Book Reviews

Wendy Doniger: On Hinduism

Wendy Doniger: On Hinduism, Aleph, New Delhi, 2013, pp.660, Rs. 995/-

A Zen-Venn-Diagram of intersecting circles without a central circle? A bricolage — a patchwork quilt of scraps of religion sewn in with scraps of social history? More polyprax than polydox? Kathenotheistic rather than Polytheistic? Pluralist not Fundamentalist? Seeking to seize the ways of life (dharma) sought to be clubbed together as “Hinduism” is as slippery a proposition as grabbing hold of Proteus. That is precisely what Doniger seeks to bring home in this tome written “easily and joyously.” Well may we laugh at the jokes, chuckle over the puns and wonder at the amazing tales! It was an egg chucked at her by a fundamentalist during a lecture in London that birthed the massive “alternative history” of Hindus in 2003, aimed at the American student. The considerable love-hate it generated in public meetings and on the internet has birthed this new book, Doniger’s first from an Indian publisher.

At the outset there is a problem of nomenclature: “Hindu” is how Darius’ Persian Empire mispronounced “Sindhu,” which Herodotus further distorted to “Indoi” in the 5th century BCE — all because of a problem with aspirates! It was the Arabs, not the Persians as she states (p.7), who first used the word, “Hindustan.” So, instead of being known by its indigenous Sanskrit name, “Bharata-varsha,” this land has adopted a foreign appellation, much as our colonisers England and France took their names from the invading Angles and Franks. “Hinduism” was coined only in 1830 by the English. So, while Doniger claims her target audience is Indians, the title gives away the Orientalist viewpoint — however diluted.

Having selected 63 out of her 140 essays on Hinduism written between 1968 and 2012 and not included in any book, she has ruthlessly edited, rewritten and updated, “boiling down” all that — like cooking “kheer” — to 43 chapters in 7 sections: being a Hindu, concepts of divinity, attitudes to gender, dealing with desire, animals as metaphors, reality and illusion, and an autobiographical indulgence. This constitutes what Hinduism means to her today, not when those papers were written. Does it hold one’s interest? Emphatically “Yes!” For, she writes of what most Indologists do not explore and highlights misconceptions about “Hinduism”. Naturally, there is a lot about heresy and her favourite trio of horses, dogs and sex (the rear inner flap of the jacket carries a lovely picture of Doniger with a white horse).

The first characteristic of Hinduism she elaborates is “the concept of the triad”: 3 Vedas (even as late as the Mahabharata), 3 Gunas, 3 doshas (humours of the body), 3 goals of life (moksha came later), the divine trinity, the three divisions of time and, later, the 3 yogas (karma, gyana, bhakti). This expands, as Vedic concepts develop into Vedantic ones, e.g. Shudra as the fourth social class, sannyasa as the fourth ashrama, moha-delusion added as the fourth to the emotional triad of desire, anger and fear (of recurrent death), earth and ether as the fourth and fifth elements (after water, fire, wind), the debts to people (nririn) and to all creatures (bhutarin) supplementing the triple debt to rishis, gods and the manes. Further changes occurred with the Puranic celebration of earning merit through pilgrimages and bhakti counterpoised against the Vedic sacrifice and the cyclic concept of the four ages (yugas), the latter possibly influenced by the Greeks. Popular lore contributed to the development of further pentads like the 5 satis, 5 kanyas, 5 gurus, and septets like the 7 worlds, 7 nether-worlds, etc.

The Upanishadic concept of rebirth became central to Buddhism and Jainism and was considerably elaborated in the Puranas which also introduced the concept of one’s karma being shared by others, and collective karma affecting individuals. An important belief is that evil can be avoided but not destroyed, recurring cyclically with each creation. While discussing this, Doniger states that Kali slays Mahisha “uniting with him in a quasi-sexual embrace, ‘la morte douce’ (p.102),” citing her own Hindu Myths as reference. That, however, contains no such account; nor is it Kali who kills the buffalo demon but Durga.

Heretics (pashanda) featured significantly in Sanskrit texts and their property was liable to be confiscated (vide Arthashastra). The Puranas ostracise Charvakas (atheists), Buddhists, Jains, Yavanas, Kapalikas and Kaulas. How threats were dissipated through assimilation is best seen in the Vishnu Purana (in the Gupta Age) making Buddha an avatar taken by Vishnu to destroy the merit of good Asuras by turning them away from Vedic beliefs. Doniger does not explore why this was not done with Bardhaman Mahavira. Perhaps because it was strong in the East and the South only? Upanishadic tolerance changed to Puranic intolerance and back to tolerance with the bhakti movement (Bhavishya Purana includes Christ and Queen Victoria; the Imam Shahis believe the Imam was Vishnu’s tenth incarnation). Possibly, to counter the exclusive stress on non-violence in Buddhism and Jainism, later Vedic texts substituted rice cakes for animals in sacrificial rituals. The bhakti movement replaced yajna by puja, offerings of flowers and fruits. The attitude towards killing for sacrifice (the list includes human offerings) is clearly ambivalent because of the conflict between the core concept of offering oneself and the need to stay alive, for which killing is unavoidable. As Doniger puts it memorably, “kill by embracing” was the means by which rival traditions were tackled.

Two opposing paradigms existed simultaneously without causing any social collapse: a celebration of the good life (wealth, food, women) and turning the world on its head (living only on gleaned grain, renunciation, aghoris eating what is revolting), or salvation through leading a dutiful domestic life. Manu’s Dharmashastra is equally insistent about eating meat and avoiding it within a single chapter (10), stressing that we are what we eat, and that in the afterlife what we ate eats us. The Mahabharata shows up the sage Uttanka who misses his chance for immortality by rejecting Indra who approaches him in the desert, when he is thirsty, as an untouchable and offers him his urine (actually amrita) to drink. No single belief identifies one as “Hindu”.

An extremely telling insight offered by Doniger is that the intellectual tolerance of a multiplicity of divinities, each of whom could become supreme (Kathenotheism), was not translated into social tolerance of all classes as equal. The former was emphatically orthoprax, insistent on a particular ritual and social conduct, while allowing for worship of other divinities by others. However, everyone within a particular sect was not equal — certainly not women, Shudras and outcastes. Quite distinct was Vedantic monism, emphatically orthodox in pushing for the Oneness of the divine, whose apogee can be seen in Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi and Sulh-i-Kul, culminating in modern times in Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The bhakti movement trumped it all through its concept of undeserved grace whereby sinners, outcastes — anyone at all — attained salvation accidentally by divine grace (Skanda Purana abounds in instances). The late acknowledgement of the rights of women, Shudras and Dalits has been highlighted today with the proliferation of goddess-women, community pujas performed entirely by women and in 2013 with the sex-workers of Sonagachi, Kolkata, holding their own Durga Puja for the first time.

Doniger corrects the prevalent belief that Hinduism was all-tolerant and has become a political tool of fundamentalists only now, by showing that, like all religions, it was shaped and used by rulers via patronage and diktat, starting with Ashoka. The very system of varna or social stratification occurred in order to regulate foreign and marginal populations. In the story of Sagara subjugating mlecchas we find a description of how he imposed distinct physical characteristics on each group to fix their identity in society.

Doniger provides a fine exposition of the concept of the Divine with and without qualities (nirguna and saguna) being represented in temples where the incredible detail of carving without epitomises the saguna while the inmost recess within houses the nirguna: just a linga or a shalagrama. Further, she traces how cosmogonic myths changed in ethical emphasis from the Rig Veda to the Jaiminiya Brahmana to tackle the issues of creation by incest (Prajapati and his daughter), of how to save the sacrificer from becoming the sacrifice (the primeval Purusha, Daksha, Shunahshepa) and from the sin of slaughter (pretending the animal did not suffer), how to absolve the warrior ruler from the sin of causing harm, reconcile the inter-breeding of Brahmins and Kshatriyas with the diktat against miscegenation, and so on. The master-key to resolving all problems is the formulation of apad-dharma, duty in distress, when virtually anything goes. A fascinating section deconstructs the horse-sacrifice with its strange rites of the queens simulating copulation with the dead horse. It is virtually a revelation in its multiple significances.

The myth of Saranyu and the Sun is analysed to show that it is a metaphor of the Vedantic view that suggests mankind is the product of illusion (Manu is born of “Savarna” or “Chaya”), while Yama-death comes from the real thing, and is, therefore, the only reality. Saranyu, the abandoning mother, is replicated in Kunti who sets adrift Karna, her son by the Sun. There is a parallel offering rich possibilities that Doniger misses: the Greek myth of Pasiphae, daughter of Helios the sun-god, who has intercourse with a bull producing the bull-man Minotaur, just as Saranyu as a mare couples with Vivasvan, the sun-as-a-horse, and gives birth to the horsey Ashvins.

Against the well-known denigration of women by Manu, Doniger sets the trope of the clever wife found in the Ocean-of-the-rivers-of-stories (Kathasaritsagara), where a clever husband is outwitted by a cleverer wife—better known through Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. The empowered woman comes through clearly also in the Kama Sutra. Here Doniger makes an important contribution by pointing out that it was actually translated by Arbuthnot who drew entirely on Bhagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram Bhide. Richard Burton’s contribution, she demonstrates, was many mistranslations. Under the influence of English Puritanism, the anglicized Indians pushed the sensual heritage (which lasted well into the Mughal period in art and literature) under the carpet and celebrated monist advaita-ism as the sanatana (eternal) dharma. To counter this, Doniger points out how androgyny, transvestites and hermaphrodites are part and parcel of our mythology. She highlights the myths of gender-confusion, where a deity or a human alternates between being male and female (Vishnu-Mohini, Shiva-Radha, Kali-Krishna, Ila-Sudyumna, Amba, Arjuna, and Bhangashvana who prefers to remain a woman). She cites the Ramayana account of Indra and Surya engendering Vali and Sugriva on the male-turned-female monkey Riksharaja but misses the Uttara Ramayana variant where Surya’s charioteer Aruna becomes a woman to gain entrance to dance performances in Indra’s hall and is impregnated by him with Vali and then by Surya with Sugriva. Further, the Rig Veda (I.11.62) knows of Indra becoming Mena, the daughter of Vrishanashva.

However, Doniger erroneously blames Nehru for passing “a penal code of sexual repression,” though censorship of sex in films certainly was a contribution of independent India. The provision she refers to as “Article 377” prohibiting unnatural offences is actually Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 framed by Macaulay. Nehru had nothing to do with it. Its sentiments are shared in the UK’s Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. These days, she encouragingly notes, advertisements for Kamasutra prophylactics abound in India: the wheel has turned full circle! Another error occurs on page 386 where she calls Nandin (the source of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra) Shiva’s son whereas he is Shiva’s bull vehicle. Yudhishthira does not go in his body to heaven as stated on page 495. With his body he visits only hell. It is only after discarding it in the heavenly river that he is admitted to heaven.

Closely linked to the discussion on sex is the phenomenon of zoomorphism in Hindu mythology, where humans and deities become animals, beginning with the creator assuming various animal shapes to pursue his daughter. Hence coitus is called pashavya, befitting animals. It is surprising that Doniger, with her encyclopaedic grasp of mythology, does not bring in parallels. This occurs in Greek myth too where Zeus assumes various animal forms prompted by lust, as, famously, does Pasiphae lusting after Minos’ bull. She does not mention the devas becoming various animals to escape the asura king Bali. Indra himself becomes a bull for Kakutstha, a calf for Prithu, a goat for Medhatithi, a peacock to escape Bali. As Doniger points out, anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are two efforts in Hinduism to perceive the identity between humans and animals underlying the visible differences.


At many places material from the earlier “Alternative History” is repeated, particularly relating to the Kamasutra, horses, dogs and how Jagadish Bose demonstrated to G.B. Shaw the silent torment of a carrot being dissected (harking back to the Jaiminiya Brahmana’s silent screams of rice and barley). Pages 378-379 exemplify interpolation of the overwhelmingly American-oriented outlook of the earlier book.

A point well taken is that the concept of the holy cow is a current practice not found in the texts, nor represented in temple carvings. On the other hand, the texts explicitly mention killing the fatted calf or cow for distinguished guests (as in Panini, glossing goghna).

A fascinating chapter studies how art and performance preserved texts: the concepts of unchanging Shruti (heard, revealed) and changing Smriti (remembered, handed down). Every retelling provided its own contemporary spin peculiar to the reteller, the period and the place. The Jain sage Hemchandra, for instance, made the Pandavas finally become Jain monks. Brahmins complained to the local king and Hemchandra escaped by stating he was not sure if these were Vyasa’s Pandavas! Doniger discusses folk paintings, clay images of deities lovingly fashioned and cast into the waters, and the remarkable rice-powder designs women create on floors, all ever so ephemeral, never meant to be permanent unlike Western art. The concept of illusion and reality permeates Hindu aesthetics. Impressively, she knows of offerings of clay horses in West Bengal, but is unaware that the official symbol of Indian Handicrafts is the giraffe-like terracotta horse of Bankura. She celebrates the continuance of myth through local storytellers, the cinema, television and comics (not just Amar Chitra Katha that she mentions but others like Vimanika and Holy Cow graphic novels). Unfortunately, this ancient tradition of the itinerant storyteller and touring drama companies enacting puranic themes has been eradicated in West Bengal over the last thirty-four years.

Discussing the Ramayana, Doniger makes an extremely thought-provoking argument that the forest world provides Rama with the opportunity to displace his suppressed resentment against his father and Bharata on to Vali whom he kills without verifying the truth of Sugriva’s allegations about usurping throne and wife. However, there is no textual evidence for her assertion that Rama fears Lakshmana may replace him with Sita. Rama being tricked into banishing Lakshmana who commits suicide is not evidence of secret resentment but of Valmiki’s goal of representing Rama as the maryada purushottama, ideal moral ruler, who always sacrifices the personal at the altar of public interest. It is strange that Doniger the feminist does not remark about the brothers emerging as serial mutilators and killers of women. Rama cuts off Taraka’s hands, Lakshmana slices off her nose and ears (his preferred targets), the breasts, nose and ears of Ayomukhi for having propositioned him, Surpanakha’s nose and ears for having solicited Rama and himself. The discussion regarding the shadow Sita is important for bringing out the forward linkages with Draupadi, but does not mention the clear parallel with Greek myths regarding Helen while asserting, without evidence, that this was developed because of centuries of occupation by foreigners. Despite Sita’s unique purity, she points out, Kamban’s Surpanakha easily assumes her form. She could have added that Tulsidas has Sati assume Sita’s form to test Rama, because of which Shiva leaves her. She mentions Draupadi’s links with Kali, but not the Bheel Bharata which goes much further, making her the supreme goddess and celebrating her love-making with Vasuki with Arjuna a helpless onlooker! Her description of Satyavati, Kunti and Draupadi is spot-on as “a feminist’s dream (or a sexist’s nightmare): smart, aggressive, steadfast, eloquent, tough as nails, and resilient.” No wonder that traditionally Kunti and Draupadi are two of the panchakanya, the five virgins to be remembered daily at dawn. She hazards an important suggestion about the Mahabharata’s celebration of such strong women with several sexual partners. The epic, she says, was shaped in the Mauryan times when women, including courtesans, were important in public life, making donations to monasteries, guarding the king, freely moving as ascetics, acting as spies. This deserves further research.

Doniger studies the story of Ekalavya as a subversive text. During the period of studentship, he is the only one to prove his skill on a living target, whereas Arjuna shoots at a wooden bird and fish. He, like Karna, is an outsider disqualified from competing and is cursed by the guru. An important fact is not mentioned: Ekalavya is Krishna’s agnate cousin (cf. Harivansha) brought up by Hiranyadhanusha, a Nishada chieftain (again as Karna was by the charioteer Adhiratha) and is killed by Krishna. The atrocity committed on him is multiplied fivefold when the Pandavas burn alive a Nishada woman and her five sons in the house-of-lac. During the war, Bhima kills Ekalavya’s son Ketuman, while Arjuna kills another son during the Ashvamedha wanderings. We must realise that Nishada Satyavati’s blood ran in the Kauravas through Vyasa and Dhritarashtra, not in the sons of Kunti and Madri. The Kathasaritsagara knows of Ekalavyanagara while Vamana Purana mentions a territory named Ekalavya adjacent to the Vindhyas, next to Karusha. Further, the Harivansha (Vishnu Parva, 103.27) states that Jara, a Nishada chief, was Vasudeva’s son from a Shudra wife. As Krishna killed his cousin Ekalavya, so was he slain by his step-brother Jara. The revenge of the Nishadas?

The last section of the tome contains a delightful chapter beginning with the apocryphal pun attributed to Sir Charles Napier after conquering Sind: peccavi (“I have sinned/Sind”), pace Caeser’s vini, vidi, vici. Doniger reveals it was teenager Catherine Winkworth’s joke that Punch published! It is this sense of guilt that underlay Orientalism (so frowned upon now) represented chiefly by Kipling and his White Man/Woman’s Burden. It fostered the fiction that India did not exist till the British imagined it, seated in a circle, “holding hands, eyes squashed shut, chanting a mantra (‘Rule Britannia’), until like Athena from the head of Zeus,…India popped up on the map…full grown” with the word “Hinduism”, William Jones’ Laws of Manu and Max Muller’s Rig Veda. Doniger warns against a sweeping condemnation of this tradition and advocates relooking at its positive contribution. Would we not, today, have remained ignorant of everything in Sanskrit without these Orientalists?

Doniger’s own review of her excellent book, Splitting the Difference that is included here reveals her as an unsparing and rather uncharitable critic of herself. This is where the myth of Saranyu and the Sita-Helen connections were explored at length, offering very rich insights. As an academic, she frowns on her excursions into Hollywood and Bollywood films by way of parallels because she would rather not indulge herself—although they delight the reader. This is followed by “You can’t make an omelette” which deals with the Hindutva-vadis’ attacks on her and pugnaciously declares that she is not going to be silenced by egg-throwing or otherwise. Perhaps these two essays could have been left out, as they do not take forward the presentation in the rest of the book in any significant way.

The last essay is a deeply moving piece, “The Forest-Dweller,” gently personal, very much in the nature of a leave-taking—one hope’s not. The pensive flavour is, however, immediately dispelled by the jaunty limericks on Hinduism that are a must-read:

The Sanskritists find it a treat
To tell the tales of the elite,
While folklorists pillage
The lore of the village,
Thus working both sides of the street.

A shorter version of this article was published in BIBLIO (Sept-Oct issue).


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Views: 3471      Comments: 3

Comment Just a quick short response to 'The Greek and Hindu mythologies have no sense of direction or explanation as to the reason for man's existence, but start from this and extrapolate back in myths.'

Not sure about Greek, but in Hindu mythologies, man's existence is 'primarily to allow him self the opportunity to free 'himself' of Karma.' It is used in mythology, as way of reminding people of what 'human birth is for'. Then entire focus of Vedas is on 'Human birth is rare, and precious, its best use can be in the evolution of the soul.'

Thanks (I do not want to comment on what Christianity state, not at this time. But I do want to emphasize that understanding Hinduism is not a simple task….

22-Feb-2014 15:36 PM

Comment One needs stiff shots of whiskey before one starts. It is a good idea to remember the following quotes from BBC web site.

The quote attributed to the “Hindutva brigade” is actually from the BBC web site:

Professor Wendy Doniger is known for being rude, crude and very lewd in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit Academics. All her special works have revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit texts ranging from Siva: The Erotic Ascetic to Tales of Sex and Violence...Never one to shy away from sex, she threw herself into the job of translating the [Kama Sutra] ... She was particularly interested by the parts that justify adultery and the list of ways to get rid of a man ... When she was translating it (over a period of a few years and numerous Sanskrit classes), she frequently found herself having to take cold showers.

That was my observation. Now let the bold reader try it.

15-Oct-2013 17:56 PM

Comment One cannot help but comment that in Greek as well as Hindu mythology all the forms of the gods are of earth-dwelling creatures, primarily human, but as your article includes, capable of metamorphosis into those of beasts. This is only once accomplished in the theology that includes God taking flesh in Jesus Christ; but in a strange sense it makes the forms of mythology less improbable to modern readers.

Christ revelled in his humanity in one sense, eating and drinking and conversing with other men and women, indeed a leader of both; yet, in the realm of sexual expression, his humanity was curiously neutered - unlike the gods of mythology in both Greek and Hindu. The sexual coitus of the gods was rarely if ever un-reproductive; no mention in your article of Sodomy, or its definition as a perversion. Likewise, one could have possibly exonerated Christ from sexual intercourse that bore issue, though Sodomy was a grave deviation in biblical tradition. But this never occurred. It has led to the conviction in Christianity of the uncleanness of the sexual act itself that has so influenced its greatest minds. Marriage is the only permissible context of sex because it is defined as reproductive; however, birth control, or sex without issue in mind was the first concession by the Catholic church to the modern world in the 'rhythm method' of contraception, exonerating the method on the grounds of it 'being natural'. A fatal flaw, since any urge, even that for Sodomy is, after all, natural in the experience of it, and rather makes the case for its indulgence, the attraction or revulsion of its form purely subjective; as for artificial methods of contraception, they were of the same spirit of the natural means of the 'rhythm method', and that in Christian thinking is significant, since it is according to the spirit (the motive) that a sin is defined.

It would seem a purely spiritiual concept of God, as the God of the Jews or that same God renamed as Allah with his own choice of people, a contradiction in terms, would resolve the issue of gods in the image of man. The anomaly is that this same God is yet involved with man - why this is so is a mystery, since God in both traditions is almighty and has no need of man. The mystery is resolved in the reality of Christ, as the Son of God, that also explains the anthropomorphic forms of the creation; it is to the manifestation of the Son of God that anything that exists makes any sense. The Greek and Hindu mythologies have no sense of direction or explanation as to the reason for man's existence, but start from this and extrapolate back in myths.

15-Oct-2013 13:51 PM

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