jump to navigation

Review of Doniger August 10, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Taylor, McComas , trackback

McComas Taylor

Wendy Doniger. The Hindus:  An Alternative History. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. 779 pp.

True to form, Wendy Doniger has come up with another stimulating and controversial book.  The Hindus: An Alternative History, published this year by Penguin, will delight some readers and horrify others. Why an ‘alternative history’?  Doniger’s starting point is that our understanding of Hinduism has been dominated first by male, upper-caste, Sanskritic traditions, and later by male Western scholars. Her book is an attempt to correct this imbalance and to provide alternative lenses through which to view the tradition, namely those of women, dogs, horses and outcastes.  Fans of Doniger’s huge corpus will instantly recognise these as among her favourite topics. The book is organised chronologically. The timescale is little short of cosmic, from 50 million years ago to the present. At each phase she asks how each of her four classes of being is faring. For example, you will find sections on animals in the Rig Veda, women in the Brahmanas, horses in the Raj, and so on.

If the temporal arrangement is the woof (I’m sure Doniger would not mind the canine allusion), and her four themes are the warp, the whole text-ile (excuse me again) is shot through with typical golden threads that we know so well from Doniger’s writings – violence and non-violence, good and evil, sexuality and ambiguity, addiction and renunciation. One such recurrent thread is the view of the moon – do we see a man or a rabbit? Just as different cultures see different images in the moon, so do the various facets of Hinduism appear different, depending on one’s cultural background. This sounds facile, but it is refreshing to read a self-consciously reflective exploration of Hinduism at last. She is a great one for overturning the (ahem) sacred cows of Indology. For example, she does not deign to grace the various explanations for the appearance of Vedic culture in the Indus Valley with the word ‘theory’, instead she calls them Guess One, Guess Two and so on – wonderfully provocative.

Another recurrent trope is borrowed from photography: that of ‘available light’. We rarely have the full set of facts to make judgements about the past but we have to make do with the data we have. A corollary of ‘low light’ is the ‘hindsight warning’. Doniger maintains that scholars of Hindu traditions have a habit of allowing hindsight to colour their perspectives - for example they seek and therefore find origins and similarities where there are none. She frequently issues ‘hindsight warnings’ to her readers whenever she can see this danger arising.

Some sacred cows escape relatively unscathed – I am surprised she did not tackle the very shaky dating of the Vedic corpus. Indology still uses Max Müller’s ‘guess’ of about 1500BCE. I am also surprised that she did not incorporate the latest contributions on the Indo-Aryan debate from fellow iconoclast, Edwin Bryant. One day I would like to see a knife-job on the myth of St Thomas’ supposed journey to India. She also seems to accept the four-caste theory of ‘classical’ Indic society as being more factual and historical than the evidence might allow.

There is much to like and enjoy about this book. The writing is brisk, never dull, and full of surprises, as one might expect from a top scholar in full flight. How many thoughtful Indological texts weave in references to Janis Joplin, Philip Roth, T. S. Eliot and the Great Gatsby? I loved the footnotes – witty asides and enjoyable non-sequiturs that make you feel as if you are in conversation with the author.

This is a long book - over 700 pages in 25 chapters. For the first half of the book, I found myself hurrying home in the evenings with the happy prospect of reading another chapter or two. It was fresh, wicked and subversive. By about midway, as she reached the Mughal period, and as she got further from her home ground, the book seemed to me to lose some momentum. The sections became less tightly knitted, and by the end I had the sensation of reading a string of unrelated newspaper reports. By that stage, I admit, I had stopped rushing home with quite so much enthusiasm.

Who should read this book? It is probably not the best first, second or third book on Hinduism, but it is an essential corrective for anyone with a significant interest in the field.  The bibliography is fabulous and the index is stunningly comprehensive. A great read.