The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. Penguin Press, 2009. 779 pages. $35.


As an immigrant child who enjoyed word play in his adopted language, I occasionally wondered why stories about the past were called “his”tory. At school, since most of the texts were written by men, in a sense they were his-stories; but at home, my emigrant parents kept their versions of India alive through his- and her-stories. My father’s stories were variants of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Panchatantra, conflating mythic poetry and animal fables to reinforce dharmicbehavior; my mother’s were folksy memories of Rajasthani village life, with no apparent didactic purpose beyond keeping her children close to her in the dark. Reflecting our caste and religion, these stories tended to privilege a Brahminical world-view.

It was not just that we heard only Hindu stories (e.g., the Ramayana but not the Koran or Bible), but also that we received only one telling of theRamayana (e.g. that of Rama as the heroic All-Indian God who, with his loyal brother, Laxmana, and their friend Hanuman, saves Sita from the clutches of the multi-headed ogre, Ravana). I did not grow up contemplating that there might be Hindus who told the same story from Sita’s perspective, or Hanuman’s, or Laxmana’s. And it was certainly inconceivable that anyone might use the same sacred words to portray Ravana as some kind of antihero, with virtues as well as failings.

Though not attempting to tell all of the religious stories that have come out of the Indian subcontinent, Wendy Doniger has compiled an alternative history called The Hindus. This encyclopedic tome uses an orthodox chronologic structure to present a rather unorthodox reading of Hindu texts. The chronology moves from time and space in the India of 50 million BCE to the present day diasporic Hinduism; the texts range from the Rig Veda which “was preserved orally even when the Indians had used writing for centuries” to the cinematic Ramayana broadcasted via television and video across the world such that “most Hindus now know only one single Ramayana.”

A cursory reading may suggest that Doniger is fixated on the Ramayana, but this is only one of the many Hindu texts that she parses for multiple interpretations. In a chapter on the Upanishads, there is a wonderful palindrome about karma which, though only a footnote, can serve as a frame for this book: “Do Good’s deeds live on? No, Evil’s deeds do, O God.” Whether Hinduism is “read forward” in the classic, Brahminical way or inverted and “read backward” with alternative voices, it is still Hinduism—a circular philosophy of heard and remembered words. Doniger fuses knowledge of multiple texts to provide not only an alternative history of Hinduism, but also an alternative, evolving way to think about the wor(l)d.

Indian Americans, with their hyphenated identity, might find of particular interest a section on hybridity, an ancient and modern concept which has had the “disadvantage of carrying a largely negative attitude to the mixing of categories.” Doniger quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition of hybrid as “a half-breed, cross-breed, or mongrel” to echo the “Hindu fear of the mixture of social classes (varna-samkara).” She proceeds to suggest that “nowadays both postcolonial and postmodern thinkers prefer hybrids … and indeed argue that we all are hybrids, all always mixed and mixing.” This précis on hybridity closes with a “positive story about social hybridity” which reinforces the American melting pot metaphor while subverting it: “They say that when the Parsis landed in India, the local Hindu raja sent them a full glass of milk, suggesting that the town was full. The Parsi leader added sugar and returned the glass, indicating that his people could mix among the native populace like sugar in milk, sweetening it but not overrunning it.”

In discussing the metaphor of sugar in milk, Doniger recalls that “salt dissolved in water was an ancient Upanishadic metaphor for the complete merging of individual soul in the world soul (brahman).” There is so much going on in a couple of paragraphs that it seems inconceivable that any one writer could sustain the layers of interconnected knowledge across several hundred pages. But Doniger can and does. Seemingly, each page is full of sacred scholarship and (un)holy humor, leaving it to the reader to sort out the sacred cows from the holy cows. Playful references such as the karmic palindrome and the Parsi metaphor make The Hindus highly accessible to serious lay readers while having the potential to anchor a university course on Hinduism.

Doniger, whose knowledge of Hindu texts positions her as a leading light of Sanskrit academics, has also become something of a lightening rod for those who are troubled by her telling “a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people— people, who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women).” She is upfront about this “agenda” and does not shy away from conflict with her Hindutva tormentors.

Tucked away toward the end of this rich, variegated book is a somewhat unsatisfying chapter titled “Hindus in America.” While in the first 635 pages of the book, the Hindus (all kinds of Hindus) and their texts (all kinds of texts) are the subjects and objects of Doniger’s scholarship, this slender chapter of less than 20 pages refocuses the lens on American scholars of Hinduism. Reversing the gaze onto the author and onto those like her is unhelpful. Doniger defensively writes, “ I believe that the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices, and an American interlocutor is often the best person to build that bridge.  Hence the book.”

Hence the book? Why does this fine book need justification? Just as Hindus require no defense from fundamentalists who seek to silence alternative voices, The Hindus requires no such defense from critics who might hurl eggs (tomatoes if they are vegetarians) at it. By giving multiple voices to texts that have lived for centuries, Doniger’s book speaks for itself.

For Herman Tull, whose rigorously thoughtful independent scholarship long ago suggested to RCO a path outside of academia.


Share this: