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Hinduism,and Some Limericks Too

The sum of a life’s work in a refreshingly creative idiom

Written by Tanika Sarkar |
August 10, 2013 5:48:51 am

Book: On Hinduism

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Aleph

Price: Rs 995

Pages: 660

This monumental monograph is much more than a skilful summation of Wendy Doniger’s complex understanding of Hinduism. It is also an extended reflection on her relationship with her field of scholarship,where she is a towering presence. It is a comment,too,on Hinduism studies at a critical political juncture.

The book ends with several fascinating postscripts. Doniger presents an imagined critical review of her present work by an earlier self,charting shifts and breaks in her own methods. Her intellectual autobiography aligns with developments in religious studies in US academies. Now,scholars of Hinduism can expect attacks from Hindutva votaries. (Doniger herself has faced public assaults and,recently,A.K. Ramanujan’s essays were removed from the Delhi University history syllabus.) Several limericks on Hindus,some outrageously funny,offer comic relief. I do not know of another work where a scholar weaves together autobiography,creative writing,political analysis and a mature recapitulation or reformulation of her life’s work.

This massive tome is outstandingly readable,written in a crisp and elegant manner pleasantly spiced with humour and a stimulating idiosyncracy. Its intriguing structure occasionally leaves the reader baffled,which,no doubt,reflects authorial intention. In her introduction,Doniger explains what the book is and what it is not,and how it differs from the rest of her work,which provided its building blocks. Instead of a chronological account of the development of an unwieldy object loosely called Hinduism — which would have imposed an unwarranted fixity on it — she focuses on unfamiliar and unexpected broad themes like ‘On Being Hindu’,‘Gods,Humans and Anti Gods’,‘Women and Other Genders’,‘Kama and Other Seductions’,‘Horses and Other Animals’,‘Illusion and Reality in the Hindu Epics’ and ‘On Not Being Hindu’. Doniger’s approach identifies motifs

and tendencies — intellectual,philosophical,imaginative,social and erotic — which rarely strike us when we discuss Hinduism and Hindus.

A very different Hinduism then emerges,one that is nonetheless strongly anchored in texts,myths,ritual practices and performances. For instance,the discussion of animal-human relationships in mythology lends itself to multiple analytical frames,especially psychoanalytical ones of displacement and substitution for unruly desires. Wonder why this has never been the focus of scholarly analysis.

But sometimes,the unconventional merely surprises. For instance,the history of the import of horses into India is interesting but its relevance remains elusive. The section on multiple genders and gender changes in myths and epics is important,interesting and largely new but somewhat shapeless. In contrast,the part on sacrifices is focused and tightly knit. While her evocation of dreams,ambivalent gender,death and eroticism add much that is new and rich,one wonders why caste,a central and unique Hindu institution,does not merit a substantive study in its own right. Many of Doniger’s themes could have cohered quite marvellously around caste.

One is left with an indistinct understanding of what Doniger sees as the boundaries between Hinduism,Buddhism and Jainism,though she does write on the very negative terms with which the Buddha was granted entry into the scheme of Vishnu’s reincarnations. This militates against the complacent Hindu self-image of infinite tolerance and accommodation. Regulatory legal texts and political and social practices are not discussed,apart from Manu’s laws for gender management,to which the sections on ambivalent and transgressive gender myths offer a counterpoint. But one would have liked an elaboration of gender norms — including those for men of different castes — from other sources,especially from the later regional law schools. The section on the Kamasutra does indicate the many skills and occupations of urbane,urbanite lovers but that seems to be that. No doubt,Doniger chose to write about unconventional themes rather than provide a

comprehensive account of Hindu beliefs and practices,an unworkable project. But several things which would have enriched precisely what she chooses to write about are missing.

Themes are subdivided into chapters which are suggestive rather than substantive. They do not attempt a history of the theme or trace its presence across texts and ritual. Rather,they recall a mythical episode or a cluster of tales to stimulate rethinking and reconceptualising of Hindu forms and practices. As for sources,while the Vedas and the epics are cited carefully,other extracts lack exact provenance.

The book refuses to get embroiled with the question of origins which,for too long,has meant authenticity to Indologists. Doniger sees the amorphous formation of Hinduism as a long and complex history,fluid,shifting,pluralised,self-contradictory,paradoxical and perpetually open-ended. She does not divide this history into an authentic core contaminated and distorted by foreign influences and elements. Such interaction is normal in the growth of a living religion; each moment has its own authenticity. British or postcolonial times,therefore,are not seen as eras of self-forgetting when Hinduism absorbed alien matter. She criticises much that eventuated from Western influences: misreadings of texts and practices and the fear of ambivalence and eroticism,in particular. But her approach to pre-colonial times is equally critical. While discussing the Manusmriti she asserts,memorably,that the “woman is a sexual crime always about to happen.” There is neither a myth of a pristine Hinduism nor a teleological interpretation that suggests a special fate. But there is always a festive appreciation of the many cultures of Hinduism,blending incisive criticism with delighted enjoyment.

At the same time,Doniger often suggests the fragility of what presents itself as eternal or traditional: yogic postures,for instance,emerged as an organised system only in the 19th and 20th centuries,largely out of Western misunderstandings. No doubt the suggestion will cost her the hostility of influential lobbies.

Finally,the book is a treasury of tales,mostly unfamiliar to the lay reader,startling,arresting and marvellously told. Recovering the strange and the shocking,along with the philosophical and the creative — rape,fraud and incest by gods,for instance — she provocatively reminds us that a vast and complex faith can never be reduced to moral lessons or comforting feel-good stories. As always,Doniger offers herself to savage denunciations and attacks from self-proclaimed guardians of the faith who have an infinite capacity for the famous “Hindu hurt”. But honest scholarship is bound to hurt.

Tanika Sarkar is professor of history,JNU

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