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Culture club

Wendy Doniger has written an engaging book that, even if it is not always what it claims it is — an alternative history — is still a remarkable compendium, writes Ashok Malik.

books Updated: Nov 06, 2009 23:06 IST
Ashok Malik

The Hindus
Wendy Doniger
viking n Rs 999 n pp 780

Wendy Doniger has written an engaging book that, even if it is not always what it claims it is — an alternative history — is still a remarkable compendium. Doniger begins by confessing she is not a trained historian but a philologist, that her expertise is limited to ancient India and that she wants to tell “a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people — people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness”. It is an unexceptionable enterprise, akin to an attempt to tell the story of Western civilisation from a standpoint other than that of Dead White Males.

Some of Doniger’s techniques are innovative. For instance, the horse is central to contested versions of ancient India. Doniger uses it as a device at several points. She refers to the horse when discussing the Indus Valley — where the animal was possibly absent — as well as, for instance, William Moorcroft’s quest for Central Asian steeds, which in a sense inaugurated the Great Game.

Keeping with the animal metaphor, the author’s description of Ashoka’s imposition of a post-Kalinga vegetarianism, with notable exceptions (peacock and deer) that are never quite explained but, she guesses, reflect the Mauryan king’s dietary preferences, is delightful.

Doniger tries to piece together and contextualise the contradictions and paradoxes of her subject, the many Hinduisms of the people now known as the Hindus. Her likening of the Mahabharata, for instance, to “an ancient Wikipedia, to which anyone who knew Sanskrit, or knew someone who Sanskrit, could add a bit” is astute. Indeed, as others have pointed out — including high-caste Hindu males — the Bhagvad Gita was probably a later interpolation into the Mahabharata to neutralise the revolutionary (or subversive) message of Buddhism.

There are two problems with Doniger’s book. First, while her introduction of colloquialism, puns and humour is welcome it is not always appropriate. It works when she illustrates Hinduism’s propensity for multiple narratives by quoting E.M. Forster: “Every Indian hole has at least two exits.” However, when she compares the fire-breathing mare at the bottom of the ocean to a “deadly atomic U-boat cruising the deep, dark waters of the unconscious”, the “flames that shoot out of her mouth... like uranium undergoing constant fission, controlled by lithium”, it sounds hideous.

More substantially, Doniger intends this as both her Big Fat Book on India as well as her argument with the Hindu right. The Hindu right, like Hinduism itself, has multiple narratives. It can be a serious political intervention; it can also be a loony fringe shooting off rhetorical and poorly researched emails. Doniger is not interested in telling the difference.

It shows when she refuses to concede that myths and epics could perhaps contain a kernel of admittedly unproven history. For example, she is so dismissive of the legend of the Seven Pagodas in Mamallapuram (near Chennai) she even rejects Archaeological Survey excavations after the tsunami of 2004.

That aside, Doniger is unwilling to analyse the impact early Islamic invasions may have had on the contemporary Hindu mind, only resorting to convoluted phraseology: “Some of the theft, rather than destruction, of Hindu images by Muslim conquerors was a kind of recycling, Indian style. Like cannibalism, consuming the parts of someone else’s religious monuments may either dishonour the source (destroying and desecrating it) or honour it (taking to yourself the power and status of the source).”

This is fine in a 21st century television debate. Is it a fair description of Hindu sentiment in, say, AD 1200? Doniger’s too intelligent not to know the answer.