Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review, Part III

Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, has aroused fierce anger in a great many Hindus, most of whom appear not to have read it. On the other hand, it has also sold very well in India, despite an official ban based on claims of blasphemy - it can still be ordered from abroad or by Kindle. So what exactly are they so pissed off about? That's the question that started me reading the book and the asking of which seemingly cost me all my Hindu friends.

A part of the answer seems to be Doniger's feud with the so-called Hindu fundamentalists, including Hindutva and its political incarnations the BJP and the RSS. Broadly speaking, these groups are nationalistic or chauvinistic, espouse a fundamentalist view of Hinduism and are against Muslims, Christians, Jews and other non-native religions. Doniger has this quote from a leader of the RSS:

. The non-Hindu peoples in Hindustan . . . must not only give up their attitude of intolerance and ungratefulness towards this land . . . but must . . . stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation , claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment— not even citizen’s rights. 1 Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906-1973)

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 687). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

The great Indian patriot Gandhi, who had a much different attitude, was assassinated by an RSS adherent.

Doniger is actively hostile to the BJP and RSS, probably mostly because of their key roles in events like the following 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque, a Sixteenth Century architectural marvel:

... on December 6, 1992, as the police stood by and watched, leaders of the BJP whipped a crowd of two hundred thousand into a frenzy. Shouting, “Death to the Muslims!” the mob attacked Babur’s Mosque with sledgehammers. As the historian William Dalrymple put it, “One after another, as if they were symbols of India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy, and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.” 36 In the riots that followed, more than a thousand people lost their lives, and many more died in reactive riots that broke out elsewhere in India , first in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the mosque, then intermittently, and then very seriously again in 2002.

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 664). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Somewhat like American Christian fundamentalists, the BJP and its allies take a literal approach to the Hindu classics. In the case of the Babri Mosque, it became a target not just because it was Muslim, but because legend had it that it was the birthplace of Rama, the hero of one of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana, and an incarnation of the great god Vishnu. Part of the feud is about Doniger's interpretation of the Ramayana.

To say (as I do) that the Ramayana tells us a great deal about attitudes toward women and tribal peoples in the early centuries CE is a far cry from saying that someone named Rama actually lived in the city now known as Ayodhya and fought a battle on the island now known as Sri Lanka with a bunch of talking monkeys on his side and a ten-headed demon on the other or with a bunch of tribal peoples (represented as monkeys) on his side and a proto-Muslim monster on the other, as some contemporary Hindus have asserted. Rama left no archaeological or inscriptional record. There is no evidence that anyone named Rama did or did not live in Ayodhya; other places too claim him, in South India as well as North India, for the Ramayana was retold many times, in many different Indian languages, with significant variations. There is no second Troy here for a Schliemann to come along and discover. Or, rather, there is a second, and a third, and a nineteenth Troy for anyone to discover.

Placing the Ramayana in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors who lived at various times...

Doniger, Wendy (2009-02-24). The Hindus: An Alternative History (p. 662). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Of course these are but fragments of a larger dispute over who gets to analyze or comment on a religion or a culture. As a female, foreigner, and non-Hindu, Doniger is triply suspect. That she would have the temerity to argue that her pluralistic account of Hindu history is more valid than the fundamentalist's narrow, nationalistic (and she argues) bowdlerized and Britishified version is another outrage.

The BJP, by the way, is widely expected to be the big winner in the current round of Indian national elections.