Passages From India

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 19, 2009


An Alternative History

By Wendy Doniger

Penguin Press. 779 pp. $35

Any of us might make the same mistake: I didn't really notice the subtitle of Wendy Doniger's massive study, "The Hindus." I knew that she was an eminent Sanskrit scholar at the University of Chicago, author of many books about cultural, religious and folkloric beliefs, and a translator of several Indian classics, including "The Rig Veda" and "The Kamasutra." Her annotations to the latter, that notorious manual of sexual practice, are, I can attest, as entertaining and informative as the book itself.

However, "The Hindus: An Alternative History" is probably too scholarly and specialized for readers looking simply for an introduction to Indian philosophy and religion. In its notes Doniger suggests that her book could be used for a 14-week course, and I suspect that it originated as a series of class lectures. She herself recommends some more conventional histories and guides, including Gavin Flood's "An Introduction to Hinduism," John Keay's "India: A History" and that old standby, A.L. Basham's survey "The Wonder That Was India." While Doniger does trace the evolution of Hinduism from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (2,500 B.C.) to the present, she deliberately emphasizes a small number of recurrent threads, in particular the ways that "women, lower classes and castes, and animals" have endured or surmounted their traditional status. Horses, for instance, are typically glamorous, cows sacred and dogs despised -- but not always.

Having been trained as a philologist, Doniger organizes her history around interpretations of the most revered classics of Sanskrit poetry and philosophy. She begins with the Rig Veda, a collection of hymns to the Zeus-like Indra and other ancient gods. This is a work so sacred that manuscripts display no textual differences: To alter a word was unthinkable. She also examines women, castes and animals in the Upanishads -- essentially, meditations on the meaning of the Vedic rituals and myths -- and the 2,000-year-old Indian epics "The Ramayana" and "The Mahabharata."

Consider, for instance, the portrait of Sita in "The Ramayana." In this long poem, the beautiful Sita is kidnapped by an ogre but eventually rescued by her husband, Rama. Unfortunately, after the initial happiness of their reunion, Rama starts to wonder about his wife's chastity during her long imprisonment. Would she not have succumbed or been forced to submit to the lecherous ogre's embrace? Although Sita proves and proves again her innocence, Doniger underscores the crassness of Rama's jealous-husband behavior but also notes certain textual hints that Sita is more sexual than she appears and that her feelings for Rama's brother Lakshmana might well be more than familial. As Sita is the classic model of Indian womanhood, such sacrilegious speculation once led to Doniger being egged at a London lecture.

"The Mahabharata" is an immensely long poem -- seven times the combined length of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" -- that relates the history of the five Pandava brothers (who are all married to the same woman, Draupadi -- Doniger expresses regret that she, rather than Sita, didn't provide the template for Indian womanhood). The Pandavas eventually go to war against their cousins, the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra, and the poem climaxes in a great battle. But just before the two armies clash, the formidable warrior Arjuna suddenly recoils from the coming slaughter, overwhelmed by horror and sorrow. In a still moment outside of time, he begins to discuss the meaning of life with his charioteer, the god Krishna in human form. This section of the epic is often read separately, being one of the supreme masterpieces of spiritual literature: the "Bhagavad-Gita," or "Song of the Blessed One." In the end, Krishna persuades Arjuna to let go of personal desire, unite his will to that of God and perform his sacred duty (dharma) in a spirit of acceptance and detachment, without thought of either success or failure.

Doniger also tells another story from "The Mahabharata," one in which the five Pandavas are all trying to reach heaven and each drops away, until only Yudhishthira continues on the straight and narrow path, alone except for a stray dog that follows him. At the story's climax, Indra appears to this most virtuous Indian brother and, praising him, requests that he step into his celestial chariot and be transported to heaven -- just as soon as he gets rid of that mangy dog. In the words of the old Christian hymn, "once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide," and Yudhishthira refuses to abandon this animal who has been so loyal to him. At which point the dog reveals himself to be Dharma, the god of right behavior: "Great king . . . Because you turned down the celestial chariot, by insisting, 'This dog is devoted to me,' there is no one your equal in heaven." Since dogs were traditionally unclean, Doniger notes of this story that "it is as if the god of the Hebrew Bible had become incarnate in a pig." This is characteristic of her cheeky tone, given to jokes and wordplay: According to Doniger, when Sita glimpses a golden deer encrusted with jewels, she is "delighted to find that Tiffany's has a branch in the forest." Such humor -- sometimes charming, as here -- reflects that strange desire of modern academics to be viewed not only as learned but also as hip and funky.

While deconstructing her various Indian texts, Doniger duly explores such concepts as karma ("action, or the fruits of action"); ahimsa (nonviolence); bhakti ("passionate devotion to a god"); samsara (the circle of transmigration of souls); and the caste system, consisting of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (servants), as well as that fifth class, the Dalits, or so-called Untouchables. Just learning Sanskrit words like moksha (release) is an education in itself.

Doniger's last chapters are the most historical and by far the easiest. She traces the impact of the British on Indian culture and writes movingly about Kipling's "Kim," that great-hearted novel packed with colonialist attitudes yet full of the utmost sympathy and love for India and its people. She discusses Orientalism, Gandhi, right-wing Indian political groups and Bollywood, before finishing her story by touching on the reception and distortion -- Tantric sex! -- of Hindu culture in the West.

Wendy Doniger's erudite "alternative history" shouldn't be anyone's introduction to Hinduism. But once you've learned the basics about this most spiritual of cultures, don't miss this equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher.

Michael Dirda -- appears each Thursday in Style. Visit his online book discussion at

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