The Hindus
The Hindus: An Alternative History

Wendy Doniger.
Penguin Press, New York, New York, 2009, 779pp. ISBN 978-1-59420-205-6, US$35.00.

Reviewed by Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

There are now many authoritative books on Hinduism that provide an effective and thorough account of the many facets of this intriguing and long-lived religion. Why then should the reader bother with yet another tome on Hinduism, particularly when this tome is almost 800 pages long? The answer is tripartite. First, this book “highlights a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit...” (p. 1). Second, not only does this book focus on a group of actors that it deems “special,” but it also concentrates on what it calls “a few important actions...[that are] important to us today...” (p. 2). Finally, unlike some extant books on Hinduism, this book seeks to “set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history...” (pp. 2-3). With these three points as her preamble, the author Wendy Doniger uses the twenty-five chapters of this book to provide an eminently readable account of Hinduism from antiquity to contemporary times. In the remainder of this review, I shall sample eclectically from the book’s contents. This should give the reader an adequate flavor for the intellectual contributions of this book.

The proceedings commence in right earnest with the author pointing out that a lot of what we call Hinduism today had roots in cultures that flourished in South Asia long before the creation of any textual evidence that one can decipher with any confidence. Keeping this in mind, Doniger provides a lucid discussion of the justly prominent Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). In particular, she asks the reader to note that even though there are some similarities between certain IVC images and later Hindu images of Shiva, this “does not mean that the Indus images are the source of the Hindu images” (p. 76). She then contends that conjectures about the role of religion in the lives of people during the IVC typically rest on what she calls “doubtful retrospective hindsight” (p. 80) from a whole host of Hindu practices many centuries later.

Moving on, we come to the period 200 BCE to 200 CE, a time when the first of the two great Indian epics, namely, the Ramayana, was composed. Regarding its composition, Doniger acknowledges the contributions of Brahmins. This notwithstanding, she carefully notes that non-Brahmins and people of lower caste in particular were in charge of portions of this Sanskrit poem and that this is a clear example of “the contributions of low-caste people to Sanskrit literature” (p. 219). The author then proceeds to discuss the two horse sacrifices performed by Rama in the aftermath of his banishment of his wife Sita. The discussion here turns uncharacteristically translucent. Specifically, given that Rama already had offspring from Sita, the point of the second horse sacrifice is not entirely clear. In addition, some commentary on why so many individuals had the ability to credibly exert power over others by simply cursing them, would have been helpful.

Next comes the author’s discussion of the second great Indian epic, namely, the Mahabharata. Inter alia, the exposition here concentrates on the notions of “dharma,” “moksha,” and “bhakti.” These concepts are not easy to get across but Doniger perspicaciously renders to the reader both the meaning and the role of these notions in the Bhagavad Gita. As is now well known, the central question confronting Arjun on the eve of the salient battle at Kurukshetra concerns the assimilation of “the ascetic ideal into the ideology of an upper-class householder” (p. 284). Arjun’s seemingly eschatological concerns notwithstanding, Krishna calmly advises Arjun “to renounce not the actions but their fruits...” (p. 284). Put differently, Arjun ought to live with his actions without desires. Three points are now in order. First, although Doniger says that the Gita’s “solution” to Arjun’s problem is “brilliant,” this claim is moot. Second, citing the work of Romila Thapar, she rightly points out that instead of Krishna, had the Buddha been Arjun’s charioteer, the proposed solution to Arjun’s dilemma would have been different. Finally, Doniger’s discussion, although lucid, would have profited from some discussion of Amartya Sen’s 2000 paper in the Journal of Philosophy titled “Consequential Evaluation and Practical Reason.”

What were the impacts of the British Raj on caste, class, and religious conversions in India? While discussing this contentious question, Doniger makes three noteworthy points. First, she points out that during the so called “first wave” of the Raj, the British saw the native princes and not the Brahmins at the top of the “multistory Hindu hierarchy and generally treated them as social equals” (pp. 577-8). This state of affairs changed dramatically during the subsequent second and third waves. In particular, during the second wave, substantial numbers of tribals in India converted to Christianity because these tribals “associated the value system of the Christian missionaries with the power of the British” (p. 584). Finally, during the third wave, relations between Hindus and Muslims deteriorated substantially. In addition, in legal matters big and small, the orotund British completely bypassed the village panchayat system that had effectively used case law to adjudicate matters and replaced this system with a system based on William Jones’s translation of the Laws of Manu. The effect of this nontrivial change was significant. It was, says Doniger, “as if U.S. courts had suddenly abandoned case law to rule only by the Constitution” (p. 596).

Let me conclude this review with the following five observations. First, the translations of some Sanskrit words (such as kripa on p. 275) and the contents of some footnotes (such as the one on p. 446) can be questioned. Second, on a small number of occasions, the author’s prose is less than clear. Third, although Doniger devotes a smallish chapter to the activities of Hindus in America in this age of the internet, somewhat surprisingly, she pays no attention to the ways in which Hinduism has evolved and taken root in the Caribbean and in South East Asia. Fourth, this is not a book for the uninitiated. Finally, these caveats notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the fact that this is a magisterial book that reveals not only the author’s tremendous grasp of the underlying subject matter but also her considerable ability to tell a story that is occasionally humorous, sometimes troubling, but always fascinating.
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