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Was Hindu angst over Doniger book justified?

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Pradip Bhattacharya

Some years ago Oxford University Press perpetrated astonishing acts of capitulation to bigoted elements. They stopped publication of parts 9 and 10 of their outstanding series on value-education in schools, Living in Harmony. Similarly they stopped republication of A.K. Ramanujan’s remarkable essay, "300 Ramayanas". In both cases those who objected were not familiar with the knowledge-base upon which these writings had drawn. The same is the case with Wendy Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus. What is wrong with it?
In London on 12 November 2003 as Doniger quotes Sita accusing Lakshmana of desiring her, a Hindu throws an egg, providing the spark for a very unusual but not explosive-account of Hindus. That egg missed its mark; so do most of her violent critics, many not even having read her. Despite its formidable bulk of 780 pages, this tome is an unexpectedly enjoyable experience because of its unorthodox presentation for American students of Hinduism (a word first used possibly by Rammohun Roy in 1816, she informs). Are we to take offence at the style? True, it is not reverent but chatty and humorous, effortlessly bearing the immense load of scholarship, e.g., "If the motto of Watergate was ‘Follow the money’, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ or, more often ‘Follow the horse’; "Brahmins were circling the wagons against the multiple challenges." She enjoys playing with words: "Hinduism is a polythetic polytheism which is also a monotheism, a monism and a pantheism". On occasion she is even flippant: the Mahabharata is "like an ancient Wikipedia, to which anyone who knew Sanskrit, or who knew someone who knew Sanskrit, could add a bit here, a bit there". Do we object to gems like Mirza Aziz Koka, Akbar’s foster brother, recommending four wives: "a woman from Khurusan for housework; a Persian to converse with; a Hindu to raise children; one from Transoxiana to be beaten as a warning to others"?
Is the coverage unbalanced? Well, to ancient India, her favourite, she devotes nearly 500 pages starting from the Cretaceous period, 28 to the Delhi Sultanate, 46 to the Mughals and 60 to the British. How is that unbalanced in terms of chronology? For the historical picture she draws almost exclusively upon Romila Thapar and John Keay, reflecting their bias. So, why not attack them instead of her? Admitting that "such a luxurious jungle of cultural phenomena …necessitates a drastic selectivity", Doniger presents "not a seamless narrative…but a pointillist collage… Synecdoche-letting one or two moments in history and one or two narratives stand for many – allows us to see alternity in a grain of sand." Hence it is "alternative" as "a", not "the" history of Hindus. Its great value also lies in using not "the basic curry and rice episodes" but lesser-known texts revealing the religious life of ordinary people, their interactions with non-Hindus. Moving away from social history to literary texts about alternative people, she balances "the smoke of myth with the fire of historical events," showing how myths can drive events (e.g. the belief regarding greased cartridges that ignited the 1857 mutiny).
Doniger’s favourite, the horse, is well in evidence, right from the navanarikunjara on the cover, as are dogs, sex (her narrative of religion is set within that of history like a linga in a yoni, admittedly a puzzling simile) and women. So too are the metaphors of bricolage (a patchwork quilt of scraps of religion sewn in with scraps of social history) and a Zen diagram without a central ring as a metaphor for Hinduism (one person’s centre is another’s periphery). Possibly these metaphors were beyond the comprehension of the objectors. Is  her insight of a cognitive dissonance prevalent in Hindus wrong? A person is able to hold a toolbox of different beliefs simultaneously, picking the one that suits the occasion. Thus, Manusmriti condemns and advocates meat eating with equal force; Mahabharata urges ahimsa while declaring violence as intrinsic to life. An individual may celebrate both Muslim and Hindu festivals, visit dargahs and temples, celebrate both Satya-Pir and Satya-Narayana.
The book is important for its valuable summary of dialogues between women and men in the Rig Veda which most of us would not be able to access without wading through that text. In the Upanishads she finds individualism in wives (Katyayani and Maitreyi) and Gargi and informs us of a fact not generally known: that the unseen Katyayani appears as a jealous co-wife in Skanda Purana, performing a ritual to Parvati that makes her Maitreyi’s equal. She shows that the Kamasutra reveals a pro-feminist view of women’s plight. Are we to take umbrage at her celebration of Vyasa’s women as "a feminist’s dream: smart, aggressive, steadfast, eloquent, tough as nails and resilient and polyandrous"?
While missing the Gita’s assurance that whatever be the form of worship it is the Divine who receives the devotee’s offering, she provides an excellent three-page summary of its core message and significance. There is a fine discussion of how geography influences culture in India and an excellent review of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) which "is not silent but we are deaf for we can’t hear their language." The Vedas, conversely, are words without physical evidence about the people. An eye-opener is her suggestion that the so-called ithyphallic horned figure of seal 420 could just be a knot in the waistband – an example of the Vedantic snake-or-rope trope! Why, she asks, must female figures symbolise fertility rituals and Mohenjo-Daro’s great bath be a ritual tank? She asserts that new ideas, stories and practices in the Sanskrit world came from non-Veda sources: stone age cultures, Adivasis, IVC, village traditions, Dravidian speakers.
Doniger’s unique contribution is the analysis of three charismatic animal players in the drama of Hinduism symbolising power (horse), pollution (dog) and purity (cow). The horse was rare, therefore ritually sacrificed. It was linked to Muslims, as the cow was to Hindus, the buffalo to evil and the mare to the femme fatale. She does, however, overlook that the docile cow routs Vishvamitra’s army and that this sage is also linked to dog-eating, stealing it from a Chandala.
What is objectionable in Doniger’s psychoanalysis of Rama’s killing of Vali? In Sugriva Rama finds a way to express his rage against father and step-brother, an anger that he gives vent to on the first night of exile. As the model son and brother, Rama cannot express this resentment. In the forest, his unconscious mind is set free to take the revenge his conscious mind does not allow in the human world. Vali is his real double, recovering throne and wife from the usurping younger brother. Let us not forget that when he rejects Sita in Lanka, he asks her to go away with Lakshman if she wishes. This is not Tulasidas’ bhakti-oozing Ramcharitmanas, but Valmiki’s Ramayana in which Rama is unaware that he is supposed to be an avatar. What a fine insight is provided into the Hindu psyche! For them no tension exists between eroticism and renunciation. It is one house with many mansions: householders support renouncers to gain second-hand merit: "Time and again the road forks, but the two paths continue side by side, sometimes joining, then diverging again, and people can easily leap from one to the other at any moment. Asceticism ricochets against addiction and back again." Should we take offence at the statement that the Bhakti movement did not try to reform the social system but created an alternative system? Evidence is provided that though many leaders came from low classes, subsequently caste reasserted itself, e.g. stories of Nammalvar refusing his Shudra mother’s breast-milk to disassociate him from his Shudra origins. Though strongly against animal sacrifice, bhaktas were violent against those refusing to worship their god, fighting Jains and even killing their own relatives. Unlike Buddhism and Jainism, Hindusim was not a proselytising religion, but bhaktas proselytised furiously. Even Shiva had to become a shaiva, bhakti’s violent power compelling even a god! Their god often tests his devotee by asking him to sacrifice his child, as Abraham was asked to. There could have been an objection to the suggestion that the Shri Vaishnava idea of surrender, prapatti, may have been influenced by Islam (surrender), but it seems the objectors have not read the book carefully enough. Doniger corrects our presumption that all goddesses are mother figures: Parvati does not bear Skanda and Ganesha; she curses the wives of gods to be barren. We learn of the Devi movement among Gujrat Adivasis who spoke through women, making men shift to tea from liquor, breaking the economic bondage to Parsis traders.
Doniger provides considerable evidence of communal amity in our history. In Bengal Alauddin Husain Shah (early 15th century) was celebrated as an incarnation of Krishna by Kabindra Parameshwar. The sultan’s secretary, Rupa Goswami retold Krishna’s life like a Sufi romance. Nath yogis and Kapalikas were friendly to Muslims. Sufism became a major strand of the bhakti movement, borrowing devotion from the Krishna sects and much of yoga philosophy. Mahabharata and Shahnama heroes interact in Tarik-i-Farishta.
In Tamil and Telegu legend Tecinku’s best friend is a Muslim who prays to Rama and Allah and attains Vishnu’s heaven: "Vaishnavism encompasses Islam". Much Muslim poetry begins by invoking Allah but proceeds with Hindu content and imagery. In the 15th century it was the Vijayanagar kingdom that established Rama as a deity, but never as a hero against Muslims. Hinduism in USA is covered in a TIME-magazine style survey of god-men-and-women, ISKCON and the Californification of Tantra vs. Vedanta. Once again, it is horses (Marwari, with uniquely curved ears) that provide the link, becoming American movie stars living in Chappaquiddick. But what about the practices of the large Hindu population there? Did Vivekananda advise beef-eating as Doniger claims? The rediscovery of Hinduism for the 20th century and its profound impact in India and abroad through Tagore, Sri Aurobindo and Gandhi are not covered, nor the variations in Bali, Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji, South Africa.

The writer  retired as Additional Chief Secretary, West Bengal, and has done his Ph D on the Mahabharata