Jon Stout's Reviews > The Hindus: An Alternative History

The Hindus by Wendy Doniger
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Jun 22, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: anglo-indian, religion
Read in June, 2009

More than one friend has said, “Write a lot about this book,” so the pressure is on. When I first saw the reviews for The Hindus An Alternative History, I jumped at the chance to read an opinionated, panoramic discussion of Hinduism, because I have had miscellaneous experiences and opinions of Hinduism ever since my Peace Corps days in Nepal, and I wanted to deepen and consolidate my knowledge.

Doniger acknowledges that hers is an “alternative” history, because it is written with a view to filling in the non-Brahman threads in Hindu history, particularly the contributions of women, as well as of lower and outside castes such as untouchables and pariahs. She also discusses the roles of Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Christians and others who have interacted with Hinduism. So Doniger’s history is a sort of counter-culture history. I thought there might be a gay and lesbian component of a counter-cultural history, as there is to other stretches of world history, but Doniger limits discussion of homosexuality to only four pages out of 700, so I guess that is a topic for an alternative “alternative history.”

Doniger’s discussion goes back to geologic prehistory, and then to the origin of Sanskrit as an Indo-European language. The discussion of the Indo-European speakers of ten thousand years ago, who are the ancestors of most cultures in Europe and the Middle East, seems ironic because the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic, horse-riding, cattle-rustling culture, seemingly like that of Genghis Kahn or Attila the Hun, and yet these progenitors in India developed into a society that stresses asceticism and non-violence as major values. A tiny piece of the evidence is the prevalence of horses in Hindu mythology, even though horses are not indigenous to India.

I was very attentive to the role of Buddhists in Hindu history, because I had read that Buddhism started as a kind of reform movement within Hinduism (around 400 BCE), and therefore could be thought of as a branch of Hinduism. This made sense to me in the same sense that Christianity is a historical offshoot of Judaism, and people speak of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (though Harold Bloom, for one, would object). A Hindu friend once told me that Buddhism is “the export variety of Hinduism,” But I am also aware that Buddhism has traveled and undergone permutations throughout virtually all of Asia, quite independently of Hinduism.

Doniger clarifies the issue because she tracks Hinduism over time, from the Vedas to the Upanishads to the epics to the Puranas, and so on. The Buddha was contemporaneous with the Upanishads, and had knowledge of the Vedas, in fact reacted in some ways against their authority, so that Buddhism (as well as Jainism), if a branch, is a very, very early branch of Hinduism. But Buddhism and Jainism coexisted with Hinduism throughout centuries, and thus they all mutually criticized and influenced each other. Doniger speaks of some periods in which Buddhists, Jains, Shaivas (devotees of Shiva) and Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu) were the prevalent groups, much as Eisenhower once said that Catholics, Protestants and Jews were the three denominations of Americanism.

Doniger discusses how to define “Hinduism,” and points out that there are common sources, practices, beliefs, etc., but that for every generalization one can find opposing viewpoints, so that it is impossible to isolate specific sources or beliefs which define “Hinduism.” She concludes that we have to resort to a Zen diagram (a pun on Venn diagram) which is a Wittgensteinian “family,” that is, a group in which some members share resemblances, but no property is common to all. Her discussion (plus a little help from my friends) led me to understand, despite her opposing argument, that the Vedas are the source from which everything Hindu flows. This notwithstanding the fact that within Hinduism, anti-Vedic positions may be taken.

I am always struck when Hindu history grapples with a theme in a way comparable to how European literature handles the same theme, probably because both traditions are dealing with perennial problems. There are many examples in Doniger’s book, but one comes to mind. The Brahmanas (commentary on the Rig Veda) try to answer questions like “Who is the god whom we should honor with oblation?” by inventing a god whose name is “Who.”

“The creator asked the god Indra… ‘Who am I?,’ to which Indra replied. ‘Just who you said’ (i.e., ‘I am Who’), and that is how the creator got the name of Who.”

This seems a remarkable parallel to me of Yahweh’s saying, in the Torah, “I am that I am” in a way that echoes the Hebrew name of Yahweh. I won’t try to analyze what “I am Who” or “I am that I am” means, but both formulations seem to express the insight that what is, is God, and to call attention to the revelatory nature of self-awareness. Both formulations are deep in ways that call for traditions of mythology and histories of analysis.

I have long tried to get a visceral, personal sense of the Hindu gods and goddesses, which is sometimes difficult, because, for example, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around a Krishna who frolics with milkmaids and also is the destroyer of worlds. Doniger helps the process of understanding by using many snippets of the epic stories, ranging over many centuries, which show how the core of a story has been repeatedly reinterpreted to add layers or variations of meaning. An example would be the abduction of Sita in the Ramayana, in which originally Rama questions her honor, but in later versions he never doubts her, and anyhow Sita has a shadow version of herself to do the hard part. The endless reinterpretations serve the purpose of addressing a social or conceptual problem, such as accommodating the viewpoint of women.

Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj fleshes out a lot which had been vague to me, such as the duration of British involvement in India, from Queen Elizabeth’s first charter of the East Indies Company in 1600 to Indian independence in 1947, more than three centuries. Doniger divides the Raj into three waves: First were “Conservatives and Orientalists… appreciative and tolerant,” who interfered minimally, while respecting, though romanticizing Hinduism. Second were “Evangelicals and Opportunists… scornful,” who tended to exploit India religiously and commercially. Third were “Unitarians and Anglicists… hostile,” who were judgmental and punitive in their attitudes.

In other words there was a full range of interactions between British and Indians, ranging from love and respect to cruelty and exploitation. Doniger observes that Edward Said, the theorist of “Orientalism,” was surprisingly ambivalent about Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. While Kipling assumed the structures of British colonialism and implicitly endorsed them, nevertheless his obvious love for India, and the integrity of his vision, could still charm. Doniger says that, ironically “Gandhi referred to the British as ‘those who loved me.’ The British also loved India for the right reasons, reasons that jump off of every page of Kim: the beauty of the land, the richness and intensity of human interactions, the infinite variety of religious forms.”

Doniger defends her own right to interpret Hinduism, “I believe that stories, unlike horses, and like bhakti in the late Puranic tradition, constitute a world of unlimited good, and an infinitely expansible source of meaning.” Her work erases, in my mind, the distinction between “western” and “eastern,” and places Hinduism squarely within a context which belongs to all of us.

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Bob (new)

Bob Nichols I will be very interested in your take on this book. Give me a lot, in the way of a review.


message 2: by Bob (last edited Jun 27, 2009 11:01PM) (new)

Bob Nichols Is Hinduism a modern-day appelation, a name that we in the West imposed upon a long, long tradition dating back to the Vedas, which in reality is a collection of highly individualized religious practices and gods (more gods than there are people?) that lacks any centralized authority that could properly be called, "Hinduism?" In other words, with no pope-like or current Hindu priest leader or leadership hierarchy, is Hinduism Hinduism? I don't know the answer to this question. The relevance of this question I suppose is, what constitutes a formalized religion, as opposed to a collection of religious practices that range from animism and polytheism, to forms of Deism, and to the heights perhaps of mystical monism (one impersonal cosmic spirit)?


message 3: by Jon (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jon Stout Doniger addresses this very question, and says that "Hinduism" as a label only came into existence when Hindus had to distinguish themselves from other religions, Greek and Persian invaders perhaps first of all. Brahmans are "priest leaders" in a "leadership hierarchy," although Doniger considers different ways of defining a religion, central authority being only one, but also including common written sources, common rituals, common beliefs, etc. She concludes than none of these defines exclusively. I think this is true of other religions as well, since there are always community members who want to redefine themselves, pope-like leaders notwithstanding. The Hindu Nationalist Party has attempted to define who is a Hindu, over many objections.


message 4: by Bob (new)

Bob Nichols Good response; thanks.


message 5: by Quo (new)

Quo Jon, I've enjoyed reading a few of your reviews, including the book by Doniger & if I commented on that book, it doesn't show up here. Still, Wendy has an amazing grasp of Hindu culture & her "alternate history" is probably more objective than a non-Indian would be capable of, perhaps like Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul taking a glance at the Indian subcontinent, as he has done. When I read about some readers of Doniger's book becoming incensed at her rendering of Hindu India, they seem to be denying the very diversity that she attempts to portray. In any case, well done!


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