Wendy Doniger, On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xx + 660 pages.
Published in International Journal of Hindu Studies. Vol. 19, no. 3 (2015): 337-39
The sheer size, scope, and sweep of Professor Doniger’s “colossal book,” to borrow Salmon Rushdie’s comment on her earlier scholarly work that has come under interdict in India thanks to the outcry against it by a few “fundoos” flag bearers of Hindutva, compels attention, admiration, and awe from serious and sensible readers of the world’s one of the most prominent, if not popular, religions. This tome is indeed a capstone, though by no means the final work, of her internationally acknowledged distinguished career as a teacher, scholar, and admirer of Hindu culture and history.
However, this is not a book for the dilettante or coffee table book lovers. It is dense with copious foot-and endnotes and a massive bibliography together with a long list of Professor Doniger’s prodigious publications. Yet this daunting volume is a joy to read, thanks to its sparkling and witty prose, the author’s signature style. Admittedly she is fascinated not so much by the “philosophy” or “theology” of the Sanskrit religious texts as by the delightful and insightful Puranic lores depicting the odyssey of the human and animal “subalterns.” She disarmingly confesses to her not being a cold pedant like a true Sanskritist, she being an avid admirer of the Puranas that Sanskrit pandits would like to regard as “pulp fiction” (ix). Yet, by the same token, her narrative delves in the shastras with an unmistakable touch of the gravitas.
In view of Doniger’s expert reading and glossing of Sanskrit texts this reviewer will like to bypass summarizing the contents of the book except highlighting the principal concern of the author’s investigation and interpretation of what goes by the name of the religion of the Hindus, or as the title has it, Hinduism. She deals with the Hindu triads and quartets representing “the multivalent, multifaceted, multiform, multi-whatever-you-like nature of the real phenomenal world” (21-35). Her book, divided into seven sections, discusses the nature of Hinduism, concepts of Hindu divinity, Hindu attitudes to gender (especially as found in the Laws of Manu), Hindu concepts of kama and karma (especially as discussed in the Kamasutra), animals (both quadrupeds and bipeds), reality and illusion, and a concluding section on her autobiographical tidbits.
Every section demonstrates her encyclopedic knowledge of the classical texts and her elegant interpretations and critique. In this sense, Professor Doniger’s book, though expectedly decried by the obscurantist zealots as another piece of anti-Hindu invective by the author of The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), is actually a superb rendition of Hinduism that is at once original and intellectually provocative.
That said, it must also be pointed out that this masterpiece is not beyond cavil. This book, supposed to be “designed…specifically for an Indian audience” (xi), is actually meant for specialists in the West. The author’s extensive discussion of the Kamasutra and Shiva, though brilliant, yet is not going to sit easily with the Hindus who are only familiar with the lingam as the deity’s iconic representation (like say, the black ammonite fossil or shaligram shila as an aniconic representation of Vishnu or Narayana) and never as an actual representation of a male phallus. She perhaps never took notice how in the temple the lingam is routinely decorated with sandal paste depicting the deity’s countenance with eyes, nose, mouth et cetera. In other words, Hindu devotees are not conscious that they are worshipping a male organ. Then, those who read Vatsayana’s book, do so more for the titillation to be derived from its descriptions of various coital positions than for obtaining any philosophical insight of a somber canonical sutra.
Despite Doniger’s acute insights into classical Hindu narratives, her historiography represents one of the book’s weaknesses. For example, her section on Vedanta shows little evidence of her familiarity with the Bengal Renaissance or the revivalist movement begun by Rammohan Roy and further carried on by a number of stalwarts including, especially, Rabindranath Tagore, noted for his wonderful assimilation of Vaiisnavic folk piety, pantheistic naturalism, and Vedantic monotheism. Tagore’s concepts of manuser dharma [“religion of man”] and jibandebata [“lord of life”] reveal the sublime extent to which Hindu religion could reach and it ought to have had its pride of place in Doniger’s magnificent palace of wisdom. Doniger also does not interrogate Rammohan’s theology, even though there is a rich corpus on this subject. Even her references to Ramakrishna and Vivekananda sadly rehash the outdated accolades and shibboleths accorded to them by devotees and admirers.
A few shortcomings aside, the book under review provides a magisterial interpretation of the many faces of Hinduism that is destined spawn a spate of further research on this immensely complex and enchantingly colorful South Asian faith. This reviewer wonders how many cultural insiders and informed cultural outsiders could match the author’s astute and accurate observation on Hindu orthodoxy and orthopraxy as cited hereunder:
"Even when Hindus acknowledge, or insist upon, the ultimate oneness of brahman, or say that all paths lead brahman, the spirit in which they actually worship the god they prey to, the god they tell stories about, the god they make their art for and about—the god of their religion, as opposed to their philosophy—is seldom, if ever Brahman, but Shiva or Vishnu or ther goddess, or more precisely, a local form of Shiva or Vishnu or the goddess" (14-15).