Wendy Doniger denigrates Hindus once again


Arindam Bandyopadhyay.


The latest book of Wendy Doniger, the portrayed western expert of Hinduism, lecturer and author of many books and articles, and a leader with many followers including a stream of PhDs,  The Hindus – An Alternative History, (THAAH) has been on the news in recent times, earning praise and condemnation, alike from relevant circles. However a lot of Hindus, of whom, she intended to narrate an alternative history, are not quite impressed by her efforts. Many believe that the book is a false representation of Hindus and would perpetuate the demeaning representation of Hinduism that prevails in western beliefs and literature. Some have already expressed their resent in various forms including letters, articles and even protest marches.

The book which was considered by New York Times for the National Book Critics Award in the nonfictional category, thankfully, failed to make it.

Wendy Doniger’s homepage at the University of Chicago Divinity School website clearly states that, “Wendy Doniger’s research and teaching interests revolve around two basic areas, Hinduism and mythology. Her courses in mythology address themes in cross-cultural expanses, such as death, dreams, evil, horses, sex, and women; her courses in Hinduism cover a broad spectrum that, in addition to mythology, considers literature, law, gender, and psychology”.

Her Oxford dissertation was “The Origins of Heresy in Hindu Mythology.”

Some of her other works includes, Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva; The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology; Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts and Tales of Sex and Violence: Folklore, Sacrifice, and Danger in the Jaiminiya Brahmana.

The titles of her books confirm that she likes to play with Hindu sentiments with a sort of perverted, demeaning, sexual titillation.

She claims she loves Hinduism but she is not a practicing Hindu. It is quite obvious that there is a particular aspect of Hinduism that she is more interested to explore and has spent her whole career building on it.

The aspects of Vedic knowledge and wisdom, spirituality and philosophy; cosmology and astronomy; contributions to science, medicine and mathematics; literature, music and arts does not find much place in her depiction of Hinduism, unlike other scholars who had better understood and acknowledged India and Hinduism. For example, William James (1842-1910), American psychologist and philosopher, had commented, “From the Vedas we learn a practical art of surgery, medicine, music, house building under which mechanized art is included. They are encyclopedia of every aspect of life, culture, religion, science, ethics, law, cosmology and meteorology.”

According to Wendy Doniger however, “Intoxication, though not addiction, is a central theme of the Veda, since the sacrificial offering of the hallucinogenic juice of the soma plant was an element of several important Vedic rituals.” (THAAH, Chapter 5, P 122, line 1)

The statement as well as its reasoning is amusing but not when one feels that this is what a so-called authority has to say about the Vedas. It seems nothing but a deliberate malicious statement. It is distasteful and disgusting to even attempt to counter such an argument. 

It is true that the understanding of Hindu scriptures depends on one’s level of understanding. A skeptic’s interpretation is not expected to be the same as that of a faithful one. A common man’s understanding would be quite different from that of the revelation of an enlightened yogi.

In Chapter 1 of her book, Doniger wrote quite at length to answer her own question as to who is a Hindu. It is worth remembering that the French philosopher and writer, Alain Danielou (1907-1994) had once said, “I believe any sensible man is unknowingly a Hindu…”

One can argue that, “He, who believes he is a Hindu, is a Hindu”. Unlike other major religions of the world, Hinduism is spontaneous – no compulsion, no allurement, no proselytizing, no soul harvesting. Hindus accept and embrace different paths that lead to dharma, truth and righteousness. There is no dogmatic book or prophet; there is no collective council of religious leaders trying to separate convenient distillate of truth from uncomfortable mixtures of facts, deceptions and arguments. The followers of Hinduism, one of the most ancient religions of the world, do not protest with mass violence or do not issue fatwas. They have no problems in tolerating other religions but expect reciprocal respect for their own.

There are many histories of Hindus that have been written and many translations of scriptural texts that have been made. Scholars have made various interpretations of these original and translated versions to further elaborate their ideas.

Unfortunately, topics of Hindu’s and Indian history that had preoccupied most of such scholars were the desire to minimize the glory and worldwide significance of Indian civilization, the perceived conquest of India by the so called Aryans and other variations of the Aryan invasion theories, polytheism, idol worshipping, brahmanical tyranny and casteism, sati and women oppression and of course eroticism including Kama Sutra, Shiva Lingam and the naked demonic goddess, Kali, to name a few.

Wendy Doniger does not deviate much from this common theme but tries to make it appear more scholarly with her ‘academic’ touch. Her interpretation and representations of Hinduism, based on speculations and research of questionable websites and equally dubious books, written often by debatable personalities, some of them being her own students, is skewed and far away from what true Hinduism, as perceived by other eminent scholars and intellectuals, Hindu or non-Hindu, is.

A century ago, Louis Francois Jacolliot (1837-1890), French diplomat & author, had said, “India of the Vedas entertained a respect for women amounting to worship; a fact which we seem little to suspect in Europe when we accuse the extreme East of having denied the dignity of woman, and of having only made her an instrument of pleasure and of passive obedience…  What! Here is a civilization, which you cannot deny to be older than your own, which places the woman on a level with the man and gives her an equal place in the family and in society.”

Doniger, of course, does not agree with that.

In the preface of her book, THAAH, (page 1), she introduces, “It tells 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 genders (women). Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition – women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables) – did actually contribute to Hinduism.”

This narration says it all.

She straightaway starts with caste, fancifully divides Hindus into conventional and alternative, paints the ‘High caste Hindu males’ as conventional (villains?), lumps everybody else as alternative, including other religions too and in the process equates animals with women, claims they were silenced and not allowed to contribute but then refutes her own claim by projecting her agenda to show us how they did contribute.

One would like to ask her whether the contribution of the alternative group is in her imagination alone. For if there is a true contribution then the very basis for her imaginary division into conventional and alternative people falls apart.

True, she is absolutely entitled to make her choice but what she forgets is that, as a non-Hindu, she is dissecting the faiths and believes of the followers of the world’s third largest religious group of over 900 million people, belonging to one of the ancient religion that has been around for 10000 years.

She first describes most stories as mythological but then tries to look at their aberrations and presents and interprets them as truth, an effort that is contradictory by itself. Then she interweaves them into history, society and religiosity of Hindus with clear intent of denigration.

Like most of her predecessors, a large part of the book deals with eroticism and sexuality as well as character assassination of important figures in Hindu scriptures and history. Sex is not a taboo in Hindu literature. But even when a ‘scholarly mind’ tries to use sex and the limited tool of Freudian psychoanalysis, (itself a controversial theory with many opponents) as the main means of interpreting life, including spirituality of the whole human race, across ages and cultures, it is not surprising that it will incur mistakes and misrepresentations.

It is difficult for a believer in Hinduism to keep on reading the book without feeling repulsed on every page. One can possibly go on and on to enlist its numerous misrepresentations, its deviations from the truth, its biased presentation and its sensationalized story-telling but it becomes a futile exercise.

Besides, even a cursory reading reveals casual and factual mistakes mentioned in the book, such as,

a)    Chapter 16, page 456, Line 10 mentions Mt. Abu in Gujarat when actually it is in Rajasthan.

b)    The elixir of immortality from churning the ocean of milk, as mentioned in chapter 17, Page 470, Line 23, was not Soma, but Amrit

Coming from a perceived authority, it is not only disturbing but it raises serious questions of the motive of such ‘scholarly’ writings.

Wendy Doniger claims her training is not as a historian (THAAH, Chapter 1, P 3, line 20) but she writes an ‘alternative’ history. Neither is she an archeologist but she does dig into the Hindu history, culture and religion to explore filth.

 One can only request her to leave the Hindus alone.  Hindus are happy with their traditional view; they do not want to appreciate such biased alternative history and explanations.  She should feel fortunate that she got away with such cheap and derogatory remarks about a religion followed by over billion people and did not feel the wrath that the Danish Cartoonist or Salman Rushdie are facing today.

Also read

Hinduism and Zionism


India and Israel: Diverse in a homogeneous world

May. 18, 2009
Seth j. Frantzman

In a recent book entitled The Hindus: Alternative History, Wendy Doniger claims that Hinduism was invented by the British. Doniger is a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago. She argues that Hinduism’s unity and its holy Vedas are primarily a myth created by Protestants who sought a “unified Hinduism.”

She further argues that upper-caste Brahmins and other elites in India collaborated with the British and invented a “British-Brahmin version of Hinduism – one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.” These “bad Hindus” are accused of having an inferiority complex. She claims that the Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) of today thus uses a fake Hinduism for its own historiography and that she seeks to tell an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they [the nationalists] tell.”

When it comes to classic Hindu texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, she condemns them for their violence. The Mughal Muslim emperors who colonized India for Islam for 300 years were, according to a reviewer, “motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism” when they destroyed thousands of Hindu temples and sold hundreds of thousands of Hindus into slavery.

According to Pankaj Mishra, an author who has praised the book, Doniger should be admired for striding “intrepidly into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-Arab relations.” Mishra calls Hindu nationalists the “Indian heirs to British imperialists who invented ‘Hinduism'” and accuses them of wanting to create a “culturally-homogenous and militant nation-state.”

Reading this virulent condemnation of Hinduism and Hindu nationalism, one is reminded of European-Jewish intellectual Tony Judt’s condemnation of Israel: “The very idea of a Jewish state [is] rooted in another time and place… in a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry… [it is] dysfunctional… an anachronism.” Doniger’s claim that Hinduism was invented in the 19th century bares a striking resemblance to Tel Aviv University Prof. Shlomo Sand’s claim in his book When and How the Jewish People Was Invented (2008) that Jews are not a “nation-race” but rather a colorful amalgam of converts.

ALMOST EVERY BOOK on modern India is full of condemnations for Hindu nationalism, which is seen as the antithesis of Gandhi’s “good” pacifism. Professors in the West are full of attempts to rewrite Hindu claims that their temples were destroyed by the Muslims and either declare there were no Hindu temples or excuse the mass destruction of them and the building of mosques atop them. Excusing the imposition of slavery on Hindus by Islamic invaders who arrived in large numbers in the 11th century under Mahmoud of Ghazna is a little harder, but even it is excused.

Hindu nationalism, like Zionism, is condemned for having a “nationalist archeology.” Critiquing Israeli archeology Nachman Ben-Yehuda has described the myth of Masada and Nadia Abu el-Haj has written on “reflections on archeology and Israeli settler-nationhood.” Ramachandra Guha in his India After Gandhi writes that the Hindu temple at Ayodha that was destroyed in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Babur to build the Babri Mosque was merely the site of “Hindu sentiment and myth” and not the historical birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

There is a connection between the contempt for Hindu nationalism and the disdain for Zionism that exists in many circles. They are widely condemned for similar things. Both are accused of inventing a history for their people and religion. Both are accused of inventing and perverting archeology. Both are accused of being anachronisms in a world that is supposedly multicultural. Both are seen as militant and anti-Muslim.

But there is another connection that is often overlooked. Both were unlikely victims of Gandhi’s sometimes misplaced pacifism. Gandhi condemned not only Zionism but also encouraged the Jews of Europe to voluntarily submit to Nazism and throw “themselves into the sea from cliffs” to please Hitler. Gandhi, a Hindu, penned an introduction to the Koran, a book that is deeply prejudiced against pagan Hinduism, and during the partition of India he excused the ethnic cleansing of Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan, while encouraging India to protect her Muslim minority.

WHAT TRULY unites Zionism and Hindu nationalism, however, is the fact that both represent the aspirations of unique peoples and states. There is only one Hindu state and one Jewish state. Both are accused of daring to declare themselves Jewish and Hindu and thus seek “homogeneity.” This accusation is made in a world with some 48 countries with a Muslim majority and 169 Christian majority countries. India and Israel, far from being homogeneous anachronisms are tiny drops of diversity in a world that is increasingly homogeneous.

Hindu nationalism is not a result of a British imperialism anymore than Zionism is; both grew out of a long suppressed and colonized peoples’ dreams for their own country free from foreign rule. Those who want to expose themselves to Hindu nationalism and its true underpinnings should pick up Lal K. Advani’s My Country My Life. Absent of that, people should at least give Hinduism, like Judaism, the benefit of the doubt. They are based on real religions and real texts, not myths conjured up in the 19th century.

The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog. sfrantzman@hotmail.com