A Response by Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger has graciously, and generously, agreed to respond to some of the comments at CM. I thank her.

I have followed with great interest the conversation between Conrad Barwa and Qalandar on this website, and the first thing I want to say is how grateful I am for the reasoned, intelligent tone of both sets of comments. It is an enormous relief to be able to eavesdrop on a real argument instead of the mindless attacks to which I am so often subjected. And several of the comments on the Chapati Mystery blog have made me want to get into the conversation too.

 I would particularly like to comment on the argument that the cases I cite, of concern for and sympathy with the lower castes, are just a few rare instances, not characteristic of Hinduism as a whole. This is indeed true, and, yes, I did fish them out, the way people who do not just want to say that all the Germans were Nazis fished out people like Schindler and the other “righteous Christians” who were heroes; the fact remains that many Germans, perhaps even most Germans, were Nazis. So too, without apologizing for Hindu attitudes to women and the lower castes, I wanted to lift up a few counter-instances to show that you cannot simply condemn Hinduism outright, as so many Americans want to do, for the cases that always hit the newspapers, of atrocities to Dalits and women. The balance here becomes clearer if you read the whole book, which does set these liberal, hopeful instances against the backdrop of heavy prejudice against women and Dalits. Indeed, what makes the counter cases so heroic is precisely that they are fighting against a powerful culture of oppression.

I try to read the Mahabharata story of Ekalavya as one of very mixed feelings, justifying the caste system even while it raises serious questions about its justice. And, yes, the Dalits today have a problem with Eklavya, and that is in the book, in another chapter, that shows how Dalits in recent years have still used Eklavya but in another way, to say, No, I would not have given them my thumb! So that balance, too, would be more apparent if you read the whole book. There’s a limit to what you can do in 1,000 words; the damn book is 779 pages long!

A few small points: 

I take the dog-Dalit metaphor not from the tales of Ekalavya or Yudhishthira but from other texts, such as a story in the Mahabharata [12.115-119] in which a dog wants to be more than a dog and is transformed into a lion and becomes horrible and has to be turned back into a dog. Other stories too. But then I try to read them back into stories in which it is less obvious that they stand for Dalits, but I think they do. I’m not sure they do, but I think they do; I think it’s a fair possible reading.

As for Witzel’s criticisms of my Sanskrit translations, I think it stems from his misunderstanding of the sorts of liberties I took for the Penguin Classic translation of the Rig Veda, where I couldn’t use a lot of footnotes and so had to smooth out a lot of lines in ways that did in fact take me farther from the literal meanings of the words than I would have allowed myself to go were I trying to produce the sort of academic translations that Witzel is looking for. But that really has nothing to do with the issues here. Nor does the criticism that I only translate the ordinary Sanskrit texts that everyone else translates. I wrote a whole (if small) book about the Jaiminiya Brahmana, a much ignored text, and both the Shiva book and the Evil book cite lots of obscure Puranas that have never been translated (or hadn’t been in the 70’s, when I wrote those books). But of course I work on the central texts that other people work on too.

As for the old criticism that I write about sex, look at my CV sometime. I’ve written about 30 books altogether, and about 5 of them deal with sexual issues.

Draupadi ah yes, I’d love to talk about Draupadi. There is a LOT about Draupadi in the book. But really you have to read the book . . .

40 Replies to “A Response by Wendy Doniger”

  1. Wendy is trying to potray that caste system as an evil and this is her fallacy. The problem with caste system has only been in implementation.

    The caste system was meant to be a division of society on the basis of personal qualites and not by the heredity.

    Any person who wanted to fight and be a warrior and interested in physical strength were classified as a Kshatriya.

    Any person who was in the quest for knowledge of the self was classified as Brahman.

    Any person who was interested in acquiring name and fame either by skilled labour and acquiring wealth was classified as Vaishya.

    Any person who did not want to do any of the above was a Shudra.

    Each classification has a set of rules and regulations that allowed people with similar interests to get together and improve themselves. For Eg. a Brahman who is in search of knowledge should be able to resist pleasures of sense like taste and is therfore not allowed to eat tasty food (non vegetarian), consume alcohol etc. a brahman was not was granted food since they were not interested in acquiring wealth. In return for food, the brahmans were required to spread the knowledge that they felt would help the society. You can read THE LAWS OF MANU. 1500 BC translated by G. Buhler for the rules and regulations for each class.

    Why do you think sportsmen want to compete with best in their game? it is the same thing. Here the system affords an opportunity for self growth. Otherwise a person who is interested in skilled labour would be forced to acquire knowledge which is not good for the society.

    On that basis the Varna System, allowed people to identify themselves and classify themselves based on their interests.

    It is people with half baked knowledge who created an impression that any class was lower.

    In reality the whole system was made to look evil by these half baked knowledge of so called analysts/reformists who could not fight out on the basis of knowledge. The non-hindu preachers and foreign missionaries started their evil campaign of spreading hatered towards other religions.

    I hardly come to understand why these so called preachers are intolerant of other religions. They used the classic policy of “DIVIDE AND RULE” to create problems within people who lived happliy.

    But I am sure that the fundamental religion of ever human being atleast in this 21st century is the religion of love and compassion.

    Hate mongers who preach hatred and talk lowly and find fault with other are not spiritual people but politicians. They cannot proceed further in quest for knowledge because knowledge transcends religion.

    If i can most humbly submit: The first step to seeking true knowledge is to turn inwards and find fault with yourself rather than with others. People like ramanuja, christ and aristotle have failed to make their message of “love and compassion”

    Today how many people who call youself christians and talk slyly and insult other religions practice love and compassion.

    Wendy would be better off preaching love and compassion rather than preaching hatered.

    May love and compassion prevail. May the truth of knowledge clear the darkness of hatered in these souls.

    people who insult other religions under the name of christ is shameful to say the least because it was christ who preached love and compassion.

  2. Re: “Your attempt to paint ALL Hindus as rightwing betrays the underlying contempt you seem to have for Hindus, Hinduism, and any defender of Hindu teachings.”

    AP Keshari: you (willfully?) misread my comment: I said that the Hindu right uniformly resisted those attempts, NOT that “ALL Hindus” did so. I do not view “the Hindu right” and “ALL Hindus” as interchangeable categories, as you apparently seem to do.

  3. Raj – thanks for superbly setting facts straight and subjecting Qalandar/Wendy to some questioning.

    Qalanadar – some of your comments revealed your anti-Hindu leaning. Why else would you have said “..the Hindu right uniformly resisted the attempts of Nehru, Ambedkar”? Your attempt to paint ALL Hindus as rightwing betrays the underlying contempt you seem to have for Hindus, Hinduism, and any defender of Hindu teachings.

    By the way, your claim that the Hindu right resisted Ambedkar’s reforms is baseless (unless your definition of “Hindu right” happens to be one of convenience).

  4. Has anyone read the reviews for Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” on amazon.com? The most popular review is titled “Abundance of pettiness.”

    Many reviewers don’t even seem to have read the book.

  5. I was wondering if anyone is planning to use Doniger’s book in intro South Asia syllabi, whether there are sections that you think might work, or whether there are article-length versions of her argument. Do you think it could serve as an alternative to ye olde Sources of Indian Tradition in sections? (Disclaimer: I am not a historian and have a pretty shocking ignorance of much of the historical literature that does not have to do with nationalism and politics)

    1. Doniger does write in the book that it can be easily assigned to a 14 week class (2 chapters per). It is certainly accessible to an undergraduate audience.

  6. Raj – I understand now what you wanted to convey.I would say though that no one today would seriously adopt the world view of people like Muller who has been heavily criticised as an Orientalist. Mueller in anycase, was a philologist not a historian. The view of Indian history today is far removed from people like RC Majumdar and RP Dutt; never mind older Orientalists like Mueller and his brethren.

  7. Conrad- These are few pages from Abbe J.A. Dubois perception .Scanned pages from Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies by Abbe J.A. Dubois.

    Remember Max Muller recommended Dubois as an authentic source of indian studies.
    my intention of sharing this was to show the effect of perception on our world view and purpose and also to high light that Historian has to rise above his prejudice towards an ideology to judge the facts . As Albert Einstein one said “A theory shall not contradict the empirical facts”

  8. These appear to be vintage texts from the Raj-era; I don’t think anyone is denying the “Orientalist”/racist underpinnings of much Raj-era historiography. But it is sloppy to slip from the latter to contemporary academics. I certainly don’t believe in the existence of anything like “neutrality”, but that is a separate issue from impugning someone’s good faith. And secondly, it is reductive in the extreme to posit a racial/cultural identity as the “truth” that must necessarily underlie one’s agenda; stated differently, recognition that “neutrality” is no longer a philosophically tenable concept does not mean that one is at liberty to shoehorn people based on notions of “nativity” and “authenticity.” For if notions of neutrality/academic “detachment” can be de-constructed (and they certainly can), so too can notions of cultural authenticity, “national spirit”, etc.

  9. Qalander/Sepoy – thanks for those details, I don’t really read Dalrymplye so didn’t know that. I would note that unlike what Jay asserted the 1857 war can hardly come under the purview of Mughal history, since we have already entered the colonial era. Anyone who studies the Mughal period especially before the mid-17th century can’t do so without understanding Persian since most of the primary documents are written in this language. Even today, much of the land revenue basis, systems of measure and terminology at the village level draw heavily upon the systemised framework put in place by the Mughals an Sher Shaha and so are explicitly PErsian in origin – as an aside their indecipherability to non-specialists is one reason why revenue officials who do know the system can extract such huge rents from interpreting/altering the records.

  10. Appreciate the passionate defence of the academics! I don’t wish to go into an argument on how many “Indian” scholars and academics know Sanskrit/Pali/local languages etc – clearly, we’ve different views.

    Without you actually providing any examples or names; this just becomes a smear tactic without any basis. The academics I cited do have this knowledge; if you read their works you would know it rests on direct translations of the sources they use not on some supposed distorted third party. I find this dishonest and insulting to be frank; that Outlook article you cite in your defence doesn’t mention any specifics either. If you can’t provide such evidence then your arguement is pretty baseless imo.

    What is interesting to me is that none of the substantive points made by Raj (March 21st post) and for the need for “Indian” scholars to understand the ethos of a place are disputed.

    Nobody is disputing Raj’s points – at least I am no. His arguements are neither new nor original. They have been debated and integreated into the approaches on Indian historiography already for some years.

  11. what really enrages people about the historians I cite, isn’t their supposed Marxism (though I am sure this is sure to raise their hackles as well) but the fact that their arguements can’t be historically rebutted by many of their critics; hence the personal and ideological attacks.

    is this ignorance or perception ? which argument of which historian has not been rebutted ?? can you be specific rather then being personal

  12. Theories of class and social discrimination are common approaches by many historians across the board in a wide variety of areas and to try and dismiss this approach as a crude form of materialism in just plain wrong imo.

    Common ? Who says that . Who decide that One Worldview is common and others are uncommon ?

    Historians should be judged on the evaluation of their evidence and how strongly it supports their claims

    Historian should be judged by his ability to overcome his selfish perception (Marxism , Right wing, or any other ) to view the evidence .
    Perception is like a blindfold , which we humans wear and try to describe the elephant

    what really enrages people about the historians I cite, isn’t their supposed Marxism (though I am sure this is sure to raise their hackles as well) but the fact that their arguements can’t be historically rebutted by many of their critics; hence the personal and ideological attacks.

    you are wrong here and to be precise .. personal

  13. Appreciate the passionate defence of the academics! I don’t wish to go into an argument on how many “Indian” scholars and academics know Sanskrit/Pali/local languages etc – clearly, we’ve different views. The appended article from a popular mainstream Indian weekly suggests a viewpoint I’m in agreement with having spent very many significant years in India. And Indian history isn’t just North Indian or Mughal era history!

    What is interesting to me is that none of the substantive points made by Raj (March 21st post) and for the need for “Indian” scholars to understand the ethos of a place are disputed.

    I’m logging off from any further posts on this blog so please feel free to have the last word. Thank you for reading and reacting though!

  14. Aside: perhaps I am mistaken, but I had thought Dalrymple’s complaint was that Indian historians hadn’t made use of the National Archives in Delhi, and their wealth of Persian documents on 1857. I can’t swear that was his concern (he also of course had the well-founded concern that India suffers from a dearth of quality popular history writing; clearly there’s a demand here, as his Last Mughal sold 40,000 copies in just six weeks in India), but that’s my recollection…

    1. Dalrymple’s claim was that historians were no longer being trained in reading the Shikista manuscript script. NA, he said, had hordes of court documents untouched (relating to 1857). I think he exaggerates to make a point.

  15. “Genuine” refers to academicians and scholars who are not the Mandir-wallahs nor Marxists nor Macaulayites (nor Mullahs nor Missionaries. Collectively, the 5Ms). The JNU academics you refer to are well known to have strong Marxist views with its theories of class and social discrimination.

    I think this is inaccurate for a number of reasons and neither are all the academics I cite, “JNU” academics. DD Kosambi was not and Dalmia is not a Marxist. Theories of class and social discrimination are common approaches by many historians across the board in a wide variety of areas and to try and dismiss this approach as a crude form of materialism in just plain wrong imo. Historians should be judged on the evaluation of their evidence and how strongly it supports their claims and in this; what really enrages people about the historians I cite, isn’t their supposed Marxism (though I am sure this is sure to raise their hackles as well) but the fact that their arguements can’t be historically rebutted by many of their critics; hence the personal and ideological attacks.

    There are hardly any historians, social scientists, anthropologists etc in India who can read or speak Sanskrit/Pali/local languages to do any primary research. For example, William Dalrymple commented on the lack of Persian knowledge (while writing The Last Mughal) amongst Indian historians who were “experts” on the Mughal era. They are therefore dependent on the interpretations of others who in most cases are neither “genuine” nor “Indian”.

    I have never heard such rubbish in my life. Dalrymple should stick to writing his waffly travelogues imo and not talk about matters he knows little about. ALL the historians I cited have knowledge about the original languages used in their period and they ALL translated themselves from the ORIGINALS. You seem to be labouring under the illusion to become a historian all one needs to do is consult some secondary sources; I am sorry to disabuse you but a knowledge of languages is a requirement for any academic historian of the period he is studying Ancient or modern. Any ancient historian would certainly need to know the languages of the documents he/she is consulting; this is the case with both Jha and Thapar. The latter in particular would not have had her work stand up to academic scrutiny if this was the case; even critics of her work like David Lorenzen and Michael Trautmann would’nt claim this. I can personally add that having studied under a non-Marxist historian, Tapan Raychaudhuri that many historian of Mughal India do know Persian, including Marxists like Irfan Habib whose work on agrarian crisis is a classic on the subject. I am at a loss where accusations of ignorance of Persian come from here. I don’t know who Dalrymple is referring to. It is amusing that you cite an article relying on Sheldon Pollock’s arguement; since Pollock is an individual who would not make the criticisms or claims you have made about many of the historians cited, even though he may disagree with their work and his claims about the popularity of Ram as a figure and the politicised influence of the Ramayana from the 12th century onwards is hardly one that traditional adherent of the “glory of Indian culture” are going to be happy with.

  16. I’m not propagating anything so please don’t jump to unwarranted conclusions as I appear to have done in my observations regarding the usage of Bollywood metaphors.

    “Genuine” refers to academicians and scholars who are not the Mandir-wallahs nor Marxists nor Macaulayites (nor Mullahs nor Missionaries. Collectively, the 5Ms). The JNU academics you refer to are well known to have strong Marxist views with its theories of class and social discrimination. In other words, not unbiased. “Indian” refers to those who (attempt t) appreciate and understand Indian history, traditions and civilisational ethos of India – the philospophies and teachings and practices. For this to happen, living and travelling within India for significant periods is important – it is hard to be a drive-by/flying-visit historian in such cases.

    There are hardly any historians, social scientists, anthropologists etc in India who can read or speak Sanskrit/Pali/local languages to do any primary research. For example, William Dalrymple commented on the lack of Persian knowledge (while writing The Last Mughal) amongst Indian historians who were “experts” on the Mughal era. They are therefore dependent on the interpretations of others who in most cases are neither “genuine” nor “Indian”.

    Again, I draw attention to Raj’s observations of March 21st. These and many other examples need to be understood as well before jumping to “unwarranted conclusions” . For that to happen, one must have an open mind. The culture of great debates that took place in early India (eg. “The Argumentative Indian” Amartya Sen is a recent book that also refers to this) has been lost. We are willing to jump to “unwarranted conclusions” because of the arrogance of our ignorance. One must have the strength to acknowledge the faults, the humility to learn and the courage of conviction not to be swayed by each and every argument. For that, one must equip oneself with knowledge that comes from multiple sources and reach one’s own conclusions. Not parrot what someone else says.

    In closing, I submit the article linked below for your reading.

    http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20090318&fname=sugata&sid=1

    Thank you

  17. The real tragedy is that there aren’t any genuine Indian scholars to research primary sources.

    I am sorry but “genuine” means what here exactly? there are numerous Indian scholars who have studied these topics – I don’t know also why they need to be Indian, unless you are propagating the crypto-racist beleif that non-Indian scholars are unable to understand such texts simply because they are not Indian. The problem with scholaris like Ram Sharma, Romila Thapar, DN Jha, DD Kosambi and Vasundhara Dalmia; isn’t that they are not “genuine Indian scholars” but that they don’t produce the sanitised, brahminiccal version of Hinduism so beloved of sections of the chattering classes today.

    Using popular movies like Sholay and Eklavya for their apparent metaphorical examples in a discussion here is, in my very humble opinion, rather puerile.

    Ok, first of all; no one has used Sholay on this thread for this purpose; you are referring to another discussion. Secondly and more importantly, we aren’t idiots, no one is using these films to analyse ancient texts – that would be imbecilic; what we are doing to saying how popular understandings and represenatations draw upon these myths and stories to be presented to a modern audience. Few of us have even read the originals in translation; apart from scholars – which I would venture to add don’t include Rajiv, have the linguistic skills or historical training to study these ancient texts in their original language. So I would advise that you actually read the thread and the comments properly before making unwarranted assumptions.

  18. http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0412/features/index.shtml – worth reading! The material referred to here (Rajiv’s writings as well as the book Invading the Sacred) ought to be also read.

    The real tragedy is that there aren’t any genuine Indian scholars to research primary sources. Tradition, history, myth and culture are all contextual in nature. Understanding the ethos and conditions are therefore important pre-requisites. Without the context can lead to conclusions that are incomplete at best and caricatures at worst.

    There are umpteen versions of the Ramayana (AK Ramanujam details 300 versions!) depending on who’s (re)telling the story:)

    Using popular movies like Sholay and Eklavya for their apparent metaphorical examples in a discussion here is, in my very humble opinion, rather puerile. It would be useful for some of the authors here to first read more before posting material. In fact, Raj’s comments of March 21st (on the Gita et al) need to be read and more importantly understood!

  19. No I agree with you about the main thrust of the film which was pleasingly free from the usual easy endings and rarely we see the heroine ( a single mum no less!!) come up trumps. My comments were really about the sub-plots with ref to the local MP and it doesn’t condone feudal politics in the same way at all. I am not as confident about any critique of the neo-liberalisation wave though, since there isn’t any really critique of the kind of ‘development’ that AK’s character was meant to be brining; it is simply rejected by popular acclaim. As a side note I liked the up-ending of the traditionalists in the film but was amused that with my friend we took his wife’s younger sisters with us but they asked us not to tell their parents that we were going to see this film since they said their parents may not approve about seeing a film with the Laila Manju story :D!!!!!

    I missed the Hyderbadi connection, now that you mention it. There was of course the unecessary brouhaha over the supposed casteism in the lyrics there as well which was a pointless controversy. The soundtrack is good, I remember absrudly long discussions that used to take place during long distance journeys in train compartments over them and the performance of Dixit and her dancing!

    I certainly did not “read” Sanjubaba’s representation in Eklavya the same way — in fact at my theater his were the only dialogs that drew hoots and whistles; given the long tradition of Hindi film “herogiri”, IMO the audience was clearly not meant to understand this character in a patronizing sort of way.

    I think you are right but it depends on who you saw it with I suppose and the composition of the audience. The bit where Irani boasts about a 2,000 year history of royalty countered by the counter-claim of 5,000 years of servitude which it was built on by Sanjay Dutt’s character has clear parallels with the ongoing turmoil over caste and the transfer of power in what Jaffrelot and Srinivas have called the ‘Silent Revolution’ from the upper castes to the OBCs and Dalits. An upper caste audience collectively unless they are a-typically progressive won’t regard this as a benign development.

  20. Aside: for fans of Raahat Fateh Ali Khan, Aaja Nachle has a sensationally soulful track by him (“O Re Piya”). Khan has had an excellent run in Hindi films of late, with at least one standout track in each of the last few years: there were Omkara’s “Naina thag lenge”; Jhoom Barabar Jhoom’s “Bol na halke halke”; and Namaste London’s “Teri Yaad” (the last one is marred by Himesh Reshamiya’s offensive narcissism: as the composer of this song, he basically reserved the high vocal ranges for his own mediocre voice, and left only the middle and lower ranges for the incomparably more accomplished Khan)….

  21. I think that on Aaja Nachle, what you miss is that the film is very much on the “side” of Madhuri Dixit, NOT of Akshaye Khanna’s ex-raja character. Not that there is anything “subaltern” about that — it seems to me that the film comes down on the “side” of the “modern”, individualistic woman — i.e. she is a stand-in for “us” (as the multiplex audience would imagine itself), and arrayed against her is both “the tradition” and the modern nabobs of the business world (the subaltern is basically absent). On the bright side is the fact that the Dixit character is clearly conscious of the fact that right-wing “guardians of culture” in the film aren’t “traditionalists” — the film has more than one dialogue where Dixit expresses surprise at how things have changed, and how “in the old days” the town simply had a lot more time for the arts, there was less moral policing, etc. (on the dishonest side is the typical multiplex film squeamishness about ideology: thus politicians are presented as good or bad not because of their ideology but based on whether or not they are corrupt, a “they are all the same” cynicism that is really moral obtuseness masquerading as cynicism. In Aaja Nachle, for instance, the right-wing politician has a Muslim goon (Kunal Kapoor); being familiar with Hyderabad, there is of course no shortage of Muslim political goons, but not in the service of this sort of political agenda — the aim is clearly to de-fang the representation). I do not disagree with your general point re: feudals, but think you have the wrong target in Aaja Nachle. In fact one of the good things about this film was how it showed corporate tycoons in a less than halo-rimmed light; ever since the economic liberalization of 1991, the trend has increasingly been toward the transformation of the industrialist into the true Contemporary Indian Hero; that is not really so in Aaja Nachle (aside: from a gender perspective, this is also one of the few films that shows the woman “defeating” the man in the final analysis. Despite the re-inscription of the two into an economy of romance by film’s end, that is worth noting).

    I certainly did not “read” Sanjubaba’s representation in Eklavya the same way — in fact at my theater his were the only dialogs that drew hoots and whistles; given the long tradition of Hindi film “herogiri”, IMO the audience was clearly not meant to understand this character in a patronizing sort of way.

  22. Just to add one more point about Eklavya about which I am being a bit harsh; it would be nice to see a subaltern character like Eklavaya portrayed without some sort of disability for once; after the ppainful scenes with Bachcu in Laagan, I thought this wouldn’t happen again. It is as if the upper caste sensibility can’t cope with a physcially assertive, virile subaltern body in the main character. Much is made of Eklayvaya’ marksmanhship, though it is never allowed to assume central stage because of his partial blindness (crucially this is one reason why the killers of his master can’t be prosecuted since sigh-affected witnesses lack credibility). It is as if just like Arjun in the Mahabharata we can’t bear the presence of a subaltern who has acheived such a level of mastery – in this case of weapons; without qualifiying it somehow.

    On the plus side the ending does contain one of the few scenes of wealth distribution you will see on a grand scale legitimated by the film’s plot :D

  23. Superb example, and completely agree — but, while Vinod Chopra doesn’t execute the film very well, you omitted to mention the subversion here (for those who haven’t seen the film, spoiler alert): by film’s end, the whole symbolism of Rajput patriarchy has been turned on its head, with the royal having been revealed as impotent, and the subservient servant the real father who, by impregnating the queen, continues the royal bloodline. The royal house in this film lives in a ghostly palace that seems like nothing so much as an anachronism, and the message is clear: India after the maharajahs belongs to Eklavya, not to the royals he serves. Lest anyone think I am reading too much into this, consider Sanjay Dutt’s brief cameo in the film: he is the “lower caste” cop who is investigating the murder at the palace, and his sneering demeanor towards the royals, his refusal to give them any deference, is in marked contrast to the attitude of Amitabh’s Eklavya. And his only “hero” at the palace is the lower-caste Eklavya — NOT any of the royals (memorably illustrated by a dialogue that is unusually blunt for a multiplex-friendly Hindi film: “Agar Eklavya-baba nahin hote na, to is haveli ki taraf mooth-ta bhi nahin” (”If it weren’ for Eklavya, I wouldn’t even piss in the direction of this mansion”)).

    Great response and I don’t want to turn this thread into another filmi discussion on politics and sociology – ok who am I kidding of course I do!!!
    Well, I see you points though I would not quite see the movie this way. Eklavya’s role is key in propping up the decaying feudalism of the Rajput royal family here true, but it is still effaced and he acts very much as the loyal retainer who is peripherally recognised for his services. The only departure here is that his martial prowress and skill have received public acclaim through popular recognition and ballads. There is still an air of feudal nostalgia here in the trappings of the royal estate and while the air of decay is both visually and narratively shown; it harks back to a past when this wasn’t clearly the case (though given that Eklavya’s family have served for 9 generations we don’t know what conditions were really like then and whether the earlier generations of Royals were any better). The shift in portrayal of the feudal zamindar or royalty is imo a function of the declining popularity of this character as a viable centre for the audiences’ affections or hopes. This figure still functions in the background and we can see the shift in the 1970s with the role of the armless Thakur beating Gabbar in Sholay to the more limited roles such figures play in today’s movies – as in Aaja Nachle, where the local Raja has turned politician and is voted from the constituency off the back of the popular vote in a democracy rather than relying on his subjects consent in a feudalistic relationship. Unlike propping up the old order, this neo-feudal brand of politician is a moderniser who plan is to bring “development” in the form of a mall to replace the Ajanta theatre under threat. However, he generously offers a deal to Madhuri Dixit to see if she can save the theatre by testing the popular support for it through a dance event and then benevolently instructs the police not to get involved in the dispute between the townsfolk that ensues between those who support and oppose the idea but to “let the people decide.” And the normal course of events to take place. This speaks to an overarching desire for the traditional feudal elite to resume a sort of guardianship role, but in the post-Emergency era to merely ensure that the different political factions don’t get out hand but abide by the “rules of the game” and settle their dispute through an open popular contest (read election).

    All this speaks to a desire for forms of traditional political authority to manage the architecture of democracy, while of course ignoring their own past role in suppressing it and exploiting their exalted position; but combines it with a recognition that in the new era of downward assertion of power by previously subsmissive social groups and the widening of social democracy that the old hierarchies are no longer sustainable in their previous form. Such films incorporate elements of subversion and democracy imo; without fully giving over to the logic of it and distorting the past into an idealised version of a socially hierarchical utopia. What has gone wrong is the process of political change has transformed old relationships (as in Aaja Nachle) or individual decay at the level of the family has eroded what should have been a functioning and ideal-type social arrangement (Eklavya).

    I see the Sanjay Dutt character in the latter film, slightly differently, in the way that I frequently hear my upper caste colleagues mutter in private about the attitudes of jumped officers from lower caste communities who don’t know how to behave. There is the accompanying bourgeois criticism of reservation based on the old ‘merit’ arguement that after Mandalisation the old ethos of impartiality, politeness and skill has gone to hell in a haycart thanks to the admittance of the admittance of the newly assertive breed of confident, rustic but irreverent OBCs.

  24. Dear Qalandar

    The Whole Argument of “The problem is that the Hindu right uniformly resisted the attempts of Nehru, Ambedkar, etc. to revise the legal implications of Hinduism ” is based on the view that only Right is the Hindu view while Nehru and Gandhi is Non Hindu World view .
    Well Nehru and Gandhi are product of Hinduism .

    Doniger is saying that if we only went by “the majority-view”, the authorized texts/authorized interpretations of the authorized texts, the “official discourse”, we would have to say that it is pointless speaking of any Germans who resisted Nazism;

    The interpretation of :Majority ” as the mentioned by Wendy or as accepted by you , is her biased perception of “entire “

  25. Aside: I do not disagree with the point that the nature and structure of Hindu belief systems (i.e. as opposed to orthodox Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) renders them more malleable in the face of social change, a quality I personally find very compelling as a political matter [The potential disadvantage is that raising the banner of rebellion/change is also a bit more difficult in the face of such a “soft target”]; not to mention as an aesthetic matter.

  26. Re: “Hindu themselves banned the caste system after independence shows the maturity of this thought process .”

    The problem is that the Hindu right uniformly resisted the attempts of Nehru, Ambedkar, etc. to revise the legal implications of Hinduism (witness the large protests and agitations over the Hindu Marriage Act, and so on). This double move is not an unfamiliar one: on the one hand Nehru was and is castigated for being a “Westernized” and hence alien fellow who “targeted” Hinduism; on the other hand, everyone should pat their backs for having had it rammed down their throats! Can’t have one’s cake and eat it too.

    Raj: i think you know full well that Hindus are not being compared to Nazis here; this is really the worst kind of cheap shot: the point, if one re-reads the comment, is precisely the opposite: Doniger is saying that if we only went by “the majority-view”, the authorized texts/authorized interpretations of the authorized texts, the “official discourse”, we would have to say that it is pointless speaking of any Germans who resisted Nazism; i.e. one cannot ignore the marginal, the “little”, the liminal, the “zara hatke”, the woman we see only when we squint a little — in these cracks may rebellion, and the promise of a better tomorrow, be found.

  27. Wow, sepoy, you really ca arrange anything :-)

    Thank you Conrad and Ms. Donger for taking the time for these responses — I can especially empathize with Conrad’s sentiments at being unable to persuade people that academic scholarship did not constitute an attack on Hinduism. I have myself faced this sort of problem in my personal life, trying to convince a few people of my acquaintance (I have the double problem of also having to convince some Muslims of my acquaintance that the commandeering of history in the service of a Hindutva agenda does not mean that the opposite – namely that a “whitewash” of medieval “Muslim history” — is appropriate), hence could really relate to the heartburn this leads to. [This sort of disconnect also reminds me that for all my sympathy for post-structuralism/Derrida/Foucault etc., the old habits/reflexes — namely that language is open/transparent/a means of communication — die hard.]

    Re: “I must mention the uncomfortable casteist undercurrent to the Hindi film “Ekalayva” where Amitabh Bachchan’s character plays the eponymous hero, who is a loyal and sacrificing bodyguard to a Rajput royal family – the implications of service and sacrifice are clear as is who is meant to be doing the serving and the sacrificing and who benefits from these actions.”

    Superb example, and completely agree — but, while Vinod Chopra doesn’t execute the film very well, you omitted to mention the subversion here (for those who haven’t seen the film, spoiler alert): by film’s end, the whole symbolism of Rajput patriarchy has been turned on its head, with the royal having been revealed as impotent, and the subservient servant the real father who, by impregnating the queen, continues the royal bloodline. The royal house in this film lives in a ghostly palace that seems like nothing so much as an anachronism, and the message is clear: India after the maharajahs belongs to Eklavya, not to the royals he serves. Lest anyone think I am reading too much into this, consider Sanjay Dutt’s brief cameo in the film: he is the “lower caste” cop who is investigating the murder at the palace, and his sneering demeanor towards the royals, his refusal to give them any deference, is in marked contrast to the attitude of Amitabh’s Eklavya. And his only “hero” at the palace is the lower-caste Eklavya — NOT any of the royals (memorably illustrated by a dialogue that is unusually blunt for a multiplex-friendly Hindi film: “Agar Eklavya-baba nahin hote na, to is haveli ki taraf mooth-ta bhi nahin” (“If it weren’ for Eklavya, I wouldn’t even piss in the direction of this mansion”)).

  28. Yes I can understand your sympathy Wendy. it is same that lot of people feel for Jews, Blacks ,Witches, Pagans .
    There are various examples which can be quoted here to prove that the Hindu belief system had enough maturity to fight and raise its voice against caste system
    There are many examples and Sage Valmiki is one , who from his humble lower caste origin grew up to become a revered sage
    Bhakta Prahlad says to Lord Narsimham that a chandal who has God in his heart is better than a Brahmin who knows the twelve yogas.
    Lord Ram eats the jhoota bair of the bhilini Sabri.
    in Bhagavad-gita (4.13) Lord Krishna says, “According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me.” Then He continues, “Brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras are distinguished by their qualities of work in accordance with the modes of nature.” (Bg.18.41) Herein we can see that there is no mention of birth as a determining factor for one’s varna or classification. They are ascertained by their qualities of work. Furthermore, “By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. . . By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, man can, in the performance of his own duty [or occupation], attain perfection.” (Bg.18.45-6)
    Now the question is, is caste a religious problem attributed to a belief system or a social problem of a society in a different time. ?

    Well I can understand you have your answer ready .

    A rebelious Bhakti Movement contributed in its own way to raise its voice for reformation .In the Marathi area, in the fourteenth century, Cokhamela and his family, wife, sister, sister’s husband, and son, all wrote songs of both bliss and humiliation, over four hundred of which are now credited to them. In the North, Ravidas, a Chamar of the fifteenth century, is still very influential as model, source of pride, and symbol of identity. all the untouchable saints are remembered—their legends told, their songs sung, and their places secured by proof of creativity and piety.
    As for your perception about the metaphors for dog I will quote an incident from the Life of Adiguru Shankacharya .
    on his way to the Vishwanath mandir for Mahadev’s darshan, Shankar politely requested a raggedly dressed chandal (low caste man) with four dogs to move aside. The man replied whether he should move the body or the atma? “If it is the body, your body and mine are of the same composition, of flesh, blood and bones. If it is the atma, then the atma is the same in everyone.” This reply startled Shankar. He realised that this man was none other than Shiv himself and the four dogs were the four Vedas. He prostrated instantly. He expressed his divine experience – sakshatkar – of Vishwanath by composing a pentad verse known as Manish Panchakam. When he raised his head, the chandal and the dogs had vanished!

    Hindu themselves banned the caste system after independence shows the maturity of this thought process .
    However some people still use the Old history to judge the changed present

  29. Okay, wow, I am impressed and more than a little humbled that Wendy Doniger has taken the time and trouble to respond to what were really not very well thought out and rushed short comments (on my part at least, Qalander’s comments were more thoughtful and precise than mine). I just want to say before I go on to try and make a more balanced outline of my criticisms; that I only first heard of Wendy Doniger’s work on a now defunct discussion site “Dialognow” where Indians and Pakistanis could come and try and have a dialogue about relations between the two countries in the wake of the 2001 parliament attacks. Many threads obviously discussed the relative merits and problems of both Hinduism and Islam and one of the threads revolved around the contribution Wendy had made to the Encarta Encyclopaedia. This issue is already well known so won’t go into it here; all I would say is that it generated a huge amount of bitterness and controversy on the site with various accusations flying between those who endorsed and supported Wendy’s article and those who had a problem with it. I was in the former camp and was quite astounded by some of the reactions. One colleague with whom I had been a regular correspondent and interlocutor for several years accused those of us who were defending Wendy’s work of being patronising and I can still recall his words even though this was several years ago that “the new generation of young Hindus who are growing up, aren’t going to be embarrassed about their religion and won’t put up with quietly while foreigners tell them what their religion is really meant to be like”. This statement says many things but the one thing it drove home to me was, that despite my colleague and I being of the same age (in our 20s) coming from the same middle-class backgrounds, having grown up in traditional Indian families and experienced the everyday Hinduism that pervades such households; just how far our understanding, attitude and response to such issues are. There seemed to be a need to assert Hinduism and Hindu identity as well as an Indian national one against the interpretations or supposed attacks from some Other. That is the remarkable thing all these claims seem to be directed at some Other from whom respect, proper treatment, recognition seems to be demanded from: therefore we have claims that the Saraswati did exist, that Ram Sethu does verify the land-bridge that was constructed in the Ramayana, etc. what strikes me is to whom they are directed. Who are these people or entities that disrespect India, or bully her? Who is it that derides Hinduism as paganism or a collection of sham rituals with little or no real historical meaning? In other words who is the Other to whom such claims are addressed? The answer can shift according to the particular question in mind: from scholars in the Western developed world, to the followers of Semitic religions, to proponents of Western rationality and aggressive secularism to other countries such as China which seem to have overtaken India in the Asian continent and to the chorus of leaders from the NICs who berate India for being inefficient, slow, divided, unpunctual and well for being just India really.

    In anycase I felt a sense of failure because those of us who defended Wendy were unable to persuade our colleagues that there was no insult to Hinduism being perpetrated, that multiple interpretations of religious tradition did allow for more than just one restrictive meaning to be placed on texts, rituals and practises and that our forebears in the past often did and believed in things very differently than we do today despite our historical connection. It is a matter of regret that we were unable to persuade our fellow citizens and colleagues to our point of view and they persisted in their arguements that led to some unnecessary actions. Personally speaking this marked a very big point of divergence for me as it forcefully reminded me of the gap that was opening up between the quietist and pluralist kind of Hinduism that I grew up with, that was practised by more than half my family who were Hindu, that was safe and secure in its own identity and not so uncertain and weak that it couldn’t stand any external criticism or scrutiny but which obviously was not the kind of Hinduism that was shared by many others. I am glad to have this chance to interact a little with Wendy Doniger, however indirectly, since it allows me to express my regret and shame to the shabby treatment accorded to her over this whole affair, not to mention the subsequent harangues she has been exposed to. I feel very strongly, that this is an embarrassment to the tolerant and pluralist culture I come from, it is an embarrassment to the my country which is a secular and democratic one and finally it is an insult to the open-minded, generous and sacrificing brand of Hinduism that so many of my own family and friends have followed all their lives; they would not recognise their religion as it is represented some of the ideologues who seek to silence debate and limit inquiry.

    Phew, just to respond to some of Wendy Doniger’s points, which clarify her position more, I would just make some quick comments to clarify my own; since the initial comments were not very well-thought out at all. I should also qualify that I am responding to the article and that I haven’t read the book – yet! I apologise if my points seem redundant as a result or if they are dealt with at length in the rest of the book.

    1) I appreciate that Wendy contextualises the treatment meted out to Dalits and women within a broader framework which was obviously patriarchical and socially inegalitarian. It is important to note that this was not universally the case to avoid a simplified picture. My arguement would be though, that the Brahmanical and Vedic traditions were generally not able to accord these groups anywhere near a respectful status in society and such exceptions that occur are rare and usually in particular circumstances. I do think that if a more balanced picture of Hinduism is to be arrived at other traditions particularly tribal, tantric, bhakti, sakti, smranic and other trends in Hinduism that were very critical of orthodox society’s treatment of lower caste groups and women can prove to be more fruitful. This is one reason why I particularly like Romila Thapar’s work; she very clearly contrasts the worlds of the so-called Rakashas who roam free in the forests have their own social relations which are not characterised by polarised social stratification or a discriminatory attitude towards women to the more settled, conservative and supposedly more ‘civilised’ society that Ram and Ayodhya represent.

    2) We need to understand that for most Indians and Hindus, it is unlikely that they will have direct access to these texts; except in translation and abridged form. Most of my colleagues would have like me, only read the popularised translations of Rajagopalchari as teenagers and the Amar Chitra Katha comics as children and stopped there. A few would go on to learn to read the Gita and various prayers in Sanskrit but that is about all. Today obviously films, television serials and other popular media are far more influential in disseminating ideas about such epics and their interpretation is invariably very much an orthodox one. I was horrified a few months ago to pick up a children’s book that serialised the Mahabharata to look at the episode of Ekalavaya that held him up as a role model to be followed and that glossed completely over the injustices involved. The selective drawings upon tradition that are made overwhelmingly favour one reading over another and the orthodox interpretations here have a hegemonic hold over the imagination of many.

    3) Even if we admit the varied nature of these texts; the voices that are silenced within them are deafening by their absence. Now, having a knowledge and having spent time with adivasi communities in central and northern India; it is difficult not to read episodes like Ram’s killing of Tataka and Vali as very one-sided in their representation. For the forest-dwelling communities and tribes the story much have been very different; a point Ajay Skaria makes well in his work “Hybrid Histories” where such episodes come off as instances of almost ethnic cleansing. It is difficult to see this from other points of view; but just as one is used to seeing the old Western classics such as “The Searchers” and “Stagecoach” whereby the intrusion of European settlers was always seen as a naturalised extension of the existing order which was resisted by Amerindian unprovoked violence; a view which later even their architects of these films like John Ford came to repudiate and recant and attempt to tell the story from the perspective of the Amerindians; a similar dissonance exists. – in this context, since I discussed films at length with Qalander on the previous thread, I must mention the uncomfortable casteist undercurrent to the Hindi film “Ekalayva” where Amitabh Bachchan’s character plays the eponymous hero, who is a loyal and sacrificing bodyguard to a Rajput royal family – the implications of service and sacrifice are clear as is who is meant to be doing the serving and the sacrificing and who benefits from these actions. I can’t also help but be reminded of Sita’s own kidnapping and the startling discovery that Susan Faludi made about many kidnapped women who were abducted by Amerindians, and who either rescued themselves or chose to stay and live with their captors having found a role or made relationships that they were unwilling to abandon to return to White settler society – a point she captures well in a quote from Benjamin Franklin who remarked upon the phenomenon of how many of these women were so reluctant to return during the events of Metacom’s war. Similarly, our religious narrative is so partial and one-sided; if we choose to rely on these few select texts which are very much the work of ‘male Brahmins’ (notwithstanding recent attempts to claim that Valmiki was a bhangi).

    4) The small point about the dog-Dalit metaphor; I was unaware that it came from elsewhere in the Mahabharata; in this the article is a little misleading since it mentions the incident of dogs being permitted to enter heaven; which I assume is a reference to Yudhishtar’s ascent to swarga accompanied by Dharma incarnated as the faithful dog (even here it should be noted, the dog actually doesn’t “enter” heaven but transmutates to Dharma’s original form, having tested Yudhistar’s loyalty and been satisfied).

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