The Hindus: An Alternative History - Wendy Doniger Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - so too my first exposure to any representation of Hinduism came via the same medium. In that book, Cyrus Spitama – grandson of Zoroaster and Darius of Persia’s ambassador to the Indian kingdoms – witnesses a Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important rituals of ancient Indian kingship:

For an Indian ruler the horse sacrifice is all-important. For one thing it represents a renewal of his kingship. For another, if he is able to enlarge the kingdom that he inherited, he will be known as a high king….

…But today they felt the magic…of an event that seldom happens more than once in the reign of a king despite the ancient tradition that the first earthly king who celebrates one hundred horse sacrifices will overthrow the god Indra and take his place in the sky.
(p. 236 of my edition)

Say what you will about his politics, Vidal does his homework. I’ll spare you Vidal’s description of the decidedly “interesting” specifics of the rite since I want to keep this review family friendly but his version largely agrees with that described by Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History (pp. 154-6). Vidal’s actors take the rite a bit more literally than Doniger would allow but that’s one of the central themes of this work – In a tradition that has thrived for c. 4,000 years, one can find nearly anything. “Hinduism” has confronted, shaped and absorbed a tremendous variety of beliefs, and has adapted its native beliefs (e.g., the horse sacrifice) in any number of ways. How often was the sacrifice performed? How literally was the marriage of queen and stallion taken? Hindu writers can be found who take the sacrifice literally, others who argue that it was largely symbolic, and others writing that it was entirely symbolic, or even that it never took place but was a mental exercise meant to illustrate a religious point.

In this book Doniger takes on the daunting task of tracing Hinduism’s evolution from its birth among the Vedic rituals and gods of the Indo-Aryan migrants to the Indus and Ganges valleys through the development of the Upanishads, the Puranas, bhakti, sectarianism (Vishnu and Siva), and Vedantic schools. What emerges from this sprawl is an immense, overwhelming culture that resists definition. (This despite the BJP’s best efforts or Doniger’s, for that matter. But whereas Doniger delights in such complexity, the BJP reacts to anything other than their own interpretations with horror and, sometimes, violence.) The best you (or a Hindu) can do is to respectfully study the traditions and remember that for every positive assertion you can make about Hindu belief, you can bet that you can find its opposite in someone’s creed that purports to be just as genuinely “Hindu.”

I can’t distill this book down into a capsule description – I don’t have the time (not without pay, at any rate) and the scope and structure of the book defies such simplification. What I’ll try to do in the next few paragraphs is highlight a few of the more interesting aspects I discovered in my reading.

To begin, Doniger identifies three alliances that characterize Hindu cosmology/theology (p. 108ff.). The first (and earliest) is that of the gods and humans vs. the asuras and rakshasas. Some versions of the Ramayana reflect this in Rama’s war against the rakshasa Ravana. The second alliance is that of the gods vs. humans. Humans, asuras and rakshasas threaten the position of the gods with their excessive piety and defiance of caste. Defiance of caste is of enormous influence on Hinduism’s development, and Doniger sees this emerge in the written culture with the Mahabharata, India’s second national epic. The third alliance emerges with the bhakti (devotion) movement and revolves around the gods extending their protection to all men, asuras and rakshasas. In its most radical forms, this protection extended even to people who inadvertently honor the gods and even to dogs, the lowest form of life.

Doniger argues that there are three layers of development discerned in Hinduism. There’s the Vedic level, the earliest stratum, concerned with rituals and purity, and with little moral component as moderns understand the term. Even here, though, in the most ancient traditions there’re the beginnings of concern over the righteousness of animal sacrifice and the appropriateness of violence. The second layer, the Brahmanic, emerged in the wake of urbanization (c. the time Vidal’s Creation is set, the Axial Age). The third layer, the Vedantic, emerged with the Upanishads and developed further with the devotional sects of the Medieval and later eras.

“Reincarnation” is, certainly, one of Hinduism’s most recognizable doctrines in Western eyes though we’ve tended to dumb it down into little more than excuses to find out what we did as incarnations of Cleopatra or Atlantean high priests. Hindus feared reincarnation because it meant another death – rather than “rebirth,” we should use “redeath” to describe how a Hindu saw the prospect of another life. Where Buddhism, Hinduism’s bastard child, rejected all heavens, hells and earths as mara, illusion, Hinduism contented itself with simply breaking the bonds of the earthly cycle of redeath and salvation in some heaven.

There’s a delineation of the meanings of “karma” that I found of interest (p. 168f.):

(1) action (any), from the verb “to do”
(2) ritual action (Rg Veda)
(3) morally significant action (Upanishads)
(4) morally significant action that has consequences for future lives
(5) the reverse of (4), actions that influence past lives
(6) (4) and (5) type karma that can be transferred to others

Something else that Doniger brings up but doesn’t develop sufficiently in my opinion is the decline of the old gods (Indra, Agni, etc.) and the growth of devotional cults, primarily to Vishnu and Siva. I would have liked to know why these new gods rose to prominence. In that same vein, I also would have liked to see greater analysis of the meaning of “ahimsa.” This is another term known in the West but little understood in its native context. Doniger makes the tantalizing assertion that Gandhi’s interpretation of the term was something of an innovation but doesn’t develop it much beyond that. (In Doniger’s defense, she does include a 22-page bibliography of secondary sources that could be plumbed for further reading.)

Doniger notes that the “Bhagavad Gita” (an episode from the Mahabharata) outlined three paths to salvation: karma (in the sense of obeying dharma); jnana (faith), in relation to the renunciants’ ideal of moksha (release); and bhakti (devotion). From this emerges the idea of “karma without kama – action without desire. Arjuna can square his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior caste) with the karmic consequences of violence (all bad) by acting without desire. When done without desire, any action is without karmic impact. (At least that’s how I interpret Doniger’s interpretation.) The cynic in me sees this as justification for all sorts of mischief (“But, mom! I didn’t want to steal the cookie. It’s just the dharma of an 8-year-old!”).

One of Doniger’s major aims in the book is to look at Hinduism through the lens of the dispossessed, that is the pariah castes and women, and how the Brahmins responded to them. Not surprisingly, neither Dalits or women fared well under the strictures of Brahmanic thought but in Doniger’s eyes the three great shastras – the Manu, the Arthrashastra and the Kamasutra – reflected idealizations that did not mirror the reality of day-to-day life (p. 304f.).

Interesting culture factoid – the eight varieties of marriage:

(1) Brahma – father gives daughter away
(2) Gods – father offers daughter to officiating priest in course of a sacrifice
(3) Sages – father gives daughter away for a cow or a bull
(4) The Lord of Creatures – father gives daughter away saying “May the two of you fulfill your dharma together
(5) Asuras – man takes a woman from desire and pays family and girl
(6) Centaurs – girl and lover join out of desire
(7) Rakshasas – man carries off woman but doesn’t pay for her (essentially legitimized rape)
(8) Ghouls – man has sex with a woman who’s asleep, drunk or insane (the ancient version of date rape)

Doniger touches on Tantrism with a useful anodyne to the stereotypical Western view of sexual orgies and perversions. She characterizes “tantrism” as an orthodox heresy. The doctrines were necessary to break the curse of untouchability. They were “training wheels” for people incapable of accepting the pure doctrines. The other justification for tantric ritual was that it drove the truly evil to the nadir of existence so that they could more quickly rise back up. In the end, Tantrism and the less heretical Puranic traditions helped to bring low-caste Hindus and outsiders into the fold and held out the possibility that their souls could be saved/released just like a high-caste Hindu’s. The original Brahmanic vision of the universe saw it as a finite thing with a finite amount of “good” and “evil” – for every person saved, another was doomed. Doniger argues that that limit was broken with tantrism and the Puranas. Salvation/release was infinite and potentially open to everyone.

From a historical perspective, Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj is fascinating. Essentially, the British coerced Hinduism into developing a unitary doctrine centered around a few texts (the “Bhagavad Gita,” primarily) and fostered the emergence of actively hostile and intolerant sects. The author, rightly, doesn’t lay all the blame on the poor English. Many Hindus through the ages were perfectly capable of xenophobia and rivalry without evil Europeans egging them on. I think her focus on the specifics of the British is that they’re the most recent culprits, the best documented and India is still coping with the world they created (p. 574f.).

To the bad: As I mentioned in a comment made while reading this book, Doniger tends to write in an annoyingly folksy style. Appropriate, perhaps, to a conversation at the local Starbuck’s or a blog but inappropriate, IMO, in a work such as this, even if it is directed to a general audience. It makes the first few chapters rather rough going. But when she focuses on a topic, Doniger can write with grace and insight. An example of this is contained in one of the more interesting sections of the book – her analysis of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As an example of one of the points she makes there’s the observation that the parallel stories of Rama/Ravana and the monkey kings Sugriva/Valin adumbrates Freudian psychoanalysis and Shakespeare’s Arden by 2,000 years: The forest and its denizens reflect the subconscious desires of Rama and human civilization. Or there’s the observation that the Ramayana is a triumphal celebration of Brahmanic civilization while the Mahabharata questions every one of its assumptions but offers no good answers. (It shouldn’t surprise that versions of both epics circulate that refute Doniger’s conclusions.)

Despite my caveats, I would still recommend this to anyone interested in Indian culture/religion, or anthropological subjects in general. I’ve never been overly interested in Indian culture but this book is an accessible and overall good introduction, making a confusing landscape at least partially understandable.