“The Hindus – An Alternative History” – Controversy and Truth

The Controversy

In 2011, Mr. Dinanath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samithi (“Committee for the Struggle to Save Education”) in India brought a case against the book The Hindus – An Alternative History by the American Indologist and scholar Wendy Doniger. The lawsuit was filed under Section 295A of Indian Penal Code (a leftover of the colonial era) which punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of any religious community. The case went to litigation in February 2014. Rather than fight it out, Penguin decided to withdraw the book from publication in a phased manner in six months and pulp the remaining copies.

There was widespread outrage from freethinkers and intellectuals: concerns were raised that free speech was under threat in India. While this is hardly a unique incident – any book, play or movie which was likely to “wound religious sentiments” gets an immediate ban in India: The Satanic Verses is the most prominent example – the fact that it happened to a book by a recognised scholar justified the misgivings to a certain extent. If the trend caught on, any kind of interpretation of myth, history or literature than the officially sanctioned version would become impossible. From this to theocracy is only a small step.

Of course, with all the hullabaloo, I simply had to read the book! (I suspect many others also felt the same. According to reports, the book was being sold clandestinely in many places in India. And it is available on the net. On the whole, Mr. Batra seems to have acted as Ms. Doniger’s publicist, unwittingly.) Fortunately people have uploaded PDF copies all over the web, and locating one was not very difficult.

A Parallel History

Wendy Doniger is a scholar – but her book is not scholarly. It is aimed at the general reader. The style is chatty with a lot of sarcastic humour (actually a drawback – we will get to it later). The author has not proceeded like a conventional historian, rather her attempt has been to “set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (pitha).” That is, she concentrates on the religious and social narrative within the framework of history, rather than the “hard and true” facts which have been proved by archaeology.

And so this is a history not of what the British used to call maps and chaps (geography and biography) but of the stories in hi-story. It’s a kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history, a quilt like those storytelling cloths that Indian narrators use as mnemonic devices to help them and the audience keep track of the plot. The narrator assembles the story from the quilt pieces much as the French rag-and-bones man, the bricoleur, makes new objects out of the broken-off pieces of old objects (bricolage).

Ms. Doniger uses two metaphors for the way she has interpreted the history of Hinduism. The first is a common optical illusion, reproduced below:

With a little effort, one can see both the rabbit and the bird. This is a common property of optical illusions – our eyes pick up a pattern of markings and impose an image on them. According to Wendy, this is equally true in the case the craters on the moon, which Westerners have interpreted as the face of a man, and Indians, as a rabbit. She says:

The image of the man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit, will serve as a metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.

Whatever we currently accept as part of “Hinduism” (a problematic concept in itself) has been garnered from the “official” versions, the Sanskrit texts written down by the persons who had the power and the privilege. However, this forms only a very small part of the culture of India. Most of the narrative of Hinduism is spread along a multitude of people belonging to various castes and regions: the tales of the so-called “subaltern” groups who have had no voice in the major part of the history of this great subcontinent. The author analyses these submerged histories along with the well-known ones so a kind of double-vision is also required on part of the reader – now seeing the rabbit, now seeing the bird.

Available Light

The second metaphor is a Sufi parable about Mulla Nasrudin.

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”

One could take this as just a funny story or a profound vignette on searching for the truth in the correct (or incorrect) place. Wendy Doniger adapts it to the analysis of Indian history in the following manner:

This Sufi parable could stand as a cautionary tale for anyone searching for the keys (let alone the one key) to the history of the Hindus. It suggests that we may look for our own keys, our own understandings, outside our own houses, our own cultures, beyond the light of the familiar sources.

That is, we may be searching entirely in the wrong place, for the wrong key: even if we find it, it may be different for each person, depending upon his or her background. Also, one can only search where light is available – and many areas of Indian history are still shrouded in darkness.

A Detailed Analysis of Indian History and Culture

Ms. Doniger analyses the Indian civilisation by dividing it into recognisable periods. Starting with the Indus Valley Civilisation, it moves down in time through the nomadic Aryans and their Vedas; as the Aryans get civilised, the Vedas give rise to the more philosophical Upanishads – religion moves away from ritual to introspection. Then as the cities rise up and urbanisation kicks in, the beliefs get codified into “Dharma Shastras” (as exemplified by the code of Manu), and religion becomes more organised and rigid – the four “Varnas” (colours) or castes are born and a large group of people are marginalised as being outside the system (at the same times, money and love also get their own shastras!). Buddhism rises and declines and Hinduism resurges in the South under the Bhakti movement. In some parts of India, an esoteric discipline called “Tantra” is born.

It was into this dynamic civilisation that Islam entered: first as the so-called “Slave” dynasty of Muhammad Ghori and later, as the Mughal dynasty established by Babur. However, far from the Islamisation of India, Hindus and Muslims traded cultural elements across religious boundaries which enriched both religions. Then the Western powers came as traders and established themselves as colonialists, Britain winning out over the others in India. Yet even though their main aim was the assimilation of lucre, India changed them also – and Hinduism also underwent yet another transformation, absorbing modern values and adapting to the changing world, which has been its strength all through history.

I will not undertake a detailed analysis of Ms. Doniger’s book here. It will be a Herculean task (or in the current context, a “Bhageeratha Prayatna“), and I doubt whether I have the time and expertise. Rather, I will record here what I liked (and disliked) about the book.

First, the positives:

  1. Doniger’s scholarship. The sheer amount of books which have been read (and analysed) by this lady is breath-taking. It does not involve Sanskrit texts alone, but many narratives in the vernacular across the length and breadth of India.
  2. The impartiality of her analysis. Across these 700 – odd pages, the author has been at pains to present both sides of the question. For example, she does not present the Muslim conqueror as a fanatical religious marauder, neither does she picture him as a benign ruler – rather, he is in search of loot when he pillages temples. Similarly, the British rulers are shown as mainly interested in making money: governance is only incidental. Also, she does not picture the upper-caste Hindu as an epitome of evil out to destroy Buddhists and harass Pariahs, but rather as a pluralist who is however, not without his prejudice.
  3. Doniger has analysed the epics and myths of India in detail, pulling no punches. Kudos to her for recognising that The Mahabharata is, in its heart of hearts, an anti-war document: also for mentioning the many Ramayanas which are scattered across India (contesting the Hindu Right’s picturisation of Rama as the “Maryada Purushottama” which is derived from Tulsidas’s interpretation and not from Valmiki). Some of her contentions, like the undercurrent of sexual attraction between Lakshmana and Sita may disturb traditional Hindus, but she always provides documentary evidence for her conclusions.
  4. The largely marginalised status of women and the Dalits are forcefully etched out by the author, at the same time highlighting that all was not darkness. Like much else to do with Hinduism, here also a multitude of narratives intermingle and intersect.

The negatives (I could find only one – but that, I believe, have contributed seriously to the book’s controversial status):

  1. The author’s tone. The snarky humour she pokes at everything must have done a lot, I am sure, to put people off. It is not always edifying to be made fun of, especially about something which one considers sacred.

It is easy to see why “The Hindus – An Alternative History” angers conservative Hindus. Of late, they have been at pains to present Hinduism as a monolithic religion: the Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Law”, going against the teeth of all evidence. Indian literature talks of four methods of coercion: Sama (peaceful verbal coercion), Dana (bribery), Bheda (threats) and Danda (physical abuse). All four have been tried against the intellectuals and academics who have disputed this view. In his complaint against the book, Mr. Dinanath Batra has said that it is “riddled with heresies”. This is the height of tragic irony, as there is nothing in Hinduism called heresy – its very strength is its pluralism, the ability to assimilate anything into its fold.

America calls its culture the “Melting Pot”, where various nationalities are fused together to form a single culture. In contrast, Canada calls itsel the “Salad Bowl” – where all cultures are mixed together, yet each keeps its own identity. In the case of India, the cultures fuse together, yet also maintain their identity.

In Kerala, we have a tasty curry called “Avial“. It is made from bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables and roots. Legend has it that Bhima invented this curry during his stint disguised as a cook in King Virata’s palace. The Avial has its own distinct taste – but if you savour it slowly, you can distinguish the different vegetables.

Hinduism is the world’s Avial.

Enjoy it!

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5 comments on ““The Hindus – An Alternative History” – Controversy and Truth

  1. Came here through your Goodreads review of the book. Have to say, thoroughly enjoyyed your review. Haven’t read the whole book yet, but it has been quite an insightful one so far, in all the ways that you have explained here. While I do concede that the ‘tone’ of the author might have irked the HIndutva flag bearers most, still, they would have flipped out anyways because, in many ways they are not really running a campaign of hatred against other religions, but one against Hinduism itself. You wouldn’t find more self-loathing and hate towards one’s ‘past’, ;effeminate’ religion than among the same Hindutva-waadis. As Ashish Nandy says, the rise of Hindutva is the death of Hinduism. And it pains me to no limit to observe the growing influence of these elements by each passing day, though one has to keep in mind that their rise has been in the making since the last century or so. ( Hope you don’t mind the long comment ) Cheers.

  2. The first thing that came to my mind before i read the last paragraph was ‘Avial’ :-). Great review. Definitely going to read the book!

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