Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review Part I

The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, was a complicated and somewhat difficult book for me, but I would like to begin by stating quite categorically that the claim that it is an an attempt to demean, discredit or otherwise disrespect Hinduism is false. That claim, made to me by some Hindus who admit that they haven't read the book, and some that I don't know who do claim to have read it is, in my opinion, quite absurd. When I have tried to find out what offended them, they have responded with circumlocutions, incomprehensible analogies, evasions, and finally, anger. Whatever it is, they either don't know or don't want to tell me.

Perhaps the closest thing to a bill of particulars that I have seen is this quote, via Arun, from emeritus Professor Madan Lal Goel:

Wendy Doniger’s 779-page tome titled, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) is a hurtful book, laced with personal editorials, folksy turn of the phrase and funky wordplays. She has a large repertoire of Hindu mythological stories, and often narrates the most damning story - Vedic, Puranic, folk, oral, vernacular - to demean, damage and disparage Hinduism. After building a caricature, she laments that fundamentalist Hindus (how many and how powerful are they?) are destroying the pluralistic, tolerant Hindu tradition. But, why save such a vile, violent religion, as painted by the eminent professor? There is a contradiction here.

This is such a misguided, even dishonest, analysis that I hardly know where to begin, but I won't quibble with his first sentence, though why he found it hurtful, I can hardly imagine. He claims that she "often narrates the most damning story to demean, damage and disparage Hinduism. Again, I have no clue as to why he finds her choices of stories "damning." On the contrary, I, like Doniger, felt that they illustrated the depth, subtlety and great artistry of authors dealing with the deepest problems of human existence. It is true that Doniger has some critical words for her bitterest foes, the so-called Hindu fundamentalists, Hindutva, and the RSS and BJP.

In the final two sentences of this paragraph he attacks a dragon that exists only in his own mind. The notion that Hinduism is painted as "vile and violent" by Doniger is false. She thinks, rather, that it is a noble and subtle religion of a people, that, like the rest of us, live in a world that is frequently violent and occasionally vile.

Goel doesn't elaborate on any of the accusations he makes in this first paragraph. Instead he devotes most of the rest of his critique to her discussion of interactions between India and various Muslim invaders. He is mainly upset that she doesn't say bad enough things about the Muslims, and has the temerity to point out that Muslim thought had some impact Hindu thought.

I started reading this book because I wondered why it was making so many Hindus so angry, but my thoughts on that will have to wait.