposes their medieval imaginative origins, but also lays bare the many mix-ups in their listings and versions, in spite of which many (even modern) Hindus continue to attach historical authenticity to the tall tales that form their contents. She mentions the more recent claims that the avataras are deep insights into the Darwinian theory of evolution (p. 475). In another context she mentions a tongue-in-cheek reference to Geroge Bush as “the contemporary form of Kalki (p. 679).”

She recounts the barbarity of Babur, as also the gentleness and tolerance of Akbar, the fanatic and savage deeds of Aurangazeb – especially his demolition of Hindu temples and building mosques in their place and his dismembering of Shambhaji- as also Jahangir’s conversion experiences regarding hunting and meat-eating. She remembers the well known conversion of large numbers of Hindus into Islam, but also records the much less widely known fact that many Muslims were also converted into Hinduism and Shah Jahan’s efforts to curb this (p. 546).

In a chapter on Hinduism under the Mughals we read about the increase in the number of visitors to places of pilgrimage encouraged by the kings (so as to collect more taxes), the emergence of Tulsi Das and his impact on popular (North-Indian) Hinduism, of the rise of Sri Chaitanya and his impact, and so on.

The Raj

The changing attitudes of the British towards India are dissected, with a mention of deep Orientalism. In passing, there is a reference to its counterpart Occidentalism (the facile identification science, materialism, technology, colonialism, imperialism, exploitation of the Non-West with Western civilization) which sorely needs a thorough examination in the current world. It is not clear of any scholar from the West or the Non-West is ready to undertake such a study.

Doniger is not very friendly to the British, least of all in her reporting on the Black Hole of Calcutta, and compares the British argument that they had brought trains and drains to India to Hitler’s apologists who say he built the Autobahn in Germany (p. 583).

Doniger’s take on Suttee is surprisingly emic: Without condoning a practice that is obviously unacceptable from enlightened perspectives, she is able to understand the system in its context, traces its mythological roots, and refers to it as only one instance of the countless contexts and cultures in human history where women have been conceptually and practically victims at the hands of dominant males. She mentions Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s leadership to put an end to the practice through the British government, but does not say why a similar Hindu leader did not rise during the Mughal period when Akbar generously allowed Hindu women to practice She reminds us in this context that “women have been beaten to death by their husbands and even burned alive (sometimes as witches) even in countries where there is no suttee mythology of women and fire (p.614).” Her unbiased analysis of the modernist reactions to suttee reveals the complexity of the problem, and should not be interpreted as an apology for a custom nowhere sanctioned in any Hindu sacred text, much less as an excuse for preserving an unconscionable misogynistic practice.

Hindus in America and new visions

There is a brief chapter (23) on Hindus in America which offers us many tidbits on cult-gurus who have been successful in various measures in the country. It barely mentions the role of Indian professionals in different departments of American secular life, nor the exceptional performance of Hindu children in American schools or the Spelling Bee. All these are part of a very complex scenario wrought with immense and as yet unimagined possibilities which she hardly touches. But in this chapter, Doniger answers some of the criticisms and complaints leveled against American scholars like herself who write on Hinduism. She does this with understanding and sympathy, rather than anger (given some extremely sharp comments on her scholarship and even right to write on Hinduism), and in a commendably balanced tone. Here again, she reminds the (Hindu) reader of the extraordinary diversity: “… there is seemingly no limit to the variations that Hindus have rung on every aspect of their religion. Authenticity is … a difficult concept to apply to any representation of Hinduism (p. 650).”

In another chapter (24) we read about the colorful ways in which ancient icons and approaches have been re-incarnating in the modern world, reflecting the persistence and tenacity of systems and worldviews that, with all the breakthroughs in knowledge and revolutions in life-styles, the Hindu psyche can never led go of in their totality. Put differently, the firm anchor to the past is a reflection of the adaptive resilience of a culture that is deeply rooted, yet strong and flexible in creative ways.

On history

In the climactic chapter of the book (25), Doniger reflects on the uses and abuses of history generally, with particular references to Indian history, here again recalling the duality, both in theory and in practice, that characterizes the Hindu mode. It may be said of any great civilization that its significant accomplishments have been both great and ignoble, that it has both enriched and hurt its own people and others. Doniger’s narrative illustrates this general proposition to the Hindu case. She does this so well, and forgetting for a moment the relevance of this principle in the case of Rome or Europe, Islam or the United States, the reader can fully appreciate how glaringly applicable it is in the Hindu context. I also felt as I read through the pages that she has done this with a deep understanding of and (for the more part) greater empathy for Indic culture than her critics could have imagined or expected, let alone done themselves. She pays homage to “the infinite inventiveness of this great (Hindu) civilization, which has never had a pope to rule certain narratives unacceptable (p. 689).” And she rightly laments, as any lover of India who has not allowed the heart and mind to be clouded as a result of some very real dangers that the country and culture are facing today both from within and from without, “that now there are some who would set up such a papacy in India, smuggling into Hinduism a Christian idea of orthodoxy.” She is also optimistic in recognizing that there are voices and forces that strive to prevent this from happening.

Some concluding thoughts

Every Non-Hindu, whether scholar or lay person, who has any interest in the Hindu world is likely to read and benefit from this book. Many English-educated Hindus may also skim through the book, even if only reluctantly. Wendy Doniger who has devoted a lifetime to the study of Sanskrit and to (her own) elucidation of Hindu culture has written a semi-popular, but erudite treatise on aspects of classical India, drawing largely from original texts. The book is certainly a solid contribution to a global understanding of the Hindu world from interesting perspectives, tracing, as it does, the roots of Hindu worldviews to the vast corpus of literature, lay and religious, oral and written, in Sanskrit and in Tamil, ranging from Vedic hymns and the great epics to the Upanishads, Puranas, and more that have breathed life into Indic culture. Though interspersed with tongue-in-cheek comments which are not likely to sit well with all readers, the book is a delight to read. It brings together the many strands that weave traditional Hinduism into a rainbow richness, with its dichotomies and marvelous contradictions. There are not too many social histories of classical India, certainly none of this sweep and subtlety. What is sorely missing in the book is a narrative on the independent India of the past six decades and more, which has become oh so different, for the good and for the bad, from the purana India she has painted so well and in such detail.

Not all Hindus will be thrilled by the tone of the book here and there, but it is difficult for any objective reader to deny that Wendy Doniger has worthily executed the task she had set for herself: to capture the evolution to Hindu culture with emphasis on the perspectives of the underclass. In the process she educates everyone, or at least enriches the eager reader in countless ways.

April 15, 2009