Interrogating Wendy Doniger

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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 penal 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 of “The  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.

First  published

Also  read
1. 'When Westerners make fun of our gods, they're instigating trouble' – interview with Rajiv Malhotra
2. The Pulping of Wendy Doniger’s Book by Bhaskar Menon
3. What India can learn from Vidya Balan