No Alternative

The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin is yet another blow to the freedom of expression by the religious radicals and fundamentalists who take offence at the drop of a hat. The instances of such attacks — started in 1989 when the Indian government banned Satanic Verses — have increased dramatically in recent years, and the offence-mongers’ purview has expanded from books to movies, artists, and even celebrities. This is not surprising. When a society obliges to a culture of mutual intolerance by capitulating to those who are easily offended, it results into an if-them-then-why-not-us race, with every faction of society vying appeasement for their injured self-esteem.

the hindusI read this book back in 2009. Although the size and scope of this epic was prohibitive (with more than 700 pages), I found Doniger’s vantage refreshing and thought-provoking. The book offers an alternative history of the Hindu religion, looking through the prism of scriptures and tales, zooming into the role of women, members of the lower caste, and animals. It’s a story about the alternative people and characters. Her rationale is to provide an auxiliary viewpoint to show that the so-called marginalized groups (women and Pariahs) actually did have substantial contribution to the development of Hindu tradition. The book is a “celebration of diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus “.

By renouncing such scholarly work, the Hindu radicals are not only attacking the liberal values of our society, but (ironically) also weakening the pluralistic nature of Hindu tradition. It doesn’t surprise me that this regressive act is braced by the right-wing Hindus that are often politically motivated. What troubles me more is the passive support from the moderates. “Yes, I believe in freedom of speech as well, but we have to draw the line somewhere”, “We need to be careful about hurting other (religious) people’s sentiments”, “No one gets away with an offensive book about Muslims, then why shouldn’t we protect Hindu sentiments as well?” are some common responses to this controversy by the religious moderates. It’s dismaying to see a rather large section of the Indian society supporting (however passively), and hence fortifying, the spirits of offence-mongers.

A culture with no space for alternative interpretations and ideas is a culture of putrid orthodoxy. We must not succumb to these regressive forces that are destructive to an open society. 

Working with Available Light

In the introductory chapter of the book, The Hindus: An Alternate History, Doniger cites the Sufi parable of Mulla Nasrudin — the one in which after having lost his key inside his home during a night, Nasrudin was searching for it outside under a lamp post, because there was more light there than in his house — to remind us that there’s a shortage of “available light” when it comes to the history of the Hindus. She warns the reader that (as it might well be true for any other history book) this is a history, not the history of the Hindus.

As a preamble to the upcoming chapters, Doniger lays out some ground rules and provides a laundry list of concepts that are necessary to grasp if one wants to understand Hinduism. This list is probably more useful for an “outsider” (a non-Hindu, or a non-Indian), but I learned few interesting facts and perspectives as well.

Tolerance: By citing some examples – like how Hindus have no problem worshiping Kabir (the great Indian poet who publicly denounced both Hinduism and Islam) and Satya Pir (or Satya Narayana, a Sufi pir) – Doniger briefly talks about the ingrained tolerance (both inter-religious and intra-religious) of the Hindu philosophy.

Pluralism: “Multiple narratives coexist peacefully, sometimes in one open mind and sometimes in a group of people whose minds may be, individually, relatively closed. A pivotal example of such individual pluralism can be found in the law text of Manu, which argues, within a single chapter, passionately against, and then firmly for, the eating of meat.”

Myth and Symbolism: It’s good to see the author recognizing the importance of myth and symbolism in understanding the history of Hinduism. These are not the sources of “hard” history (as compared to scriptures that has more solid records historical events and ethics etc., for instance) but they are precious to apprehend the history of ideas rather than principles, sentiments rather than events, motivations rather than movements.

Diversity, and the polycentric nature of Hinduism: Because of the vast spectrum of beliefs and practices, it’s hard to define Hinduism in the way other (especially, the Abrahamic) religions are defined. The fact that there’s no Hindu cannon surely makes it more difficult to spell out what all Hindus believe or do. In the words of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (president of India from 1962 to 1967) Hinduism can be defined as a belief that: “a truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express.”

Women & dalits: These two groups are referred to as marginalized Hindus in this book. According to the author, most Brahminic scriptures and texts tend to avoid delving too much into the lives and conditions in which women and dalits lived, so one has to really read between the lines to squeeze out some insights about how the society treated (or rather, mistreated) them. I am not quite sure if I agree with the author’s remark about the “ironic” presence of women in Mahabharata though (“perhaps beyond earshot, but definitely heard”).

I already found myself at odds over some of her interpretations or remarks, but given the vastness and all-inclusiveness of Hinduism, disagreements are inevitable. Her despise for the Hindu fundamentalists becomes quite apparent from the first few pages of the book, and I am noticing that she has already started getting into some controversial areas – akin to the one that led to that egg-hurling incident back in 2003. (“He missed his aim. In every way.” remarks Doniger.) But overall, I am enjoying reading this “outsider’s view” of Hinduism and Hindus so far, for Doniger is quite witty, observant and knowledgeable about the Hindu scriptures, the history and the people.

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