Reviewing the Reviews - THE HINDUS: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger
In Passages From India By Michael Dirda, a book review that appeared in the Washington Post on March 19, 2009, it says, “In tracing the evolution of Hinduism, the author has a specialized focus unsuited to readers seeking an introduction to the subject.”
In Another Incarnation by Pankaj Misra, a book review that appeared in the New York Times on April 24, 2009, it says, “As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a ‘Protestant bias in favor of scripture.’”
I tend to agree with these statements, as well as Doniger’s words in March 2009 in the Newsweek blog, On Faith: “And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in "The Hindus: An Alternative History," to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it's a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, "The Hindus believe. . . ," is talking nonsense.
“My narrative is alternative both to the histories promulgated by some contemporary Hindus on the political right in India and to those presented in most surveys in English--imperialist histories, all about the kings, ignoring ordinary people.”
But in linking to the book excerpt, I took issue with this parenthetical sentence:
“(The gambler's wife who is fondled by other men reappears in the Mahabharata when the wife of the gambler Yudhishthira is stripped in the public assembly.)” Draupadi, Yudhishthira’s wife, is not stripped, there is only an attempt to do so. Any child who has heard this Mahabharata story can tell you this Draupadi’s faith in Krishna – love incarnate – is rewarded by Krishna’s protection. Dushshasana, the person who attempts to strip her, becomes exhausted as he pulls and pulls at her clothing, and it is he who is shamed as he collapses on the ground, while Draupadi retains her modesty.
In the Post, Dirda writes, “Although Sita proves and proves again her innocence, Doniger underscores the crassness of Rama's jealous-husband behavior but also notes certain textual hints that Sita is more sexual than she appears and that her feelings for Rama's brother Lakshmana might well be more than familial. As Sita is the classic model of Indian womanhood, such sacrilegious speculation once led to Doniger being egged at a London lecture.” I wring my hands at this simplification of Indian womanhood, and am left speechless at the implications of a relationship between Lakshmana and Sita.
My friend John Maunu, who sent me the link to the NY Times review, understood EM Forster to be anti-Hindu and Euro-centric, based on what Misra says: “Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s polytheistic muddle to superb effect in his novel ‘A Passage to India,’ was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices.” Forster said in 1915 in “The Mission of Hinduism” that “it preaches with intense conviction and passion the doctrine of unity… these two contradictory beliefs do really correspond to emotions that each of us can feel, namely, ‘I am different from everybody else’ and ‘I am the same as everybody else.’”
I too have completely contradictory emotions – I should read this book and I should not read it. I don’t know the complete history of Sanatana Dharma, but as a practicing Hindu, I wonder whether I can rely on this book as the source for it. These concluding thoughts from the April 2009 review by Prof. V. V. Raman, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at Rochester Institute of Technology, helped me decide that I should read it (some day)…
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.