Book of

The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger

The Hindus is, as Wendy Doniger says, an “alternative” history — it’s not really a standalone history of Hindus and Hinduism, it’s intended to be a supplement — a second eye, as it were, to give perspective and depth to more conventional histories. It’s still what I call “a rollerskate tour” — thousands of years of history for a major chunk of the human race packed into 700 pages mean that a lot of things will go by in a blur of color.

The Hindu “canon” and conventional histories based on it make upper-caste males their focus; Doniger wants to read that canon against the grain, to talk about the lives and histories of women and lower- or no-caste men across the centuries. She’s looking for the subtext in religious and historical texts.

Looking for the subtext

If you think this sounds rather fannish, you’re right. And the reactions she’s gotten only re-inforce that feeling that religion is (just) another fandom:

Doniger writes about giving a lecture in London about the Ramayana and the interactions of characters therein. A Hindu member of the audience threw an egg at her (and missed). An internet post about the incident and the audience reaction said,

I was struck by the sexual thrust of her paper on one of our most sacred epics. Who lusted/laid whom, it was not only Ravan who desired Sita but her brother-in-law Lakshman also. Then many other pairings, some I had never heard of, from our other shastras were thrown in to weave a titillating sexual tapestry. What would these clever, “learned” western people be doing for a living if they did not have our shastras and traditions to nitpick and distort?[1]

Fans (especially but not only slashers) will recognize this rhetoric, all right: unheard-of pairings! You’re making it all about sex! Get a life!

What Doniger’s book shows is that the idea of “unheard-of pairings” and alternate versions is the antithesis of Hinduism as it has developed. Hinduism is the most multifaceted and intertextual of religions, with story against and inside story, opposites which may be violently opposed at one time but two facets of the same thing at a different time. Is there a man in the moon, or is it a rabbit? — both, either, and neither.

It’s common for historians to explore a particular period by focusing on an individual, showing how the changing times interact with a single person’s life. Doniger gives a similar structure to more than 3000 years of history by using three animals as her touchstone: horses, cows, and dogs. These animals carry great symbolic and mythical baggage in India, bearing about as much relationship to the actual creatures as LOLcats do to actual cats.

Following animals

I knew, of course, that the cow is a very important Hindu symbol: of patience, endurance, and nourishing love, and that the whole species tends to be thought of as feminine, full of the milk of more-than-human kindness.

Dogs, Doniger explains, are not just despised, they are often symbols of the Dalits and other Untouchable castes. Indeed, the feral dogs of India are known as pariah dogs — not “dogs who belong to pariahs”, but “dogs who are the same as pariahs”. I’ve heard it argued that the title “Slumdog Millionaire” is deeply insulting and offensive to urban Indians, but Doniger’s analysis suggests that it is actually a very accurate oxymoron: it’s not just the hero is called a “dog”, but by implication he’s the equivalent of an Untouchable who becomes a Millionaire.

Doniger’s discussion of horses in India was new to me. Horses are part of what puts the Indo- in Indo-European — the Indo-Europeans were horse people, and they brought horses and horse cults with them as they spread both east and west from their original homeland. In India, these Indo-European invaders are associated with the early, Vedic layer of Hindu religion, a cult of ritual and sacrifice of which the pinnacle was the horse sacrifice.

But horses do not do well in India — neither their feet nor their digestions are suited to a monsoon climate. So the horse is symbol of the ruler, stereotypically masculine, but it is also a foreigner, constantly imported — and the untamed mare is in the sea (like Poseidon’s horses, though Doniger doesn’t make the connection).

India: net exporter of religion

I understand how much it irritates Indians when orientalists swoon over “India, such a spiritual land”, but though Doniger explicitly eschews this approach, the actual historical evidence is that India has been a net exporter of spiritual ideas and “technology” for thousands of years. Even on a rollerskate tour such as this one, I can’t help noticing how Indian philosophy has grappled with issues the other great traditions[2] have mostly overlooked: the ethics of meat-eating and the problem of animal pain, for instance. The ethical treatment of animals *is* rightly part of ethics, but it wasn’t recognized as a major issue by the Abrahamic traditions[3] until comparatively recently, and I think contact with Buddhists and Hindus was a major factor here.

In her very brief (and poor) sections on the influence of Hinduism outside India, Doniger says that yoga has been “appropriated” by Westerners — but it looks to me more as though yoga has colonized other religions, spreading into other cultures while staying healthy in the land of its birth. Copying is not stealing, and Indian culture has developed physical religious disciplines — religious technology, as it were — to a higher degree than the other great traditions. That is, more people have worked and thought harder about the role of basic bodily training — breathing, for instance — in Hinduism and Buddhism than in other traditions. It seems to me that it makes just as much sense for religious technology to spread out from India as it does for scientific technology to spread out from Europe.

One thing I wondered about while reading this book, for instance, is the problem of “addiction”. Doniger discusses how various Hindu traditions deal with addictions as a category — addiction to drink, to sex, to food, to hunting, etc.. I think one of the most important aspects of current Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (which I suspect of being the actual default American religion in practice) is how much it overlaps with (is based on?) Twelve Steps programs for addiction. I don’t think Twelve Steps was directly influenced by Hinduism or Buddhism, but it came (in part) out of the New Thought movement of the early 20th century, which sought to blend “Eastern wisdom” into western culture.

Now, it’s true that when I say “Indian culture” I’m talking about Buddhism and Jainism, as well as Hinduism. One thing that confuses me in Doniger’s book is that she refers to Hinduism and Buddhism as developing more or less at the same time and in parallel. I had been under the impression that Hinduism was a “parent” religion to Buddhism and Jainism, as Judaism is to Christianity and Islam; Doniger seems to think of them as siblings. Do any of you know if this reflects the latest historical understanding? — just as current Biblical scholarship considers Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism as sibling religions, descendants of the same parent, Second Temple Judaism. If Hinduism and Buddhism (and Jainism?) are siblings, what is the parent religion? I’m confused.

Cultural appropriation and/or the common heritage

Back to cultural appropriation. This book is a good example of why I think the “cultural appropriation!” label should be used judiciously. If you go to the Amazon reader reviews for The Hindus, you’ll see that the reviews are all over the map. Many of the negative comments are IMHO coming from “Hindutvas” — Hindu nationalists or “fundamentalists”, which as Doniger points out is a recent construct given an artificial patina of age.

My observation is that, when a culture is large and powerful, accusations of “cultural appropriation” against outsiders are invariably used by particular groups of insiders to enforce their own hegemony inside their culture. It’s the people who *want* to be at the helm of their particular culture who don’t want outsiders borrowing, appropriating, copying, or polluting it. And just as they want to suppress outsiders’ ability to talk about their culture, they almost always want to suppress the voices of women *inside* their culture. Not surprisingly, Hindutvas loathe Doniger, an outsider who is trying to hear the voices of past Hindu women.

Hinduism is a huge, enduring, and staggeringly complex cultural edifice, one of the most significant in the history of the world. It is part of world heritage just as much as the Taj Mahal, just as much public domain as the works of Shakespeare. We all have the right to know the stories Hindus tell, and the right to re-tell those stories, to be fannish about them.

Hinduism, like all cultures, is a bricoleur, a rag-and-bones man, building new things out of the scraps of other things. … In the real of ideas as well as things, one religion would take up a word or image from another religion as a kind of objet trouve. There are no copyrights there; all is in the public domain. This is not the hodgepodge that the Hindus[4] and the early Orientalists regarded as dirt, matter out of place, evidence of an inferior status but, rather, the interaction of various different strains that is an inevitable factor in all cultures and traditions, and a Good Thing.[5]


One of the ways Hinduism has a rich, fannish angle on religion is the concept of bhakti. Bhakti is the love of God — or a god, or a goddess — but there’s room within the Hindu tradition for more than one kind of bhakti, and one kind of love. In particular, there’s dvesha-bhakti, usually translated as “hate-love” but which slashers will find familiar as Enemy!slash or Rival!Slash:

[In the Ramayana, the ogre] Maricha confesses … that after an earlier encounter with Rama, he began to practice yoga and meditation and now is so filled with terror [or should we say passion?] that he sees him everywhere he looks: “This whole wilderness have become nothing but Rama to me; I see him in my dreams, and think of him every time I hear a word that begins with an ‘R’.” This emotion is what … allows other demonic opponents of the gods (such as Kamsa, the enemy of Krishna) to go straight to heaven when the god in question kills the demon.[6]

(Lex Luthor and Alex Krycek take note.) I knew that Hinduism, as a polytheism, has more room for emotional diversity than do the bare bones of the Abrahamic religions (they have developed a rich undergrowth of saints’ lives to IMHO serve the same purpose). But I hadn’t realized that this emotional diversity extended to Enemy!slash with the gods — the recognition that passionate hatred is still passion, and can be another Way of worship.

There is too much, I will sum up

More than a year ago I asked if anyone knew of “a good book about Hindu religion in history & society”. The Hindus isn’t quite it, but it may be half of it. Doniger assumes a lot of knowledge about the history of the subcontinent, enough to for her to be able to bounce from period to period pretty quickly. A more serious lack from my POV is that there isn’t enough on the caste system and how it worked in different periods and places — I can keep the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas (knights, basically), and the Dalits more or less straight, but the rest — the majority of the population — is a blur to me, which Doniger doesn’t stop to really explain.

The other major religious issue she doesn’t give a sense of is how the major sects of Shaivism (worship of Shiva) and Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu) differ and interact. Do they overlap historically? geographically? in a given caste? in a given person? It’s all quite unclear to me, though they do not seem to differ the way Christian denominations or Muslim Sunnis/Shiites do.

I’d like to read a more conventional rollerskate tour of Hindu history now — Doniger suggests Gavin Flood’s “An Introduction to Hinduism” or John Keay’s “India: A History”. But then, I think I’ll come back to The Hindus, to once more get the view of this most ancient and complex civilization out of the other eye — to put my perspective into perspective, as it were.


[1] p.14-15

[2] In the world today, the Big Five of religious traditions are: Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. The other major traditions — major for influence if not for current numbers — IMHO are: Zoroastrianism, Greco-Roman religion, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism. I consider Mormonism to be as different from Christianity as Christianity is from Judaism, but LDS is such a newbie in the catalog of major religions that the split hasn’t become a whole new culture yet. It’s a different religion, but it’s not yet a *tradition*.

[3] Abrahamic = Judaism-Christianity-Islam.

[4] does she mean Hindutvas? I can’tell.

[5] p.101

[6] p.248-49

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