THE HINDUS Review by Samhita Arni
The Hindus: An Alternative History
The Hindus: An Alternative History
By Wendy Doniger
Rs 999 Pages 779
The Chandogya Upanishad recounts the creation of the world; it all began with a cosmic egg, the text claims, that cracked in two. One half of this broken eggshell formed the sky, and the other part the Earth. From the egg-white came clouds, and from the yolk, mist. The veins in the egg turned into rivers, and the fluid of the egg, the ocean. In the Satapatha Brahmana, the creator, Prajapati, hatches from a golden egg. Eggs abound in creation myths across cultures – from the Greek Orphic myths, to the Finnish Kallevala. Perhaps it is fitting and ironic that the story of how The Hindus: An Alternative History came into being also begins with an egg - an English egg thrown at an American Academic, during a lecture in London in November 2003.
Wendy Doniger, the author of the Hindus, is possibly the most reputed academic in the field of Hinduism today. In 2003, she was giving a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), moderated by William Dalyrmple, when, in response to her comments on the repressed sexuality of characters in the Ramayana, an audience member threw an egg at Doniger.
An essay written earlier, “Shadows of the Ramayana”seems to surmise the contentious points of her lecture. The essay is brilliant and incisive; more 'literary criticism' than anything else. In her analysis, Doniger points out how characters like Surpanakaa and Sita serve as foils to each other, how the relationship between Valin and Surgriva articulates the tensions and potential threats that underlie Ram's relationships with his brothers. She goes on to claim that “the text suggests that Rama might fear his brother Lakshmana might become another sort of double, that he could replace Rama in bed with Sita. (107)” For devout Hindus, who perceive Ram as a God and the Ramayana as a sacred text, only to be worshipped, such readings are, no doubt, antagonizing. Doniger, after her lecture, was attacked in the press and her internet for being sexually-titillating and obsessed with sex. Dalrymple, writing later about the incident, noted also the the egg-throwing faction not only criticized Doniger's work, but also questioned her right, as a non-Hindu, to write about Hinduism.
It's this incident, Doniger claims in the preface to the Hindus, that spurred her to write this book, which offers the reader an alternative to the conventional and most widely-read narratives of Hinduism.
The Hindus is significant in light of the ongoing debate about the various versions of Indian 'history' available, and the 'right' to write about India and Hinduism. Dalrymple, in an article titled "The War Over History" examined how history has been politicized by the right and how anything that represents an aberration from that perspective is attacked. He notes that academics, in India and abroad, have been subjected to "hate campaigns from Hindu extremists and the “cyber-nationalists” of the Indian diaspora” and ends his article with a call for “accessible, well-written and balanced histories of India.” The existing histories, in his opinion, are scholarly works that do not appeal to the general Indian reading public. The vacuum is filled with the sort of 'unhistorical myths' (seen, most notably, in the textbooks brought out a few years back during the BJP regime) that present an artificial, constructed, airbrushed version of Indian history at odds with historical evidence. In The Hindus Doniger has attempted to answer Dalrymple's call and provide a readable history of India and Hinduism that presents not just a narrative alternative, but also de-constructs many of the popular, unhistorical myths that have been circulated in the last fifty years.
In contrast to the defined, dogmatic Hinduism of the Hindutva brigade, Doniger's Hinduism is protean and eludes definition. She also discusses the impossibility of clearly defining Hinduism and traces the origins of the word 'hinduism' to it's geographical roots. As she explains, Hindus, in the first instance, are a geographically defined people. Thus, Hinduism is an ill-fitting term, harbouring a multiplicity of faiths and ideological stances, and only coming to mean, in colonial times, a religion. Her scope is immense: she traces the development of key themes - the treatment of animals, women, the concept of violence and dharma - through the entire period of habitation on the Indian sub-continent – from the time that Godwanaland crashed into Asia and created the himalayas, to the present day.
Hinduism, Doniger claims, is not just about Brahmins, Vedas and Sanskrit – it's also about women, lower-castes, pariahs, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims and vernacular languages. Hinduism is presented as a constant conversation between brahmins and pariahs, Sanskrit and vernacular languages, the rulers and the marginalized. For example, the excesses of Brahmins, ridiculed in vernacular languages, are eventually articulated in Sanskrit, the 'brahmanical' language, in the Puranas.
I've encountered some of these ideas in other places, particularly those that deal with the interaction between Sanskrit and Vernacular languages. AK Ramanujam (who was Doniger's colleague at the University of Chicago) explained this dialogue in his essay (written twenty years ago) “Where Mirrors are Windows” -
“...Cultural traditions in India are indissolubly plural and often conflicting but are organized through at least two principles, (a) context-sensitivity and (b) reflexivity of various sorts, both of which constantly generate new forms out of the old ones. What we call Brahmanism, bhakti traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, tantra, tribal traditions and folklore, and lastly, modernity itself, are the most prominent of these systems. They are responses to previous and surrounding traditions, they invert, subvert and convert their neighbours.”
In short, Ramanujan's statement captures a large part of Doniger's thesis. As Ramanujan himself says, this is suggesting “the obvious.” Towards the end of this same essay, Ramanujan alludes to Doniger's early work - Dreams, Illusions and Other Realities (1984), just after noting that “Doubles, shadows, upside-down reflections are common in Indian myth and story.”
Doubles, shadows and animals continue to haunt Doniger, and foreground her analysis even in The Hindus, written over twenty years after Dreams etc. In fact, the double vision emerges as the metaphor Doniger uses for her understanding of the multiple meanings, interpretations and perspectives that proliferate in Hinduism. The double takes various forms in Doniger's book. In her preface, she alludes to the shapes of lunar craters – to some these shadowy shapes on the surface of the moon look like a man, to others a rabbit. The double metaphor resurfaces in the 'paradox of mutual creation' – the myth of Brahma and Vishnu mutually creating each other. Even the ritual of sacrifice, which opens up 'homologies between the human world and corresponding parts of the universe,' is an instance of double-vision. And towards the end of her book, Kipling and his Kim also emerge as instances of the double – Kipling is racist but not racist; likewise Kim is Indian but not Indian, British but not British.
Doniger's metaphor of the double, also owes something to AK Ramanajan. She alludes, repeatedly, to the description of Ramanujan's father, developed in his essay “Is there an Indian Way of thinking.” Ramanujan's father - a mathematician-astronomer and an astrologer embodied many contradictions that seemed inconsistent, but led Ramanujan to his understanding of how the 'Indian way of thinking, ' on account of it's context-sensitive approach, eschews idealization and tolerates (even nourishes) contradiction.
For many of us in India, the fact that Hinduism accommodates many contradictions; warring impulses towards orthodoxy and iconoclasm; is something we experience on a daily basis. Although demure, chaste heroines like Sita and Savitri populate our mythic landscape, we also encounter fiery, non-conformist figures like Draupadi and Kunthi. Many of us, hearing the stories of Ekalvya, Amba-Sikhandin and Karna, have felt troubled. Moreover, growing up in South India, one can't help encountering more recent subversive takes on traditional tales – DMK-founder E.V. Ramaswami's Kemmayana features Ravana as the hero.
Even the creation hymn in the Rig-veda, subtly subversive and veering towards agnosticism, is a text many might be familiar with -
Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen
– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps He does not know.
(Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda: An Anthology, 25-26)
Consequently, many of Doniger's ideas, coming to those of us who live in India, may not hold too many surprises. With readers like myself (and there are quite a few - even you, dear reader, may be one) Doniger is preaching to the choir. Yet she has chosen to frame her work by the debate that surrounds Hinduism and history. Perhaps Doniger's work is best seen a sort of apologia - written to defend her work, her analysis and her right to write about Hinduism. But who is Doniger writing for?
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to listen to Wendy Doniger discuss the soon-to-be-released The Hindus at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The hall was half-filled, the audience listened to Doniger respectfully and attentively. Questions were asked – some that did challenge Doniger's interpretations – but the tone was always polite and courteous, even though right-wing ideologues like Tarun Vijay and Swapan Dasgupta were reportedly roaming the grounds of the venue. There were, remarkably, no eggs thrown.
Did Doniger tone down her content? It's possible. But I also suspect that an Indian audience, in some ways, is far less hostile and defensive than the diaspora. Ashis Nandy, commenting on the failure of the BJP in the general elections, used the term 'laptop hinduism' to describe the ideology of the Hindutva brigade. He meant a cut-and-paste sort of hinduism, easy to export, easy to carry – an identity in a box – that appeals to those living outside India. Doniger too, notes in her book, the affinity that Indian living in America have for Hindutva, for a 'portable' identity and describes them as “cut-off..from the full range of Hindus and Hinduisms that they would experience in India.”
Is her book directed at those who do not experience the contradictions and chaos of India on a daily basis – foreigners, wishing to learn more about Hinduism, and, more importantly, the Hindu diaspora, with their narrow, constructed ideas of Hinduism?
Whatever her audience may be, some of her concepts are extremely intriguing. Her concept of the “three alliances” explains, in three steps the evolution of Hindu society from a sacrifice-oriented society in Vedic times (that zealously guarded the right to perform sacrifices and access to texts) to one that valued ascetic and meditative power, and finally developing into a society where devotion (Bhakthi) is supreme (and knowledge and the right to worship are open to all through temple iconography and domestic pujas). She also frames the epics with a historical context that illuminates the concerns that shaped each work. Thus, the Ramayana, composed during a time of political instability in India, when numerous dynasties rose and fell, not only favors a monarchic system but is clearly concerned with the idea of legitimate male succession and the 'ideal' monarch. In the case of the Mahabharata, concerned with dharma and the terrible violence of war, she discerns the influence of Kalinga, Asoka and Buddhism. Even Doniger's egg-hurling detractors, who would feel uncomfortable at the idea of a non-Hindu writing about Hinduism, I think, could be won over by her nuanced, sensitive discussion of suttee. Her argument that the treatment of animals in texts and myths reflect the concerns and attitudes of the caste-system is insightful, and her elucidation of the tripartite paradigm (to support this idea), where the Cow-Horse-Dog hierarchy reflects that of the Brahmin/Sacred-Kshatriya/Warrior-Pariah/Outsider, brilliant.
Nonetheless, the wide scope of this work sometimes intrudes on and hinders the development of her ideas. As this book aims to be a history, she is duty bound to provide a historical background to the events and texts that she refers to. However, in doing so, she often risks losing the reader. For example, her exploration of the Indus Valley Civilization (Chapter 2) is vast and detailed – but she concludes that the Indus Valley Civilization may or may not have contributed to Hinduism. (At which point, I couldn't help wondering – what was the point of the last twenty pages?) In another instance – the historical background provided seems insufficient -The South makes an appearance for the first time rather late in chapter thirteen (on Bhakthi) -what was happening in the South during the events discussed in the preceding twelve chapters?
Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Doniger for being too lengthy in one situation and brief in another – but the intensity and the force of her arguments is definitely reduced when interrupted by lengthy summaries of historical background. The idea of an alternative history, promised in the introduction, led me to expect that women would be the main drammatis personnae of Doniger's account, but I was disappointed - there were far less women than I expected. Very few female authors are mentioned – there's a passing mention of Gargi, and it's only when we come to the section on Bhakthi that Doniger mentions other women poets. Yet, as a woman, I'm well aware of the fact that women often author their own subversive versions of stories and events. Nabaneeta Dev Sen, in her article on “Women Retelling the Ramayana” refers to two sixteenth century female poets – the Bengali Chandrabhati and the Telegu Molla. There must be others. Why are they all missing from this 'alternative history'?
Many ideas and questions tantalizingly alluded to, but remain unexplored. The myths of villainous brahmin-demons, such as Vrta and Ravana, are brought up more than once in this book. But after the discussion of the “brahmin imaginary” and the intellectual power wielded by the highest caste, one can't help wondering exactly why these demons are depicted as brahmins, particularly in brahmanical texts. Is this a subversive streak? Doniger doesn't explain or explore.
Hinduism, in The Hindus, emerges as a space for competing ideologies and ideas. Through debate and conversation, Hinduism has evolved and developed. Doniger traces how ideas, at first subversive and alternative, challenge the dominant order of the day. But these ideas and concepts are soon co-opted into the mainstream and become part of the same dominant order. For example, the Bhakthi movement was (originally) revolutionary and inclusive, involving pariahs and women - those ostracised from the dominant order. Yet while reading Doniger's book, one realizes that the Bhakthi movement (in combination with many other factors) have shaped the the Ram-centric, exclusive ideology of the RSS and it's Hindutva associates.
Hinduism defies definition and is open to debate because it's constantly changing, partly in response to such debate. It isn't static. In the past debates weren't fought just in intellectual spaces and stories, but on battlefields. Maiming (in sectarian Vaishnava-Shaiva feuds), death and war were, on occasion, part of this conversation.
Although maiming (and it's less violent cousin - egg-throwing) is definitely to be decried, Doniger's books provokes the realization that the spirit of argument is essential to Hinduism. The latest avatar of this debate features Doniger and the egg-throwers. Debate is important. Perhaps for this reason alone – the fact that such a debate (or conversation or 'war' – whatever term you choose) exists at present should be celebrated. Without debate - without either side - Hinduism would be just a term, and not a living tradition.
A slightly different version of this review appeared in Caravan Magazine in December 2009.