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a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-casteand middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of“Hinduism.”Still, the nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India that escaped theattention of British scholars flourish even today. Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, ritesand legends that vary across India still form the worldview of a majority of Indians. Goddesses,as Doniger writes, “continue to evolve.” Bollywood produced the most popular one of my NorthIndian childhood: Santoshi Mata, who seemed to fulfill the materialistic wishes of newlyurbanized Hindus. Far from being a slave to mindless superstition, popular religious legendconveys a darkly ambiguous view of human action. Revered as heroes in one region, thecharacters of the great epics “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” can be regarded as villains inanother. Demons and gods are dialectically interrelated in a complex cosmic order that wouldmake little sense to the theologians of the so-called war on terror.Doniger sets herself the ambitious task of writing “a narrative alternative to the one constitutedby the most famous texts in Sanskrit.” As she puts it, “It’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, theGita.” It’s also not about perfidious Muslims who destroyed innumerable Hindu temples andforcibly converted millions of Indians to Islam. Doniger, who cannot but be aware of the politicalhistoriography of Hindu nationalists, the most powerful interpreters of Indian religions in bothIndia and abroad today, also wishes to provide an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu historythat they tell.”She writes at length about the devotional “bhakti” tradition, an ecstatic and radically egalitarianform of Hindu religiosity which, though possessing royal and literary lineage, was “also a folkand oral phenomenon,” accommodating women, low-caste men and illiterates. She explores,contra Marx, the role of monkeys as the “human unconscious” in the “Ramayana,” the bible ofmuscular Hinduism, while casting a sympathetic eye on its chief ogre, Ravana. And sheexamines the mythology and ritual of Tantra, the most misunderstood of Indian traditions.She doesn’t neglect high-table Hinduism. Her chapter on violence in the “Mahabharata” isparticularly insightful, highlighting the tragic aspects of the great epic, and unraveling, in theprocess, the hoary cliché of Hindus as doctrinally pacifist. Both “dharma” and “karma” get theirdue. Those who tilt at organized religions today on behalf of a residual Enlightenmentrationalism may be startled to learn that atheism and agnosticism have long traditions in Indianreligions and philosophies.Though the potted biographies of Mughal emperors seem superfluous in a long book, Doniger’schapter on the centuries of Muslim rule over India helps dilute the lurid mythology of Hindunationalists. Motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism, the Mughalsdestroyed temples; they also built and patronized them. Not only is there “no evidence ofmassive coercive conversion” to Islam, but also so much of what we know as popular Hinduism — the currently popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna, the network of pilgrimages,ashrams and sects — acquired its distinctive form during Mughal rule.Doniger’s winsomely eclectic range of reference — she enlists Philip Roth’s novel “I Married aCommunist” for a description of the Hindu renunciant’s psychology — begins to seem toodeterminedly eccentric when she discusses Rudyard Kipling, a figure with no discernibleinfluence on Indian religions, with greater interpretative vigor than she does Mohandas K.Gandhi, the most creative of modern devout Hindus. More puzzlingly, Doniger has little to sayabout the forms Indian cultures have assumed in Bali, Mauritius, Trinidad and Fiji, even as shedescribes at length the Internet-enabled liturgies of Hindus in America.
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