Wendy Doniger’s shaky Hinduism
Wendy Doniger said that she was ‘pleasantly surprised’ at the response to her book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. She wrote her books ‘primarily for an American audience’ and never thought that ‘Hindus would read it.’ She was shocked that some of them would read it so confrontationally, like Dinanath Batra did. Now her book On Hinduism is facing the wrath of Batra and many others who might not have cared to read it but are parroting what others who read it and are saying. The issue offers a new arsenal to the liberal secularists who find conspiracy of Narendra Modi, RSS, VHP and BJP - in this order - responsible for the opinions voiced against Wendy’s books. In the days of intense political debate, more so when the chatterati is bent on creating as many road blocks as possible to stop the Modi rath from entering New Delhi.
The point missed in such shrill campaign against Narendra Modi is that the political outfit led by the Gujarat chief minister does not sponsor the opponents to Doniger’s scholarship. Nor is he raising the thesis of her in any of his political speeches. But it is accepted by these critics that Modi represents anything that is non-liberal in Hinduism, hence his tacit approval is there in putting Doniger’s publishers on the defensive. This helps them in pointing out that Modi leads a force that would like to suppress any dissenting voice. Anybody whose views are not so coloured will find such arguments and conclusions as rather far-fetched. But blind followers of a faith, be it pro-Batra or anti-Modi, will never accept what is obvious. Caught in the process will be publishers of Wendy and the author herself – both will find many buyers and also readers of the books which otherwise would most likely adorn the bookracks in shops and homes.
The book now under attack, On Hinduism is more serious than the one that has been pulped – The Hindus: An Alternate History. Wendy wrote in the preface that she ‘designed a book (On Hinduism) specifically for an Indian audience.’ She also confided that without the constant nudging by Ravi Singh, the editor of her book now pulped, she would not have taken up writing on the Hindus again hurt as she was by the attacks on the Internet. It may be reasonable, therefore, to believe that careless texts in the earlier book, which many found offensive were carefully edited with facts and references. Despite that the book finds criticisms from its detractors. Even for me, a not-so-erudite columnist, the chronology of Hinduism given in the book goes against the commonly held and taught belief that Ramayana of Valmiki was a product of 200 BCE (before the common era, that is before Christ) while Mahabharata was one hundred year older, of 300 BCE. Perhaps the commonly held belief or the teaching of the omnibus history of India edited by the ‘Hindu’ historian Ramesh Chandra Mazumdar is erroneous.
Leaving aside the errors or disputes that one might have with Doniger one cannot wink at the fact that the author has explained in her own way the term ‘Hindu’. According to Doniger ‘all of us identify who we are in contrast with who we are not and the who we are not changes all the time.’ The debate over the author’s scholarship can be summed up in the concept of who we are not. The detractors feel offended since she portrayed Hindus as what they are not, the supporters feel the detractors are making us being painted as what we are not. It is difficult to reconcile these two views, neither through a newspaper article nor through shouting match in a televised debate. One sure way of silencing the debate could be forcing all to read word for word the 660-page long mammoth book. The prospect, rather discomforting, will silence many.
The point missed in all such heated arguments is that with time opinions change. Even for an individual a view held at the age of 20 will undergo many changes when the person reaches say 60. Naturally the perception of a character, held holy by some, might not be same by others. Take Bengal’s poet Madhusudan Dutta and his characterisation of Ravana and his son Indrajeet. Indrajeet or Meghnad died while fighting Rama, the incarnation of God. Madhusudan said that he hated Rama and his rabbles. One may tell this to a devotee of Rama in North India only at the prospect of physical violence. But can we call a Bengali, seeped in poet Madhusudan’s lyrical poem on Meghnad’s death, as a non-Hindu?
Or take the other example of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems on Duryodhana, the villain in Mahabharata, talking to his father the blind king Dhritarashtra. Can we fault the arguments of Duryodhana why his shenanigans were not immoral? If ‘greed is good’ so was Duryodhan’s steps against the Pandavas. One may disagree, a scholar in religious philosophy may take umbrage at the arguments, but can we wish it away?
The greatness of a Hindu is what Swami Vivekananda said, and Wendy reiterated, that ‘all religions are true, but that the religion of each person’s own time and place was the best expression of the truth of that person.’ Some may not like but Wendy is not off the mark when she says, ‘Vivekananda was the first in a long line of proselytising gurus who exported the ideals of reformed Hinduism to America and in turn brought back American ideas that became infused into Indian Vedanta.’ Unfortunately the truth of some persons cannot be the same for all. Hence we see the debate on Wendy’s book. But by forcing just one idea into all of us is like branding a Hindu as a monotheist. This has never been the theme in Hindu texts and practices. There exists simultaneously polytheism and a ‘broader belief in the ultimate oneness of the divine – not exactly monotheism but a unitary substratum supporting a vigorous polytheism.’
The author is a communication consultant