An Alternate History
Published in 2009 by Penguin Press
Wendy Doniger is an American Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, with PhDs in Sanskrit and in Indian Studies. This book is her attempt to reinterpret, or more accurately to re-narrate 'Hinduism' from stories, folk tales, 'subaltern' literature, etc. Thus, though she does not ignore them, she does not pay exclusive or even very deep attention to the texts one would normally consider to be at the core of the religion, i.e. the Vedas, the epics and the Upanishads, or other Vedanta texts. Even when she does consider these, she concentrates more on the brief stories (within the Story) they contain, than either the main story or the philosophical arguments.
The material is arranged in roughly chronological order, starting with the Indus valley and ending almost at the Babri masjid demolition, and that justifies calling the book a 'history'. But rather than a narrative of 'first this, then that, and that lead to this....', and so on, she tries to show the various strands of thought, especially folk thoughts, women's thoughts, and the thoughts of tribals and 'lower' castes that contributed to the Hindu religion and shaped it into the various forms it took over the ages, and the various forms it takes today. The book is very well written, and clearly her grasp of Indian culture, even everyday, common culture, as lived in 21st century India, is deep and well-rounded. There is not a single faux-pas, anachronism or shallowness that I could see, none of the sort that I occasionally observed even in AK Ramanujan's essays. She writes in an easy and light style, making several references to popular culture, as for example to Harry Potter or the Beatles, etc. These references however appear to be intended for a Western audience, and this is confirmed when she says, towards the end of the book (Chapter 24, last few lines) '...I believe that the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices, and an American interlocutor is often the best person to build that bridge. Hence this book.'
Clear enough. Except that if that statement had appeared in the beginning of the book, maybe in the preface, instead of towards the end, the context would have been better set. But despite this and despite the light style, this is a book well worth reading. Doniger's scholarly credentials are in no doubt whatsoever, and though some of her statements and interpretations appear to be without support, she appends a large bibliography, and huge list of references, including, of course to several original Sanskrit texts that she has herself translated. But enough defense of Doniger. Let me summarize what I am taking away from the book.
Hinduism, as a religion, is a set of beliefs, theories, practices and rituals to be found largely among the millions (a billion, actually) people who live in India. In rough historical order, the beliefs began mostly about 4000 years ago, when the Vedas began to be composed, though these might have incorporated beliefs and ideas from even earlier times, i.e. the Indus civilization, and those of the non-Sanskrit speaking indigenous peoples. What the Vedas propounded is a kind of pre-brahminical religion, based upon animal (and perhaps human) sacrifices. Of course this is when you take away all the lofty philosophy expressed in it, or rather not take it away, but consider just how it played out in practice. There were no temples, since the people who composed the Vedas were nomadic, and there were probably no castes, or at least only mild versions of it, with a large amount of to and fro movement between the various strata of society. Caste, a kind of signature practice of Hinduism, was codified and then solidified during the next stages of the development, i.e. the stages when the epics were written, and then the Brahmanas, and then the Puranas, roughly coincident first with the pre-Buddhist Hindu kingdoms of the Ganges plains, and then, in a kind of reaction to Buddhism and Jainism, in the 'golden age of the Guptas'. There was of course, throughout, a lot of exchange of ideas and practices, and also it was during this time that the Kamasutra was written and the temples at Khajuraho built, but brahminical Hinduism had its origins here and now. The Bhakti movement followed, and then there was Islam, followed by Christianity, and these also contributed in many ways to different strands of Hinduism, sometimes as a reaction. The idea of Hinduism, as it is today, is therefore as a mixture of many, many beliefs and practices, some common to large groups of people, some pan-Indian, some localized, some contradictory to one another, all of them valid, but with no strong central core beliefs.
My problem with this thesis is the following. Firstly it is certainly not what a large and vocal (and increasingly powerful) group of people seem to think. This group of people, represented by, but not consisting solely of, people who belong to the RSS (and are Brahmins, most of them), are many of them reasonable people, well read and accomplished, and do sometimes make points that need to be answered. Secondly, Doniger's book does nothing to explain the all-pervasive hold of caste in India. This is uniquely Hindu invention, but of course adopted also fairly largely by Christians and Muslims in India. Thirdly, despite Doniger's best efforts to show otherwise, much of Hinduism remains defined by the Vedas, etc. i.e. Brahminism. At least this is my own estimate from what I see around me, and has not really been altered after reading the book. Finally, there are large chunks of the book addressed to the hard Hindutva gang, but it talks at them, not to them. Well, maybe it's OK, since anyway they are not going to listen!
To summarize, the last few weeks have been well spent reading this book.