Sunday, 29 December 2013

On Hinduism. By Wendy Doniger

On Hinduism

Wendy Doniger

Aleph Book Company. First published 2013.

This is a collection of essays on Hindus and Hinduism, some highlighting cultural aspects, some the more religious ones, some scholarly, others less so, all of them written sympathetically. Doniger is a well established and respected scholar on India, particularly Hinduism, deeply knowledgeable about Sanskrit texts and with an obvious love for the subject to which she has devoted her life. The only aspects of Hinduism she appears to dislike, or at least find exasperating, are the ones propagated so shrilly by modern-day defenders of 'Hindutva', the political right in India. Her essays, always well referenced and closely argued, are on a wide range of topics - Hindu identity, or the practices and beliefs that can be called 'Hindu'; political Hinduism; Kamasutra and the treatment of sex in Sanskrit/Hindu texts; the laws of Manu; the treatment of women; some repeating motifs in Hindu mythology and its sacred texts; Hindu symbols and symbolism; and Western attitudes to Hinduism. 

She does not too deeply differentiate between Sanskrit texts, some of which may or may not be religious - Kamasutra, Manusmriti and Arthashastra could be more properly regarded as secular texts. She also does not consider the contexts - historical, cultural, geographic, economic or political - of these texts, and the beliefs and practices they embody, at least not in the essays collected in this book. These features make some of the articles in the collection a bit one-dimensional and, at times, boring, perhaps more suitable to the academic journals and books in which most were first published. But despite these drawbacks, they make interesting reading. There are explications of some general ideas that were new to me.

I have always believed that the sivalingam is a phallic symbol, perhaps even crudely phallic, an obvious representation of fertility, as stupidly obvious as the symbolism found in the films of K. Balachander. This seems, even now, to be a self-evident truth, when we consider the form and name of the deity as found in saivite temples. There are also other fertility symbols in Hindu rituals, that have, what seems to me, to have obvious sexual connotations. Thus for example, in 'pongal' the pot of rice (with milk added to make a frothy white foam) boils over to cries of 'pongalo-pongal'. In her essays, Doniger glosses over the sexual aspect of the lingam and, while not rejecting it outright, talks about a deeper symbolism, which I only vaguely understand. She talks of the lingam as a symbol for a body part of God, not necessarily a sexual body part, much like wine and a wafer in the church, which represent the blood and flesh, respectively, of Jesus Christ, and have no sexual connotations. Doniger quotes numerous mythological texts and everyday religious practices to support her view.

The aswamedha yagna is an overtly sexual ritual that once had great political and economic significance in Hindu kingdoms of ancient India. Though I had heard of it, or read mention of it, even earlier, I first came across a detailed description of it in Gore Vidal's 'Creation'. I thought that Vidal had given exaggerated significance to something perhaps mentioned peripherally in some obscure text. Apparently not. Doniger quotes a description from the Rig Veda that matches Vidal's. So obviously the ritual was central to Hindu polity. Considering what is to modernistic sensibility the rather ghastly goings-on between the queen and the ritually sacrificed horse, reading about the yagna being performed both by Dasaratha and later by Rama in the Ramayana, makes it necessary to revisit our attitudes to the epic, to the personalities in it, and to ancient Indian/Hindu practices.

Doniger also writes about the Kamasutra in two or three essays. She talks about the relaxed attitude to sex that that text implies, also the freedom generally enjoyed by women. This book of course must be counterpoised with Manusmriti, which posits much more rigid and what we would today call 'regressive' attitudes. One sexual orientation Doniger does not state as being mentioned approvingly, or at least with tolerance, in that text is homosexuality. Though there are distinct indications in many different sources that all types of sexual relationships, including same-sex ones, were practiced and tolerated in India of those times, there is, as far as I know, no explicit evidence for homosexuality in the texts. Certainly, in temple sculptures, which can be startlingly explicit, and which depict almost every other form of sex, including bestiality, cunnilingus and fellatio, I have not seen any depiction of homosexuality. [Incidentally, sexually explicit sculpture is found in the most unexpected temples - in the gopuram and the wooden panels in Tirunelveli Nellaippar temple, the recent (built in the last decade) gopuram of Tenkasi Kasi Viswanathan, in the gopuram of Madurai Kal Azhagar, and in the bas-relief figures on pillars of the Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple in Tiruvanandapuram.] So claims by the Hindu right of today that same-sex relations are against 'Hindu culture' may be generally correct. That, of course, is, or should be, absolutely irrelevant to making criminal laws for today.

The essays in Doniger's book are not limited to sexual topics, nor are these even the most prominent ones. The articles also deal with a variety of other topics, generally serious ones such ethical attitudes, as well as more scholastic topics such as the role of rings in various myths.

But all told, despite the editing by the author in 2013, many of the essays show their age. And because different essay are addressed to different audiences, reading all of them in one book is a somewhat uneven experience, though not tedious or unrewarding.