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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.


1. Shri Ma Kristina Baird - September 1, 2009

Indeed, the four-caste system as delineated in the Purusha Sukta is allegorical (see http://www.shrikali.org – Divine Initiation). It in fact refers to the Brahman was the mouth of Purusha or source of Manifestation, Rajanya (valour), his thighs the Vaisya (Opulence), from his feet, Sudra (Energy) was produced. The Purusha Sukta in fact refers to the process of manifestation as delineated in Samkhya or the twenty-five tattvas or facts. While Wendy and her Children have great delight in reading Manu’s Dharma Shastra in terms of the ‘real’ dog-cookers and so on, the Veda and the Shastras are allegorical (see Divine Initation). As Malhotra points out http://www.sulekha.com/adcreatives/GoogleAM/Roadblock/default3.aspx?refadv=http://rajivmalhotra.sulekha.com/blog/post/2002/09/risa-lila-1-wendy-s-child-syndrome.htm
(though he is not scholarly and neither am I-supposedly), Wendy and her Children’s (Kripal, Hugh Urban, Brian K. Smith, etc.) emphasis on the anthropomorphic nature of Hinduism or transgressive nature of Hinduism (see Olivelle, Alexis Sanderson, Andre Padoux, and Hugh Urban) as opposed to the Brahmanical nature of Hinduism, has more to do with their psycho-pathological states of purity/non-purity or other psychological states. Malhotra has more than amplified these psychological states.

As Urban says in his article on the ‘Devil at Heaven’s gate’ (a New Religious Movement), in contrast to ‘Smith’s neo-Enlightenment commitment to intelligibility, the contemporary historian of religions has to confront a post-industrial, late capitalist era of hyperreality’ (see Baudrillard and Umberto Eco). However, ‘as Wendy Doniger has pointed out, Smith’s highly rationalistic and utilitarian Enlightenment model could well be accused of a kind of neo-colonialism or intellectual imperialism, perhaps even repeating many of the same errors of the European Enlightenment and the imperialist colonization of the world. For it bears the danger of an eradication of all otherness, a reduction of all cultures, all foreign cultural traditions to our own.’

We wouldn’t want that because then Wendy couldn’t talk about Ganesha’s trunk being a phallus. This construction of ‘otherness’ that Orientalists (see Edward Said) use as their contemporary denigration of cultures other than the Judaeo-Christian faith is wearing thin. New books are being written on topics as ‘Animism: Respecting the Living World” by Graham Harvey of the British Open University http://www.animism.org.uk/ . It is these kinds of books that will free us from the shackles of Max Muller’s conception of Indology lingering on in the name of Hinduism.

2. M. Packman - September 14, 2009

I’m still in the process of reading the book (and reviewing it chapter by chapter on my blog), but I think the common assertion that she’s trying to denigrate Hinduism is way off target. She says over and over that her whole mission is to show Hinduism’s brilliance and vibrancy is because of the diversity of views it encompasses.

I didn’t read her as an undergrad, as my professors would always roll their eyes when they mentioned her. “Oh, that Freud lady again. Phalluses, phalluses everywhere!”

In this book, though, she’s refreshingly open about her earlier misjudgements. (“Oh well. Live and learn.”) I found a lot less Freud and Jung than I expected — her methods are far more nuanced and self-reflexive. She makes it clear from the get-go that this is /a/ history; not /the/ history, and that her own position as a non-Hindu from an academic background comes with its own assumptions and baggage. Co-sign about this not being an introductory book but part of a well-rounded education.

Seriously, folks. (I’m talking about folks in general, including — especially — my own circle.) Read the prologue, then we’ll talk.