Wendy Doniger: An academic caricature
by Madan Lal Goel on 05 Mar 2014 8 Comments
Wendy Doniger’s 779-page tome titled, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) is a hurtful book, laced with personal editorials, folksy turn of the phrase and funky wordplays.  She has a large repertoire of Hindu mythological stories, and often narrates the most damning story - Vedic, Puranic, folk, oral, vernacular - to demean, damage and disparage Hinduism.  After building a caricature, she laments that fundamentalist Hindus (how many and how powerful are they?) are destroying the pluralistic, tolerant Hindu tradition. But, why save such a vile, violent religion, as painted by the eminent professor? There is a contradiction here.


This article, however, focuses on only one aspect of Doniger’s very large book: the chapters dealing with the incursion of Islam into India. As is well known, Islam entered the Malabar Coast in south India with Arab merchants and traders in the 7th century, peacefully. Later, Islam came to India as a predatory and a conquering force. Mohammad bin Qasim ravaged Sindh in 711. Mahmud Ghazni looted and destroyed numerous Hindu temples around 1000 CE. Muslim rule begins with the Delhi Sultanate, approximately 1201 to 1526; it gave way to the Mughal Empire in1526, which ended with the arrival of the British Raj, about 1757.


Wendy Doniger makes the following dubious points on Muslim imperial rule in India (1201-1707).

-        Muslim marauders destroyed some Hindu temples, not many (Ch 16)

-        Temple destruction was a long standing Indian tradition. In an earlier period, Hindus destroyed Buddhist and Jain stupas and rival Hindu temples and built upon the destroyed sites - “the Muslims had no monopoly on that” (P 457)

-        Muslim invaders looted and destroyed Hindu temples because they had the power to do so. If Hindus had the power, they would do the same in reverse (P 454-57)

-        The Jizya - the Muslim tax on non-Muslims - was for Hindu protection and a substitute for military service (P 448-49)

-        Hindu “megalomania” for temple building in the Middle Ages was a positive result of Muslim demolition of some Hindu temples (P 468)

-        The Hindu founders of the Vijayanagar Empire double-crossed their Muslim master in Delhi who had deputed them to secure the South (P 467)


Each argument is false. First, beginning with Mahmud Ghazni in 1000 CE, the invaders looted, pillaged and destroyed several thousand Hindu and Buddhist temples, as attested by the Muslim chroniclers who accompanied these expeditions and described the destruction of many Hindu shrines. The destruction of infidel places of worship is a meritorious act under Islam (See, The Mohammedan period as described by its own historians, Sir HM Elliot, The Grolier Society, 1906). 


Alberuni, who accompanied Mahmud Ghazni, describes one such event: “Mathura, the holy city of Krishna, was the next victim. In the middle of the city there was a temple larger and finer than the rest, which can neither be described nor painted. The Sultan was of the opinion that 200 years would have been required to build it. The idols included 'five of red gold, each five yards high,' with eyes formed of priceless jewels... The Sultan gave orders that all the temples should be burnt with naphtha and fire, and leveled with the ground. Thus perished works of art which must have been among the noblest monuments of ancient India” [1]


At the destruction of another famous temple, Somnath, some 50,000 were massacred. The fabulous booty of gold was divided according to Islamic tradition – the Sultan getting the royal fifth, the cavalry man getting twice as much as the foot soldier. Women were sold into concubinage and the children raised as Muslims.


The esteemed professor asserts that during an earlier period, Hindus persecuted Jains and Buddhists and destroyed their shrines. She narrates the discredited story about the impaling of Jains at the hands of Hindu rulers in the Tamil country, but admits that “there is no evidence that any of this actually happened, other than the story” (p 365). Then why narrate the story?


Whatever the sectarian tensions, Jainism and Buddhism are an integral part of Indian tradition. The Buddha is regarded as an Avatar. Exquisite Jain temples at Mt Abu at the border of Gujarat and Rajasthan built around 1000 CE in a region ruled by Hindu Rajputs, falsify notions of Hindu carnage of Jain temples.


Wendy Doniger suggests that Hindus would do the same to Muslims if they had the power to do so (p 457). Hindus did come to power when Mughal rule rapidly declined after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. The Hindu Marathas were the strongest power in western and southern India, as were the Sikhs and Jats in north India. There is no account of large scale demolition and looting of Muslim places of worship either by the Marathas or the Sikhs. If a copy of the Quran fell into the hands of Maratha soldiers, Shivaji instructed that the same should be passed on to a Muslim follower rather than being burned.


Doniger claims that Jizya levied on non-Muslims was for Hindus protection and a substitute for military service. Jizya is a long held Muslim tradition; it was levied to begin with on the defeated Jews and Christians, the People of the Book, as a price for the cessation of Jihad. Hindus, not being People of the Book, did not deserve to live by paying the special tax. If defeated in battle, their only option was Islam or death. This was the position taken by the leading Islamic clergy. But Muslim rulers were practical men; if they killed the Hindus en masse for failing to adopt Islam, who would build their palaces, fill their harems, cut their wood and hue their water? [2]


Doniger says the Hindu ‘megalomania’ for temple building resulted from Muslim destruction of some Hindu temples. The truth is that in northern India which experienced 500 years of Islamic rule (1201-1707), all great temples were destroyed; Hindus built new temples wherever they could preserve territory. Temple architecture of some beauty survived in southern India that escaped long Muslim occupation. The slur that the Hindu founders of the Vijayanagar empire ‘double-crossed’ their Muslim masters in Delhi must be seen in this context.


The invasion of Sindh by Arab soldier of fortune Muhammad bin Qasim is described as follows: Qasim invaded Sindh in 713. The terms of surrender included a promise of guarantee of the safety of Hindu and Buddhist establishments. Hindus and Buddhists were allowed to govern themselves in matters of religion and law. Qasim kept his promises. The non-Muslims were not treated as kafirs. Jizya was imposed but only as a substitute for military service for their “protection.” He brought Muslim teachers and mosques into the subcontinent (paraphrased)


This makes it seem as though Qasim was a blessing. Andrew Bostom (The Legacy of Islamic Jihad in India) provides the following disquieting picture from Islamic sources [3]:

The Muslim chroniclers… include enough isolated details to establish the overall nature of the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad b. Qasim in 712 CE… Baladhuri (an Islamic writer), for example, records that following the capture of Debal, Muhammad b. Qasim earmarked a section of the city exclusively for Muslims, constructed a mosque, and established four thousand colonists there. The conquest of Debal had been a brutal affair … Despite appeals for mercy from the besieged Indians (who opened their gates after the Muslims scaled the fort walls), Muhammad b. Qasim declared that he had no orders (i.e., from his superior al-Hajjaj, the Governor of Iraq) to spare the inhabitants, and thus for three days a ruthless and indiscriminate slaughter ensued. In the aftermath, the local temple was defiled, and “700 beautiful females who had sought for shelter there, were all captured.”


RC Majumdar, another distinguished historian, describes the tragic outcome:

Muhammad massacred 6,000 fighting men who were found in the fort, and their followers and dependents, as well as their women and children were taken prisoners. Sixty thousand slaves, including 30 young ladies of royal blood, were sent to Hajjaj, along with the head of Dahar [the Hindu ruler]. We can now well understand why the capture of a fort by the Muslim forces was followed by the terrible jauhar ceremony (in which females threw themselves in fire kindled by themselves), the earliest recorded instance of which is found in the Chachnama (cited in Bostom.)


Doniger extensively cites Romila Thapar, John Keay, Anne Schimmel and AK Ramanujan as her sources for Islamic history, to showcase meticulous scholarship, but entirely ignores distinguished historians such as Jadunath Sarkar, RC Majumdar, AL Srivastava, Vincent Smith, and Ram Swarup.


Doniger claims (p 458) that when Muslim royal women first came to India, they did not rigidly keep to purdah (the veiling and seclusion of women) but picked up the more strict form of purdah from contact with Hindu Rajput women. She finds much to praise in Muslim women during this period: some knew several languages; others wrote poetry; some managed vast estates; others set up “feminist” republics within female quarters (harems); some debated fine points on religion; some even joined in drinking parties (ch 16, 20). Such descriptions are patently negated by other historians (See KS Lal, The Mughal Harem (1988), available on the Internet).


If Hinduism is the source of strict purdah among Muslim women, as Doniger contends, how does one explain the strict veiling of women in the Middle East, a region far removed from Hindu influence?  Or, the absence of purdah in southern India, a region that escaped extended Islamic domination?


Doniger says “the Vedic reverence for violence flowered in the slaughters that followed Partition” in both India and Pakistan (p 627). One is at a loss what to understand from this weighty pronouncement from the University of Chicago’s tenured professor. But if this is her understanding of historical facts for which there is no dearth of unimpeachable evidence, then her inability to fathom the profound and multi-dimensional meanings of Hindu dharma and its deities and philosophies is perhaps understandable.



1] Vincent Smith, The Oxford History of India, Delhi, 1981, pp. 207-08. Smith derives his account of Mahmud’s raids from the account written by Alberuni, the Islamic scholar who traveled with Sultan Mahmud to India.

2] See Ram Swarup’s Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, 1992. And Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, 2005, at:


3] Published in 2005 in the American Thinker by Andrew Bostom and available at:



The author is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of West Florida, USA. Based on a chapter in “Portrayal of Hinduism in Western Indology”, ed. S. Kalyanaraman and TRN Rao, 2010, published by WAVES, USA

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