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tudents of early Indian history with an interest in questions of religion, sexuality and Sanskrit textual traditions have turned to Doniger and her prolific scholarship over decades for a va r i ety of r e a so n s . S h e attempts to combine, as she states at the outset, a double vision, as both an insider, with empathy for the traditions she studies, and an outsider, located within western academia. What most readers have admired, and grown to look forward to is an inimitable combination of insight, irreverence, a nd pro v oc a t iv e , i rre press i b l e wi t . While all these are amply in evidence in The Hindus, it does not take us quite as far as we expect from a work with an ambitious subtitle promising to provide an alternative history. The alternative perspective, we note at the outset, is derived from a concern ab out women, Dalits and animals. Mention of this triad works as a refrain or more accurately a slogan, which is invoked throughout the text. In fact, at times the invocation seems almost formulaic, or, given Doniger ’s preoccupation with Hinduism, a mantra that is chanted at intermittent intervals. Whether the mantra generates fresh insigh ts or not remains somewh at uncertain. Fo r t u n a te l y, t h e r e i s a n ot h e r f r a m e w o r k t h a t u n d e r gi r d s t h e discussion: this is a focus on violence and its opposite, non-violence, as well as sexuality. Expectedly, these issues are central to the ways in which the religious tradition envisages or concedes spaces for marginalised social groups. By drawing attention to these modes of interaction and intercourse Doniger p r o vi d es t h e r e a d e r wi t h a n understanding of Hinduism that moves b eyo n d t h e e xal te d r e al m s of philosophical speculation to the messy and untidy worlds of lived experiences. Returning to the triad and their locations within Hinduism, impressioni st i c all y, Do nig e r see ms to d e v ote considerable space and attention to animals, and treats them with obvious empathy. Sometimes, the animals stand fo r t h e mse lv es , occ a s i o n all y, t h ey represent other social categories, and ofte n , a n i m al sy m b o l s a r e r i c h l y multivalent, both in the texts the author explores as well as in her own narrative. The horse, in particular, claims her affection and admiration. Typically, the stallion represents ruling elites, while the m a r e sy m b o li ses u n t r a mm e l e d sexuality. What is more, the problems in breeding horses in the environment of the subcontinent are noted time and again—therefore they must come from outside, Central Asia and Arabia, to be precise, and become tropes for the violence of invasions in particular and endemic warfare in general. Doniger’s fondness for the horse occasionally gains the upper hand over m o r e sc h o la r l y d i sc u ss i o n s . T h i s probably accounts for the visual of the horse carved on the Ashokan pillar at Sarnath finding its way into the chapter devoted primarily to the Harappan civilisation (p.84). It may also account fo r t h e u n e x p ecte d l y d et ail e d d i sc u ss i o n o n so u r ces of h o r ses , p r o b l e m s of h o r se-t r a d i n g, a n d appropriate and inappropriate fodder (pp. 452-454). Other animals noticed by the author include dogs, often but not always taken to be representative of lowstatus groups, cats, snakes, monkeys,

Of double vision and triads

The Hindus: An Alternative History
By Wendy Doniger Penguin, New Delhi, 2009, 780 pp., Rs 999 ISBN 978-0-143-06789-4 KUMKUM
lions, tigers and crocodiles. While I had e x p ecte d to f i n d m o r e e la b o r a te discussions on the cow and the elephant, it is evident that they did not fire Doniger’s imagination in quite the same way as the horse. The other components of the triad that Doniger intends to focus on figure in less spectacular ways in the text. Women and Dalits, for example, drop


as one would have expected. What is more, the multiple perspectives that women, when differentiated, may have had on the religious beliefs and practices that are documented, remain virtually unexplored. A discussion on issues of a ccess to r eso u r ces , fo r e xa m p l e , concludes on an unexpectedly banal note: “Diamonds have always been a girl’s best friend” (p. 327). Surely,

The alternative perspective is derived from a concern about women, Dalits and animals. Mention of this triad works as a a slogan, which is invoked throughout the text. Whether the mantra generates fresh insights or not remains somewhat uncertain. Fortunately, there is another framework that undergirds the discussion: this is a focus on violence and its opposite, non-violence, as well as sexuality. Expectedly, these issues are central to the ways in which the religious tradition envisages or concedes spaces for marginalised social groups. By drawing attention to these modes of interaction and intercourse Doniger provides the reader with an understanding of Hinduism that moves beyond the exalted realms of philosophical speculation to the messy and untidy worlds of lived experiences
out of Chapter Two and Four, although animals in general, and, not surprisingly, the horse in particular, are present. Cattle and horses acquire visibility in Chapter Five; women are present in a so m e w h a t u n p r o b l e m a t i se d wa y, whereas other marginalised groups virtually fade into the background. Even where women are present in t h e d i sc u ss i o n , t h ey a r e ofte n i n s u ff i c i e n t l y co n te x t u ali se d — differences in terms of region, caste, co mm u n i ty, a n d c la ss f ig u r e o n l y incidentally, rather than systematically,

whether we consider class as varna, as s h e i n s i sts w e s h o u l d , o r i n mo r e e x p li c i t l y eco n o m i c te r m s , t h i s statement can have only a very limited applicability. For women of the poorest sections of society, and of the ‘lower ’ castes, who would have constituted the vast majority, access to resources of any kind would have been notional at best. The lack of contextualisation is even more striking in the treatment of other marginalised categories, where, once again, some chapters discuss evidence of poverty-stricken, ‘outcaste’ and/or
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‘ u nto u c h a b l e ’ t h i nk e r s a nd s ai nts , without, however, raising or addressing the question of how the mainstream traditions would have looked from their perspectives. Moreover, given the focus on women and Dalits, there are some unexpected omissions in the Bibliography and the te x t . To c i te j u st t w o e xa mp l es : I se a r c h e d fo r r efe r e n ces to P a r i t a Mukta’s nuanced study on Mirabai, but found none. Also absent are references to Kancha Ilaiah’s pioneering, polemical work: Why I Am Not a Hindu. While these are specific omissions, there are others that are, in some ways, more ce n t r al. S c h o la r s s u c h a s U m a Chakravarti have argued, over the last t w o d ec a d es fo r e x p l o r i n g a n d u n d e r st a n d i n g v a r n a a n d g e n d e r relations as inter-related in the early (as w e ll a s la te r ) I n d ia n co n te x ts . Chakravarti suggests that we need to hold both the categories within our analytical framework if we wish to make sense of either. Unfortunately, the potential for arriving at a more complex understanding of Hinduism from this perspective, implicit in the triad Doniger proposes at the outset, is not tapped. This leaves the analysis impoverished in several ways. Even for a work that synthesises, some of the formulations are amazingly simplistic. Consider, for instance, the listing of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ in Indian history (p. 21). The former i n c l ud es , e x p ecte d l y, a p o li t i c all y correct set consisting of Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi. While not particularly

original, it is at least consistent. What is surprising is the second list, where A u r a n g ze b , Ge n e r al Dye r a n d Golwalkar are grouped together. I am afraid I failed to figure the underlying logic of this set, if any. This is not the only odd assortment of words; it was p e r p l e xi n g to f i n d ‘A r y a n ’, ‘ga y ’, ‘holocaust’, ‘adult’ as a set of words that no longer mean what they once meant (p. 91). Has gay become a bad word, now that it has lost its innocence? And was holocaust ever a pleasant term? I was also surprised to stumble on esse n t iali s i n g st a te m e n ts w h ose implications are daunting. For instance, in exploring the roots of violence, one of h e r m aj o r co n ce r n s , Do n ig e r speculates that these lie: “perhaps, at the very heart of it all, in its [the s ub co n t i n e n t ’ s] c li m a te , wi t h i ts unendurable heat and unpredictable monsoons” (p.10). As disturbing are the occasional slippages from Hindu to Indian and vice versa. These occur in the discussion on diet (p. 28) and an odd statement about present-day Hindus renaming cities and streets (p. 32). What, I wondered, about Ho Chi Minh Sarani and Lenin Sarani, in Kolkata? Elsewhere, the paths of rebirth and liberation are identified as South Asian(p. 176), and ideas about reincarnation are described as Indian ( p . 58 ) . A l so b e wil d e r i n g i s t h e reference to India as “one of the most populous Muslim nations in the world” (p. 31), and to the Hindu diaspora beginning well before 2000 BCE (p.68), the latter evidently based on a rather

s p ec u la t iv e e q u a t i o n of H a r a pp a n religious traditions with Hinduism. For a work which is projected “as a basic textbook for a course over a fourteen-week semester” (p.704), the book bristles with inaccuracies. Here are just some samples. Contrary to what Doniger states, Alexander did not cross the Himalayas (p.61), nor do the Ganga and its tributaries originate from so u t h w este r n Ti b et ( p . 62 ) . T h e suggested dates for the M esolithic paintings at Bhimbetka, likewise, seem unrealistically early (p.66). Perhaps m o r e w o rr y i n g i s t h e i m p li c i t connection suggested between the art of Bhimbetka and that of the Harappan civilisation, dated once again, oddly, to 2300 BCE (p. 67). The location of the m aj o r H a r a pp a n c i t i es i s al so erroneous: they are supposed to be 150 m il es so u t h of Bal u c h i st a n , wi t h Harappa itself on the Indus, although later on the same page it shifts more accurately to the banks of the Ravi. And twice (p.345, 374), but fortunately not always, the temples at Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal are attributed to the Guptas. We also learn that the Arabs (!) invaded the Ganga valley (p. 364), and the title of Chapter 16, the Delhi Sultanate, carries dates from c. 650 CE to t h e 15 t h ce nt u r y. W h il e t h i s i s subsequently qualified, one wishes that accuracy had not been sacrificed so often. The glossary, while generally useful, tells us that dasyu is another word for s lav e , b r u s h i n g a s i d e r e a m s of scholarship on the distinctions between

the dasyu and the dasa. More intriguing is the entry on Vyasa, who is described as the author of the Mahabharata, and of Pandu, Dhritrashtra and Vidura. Doniger tells us, at the outset, that browsing through the Endnotes is canine (and presumably not high-status equine) behaviour; apparently dogs sniff each other’s behinds to figure what they’ve been eating. Being more fond of dogs than of horses (I am, I must confess, somewhat in awe of the latter), I plodded through the Endnotes, only to discover that something curious happens to those of Chapters 15 and 16, w h i c h a r e m udd l e d b eyo n d recognition. These drawbacks notwithstanding, Doniger is almost always lucid and lively. Even if she does not offer us startlingly fresh insights, she tells well worn stories with verve. Her reconstruction of the ritualisation of violence through the Vedic sacrifice, for example, is vivid and d r a m a t i c . He r e m p a t h y wi t h a n d translations of Sanskrit texts sustain the narrative. At her best, she is pithy and incisive. Consider, for instance, the encapsulation of that amorphous trio, dharma, artha and kama, through u n fo r g ett a b l e alli te r a t i o n : “ Fo r assonance, one might call then piety, profit, and pleasure, or society, success, a nd se x, o r duty, d o mi na t i o n, a nd desire” (p.201). While The Hindus may not provide the promised alternative to mainstream histories, it provides a synthesis that is always accessible, often e n te r t ai n i n g, a n d occ a s i o n all y enlightening. "




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