Decoding Wendy Doniger’s Hinduism book: 1

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a scholarly critique of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History published in 2009. This book published by Penguin was withdrawn by the publisher in an out of court settlement owing to a case filed in a Delhi court by Shiksha Bachao Andolan and a group of individuals. Expectedly, the withdrawal has stirred up controversy. Those who regard her book as throwing new light and insights on Hinduism and Hindus have voiced strong opposition while those who aver that The Hindus is essentially a book that disparages Hindus and their religion maintain that their contention is factually accurate. 

Hence this series. 

This is originally a paper titled This Hindu and That Hindu in Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, written and presented by Shrinivas Tilak (an independent researcher based out of Montreal) for the WAVES conference in 2010.

Toward the end of her latest work The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), Professor Wendy Doniger explains the purpose of writing this book which, on surface, appears a very noble one: The wild misconceptions that most non-Hindus have of Hinduism need to be counteracted by demonstrating the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices. An American interlocutor like herself, she goes on, is the best person to build that bridge. Hence this book (pp 652-653). This noble goal however, comes toward the end of a long book and clashes with the goal she sets for herself in the preface to the book on page one: the main purpose of The Hindus is to provide a narrative account of “alternative people” who do not figure in the Brahmin-generated history—people who are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals). The talk and task of building a bridge to Hindus and Hinduism is therefore only an afterthought at best and one that remains undone.

The Hindus tells the story of Hinduism chronologically and historically but emphasizing the history of marginalized rather than mainstream Hindus. Doniger’s aim is to demonstrate (1) that Hindus throughout their long history have been enriched by the contributions of disenfranchised or marginalized sectors: women, the lower castes, and members of other religions; (2) that although there are a number of things that have been characteristic of many Hindus over the ages (the worship of several gods, reincarnation, karma), none has been true of all Hindus, and the shared factors are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to individuals belonging to one group or another; (3) that the greatness of Hinduism (its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness) lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny; and (4) that the history of tensions between the various Hinduisms, and between different sorts of Hindus, undergirds the violence of the contemporary Indian political and religious scene (pp. 14-15).

Behind the façade of providing an alternative history, the real agenda of The Hindus seems to be to drive a wedge between what Doniger calls the marginalized and the mainstream Hindus who she also calls as Subaltern Hindus and Sanskritic Hindus respectively. Since the former group is dear to Doniger’s heart, let us call this group ‘This Hindu’ and the latter group, which she loathes with all her heart, ‘That Hindu’ to indicate the chasm that she wishes to posit between the two groups. In her preliminary observations on Hindus and Hinduism in general Doniger maintains that the composite Hindu culture is made of (1) local or ‘little traditions’ as well as a pan-Indian or ‘great tradition;’ (2) oral as well as written traditions; (3) vernacular as well as Sanskrit traditions; and (4) non-textual as well as textual sources (p. 32).

The first elements of each of these pairs refer to the contribution made by ‘This Hindu’ while the second elements refer to contributions brought by ‘That Hindu’ to Hinduism. Doniger recognizes that these contrasting pairs did not translate into polarized groups of Hindus:

a single person would often have both halves in his or her head; a Brahmin would know the folk traditions, just as, in modern west, many people study paleography and then go to church and read Genesis. It is not the case that a puritanical Brahmin studies Manu’s dharma texts and a libertine merchant read the Kāma-sūtra. A typical Hindu, of either class, might well read dharma with learned men by day and the Kāma-sūtra with his mistress by night (pp. 32-33).

But after announcing these salubrious traits of Hinduism and Hindus in the introduction, Doniger proceeds to systematically turn these two integral expressions of Hinduism against each other over the next seven hundred pages or so. ‘This Hindu’ declares Doniger, magisterially, would constitute the major source and rallying point of her ‘alternate’ history of Hindus and Hinduism since he represents and generates all that is the best and finest in Hinduism while ‘That Hindu’ only brings disgrace to it.

It is imperative to counteract this false and mischievous dichotomy of ‘This Hindu’ and ‘That Hindu’ that is artificially and arbitrarily imposed by Doniger: ‘This Hindu’ is Subaltern, Secular, and Semitic (i.e. adhering to the values of individualism and difference valorized in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition). ‘That Hindu,’ by contrast, is Sanskritic, Saffronized, and Sati and cow-worshiping. Hindus must contest the assumptions implicit in the division that Doniger is keen to create and perpetuate between ‘This Hindu’ and ‘That Hindu’ because, if unchallenged, they may lead to a post-Hindu India that secessionists like Kancha Illaiah dream of. Hindus must convincingly demonstrate the continued existence (since the ancient Vedic times) of a two-way bridge of discourses between the Subaltern and Sanskritic Hindus through the modes and methods of reciprocal exchanges ranging from religion, science, philosophy, art, education, politics, marriage, vocation, economics, literature, drama, to dance. These are not separate entities but as the manifold ways in which the function of being Hindu and human expressed (and expresses) itself. Subaltern Hindus and Sanskritic Hindus do indeed betray distinctive characteristics and yet neither leaves the broader Hindu tent or umbrella. The decision to call a religious community a separate ‘sect’ is similar to the decision to call a linguistic community a dialect or a separate language. The decision where to draw the line is always subjective and hence more or less arbitrary and determined by considerations of social or economic status or other considerations.

This Hindu
Doniger points out that countless terms have been coined to designate the lowest castes (whose members did not have an access to the ritual of initiation), the disposed, or underprivileged or marginalized groups, including the tribal peoples. Sanskrit texts refer to them as Chandalas, Chamars, Pulaksha, or Shva-pakas (dog cookers). Much later the British called them Untouchables, the Criminal Castes, the Scheduled castes, the Depressed Classes, and Outcastes. Gandhi called them Harijans. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, the members of these groups began to call themselves Dalits (using the Marathi/Hindi word for ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’). Postcolonial scholars call them (and other low castes) Subalterns. Adivasis constitute another important oppressed group, the so-called the tribal peoples of India, on the margins both geographically and ideologically, sometimes constituting a low caste (such as the Nishadas), sometimes remaining outside the caste system altogether.

Doniger conveniently designates all these disenfranchised groups by the catchall term of Pariah (a Tamil word for the caste whose members beat leather-topped drums; see p. 38). Doniger holds Hindu women, Pariahs, and non-Hindu minorities on par and informs us that whatever she writes about one also applies to the others (p. 39). “The Subaltern Hindu,” claims Doniger, rejected both hierarchy and violence whilst the expressed motivation promoting the bhakti movements mostly included women and Dalits within their ranks, and advocated a theology of love (pp.40-41).

This Hindu: the glory of Hinduism
The broader intellectual pluralism of the Vedas regards the world, or the deity, or truth itself as plural; the Vedas tackle the problem of ontology from several (plural) different angles, branching off from an ancient and still ongoing argument about the way the world is, about whether it is basically uniform or basically multiform.

Rig Veda 10.121,” continues Doniger, “shows a tolerance, a celebration of plurality, even in asking unanswerable questions about the beginnings of all things” (pp. 128-129). Mahatma Gandhi captured this unifying essence when he suggested that the chief value of Hinduism lies in holding that all life is one (Organ 1970: 90-91). For this reason Doniger considers Gandhi to be the epitome of ‘This Hindu’ who embodied a truly tolerant individual pluralism as indeed do most rank-and-file Hindus. She traces it back to “the myths, to the paths charted by individuals like King Janashruti and Yudhisthira and in recorded history by Ashoka, Harsha, or Akbar or Mahadevyyakka or Kabir.” Gandhi took the inclusiveness and imagination of Hinduism for granted and contrasted it against the attitudes of Brahmins [representing ‘That Hindu’], whose ‘prejudices’ against both Dalits and Muslims Gandhi protested throughout his life (p. 688). The boast that Hinduism is tolerant and inclusive is not false. It is a true truism; however contradicted it may be by recurrent epidemics of intolerance and exclusion (p. 688).

That Hindu: a blot upon Hinduism
According to Doniger, Hindu diversity inspires pride in some, anxiety in others. In particular, it provokes anxiety in those Hindus who are called Hindu nationalists or the Hindu right, or right-wing Hindus, or the Hindutva (Hinduness) faction, or more approximately, Hindu fundamentalists; they are against Muslims, Christians, and the wrong sort of Hindus (i.e. Subaltern Hindus). Their most powerful political organ is the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), with its militant branch, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Doniger sees her book as an alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they tell (p. 14). “The Sanskritic Hindu” embedded violence in many forms of bhakti that he appropriated for himself. In more recent times, in the name of bhakti to Ram ‘The Sanskritic Hindu’ conspired with militant Hindu nationalists to tear down the Babri Mosque” (see pp. 689-690).

Doniger metaphorizes the high caste Hindu males as ‘top’ dogs that have oppressed and repressed everybody else in India since the ancient Vedic times. In Doniger’s reckoning, in the traditional history of India (a product of Brahmin imagination), religious minorities and social outcastes are reduced to a status of a ‘scape-dog’ (p. 145) (these include Muslims who ruled India for most of the last millennium). Doniger stigmatizes ‘That Hindu’ as superstitious, socially retrograde and obscurantist because he (allegedly) uses, among other things, suttee [Sati] as the banner of Hindutva to oppress not only women but Muslims and dissidents (p. 618). For Doniger, the cow is a central issue for the Hindutva faction, whose influence upon all branches of Indian life amounts to what some Indian academics and media personnel have called Saffronization (on the model of Sanskritization). “But are cows sacred in India?” asks Doniger “or is the idea of a ‘sacred cow an Irish bull (the old British chauvinist term for an ox-y-moron)? Sacred means a lot more than not to be killed and is, in any case, a Christian term that can be, at best, vaguely and inadequately applied in India” (p. 658).

Doniger claims that violence was embedded in Vedic sacrifice of cattle and horses. She situates the ritual violence in the social violence that it expressed, supported, and required, the theft of other people’s cattle and horses (p. 103). The Vedantic reverence for non-violence flowered in Gandhi; the Vedic reverence for violence flowered in the slaughters that followed Partition (p. 627). She finds instances in Indian history, where individuals have turned this tide of violence even against the current of zeitgeist. The emperors Ashoka and Akbar, and Mahatma Gandhi in our times initiated highly original programs of religious tolerance and curbing violence, going in the teeth of the practices of their times. Aurangzeb, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, and M. S. Golwalkar, on the other hand, turned on the tide of violence (p. 21). Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906-1973), who was a leader of the Hindu organization known as the RSS claims Doniger, reflects a different sort of cultural schizophrenia from the creative dichotomies that have typified so much of Hinduism. He used the justifiable Hindu pride in religious tolerance to justify intolerance (p. 687).

To be continued