Interrogating Wendy Doniger
by Bharat Gupt on 17 Feb 2014 9 Comments

At the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) at Hawaii in the spring of 2011, Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), and scholarship was critiqued at a Roundtable Panel organized and chaired by Dr. Madan Lal Goel, University of West Florida.  The panelists included Dr. Bharat Gupt, Delhi University, and Dr TRN Rao, Professor Emeritus, Louisiana State University. (The third panelist, Dr. S Kalyanaraman, could not attend due to last minute health issues).


Though present at the AAS conference, Wendy Doniger declined Dr. Goel’s advance written invitation to participate on the panel, citing prior commitments and a busy schedule. At the reception hosted by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), the writer personally invited her again, but she declined saying, “I have moved beyond The Hindus.”  Anyway, our panel discussion was lively, particularly the question-answer session that followed, where many foreign scholars who teach India and Hinduism in their respective countries expressed satisfaction at receiving a correct appraisal of this book. 


Essentially, this author’s critique ofThe Hindus: an Alternative History” is simply that it is an offence. Myths or stories are meant to liberate us from ignorance. They cannot be interpreted – by outsiders - as narratives that make Hindus uncomfortable and even ashamed of their own heritage, which is message of Doniger’s massive volume.


Recently, the nation celebrated Ravidas Jayanti, birthday of a saint worshipped by the scheduled castes of north India. This is always a full moon day. In other words, the historically accurate calendar date has no meaning for his followers; the date that is celebrated must always a full (purna) moon day, because he is a purna guru, complete teacher, knower of the Absolute. This reflection of completeness is more important than the actual date of birth.


For Hindus, many avataras of the same divinity are not contradictory to each other; rural people best grasp the message of each avatara. Thus, the hunter Rama of Valmiki is the same as the vegetarian Rama of Tulsi, because he is Vishnu incarnating for establishing dharma


This seeming contradiction pains scholars from Abrahamic religions that are based on the so-called historical accuracy of the lives of their prophets and the so-called historically accurate chronology of the creation of the earth as history as seen by modern science. They classify pagan (non-Christian) history as myth, hagiography or ‘narrative’. They labour to contrast and evaluate it with a parallel diagram of ‘factual’ history and miss the truth of the myth in the quest to show the gap between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’.


The Hindus is one such exercise. The issue of gap between ‘narrative’ and ‘history’ is so muddled in this book because even the ‘facts of history’ are not seen not in the total history of India, but highlighted or suppressed from Doniger’s sectarian standpoint. She claims to speak from the standpoint of all those who have been victims of Brahmins or high caste Hindus. In short, for Doniger, the primary reality of Hindus is binary; there are two Hinduisms, one of the upper castes and another of the lower/oppressed castes. So we may ask, is this alterative history written to boost evangelists claiming to free dalits from their oppressors?

In her introduction to The Hindus, Doniger says the book is creating a “narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga … is set in a yoni…” (p3).   Apart from the dexterity of the author in choosing an amusing (many a disgusting) simile, does this figure of speech go deep enough to draw a parallel between religion and history on one hand and the concept of Shiva and Parvati/ Purusha and Prakriti? In the next few lines, Doniger says that ideas of Hindu religion are shaped by political and economic events, including foreign intrusions. In other words, history shapes religion. Now, if this old wine, this well known Marxist materialist notion about religion being a product of social needs and environmental imperatives was to be reiterated, why was a profound Hindu symbol of linga-yoni invoked? 


Nowhere through her bulky book does Doniger show how Hindu religious concepts have shaped India’s history. She is at a loss to show how material culture is a product and manifestation of sustained Hindu indigenous and original thought. She maintains the theory that Hinduism was constructed (including its very name) by economic and material changes and cultures of foreign occupants. Thus, the linga-yoni paradigm fails to illustrate her narrative of Hindu religion versus Hindu history. The linga-yoni symbol is not just a division into the duality of man and woman or mind and matter but a sign of consciousness and its manifestations. That Hindu philosophy (darshana) has also shaped the civilization of the subcontinent is not Doniger’s concern.


Jacketed in Distortion


The cover jacket illustrates the author’s tactic in (mis)using Hindu symbols, myths, characters and philosophical systems. The illustration shows Krishna riding a gopika-horse. Thus, the well known Krishna-Gopika relationship based on equality between the divine (brahma) and the individual souls (jiva) is turned into a master-slave relationship (mind-body dichotomy). Doniger reduces the gopikas to stand for ‘sexual addiction’, to be controlled by the mind (Krishna) as master. But no Indian darshana equates the mind with Sat/Brahma/Nirvana. This is a total travesty of what Krishna says to gopikas in Shrimad Bhagvatam, or what he says to Radha in Gita Govindam. The mistake made in the beginning about linga-yoni representing mind versus matter is repeated here as psyche versus soma duality. 


The book ends with an explanation of the jacket. The horse (or should it be seen as a mare?) is projected by Doniger as a mix of two metaphors, the ancient Hindu symbol of sensual pleasures to be reigned by the mind and the medieval symbol of Muslim aristocratic power. These two subtexts for the symbol of the horse/mare (Muslims she claims preferred mares) are welded into the modern Hindu mind as a result of ancient and medieval historical events (the Vedic ashvamedha and the conquering Islamic armies with superior cavalry). Such a horse is ridden by Krishna. The author lauds this painting as a glorious example of composite art and a contribution of Islam to Hindu cultural imagination. In reality, it is a vandalization of both Hindu and Persian images. Krishna, the Divine, becomes Krishna the Libertine, and gopikas, the human longing for the Divine, are reduced to a bunch of nymphomaniacs. The Muslim conquering power (represented by the horse) becomes a moronic pool of lascivious feminine flesh. She posits these respectively as the real Hindu and Muslim psychologies inherited by modern India!


Embedded in a Colonial View of Sanskrit and Brahmins


“But Sanskrit the language of power, emerged in India from a minority, and at first its power came precisely from its non-intelligibility and unavailability, which made it the power of an elite group (p5).” This one sentence bares Doniger’s view of Sanskrit, not as a language of profundity but as an instrument of domination by foreign occupants, the Vedic people, who overran what was before them and whose inheritors, the brahmins (in caste or mind) were using Sanskrit till the medieval age to mould whatever was indigenous, creative and fresh into insipid orthodoxy through ‘sanskritization’ of desi languages.


Her agenda is to highlight the oppression by Sanskrit and brahmins upon others by delving into vernacular sources, the more oral the better. She admits exchanges took place between Sanskrit (read brahmins) and bhashaas (read lower jatis), but points out the badness of Sanskrit and the goodness of the vernaculars. “The bad news is that some of the vernacular literatures are marred by the misogynist and class bound mental habits of the Brahmins, while the good news is that even some Sanskrit texts, and certainly many vernacular texts, often break out of those strictures and incorporate the more open minded attitudes of the oral vernaculars.”(p7). So, Sanskrit is the dalana (crusher) vernacular is the dalit (crushed).


An extension of the Sanskrit-brahmin versus Prakrit-lower jati divide is the clubbing of women and animals with the lower castes, because most women and of course animals did not know Sanskrit. So for Doniger they become the Other of the Brahmins and “primary objects of addiction and the senses that cause addiction are likened to horses; animals often represent both animals and women …” (p9). Thus sex and hunting are seen as the addictions of ancient Hindus, to escape which developed the ideals of renunciation (vairaagya) and non-violence (ahimsa). Thus, the Hindu pathetically swung between maithuna-mrigayaa and vairaagya-ahimsa


Her conclusion: Hindu ideals are self-tortuous and delusionary. “The Hindu sages dreamed of non-violence as people who live all their lives in the desert dream of oasis.” (p11). While creating this dichotomy between Sanskrit and the Prakrits, she totally overlooks the fact that throughout pre-colonial India, the performing arts, temples, rituals, pilgrimages and sacred sites (tirthas), and itinerant sadhus disseminated the ideas contained in Sanskrit texts to the people. The divide of the population into Sanskrit and its Other is simply unhistorical.


A Sermon on ‘Hindu Sensuality’


In making assertions of this sort she knows that she will not be very much liked by the Hindu world, so she sets herself up as a kind of quasi-holy authority, a dispassionate outsider scholar of Hinduism who will ‘cancel out’ the prejudices that Hindus may have for their own texts and will provide insights using the approaches of Marx, Freud, Foucault and Said. 


But her most compelling reason for writing The Hindus, she reveals, is to oppose the Hindu nationalists (the BJP, RSS and ABVP): “This book is also an alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they tell” (p14). If Doniger is so explicit about waging a war against the BJP and associates, then it is obvious that the political cluster she stands with in India can only be the Communist parties and socialists of the Congress Party.


A Re-incantation of Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory


Doniger still lives in a world where continuous repetition by some academics in the US and Leftist admirers in India (former jholawallas who now ride limousine as owners of rich NGOs) sustains the myth of the Aryan Invasion/Migration as historical fact. She tries to slight the vast research that had been published by 2005 about the discovery of the Saraswati River and thousands of archeological sites on its banks which totally demolish the invasion/migration thesis. In fact, she cannot bring herself to admit the existence of the Saraswati civilisation and continues to harp upon the colonial nomenclature in her chapter, ‘Civilization in the Indus Valley’.   


One proclaimed raison d’etre of this book is to give a voice to animals. Doniger makes the well known observation that the Indus seals are “directly or indirectly related to farming...” (p70). But she expresses disappointment that the seals, “do not seem to have found female animals very interesting, and significantly, no figurines of the cows have been hound” (p71). She then castigates the archeologists who call these animals sacred and counters that these animals are noteworthy because they represent sexual prowess, in other words, she de-sacralises them.


The unicorn, despite its very obvious horse-like neck and head, is for her, not a horse as, “It does not have the proportions of a horse” (p 72). This denial is driven by ideology, viz., it was the Indo-Aryans who established the image of the horse in Indian iconic history!


Further, she questions why two human figures in front of a pair of cobras are called worshipers: “Why not just two, probably nervous blokes?” (p 73). Similarly, the three horned deity is “just a guy, or that matter a gal, in a three horned hat” and she simply refuses to acknowledge the Shiva prototype. For then her chronology collapses. Doniger seems unaware that there are full-fledged figurines of linga-yoni discovered at Harappan sites.


Doniger denies that the images in the Indus-Saraswati Civilization were sacred or ‘the source of Hindu images.” Mother Goddesses are just big-breasted women, “Big breasts are as useful to courtesans as to goddesses” (p 77). The great bath structure in stone could equally have been a “hotel, or a hospital, or even a brothel” and we should not retrofit later Hindu images into them. However this civilisation may have ended, it was not in her opinion a proto-Hindu culture; neither a linga nor a yoni.


Clearly, this is politics and not academics. Harappans cannot be admitted to be early Hindus and the continuity of Hindu history must be denied. The possibility of Vedic people preceding Harappans is anathema to Doniger and the notion of Vedics as the founders of Indian civilization with Harappans a later phase is too close to Hindu nationalist thought. Doniger must reject it even if it seems true. 


Vedas are Nomadic Songs


Regarding the Vedic Aryans, Doniger provides us with four the current surmises, but without giving any reason, fixes the date of their entry into India as 1500 BCE. She admits that the Aryan invasion theory is ‘politically driven scholarship’ (p 92). The second guess, which she finds plausible, is that they ‘strolled in from Caucasus’ (p 92). Slowly over a century or two, the Vedic Aryans changed the linguistic, social and cultural map of India. Like the Central Asian Turks and the British Raj, they entered India not as military conquerors but as traders and merchants, but later took force majeure to establish and maintain control of the subcontinent, she says.


Doniger refuses to see that Vedic ideas are so fundamental to Indian life and thought, that to suggest that British and Islamic ways can provide a parallel is preposterous. The British had to leave and Islam carved out a Pakistan. Even their survival for the period of governance was made possible by huge waves of massive armies (Islam invading again and again over 900 hundred years) and the British for hundred years with vastly superior military technologies. The migration theory is even less sustainable as all migrating or even invading people before the Islamic, like the Greeks, Shakas, Huns and Persians, assimilated into the mainstream, finding a place within it, rather altering its major character according to their foreign selves.


The third theory, that Vedic people are original to India, is dismissed outright as Doniger claims there is no ‘linguistic and archeological’ evidence for it. The fourth theory that Harappans and Vedics are the same is also rejected as she cannot accept the origin of Indo-Aryan languages in India. Also, she claims, the people of the Rig Veda did not know bricks, writing, seals, plows, mortars, baths and cities. She says, “In the good old days they had always slept on their saddlebags, and once they got to the Punjab they built in wood and straw” (p 95). The final evidence is the animals - the horse was unknown to Harappans: “For the horse is not indigenous to India.” It likely “loped into the Indus Valley from Central Asia or West Asia.” It follows that the Indus Valley Civilisation could not have played any part in the most ancient Hindu text, the Rig Veda, “which is intensely horsey” (p97). So the old song - horse and Sanskrit are foreign to India – is peddled as an alternative history.


The image of the Vedic people as nomads on horsebacks is strongly etched on Doniger’s mind. It was on the saddle that the Rig Veda mantras in their great variety of meters were composed, and the eight kinds of vrikritis, the most complicated system of preserving the mantras, the hundreds of schools of Vedic recitation, the grammar, the music of Sama Veda, and the hundred string harps, were developed. So she cannot allow that the Rigveda was conceived prior to the Harappans in India and therefore does not mention bricks: it cannot be pre-Harappan as the horse is missing on Harappan seals.


The Vedic world is projected as one of perpetual violence in religion, in social classes, in men and women, and between the earth and the rampaging people. The Vedics did it under the intoxication of soma. Doniger gives the impression that ashvamedha was done every month, when it was a rare occurrence. She overlooks the daily homa at home which had no animal sacrifice. The picture of Vedics as massive sacrificers is stressed to establish the theory that Buddhism arose to oppose animal depletion which the middle class vaishyas, its main followers, found desirable economically. This is the pet theory of Indian history departments for the last fifty years.


On the subject of polytheism, Doniger is unable to resolve the problem of One appearing as many. She makes the issue trivial by suggesting the example of serial monogamy. Vedics (and all Indic religions since), regard the god they are worshipping at a given time as supreme and the only, just as the modern Euro-American male praises his current wife as the ultimate lover! The profoundest achievement of Indian Darshana - seeing the Truth in many forms, worshipping God as with Form and without it, regarding all forms as valid, is made the subject of a joke. An opportunity to show the Philosophy has shaped History by preventing ugly wars and persecution which is still the bane of Semitic cultures is thus squandered.


Spiting Hindu immigrants to America


Doniger’s enthusiasm for reforming Hindus (and beckoning them to submit at the springs of knowledge gushing forth in Euro-American departments of Indology and South Asian studies) is best displayed in the chapter, ‘Hindus in America’. It gives hardly any account of the positive contributions to America by Hindus and Hinduism since the 1950s, something obvious to the world, but not to Doniger. She shows no interest in exploring how the values and beliefs of Hindus may have helped them to be successful immigrants. On the contrary, she discovers the Bhagavad-Gita, Vivekananda and Vedanta (which she pejoratively refers to neo-Vedanta) as bête noir. It never occurs to her that the doctrine of Vedantic inclusiveness could be a reason for Hindus peacefully and creatively assimilating into the US in contrast with the tussle with immigrants professing Islam. One does not have to look far for reasons behind Doniger’s underestimation of Vedanta and Vivekananda. The BJP in India elevates Vivekananda as a modern thinker while the Left diminishes him as a reactionary.


Cactus Donigerus


Doniger has stated that she is not writing a history of Hindus, their historical epochs, dynasties, or movements of people from outside India or within India, or a history of philosophical concepts. She is using myths to examine the narrative of religion within the narrative of history (linga-yoni nyaya!).


It seems to me that, leaving aside the shocking metaphors, she is delving into the myths of Hindus and the so-called nastikas to establish some basic psychological traits that she thinks Hindus as people have developed. So we have certain agonic paradigms of the Hindu mind such as: violence vs. ahimsa, sensuality vs. renunciation, Puritanism (read Brahmanism) vs. bodily urges, humans vs. animals, horse vs. cows, upper caste vs. lower caste and males vs. females. The Hindu Tree of Life (kalpataru/nyagrodha/ashvattha) is replaced by a Cactus Donigerus supposedly full of the nectar of diversity and sensuality hidden under flesh-piercing thorns. One may ask if Doniger is carrying forward the line of Frazer, Freud and Levi Strauss who reduced the myths of the ‘pagans’ into simple opposites such as: king vs. his murderous successor, spring vs. winter, Id vs. Ego, hot vs. cold, cooked vs. uncooked and so on. All this has been a debasing of the metaphysical into the mental, and that, too, as torn apart. Doniger’s ‘linga’ is a column of dissonance.

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top