Wendy Doniger: The Hindus: An Alternative History

Wendy Doniger begins The Hindus: An Alternative History with Wittgenstein’s famous image of “the duck who is also a rabbit,” using it as a “metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.” These are the dual visions found in traditional histories of Hinduism, derived from Sanskrit texts, and an alternative history derived from the same sources. The latter involves Doniger’s creative reinterpretation aimed at recovering voices she argues have been silenced — those of women and oppressed castes. An Alternative History argues that both groups have made significant contributions to Hinduism: a faith that is therefore not merely the construct of an elite, priestly class of Brahmans, but the collective expression of a civilization. This thesis, however, is not entirely novel, nor is it the reason Doniger’s book has evoked outrage among many Hindus, with some even calling for its banning.
The duck who is also a rabbit is an apt image for the book itself. A quick perusal of its reviews might easily make one wonder if its critics were actually reading the same book. For some readers, The Hindus: An Alternative History is an engagingly written, often witty, occasionally brilliant, always interesting exploration of an enormously complex literature. For others, it is a condescending diatribe, a neocolonial assault that trivializes an ancient, dignified tradition by reducing it to a collection of dirty jokes.
So which is it? The duck or the rabbit? The magnum opus of a scholar who has devoted much of her life and considerable energy to the exposition of Hindu texts with feisty intellectual passion, or a monumental denigration of the same texts and the Hindu community that holds them sacred? As Stephen Colbert would say, “Pick a side, we’re at war!”
That, however, is precisely the conundrum this book poses; for like the duck that is also a rabbit, its precise nature is in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, it depends on one’s approach to the texts to which Doniger devotes her scholarly attention.
What is it about Wendy Doniger’s work that so deeply disturbs many Hindus? One charge — found on the internet, and which can be easily dispensed with — gives some idea of how offensive many find her work to be: namely, that she is an agent of Christian missionary interests bent on destroying Hinduism by presenting Hindu texts as nothing but pornographic stories of fictional gods and goddesses.
Ironically, an underlying fact, not only of The Hindus: An Alternative Historybut of her entire career, is that Doniger sees herself to be on the side of Hindus against the colonial Christian missionaries. The latter, in her view, infiltrated Hinduism and infused it with their Victorian values; she presents her work as a liberating corrective. The ancient Hindu tradition, on her reading, was far more sexually liberated than today. The sharpest barbs in her Alternative History are reserved not for Hindus, but for the British, who were “totally dismissive of them [the Hindus] as irredeemable heathens, with no hope of ever becoming human beings.”
Doniger loves Hinduism. But like the duck and the rabbit, the Hinduism she sees is not that of most Hindus. Is the Shiva linga a phallic symbol, as she asserts, or is it, as devotees believe, the abstract representation of the formless, nirguna nature of ultimate reality? Is the story of young Krishna’s love play with the gopis a titillating erotic tale, or a deeply insightful glimpse into the loving, non-dual relationship between the supreme soul, the divineparamatman, and the individual soul or jiva? And most urgently, is there room for both interpretations to coexist? This question is critical both for the author, whose freedom to circulate her work is under fire, and for Hindus, who feel the academic establishment is biased against them and fear they lack a fair representation. The fact that textbook accounts of Hinduism focus so much on problematic social issues and so little on major achievements and insights, compared to how other religions are presented, helps to frame the context in which this book has been received: a context in which many Hindus feel the academia is out to undermine their traditions, even to the point of filing legal cases in California over the content of middle school textbooks.
It would be simplistic, untrue, and condescending to dismiss the outrage this book has generated in India and globally as stemming solely from right-wing Hindus attempting to impose a single interpretation upon Hinduism, or the offended sexual mores of uptight, modern Hindus, ignorant of their own textual traditions. The fact of the matter is that discomfort, even fury, with her work is far more widespread, spanning the political spectrum (though there are also Hindus who have responded to it appreciatively, objecting to the call for its banning). Bharat Gupt, of Delhi University, has written a paper, actually a rebuttal, detailing errors in Doniger’s book, which he presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Hawaii in 2011 — a presentation that he invited Wendy Doniger to attend (though she unfortunately declined).
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