An Alternative History

My narrative is alternative both to the histories promulgated by some contemporary Hindus on the political right in India and to those presented in most surveys in English–imperialist histories, all about the kings, ignoring ordinary people. But the texts tell us not just who was the ruler but who got enough to eat and who did not. And so my narrative is alternative in its inclusion of alternative people. How does one include the marginal as well as the mainstream Hindus in the story? The ancient texts, usually dismissed as the work of Brahmin males, in fact reveal a great deal about the lower castes, often very sympathetic to them and sometimes coded as narratives about dogs, standing for the people now generally called Dalits, formerly called Untouchables. The argument, for instance, that Dalits should be allowed to enter temples, an argument still violently disputed in parts of India today, can already be found, masked, in ancient stories about faithful dogs who should be allowed to enter heaven. So too, though Feminists often argue that Hindu women were entirely silenced, women’s voices–their ideas and attitudes and, above all, their stories–were often heard and recorded by the men who wrote down the texts. – Wendy Doniger, The Battle over Hindu History*.

A few months ago, Wendy Doniger read a small selection to us at Chicago. The photo above was taken at that occasion. It was, as usual, a riveting narrative filled with imaginative connections. I have not purchased the book yet but I am looking forward to reading it soon. As always, she is a guiding light.

* The comments at WaPo, as usual, range from crazy to batshit crazy. As the book gets reviewed, this will only increase. Wendy has been on the receiving end of such Hindutva misogyny and hate for a long while and I have always marveled at her unflagging courage and persistence in facing the hate-machine.

36 Replies to “An Alternative History”

  1. What is interesting is that Prof. Menon in his twitter account
    about how Yoga and Hindus weren’t BFF and he linked
    an article by Wendy Doniger.

    Now why would he say this because Hindus are asserting
    ownership on their culture, a culture that Mr. Menon would
    also like ownership on.
    History of Indian culture is written by Indologist like Wendy Doniger
    who use modern secularist mores to define 3000 year old stories.
    So when Yoga was domain of Brahmins to search for God is turned
    around and portrayed as not friendly to Hindus.
    Same way his friends want to say about Indus culture because
    Pakistan has no sense on history or anything for else that matters.

    Wendy Doniger is still hawking AIT when you give scientific evidence
    to the contrary, she just scoffs at it.

  2. Sepoy–Good question… A forwarded flyer for her talk “Including Dogs, Horses, Cows, Dalits, and Women: An Alternative Narrative of the Hindus” (the lecture that is making the academic rounds to accompany the book’s release) that I have since deleted from my email and can’t quickly google down. Aside from the talk’s title (which for my taste is a little too “sexy”), there was also a multi-color Hanuman and voluptuous Indian female figure collaged together. This flyer seemed to highlight the possible goofy Orientalist imagining of India as the illicit East. As I understand from reviews of The Hindus, this is not what Doniger wants folks to get from her book, though it also seems to me that there is a slight tension between the argument and the “hook” of the book. Perhaps it is a balanced and productive tension; as Doniger advised in her response, I should probably set aside some time this summer to read the whole thing.

    (I am aware that it is very possible that I’m just being grouchy about a history that is intended for a broader audience. For perspective, I also got a little upset when the New York Times started coming out with color photos, mumbling, “If I wanted USA Today, I would have ordered it.”)

  3. Pankaj Mishra has a fairly even-handed review up at the NYT:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/books/review/Mishra-t.html

    While I think the marketing of this book has been a little garish, I hear you on this point:

    Wendy has been on the receiving end of such Hindutva misogyny and hate for a long while and I have always marveled at her unflagging courage and persistence in facing the hate-machine.

    And I suppose when you are trying to get people to buy an 800-page history, a little marketing is probably in order…

  4. Long Time Chapati Lover: well said. I certainly wasn’t holding up this piece/Kaplan; my point was that since this influential writer is going to be doing what he does regardless (it’s scary to think that “Balkan Ghosts” was credibly cited as a book that influenced Bill Clinton quite a bit when he was President), it is somewhat gratifying that he does at least call out the “Moditva” phenomenon.

  5. Dear Qalandar
    The “judging ” is part of our Human Ethics which is a part of our shared consciousness.
    1) I will judge you based on your Present behavior and not make my opinion only from your past Behavior .
    2) any belief system which violates the basic principles of our ethical behavior is wrong and evil whether it is an Abrahamic belief system or Caste system in Indian Society .
    3) society is judged by its laws and not by its criminals and this is the point which i find missing in Wendy’s article .

    As for erotic sprititualism , you don’t need an outsider to enlighten us for that . there is a big treasure in Indian spiritualistic literature .

  6. Erm, just to clarify, my above is a reply to Qalander’s comment no:13, it doesn’t relate to what is discussed in-between, to avoid any potential confusion.

  7. Yes, but that is to put the cart before the horse imo. We have Sita-esqu defitions of womanhood not because some people arbitrarily decided to choose the figure of Sita over Draupadi but because the social orthodoxy and Brahmminical prejudices pretty much conditioned attitudes towards women in this way. And this was the dominant interpretation for much of the elite which held sway.

    To say that Draupadi would have made the ideal basis for an alternative vision of Indian womanhood is really be asking that the history of the last 3000 years and social structure be very different!

    I should also add that Valmiki’s Ramayana tends to portray Sita in a more restained light but even here her anger at her treatment by Rama clearly outlines the injustice that she felt has been done to her simply because she was a woman and her anger at what she sees is Rama’s typical male concern with his reputation over the feelings of his wife. In other versions of the Ramayana like Krittbas’s 15th century Bengali version, this has serious consequences where the sons take revenge on Rama for their mother’s exile in the forest.

  8. Re: “So i don’t understand how Judging Hinduism with a perspective of Abrahamic religious frame will not be called as biased”

    The problem with this is that, taken to its logical extreme, no one could critique anything except from “within” that “frame.” Thus, even within Abrahamic religious traditions, one could argue that Islamic religious practices could not be critiqued because “outsiders” just don’t “get” the culture etc. etc. In fact people make this argument all the time, and not only is it not very tenable, one suspects it is often being made in bad faith (e.g. those who parry complaints about Saudi laws regarding women by resorting to “hey that’s the culture” arguments aren’t generally outraged by those laws to begin with).

    In Doniger’s case, the point is even more clear-cut: because she isn’t criticizing a belief system, she is analyzing it (presumably she has some empathy for the subject, given that she has spent years studying it, but obviously her books aren’t advocacy pieces of the sort in my examples above; you refer to her “judging” Hinduism, but where’s the evidence that she is condemning in the way you seem to suggest? One might oneself believe that references to sexuality, etc. are per se pejorative, but that speaks to one’s own views, and says nothing at all about whether Doniger or any other academic so believes. Certainly I do not: I’ve always found accounts of the eroticism of Shiva and Parvati deeply engaging — sure, “erotic terms could be metaphors for spiritual or mystical experiences”, but the question why x as opposed to y metaphor? Surely the intensity, the ecstacy, and the communion of the sexual act illustrates, like no other metaphor could, spiritual/mystical experiences? Stated differently, in mythology/art/literature, sex CAN be “about” a lot “more” than sex, but it is surely never about “less” than sex. And of course my point applies not just to Hinduism, but to the vast quantities of Sufi poetry that orthodox Muslims try their best to airbrush awa). Thus, extending your point to this sort of situation would mean that not only could one not criticize unless one were “within the frame”, but one couldn’t even study, write, think about something unless one were “within the frame.” Such an approach would lead to the death of scholarship, which would be replaced by more or less reverential recyclings of orthodox positions and received wisdom that we are all already familiar with.

  9. The problem with the most of Western Perspective is that they cant differentiate between the concept of religion and the culture of ideological spiritualism .
    Religion is a fixed set of belief and rules like Islam and Christianity .
    however there is no fixed set of rules (in So Called Hinduism). if I eat Beef or do intercaste marriage I will still be what I am , our philosophy may call this material world as illusion and yet it produces a masterpiece to relish this illusion ( Kamasutra) and thats why there has been so much reform in Indian Thought Process . So i don’t understand how Judging Hinduism with a perspective of Abrahamic religious frame will not be called as biased .

    But I would love to read the perspective however cliche and stale it is .

    1. I am glad you are willing to read the perspective. Do share your thoughts here, after you do. cheers.

  10. Still Offtopic:

    No, Kaplan’s article in the Atlantic was awful. He’s trying to upgrade himself into an expert on the “Greater Middle East” , which he call the region from Istanbul to Rangoon. His first South Asia article was an op-ed in the NYT, which started with:

    No longer will we view South Asia as a region distinct from the Middle East. Now there is only one long continuum stretching from the Mediterranean to the jungles of Burma, with every crisis from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the west to the Hindu-Muslim dispute in the east interlocked with the one next door.

    Yet this elongated Greater Near East does not signify something new but something old.

    My comment at the time: Probably the stupidest op-ed published in the NYTimes since … the last time Kaplan had an op-ed in the Times

    Also, Kaplan has now called Indo-Islamic architecture “Indo-Saracenic” twice, once in the NYT and once in the Atlantic. I suppose there is no money for fact-checkers any more. The Atlantic article even linked the term to the wikipedia article (which correctly has links to the Gateway of India, not the Taj Mahal).

  11. Dear Sepoy

    Let me Quote few non Hindutva Elements

    Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University has claimed that Wendy Doniger’s of Vedic Sanskrit is severely flawed. When Witzel was publicly challenged to prove this claim, he published examples of Doniger’s mistranslations and termed her translation as “UNRELIABLE and idiosyncratic”.[8][9][10] Nicholas Kazanas, a European Indologist, also criticized Doniger’s works and wrote that Doniger seems to be obsessed with only one meaning, the most sexual imaginable.[11] In the Journal of Indo-European Studies, Kazanas wrote, “[Doniger] seems to see only one function … of fertility and sexuality, copulation, defloration, castration and the like: even bhakti ‘devotion’ is described in stark erotic terms including incest and homosexuality (1980:87-99:125-129). Surely, erotic terms could be metaphors for spiritual or mystical experiences as is evidenced in so much literature?”.[11]

  12. Re: “A BBC article wrote about Wendy Doniger as, “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.””

    The above doesn’t sound like a BBC quote at all. BTW, I have read Siva: The Erotic Ascetic, and it is a very good book, an engaging, empathetic and imaginative study that certainly furthered my understanding of Shiva and Shaivite worship.

  13. A BBC article wrote about Wendy Doniger as, “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.”[1][2][3]
    Wendy Doniger has been criticized by Hindus and scholars from academia including Michael Witzel, Nicholas Kazanas, Antonio De Nicolas, Krishnan Ramaswamy, S.N. Balagangadhara for her negative portrayals of Hinduism[4][5]; in particular, her article on Hinduism for Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopaedia was so criticised. Subsequently, Microsoft removed Doniger’s article and replaced it with an article by Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University.[6] A Washington Post article [7] covering the controversy quoted a former Microsoft engineer (Sankrant Sanu), a persistent critic (Rajiv Malhotra), and various academics, including Doniger.
    Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University has claimed that Wendy Doniger’s of Vedic Sanskrit is severely flawed. When Witzel was publicly challenged to prove this claim, he published examples of Doniger’s mistranslations and termed her translation as “UNRELIABLE and idiosyncratic”.[8][9][10] Nicholas Kazanas, a European Indologist, also criticized Doniger’s works and wrote that Doniger seems to be obsessed with only one meaning, the most sexual imaginable.[11] In the Journal of Indo-European Studies, Kazanas wrote, “[Doniger] seems to see only one function … of fertility and sexuality, copulation, defloration, castration and the like: even bhakti ‘devotion’ is described in stark erotic terms including incest and homosexuality (1980:87-99:125-129). Surely, erotic terms could be metaphors for spiritual or mystical experiences as is evidenced in so much literature?”.[11]
    The visibility of Doniger’s scholarship led to some protests; in one incident, an egg was thrown and struck a wall behind her during a November 2003 University of London lecture.[12]

    1. I am uncertain of the point in quoting the wikipedia, unless to highlight the terrible sentence constructions and dubious linkages (that BBC ‘article’ is a Russell Peters radio interview set-up. sheesh). Wendy Doniger and her scholarship have been controversial by Hindutva elements, in the US, as I noted in my brief post.

  14. Re: “… doesn’t she know how Draupadi is regarded in upper caste circles even today…”

    You have a point, but consider: Draupadi is understood today as she is in a world where “womanhood” is defined in Sita-esque terms. It doesn’t really address the question of what the sign called Draupadi would mean in a world where womanhood was defined in her terms…

  15. Hmmm, if that is where she got the dog-Dalit metaphor from then I think she is heavily misreading it. There are in any cases more direct attacks on the issue of caste in the Puranas.

    And Draupadi form the basis of ideal Indian womanhood instead of Sita, ROTFLMAO, what is she on! This would never happen; doesn’t she know how Draupadi is regarded in upper caste circles even today! This is the danger of too much reliance on textual readings without an understanding of how beliefs are actually understood in practise by their adherents!

    Some of the themes wrt to the Mahabharata anyway have been covered very well in Irawati Karve’s classic “Yugantar: End of an Epoch”.

  16. Looks like you have as many unread books as I have unseen DVDs :D

    Sheldon Pollock is a Professor of Sansrit; he is famous for a 1993 article on the Ramayana and its role in the political imagination which re-wroks understandings of the Ramayana as a sort of reaction to Muslim incursions into India

    http://www.citeulike.org/user/soumitri_varadarajan/article/106652

    I am not sure I buy the arguement but it is a well written and thoughtful one.

    Paula Richman has an excellent edited volume of essays on the Ramayana as well.

  17. Thanks for the recommendations, I will check them out (Dalmia’s book is also, unread, on my shelf; was not familiar with Pollock’s work at all).

  18. I have the Rajagopal book but hadn’t gotten around to reading it (did you mean “Politics After Television”?).

    Yup,! That was the book, I mangled the title :) I also recommend Purniam Mankekar’s “Screening Gender” which can be read as a companion. An excellent anaylsis of Draupadi’s disrobing there as depicted in the Mahabharata televised epic. It also covers the “Tamas” series and a lot of other serials from the 90s from a feminist viewpoint.

    On Ilaiah, I had heard he was serving as some kind of adviser to Mayawati some years ago; is this true?

    He might have done some years ago but I doubt it. The BSP is not a party that cares much for intellectuals or uses them; it is much more attracted to movers, shakers and fixers. Its excessive concentration of obtaining pure political power and the base it has amongst the lower bureacracy and public sector has meant that it tends to alienate real critical Dalit intellectuals, some of whom are now starting to speak out against some of its policies. Under Mayawati it has absorbed some negative casteist attitudes, so relies very much on ‘influential’ leaders or fixers who can forge such alliances; even bankrupt sycophants like Prasad are forever waiting for a call from Lucknow that will never come. There are also tensions between the Chamars and other Dalits over the division of power within the party but this is a separate issue.

    Conrad: those books that you mention might be more persuasive as works of history, but I do not think they attempt to engage with Hinduism as (a) belief system(s) (i.e., as opposed to analyzing the historical meaning/significance, etc. of the belief system), which is where Doniger’s work (at least based on the other books I have read) is very useful.

    Perhaps, I see your point but I would say that Thapar’s work on issues like historical memory regarding Somnatha and the literary traditions of the ‘many Ramayananas’ and other interpretations of the tale told from Buddhist and Jaina texts is very important and sympathetically done imo.

    Two books which you might like are Vasudha Dalmia’s work on “Nationalising Hindu traditions” which looks at the playwright Bharatchendu Harsichandra but actually covers an immense deal of ground on interpetations of Hinduism similar to what Doniger does but better related to current developments imo and Sheldon Pollock’s edited volumes on the Ramayana, which while controversial is well worth a look for the depth of detail and engagement contained there.

  19. Conrad: those books that you mention might be more persuasive as works of history, but I do not think they attempt to engage with Hinduism as (a) belief system(s) (i.e., as opposed to analyzing the historical meaning/significance, etc. of the belief system), which is where Doniger’s work (at least based on the other books I have read) is very useful.

  20. Yeah, Hiltebeitel’s book on the many Mahabharatas/Draupadi is indeed super; I have the Rajagopal book but hadn’t gotten around to reading it (did you mean “Politics After Television”?).

    On Ilaiah, I had heard he was serving as some kind of adviser to Mayawati some years ago; is this true?

  21. True but I think there are more persuasive attempts like Thapar’s works, DD Kosambi, DN Jha on beef-eating and Alf Hilbeitel’s brilliant work on oral Dalit epics of Draupadi. I even think Arvind Rajgopal’s work on Politics and Television does a brilliant job in looking at the televised religious epics and how it ties in with Hindu nationalism, questions of nuclear security and social change.

    Ilaiah is brilliant in that book, particularly his analysis of how language can be “productionist” for the lower castes and more abstract for the upper castes. I think it is an essential read, far superior to VT Rajshekar’s ramblings imo and of course better than that wannabe court sycophant Chandra Bhan Prasad. Teltumdbe is the only other writer who writes as powerfully about Dalit issues, though he is more academic and theoretical than Ilaiah.

    A small aside btw, Kancha maybe described as a Dalit activist but he actually comes from the OBC community, so is not strictly speaking a ‘Dalit’ in the narrow sense of the term.

    whether such an absolutist left is a strawman is a different question

    I think they might mean the middle-class leftist secularists who are militantly anti-religious. I have friends like these but they are a relatively small and not influential minority these days from what I can see.

  22. PS– in the case of both Sen’s book, and (from the excerpt above), Doniger’s book, it’s prety clear that the authors seek to critique “the right” while also arguing against an “absolutist left” that would simply give up on “the tradition” (whether such an absolutist left is a strawman is a different question)…

  23. I think the point is not so much that Doniger is positing this as an “essence” of Hinduism, but that she is trying to suggest the multiplicity of voices in the sources, and how they might be used to construct an alternative narrative that does not “read” as an “external” critique; Amartya Sen tries to do something similar in The Argumentative Indian, and it has of course been a common mode among Muslims/others seeking to defend the Quran against charges of misogyny and so on. In all such cases I don’t think anyone can reasonably deny that the “counter-examples” aren’t as numerous/pervasive, but given how they are swept under the rug, it’s great they are being highlighted…

    For a polemic against Hinduism as “irredeemable” from the Dalit activist perspective, Kancha Ilaiah’s “Why I Am Not a Hindu” is permanently useful; its vehemence, its anger, might not be to everyone’s taste, but given the number of copies it has sold, and the number of Indian languages it has been translated into, its significance cannot be denied.

  24. I like Wendy Doniger’s work a lot; but that is a somewhat idealised reading of Hinduism imo. The actual mainstream texts are rare in mentioning the epsiodes she cites and even the ones that do are few and not central to much doctrinal beleif. In the canonical texts such thoughts are largely absent.

    There is much that is brushed under the carpet as well; for example the story of Eklavya and Vali and the whole issue of the monkey-bear army in the Ramayana and the identity of the Rakshashas in that epic and the Mahabharata would be quite insulting to modern day adivasis whom they represent. There is no getting around this.

    There was a great anti-caste BSP speaker that I used to listen in Lakhimpur Kheri, who used to use the tale of Hanuman to illustrate to his mainly Dalit and Tharu audience prescisely how they shouldn’t follow the precepts laid down therein in their daily lives (ie always asking for more work, never seeking material reward, submissiveness to those of higher birth etc.).

    Interesting article though; the saffronists despise Doniger almost as much as Romila Thapar.

  25. Thanks for this — I have found other Doniger books that I have read very useful indeed, and this has all the trappings of a magnum opus. On the comments, man I used to get so worked up about that sort of thing that for some years now I’ve just stopped paying attention; the problem of support for fascist and neo-fascist politics is all too often compounded by an utter lack of awareness about how academic research is conducted/academic institutions, and by an inability to draw a distinction between critiquing someone’s position and ascribing bad faith/malevolence to them…

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