On Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus"

I have been reading Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History for a seminar on India I am leading this summer with a group of Philadelphia-area high school teachers.

Doniger's book is a big, sprawling text, the culmination of a distinguished career as a scholar and teacher of Hinduism. That said, it's hardly a conventional or comprehensive volume on the subject. One of the most marked limitations of the book is that it doesn't really work as an "Introduction to Hinduism" for undergraduates; it is more a "deep" narrative requiring a more persistent level of attention than a college text book can safely presume. That's not to say that you have to be a member of the AAR to follow along; while there are some sections that might be of interest mainly to specialists, Doniger's book on the whole is directed at interested bystanders (like myself).

The group with whom I was reading the book did feel at times overwhelmed by the amount of detail -- the very large number of names and terms that came up over the course of the book. Doniger's book presumes knowledge of certain basics, and it lacks the usual introductory overviews one might expect of books intended to be comprehensive (Pankaj Mishra, writing in the New York Times, nevertheless referred to it as "staggeringly comprehensive"). While I have talked to people who dislike Doniger's informal, and sometimes idiosyncratic, writing style in The Hindus (one friend on Twitter complained of her penchant for bad puns), the group with whom I was reading the book actually enjoyed that aspect of the book; the informality helped them stay engaged.

As for structure and content. One of the most familiar criticisms of Doniger's early work was the focus on representations of sexuality in the Hindu tradition, an emphasis which which mainstream, middle-class Hindus resented in a somewhat predictable fashion. Here Doniger both engages and transcends the middle-class and high-caste biases of "Hinduism" and aims for a broader optic -- which explains the "alternative" in her title. Doniger picks three thematic threads -- one of them being gender and sexuality, another being the treatment of animals, and the third being the representation of various kinds of social "others" -- Dalits, Adivasis, and Shudras -- in the various primary texts Doniger considers. While chapters on texts such as the Rig Veda and the Upanishads do have some general introductory material, at the core of each of Doniger's chapters are readings that focus on one of the three themes I indicated.

There was a discussion of the benefits and dangers of Doniger's approach at Chapati Mystery (down in the comments) shortly after the book was released, and a very careful and considered follow-up post by Doniger shortly thereafter. I would recommend everyone take a look at those discussions, as they actually get at the core of the value of Doniger's work, as well as the potential disagreements or controversies it may provoke.

The key paragraph in that post might be this one:

I would particularly like to comment on the argument that the cases I cite, of concern for and sympathy with the lower castes, are just a few rare instances, not characteristic of Hinduism as a whole. This is indeed true, and, yes, I did fish them out, the way people who do not just want to say that all the Germans were Nazis fished out people like Schindler and the other “righteous Christians” who were heroes; the fact remains that many Germans, perhaps even most Germans, were Nazis. So too, without apologizing for Hindu attitudes to women and the lower castes, I wanted to lift up a few counter-instances to show that you cannot simply condemn Hinduism outright, as so many Americans want to do, for the cases that always hit the newspapers, of atrocities to Dalits and women. The balance here becomes clearer if you read the whole book, which does set these liberal, hopeful instances against the backdrop of heavy prejudice against women and Dalits. Indeed, what makes the counter cases so heroic is precisely that they are fighting against a powerful culture of oppression.

It isn't just a question of what is the Real Hinduism -- which is certainly more complex and strange than the dominant narrative would like to acknowledge -- it's also imperative to focus on how knowing about alternative traditions and counter-currents in Hinduism carries with it an implied politics. There is a backdrop of especially caste discrimination and violence in the Hindu tradition (and by extension, the Sikh tradition as well). But there are also stories and counter-narratives that show things playing out in a very different light, all of which are as authentically "Hindu" as the texts and practices of the main stream. Because there is no canon in Hinduism, those counter-narratives can be picked up and used -- and the tradition and the culture can continue to evolve.

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I go way back with Wendy Doniger; indeed, some of my very first blog posts in 2004 dealt with the controversy at that time over her work as it was being reported at the time: see blog posts here and here. And there were numerous other posts and discussions over the years, especially at Sepia Mutiny, where her name was invoked by conservative Hindus as exemplifying everything that was wrong in western scholarship about India. She became such a punchline that a satirist calling himself SpoorLam found it fit to include her name in the following mock-litany of anti-Hindu entities:

We must rise and march to the new dawn of consciousness! We shall never stop marching until the ultimate greatness and tolerance and supremacy of our greatness is known by all! California State Education Board! MF Husain! Wendy Doniger! Anjana Chaterjee! Romila Thapar!

They shall shit themselves with fear at the brilliance of our Hindu civilisation! All you self-hating self-abasing so-called Hindus, understand the illimitable depths of the Universe can only be understood by wearing khakhi shorts.

Hindus are the best. If you don't acknowledge this, you know nothing. My name is SpoorLam and the Abrahamics shall bow to my tolerance, which is so much more tolerant of all other kinds of tolerances. (link)

I quit Sepia Mutiny a year ago, and I no longer have the level of interest in the to and fro of the debate over "communalism" I used to. Nevertheless this book might help bring closure to the "Rajiv Malhotra" era; it provides, through the weight of the scholarship behind it and the breadth of its empirical sources, a strong image of the kind of complex Hindu tradition that earlier works could only hint at.