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From one of the world's foremost scholars on Hinduism, a vivid reinterpretation of its history An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth that offers a new way of understanding one of the world?s oldest major religions, The Hindus elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds. Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a str From one of the world's foremost scholars on Hinduism, a vivid reinterpretation of its history An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth that offers a new way of understanding one of the world?s oldest major religions, The Hindus elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds. Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a strictly chronological account: many of its central texts cannot be reliably dated even within a century; its central tenets—karma, dharma, to name just two—arise at particular moments in Indian history and differ in each era, between genders, and caste to caste; and what is shared among Hindus is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another. Yet the greatness of Hinduism—its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness—lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that continue to inspire debate today. Wendy Doniger is one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world. With her inimitable insight and expertise Doniger illuminates those moments within the tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon. Without reversing or misrepresenting the historical hierarchies, she reveals how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of and compassion toward women and lower castes; how they debate tensions surrounding religion, violence, and tolerance; and how animals are the key to important shifts in attitudes toward different social classes. The Hindus brings a fascinating multiplicity of actors and stories to the stage to show how brilliant and creative thinkers—many of them far removed from Brahmin authors of Sanskrit texts—have kept Hinduism alive in ways that other scholars have not fully explored. In this unique and authoritative account, debates about Hindu traditions become platforms from which to consider the ironies, and overlooked epiphanies, of history.


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From one of the world's foremost scholars on Hinduism, a vivid reinterpretation of its history An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth that offers a new way of understanding one of the world?s oldest major religions, The Hindus elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds. Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a str From one of the world's foremost scholars on Hinduism, a vivid reinterpretation of its history An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth that offers a new way of understanding one of the world?s oldest major religions, The Hindus elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds. Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a strictly chronological account: many of its central texts cannot be reliably dated even within a century; its central tenets—karma, dharma, to name just two—arise at particular moments in Indian history and differ in each era, between genders, and caste to caste; and what is shared among Hindus is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another. Yet the greatness of Hinduism—its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness—lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that continue to inspire debate today. Wendy Doniger is one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world. With her inimitable insight and expertise Doniger illuminates those moments within the tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon. Without reversing or misrepresenting the historical hierarchies, she reveals how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of and compassion toward women and lower castes; how they debate tensions surrounding religion, violence, and tolerance; and how animals are the key to important shifts in attitudes toward different social classes. The Hindus brings a fascinating multiplicity of actors and stories to the stage to show how brilliant and creative thinkers—many of them far removed from Brahmin authors of Sanskrit texts—have kept Hinduism alive in ways that other scholars have not fully explored. In this unique and authoritative account, debates about Hindu traditions become platforms from which to consider the ironies, and overlooked epiphanies, of history.

30 review for The Hindus: An Alternative History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ali Sheikh

    Where Exactly Is India, Ms. Doniger? Banned in Bangalore, the New York Times op-ed said. Why ban a book, no matter how offensive, the literati fumed. No one can truly ban a book in the Internet age, friends pointed out. Naturally, I bought a copy—and more to the point, read the book. Before we proceed, let me say that I do not support banning any book (or even legally requiring a book to be withdrawn from circulation, as was the case with this book in India). But I do hold that every banned book i Where Exactly Is India, Ms. Doniger? Banned in Bangalore, the New York Times op-ed said. Why ban a book, no matter how offensive, the literati fumed. No one can truly ban a book in the Internet age, friends pointed out. Naturally, I bought a copy—and more to the point, read the book. Before we proceed, let me say that I do not support banning any book (or even legally requiring a book to be withdrawn from circulation, as was the case with this book in India). But I do hold that every banned book isn’t necessarily a well-written, scholarly work. Indeed, a ban of any kind instantly confers an aura of hyper-legitimacy on the banned work, regardless of its intrinsic merit, and I believe that’s what happened with Ms. Doniger’s book. I contend that her book is biased and sloppy, and that’s what this review is all about. Let’s start with the big picture. A well-written alternative history of anything, let alone Hinduism, generally has the effect of making the reader pause and think twice about what he may have held all along as the truth. From someone of Ms. Doniger’s stature, I was hoping to hear a serious insight or two that would make me go, "Gosh, I’ve known that story all my life, but why didn’t I look at things that way before?" So, what major insights does the book offer? According to the author, the main aspects are diversity and pluralism in Hindu thought, treatment of women and lower castes, the erotic side of Hinduism, and the many tensions and conflicts within Hinduism. That’s where my disappointment started—those are not major insights, nor do they add up to an alternative history. Let’s go item by item. Diversity and Pluralism? Caste system? Anyone with a passing interest in India knows about it. Treatment of women? I am not trying to minimize the importance of women, but what’s new here? Were the other ancient cultures any better? Conflict and tension within? Hardly surprising for a country of a billion people. Eroticism in ancient India? Oh please, who hasn’t heard of that? Yes, yes, Ms. Doniger adds a ton of detail, but my point is that things don’t become groundbreaking by adding detail. It’s as if someone wrote a very detailed book about the Mississippi river and Southern cuisine and called it "The Americans: An Alternative History." All the detail opens up an even bigger disappointment. It appears that Ms. Doniger frequently cherry-picked the facts to suit her views, and on occasion, even twisted them to suit her narrative. I realize these are harsh accusations and the burden of proof lies on me, so please allow me to present enough examples to make my case (within the space limitations of an opinion piece). Let’s begin with the epic Ramayana, with the king Dasharatha and his three wives. The youngest, the beautiful Kaikeyi, assists the king in a hard-fought battle. In return, the king grants her two wishes, to be claimed at any time of her choosing. Many years later, when the king is about to retire and Rama, his son from the eldest wife, is about to be crowned, Kaikeyi claims her two wishes: that her son Bharata be named king, and Rama be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. The king is torn between his promise to Kaikeyi and his obligation to name the eldest son as the next king, as convention dictated. When Rama hears of the king’s predicament, he abdicates his claim to the throne and leaves the city. This is a defining moment for Rama—the young man respects the king’s word (i.e., the law) enough to renounce his own claim to the throne and loves his father so much that he spares him the pain of having to enact the banishment. Indeed, this point in Rama’s life even foretells the rest of the story—that the young man would, in the years to come, make even bigger personal sacrifices for the sake of his ideals. That’s the mainstream narrative. Let’s hear Ms. Doniger’s alternative narrative, in her own words. “The youngest queen, Kaikeyi, uses sexual blackmail (among other things) to force Dasharatha to put her son, Bharata, on the throne instead and send Rama into exile.” Now, was Kaikeyi beautiful? Yes. Was the king deeply enamored with her? Yes. Did Kaikeyi lock herself in a room and create a scene? Absolutely. Was the king called a fool and other names by his own sons? You bet. But there is far more to Rama’s exile than sexual blackmail. Ms. Doniger covers this topic in excellent detail (page 223 onwards), but it’s interesting that she doesn’t bring up the king’s longstanding promise. Before we draw conclusions, let’s move on to a different story from the same epic. Ms. Doniger retells the story of the ogre Shurpanakha, who approaches Rama and professes her love for him. Rama tells her he is a married man and mocks her. In the end, Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana mutilates the ogre. To Ms. Doniger, this data point (to be fair, not the only data point) indicates Rama’s cruelty toward women. Ms. Doniger then contrasts this story with one from the Mahabharata, where an ogre named Hidimbi professes her love for Bheema and is accepted as his wife—again underscoring the author’s point about Rama’s cruelty. All of this might sound reasonable at first glance, but let’s look closer. This is how the story goes in the epic. Shurpanakha approaches Rama when he is sitting next to his wife, Sita. When Rama mocks her, the ogre gets angry and charges at Sita. Rama holds the ogre back to save Sita and then orders his younger brother to mutilate the ogre. Rama even says, “That ogre almost killed Sita.” One would think these details are pertinent to the discussion, but strangely enough, Ms. Doniger doesn’t bring them up. Also, Rama was a committed monogamist, whereas Bheema was (at that point in the story) a single man. Aren’t we comparing apples to oranges here? Isn’t this just the kind of nuance one would expect a researcher to pick up? To be fair to Ms. Doniger, there are many versions of the Ramayana (and sadly enough, some scholars have received a lot of undeserved flak for pointing this out). So, is it possible that she and I were reading different renditions of the same epic? I checked. Turns out we both got our details from the Valmiki Ramayana (also known as the original Sanskrit version). What’s going on here? Normally, one would expect an alternative narrative to add nuance—as if to say, “There is more to the story than what you lay people know.” But Ms. Doniger manages to do the opposite—she takes a nuanced, compelling moment in the epic and reduces it to sexual blackmail or cruelty or sexual urges, whatever her current talking point is. Speaking of sexual urges, indeed there are no sex scenes in her book. But it can justifiably be called a veritable catalog of all the phalluses and vaginas that ever existed in ancient India, and there is no dearth of detail in Doniger’s book when it comes to private parts. She even cares to tell you whether any given phallus is erect or flaccid. Details, people! But enough about men and women. Let’s move on to animals. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna burns up a large forest and many creatures die; the epic even describes the animals’ pain at some length. Somehow, Ms. Doniger finds this worthy of filing under the “Violence toward Animals” section. Was Arjuna supposed to first clear the forest of all the wild animals and only then set the forest on fire? Is that how other cultures cleared forests so they could grow crops and build cities? Has it occurred to Ms. Doniger the very fact that the narrator of the epic bothered to describe the animals’ pain (instead of just saying “Arjuna burned the forest”) indicates some sympathy toward animals in those times? Then the professor brings up—and this is a recurring talking point under the cruelty section—the line from Mahabharata that says, “fish eat fish.” Ms. Doniger calls it “Manu’s terror of piscine anarchy.” Oh, the humanity! Yet there is no mention of what Bheeshma says in the Mahabharata (Book 13), over pages and pages of discourse, on the virtues of vegetarianism and kindness toward all animal life. Bheeshma calls “abstention from cruelty” the highest religion, highest form of self-control, highest gift, highest penance and puissance, highest friend, highest happiness and the highest form of truth. One would think this passage merits a mention when discussing cruelty towards animals in the Mahabharata, but it doesn’t get one. Ms. Doniger uses the phrase “working with available light” when describing how she had approached her subject matter, which is very true when working with a complex topic such as Hinduism. But the problem is, she then proceeds to turn off many lights in the house and use a microscope to detail the bits she cares to see. She is of course free to do what she likes, but can someone please explain to me why the end result from such an approach qualifies as an “alternative” map of my home? Still on the topic of animals, let’s discuss dogs, a subject Ms. Doniger covers in great detail. Even lay readers of the Mahabharata remember that in the end, Yudhishtira declined his chance to go to heaven unless the stray dog that had been loyal to him was also allowed in, and many Mahabharata enthusiasts may recall a different dog at the beginning that was unjustly beaten up. Ms. Doniger’s book mentions many other dogs as well, and for good measure, she even shares a weird story from contemporary India, 150 words long, quoted verbatim from an Indian newspaper, about a man marrying a dog. What about Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad Gita, where he says wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and someone who might cook a dog? Ms. Doniger does mention those lines, but with an interesting twist. She prefaces those 24 words with “though” and reverts to her chosen narrative without even waiting for that thought to finish: “though the Gita insists that wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a dog cooker, the Mahabharata generally upholds the basic prejudice against dogs.” Has it occurred to Ms. Doniger that, while men were beating up dogs, God was professing a kinder, more egalitarian approach? The whole man vs. God angle escapes her, and in the end we are left with a world where “man marries dog” gets 150 words and God’s words of compassion are limited to 24, topped with a though. Ms. Doniger calls her book “a history, not the history, of the Hindus,” which is, of course, fine. Further, I do not hold the mainstream narrative to be beyond reproach, nor do I expect an alternative narrative to merely confirm the status quo. Alternative histories do very frequently upset the balance, and, frankly, that’s how progress is made. But my problem here is that Ms. Doniger seems to think the mainstream narrative is ipso facto a biased one, and that her alternative narrative is more compelling, never mind the facts and the counterevidence. She draws the graph first and then looks for data points. That’s a very interesting trend you’ve spotted there, Ms. Doniger, but what about all those big, ugly blots of truth that don’t fit your graph? So much for stories from ancient India. For the benefit of any kind souls from the Western world who have been patiently reading through all this, let me throw in an example from relatively recent times that involves America. No doubt you've heard what the physicist Robert Oppenheimer said while reflecting on the first nuclear blast he had helped spawn. He quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Why would he quote Gita? The simplest explanation I can think of is that Oppenheimer was a well-read man, and he felt the passage was appropriate when describing the unprecedented firepower he had just witnessed. It’s not much different from Carl Sagan’s quoting Mahapurana in his book Cosmos, one would think. But no, there is more to it. Ms. Doniger’s take: “Perhaps Oppenheimer’s inability to face his own shock and guilt directly, the full realization and acknowledgment of what he had helped create, led him to distance the experience by viewing it in terms of someone else’s myth of doomsday, as if to say: ‘This is some weird Hindu sort of doomsday, nothing we Judeo-Christian types ever imagined.’ He switched to Hinduism when he saw how awful the bomb was and that it was going to be used on the Japanese, not on the Nazis, as had been intended. Perhaps he moved subconsciously to Orientalism when he realized that it was “Orientals” (Japanese) who were going to suffer.” There you have it. Weird Hindu doomsdays. Sex-crazed kings. Cruel gods. Men marrying dogs. Phalluses everywhere—some erect and some flaccid. Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have an alternative history of Hinduism. And yes, left uncontested, in all likelihood these are the “insights” a whole new generation of students and researchers might learn, internalize, and cite in future scholarly works. So much for an alternative history. Now, how about some mundane, regular history stuff? Let’s go back to the Mahabharata, an epic that Ms. Doniger brings up dozens of times in her book (she even calls the Mahabharata “100 times more interesting” than the Iliad and the Odyssey). Let’s ask two questions: When did the main events of Mahabharata occur? And exactly how long is the epic? Ms. Doniger mentions the years as: between 1000 BCE and 400 BCE, most likely 950 BCE, or around 3012 BCE, or maybe 1400 BCE. That narrows down the chronology quite a bit, doesn't it? Really, there is more to writing history (particularly the alternative kind) than looking up the reference books and throwing in all the numbers one could find. But in Ms. Doniger’s defense, she is not a historian per se (and she clearly tells us so), so let’s let this one slide by. I’d even say she does deserve some credit here for at least bothering to look up things. On the next topic, she fails to do even that. Ms. Doniger says the Mahabharata is about 75,000 verses long. Then she helpfully adds, “sometimes said to be a hundred thousand, perhaps just to round it off a bit." My goodness, 25,000 verses is some rounding error, don't you think? Most sources put it between 75,000 and 125,000. It took me all of two hours to find a very detailed account (not on the Internet though), compiled in the 11th century, putting the total at 100,500—and I’m not a researcher, not by a long shot. And yes, the exact number of verses is secondary to the big picture. What bothers me is the offhandedness with which Ms. Doniger brushes off 25,000 verses as a rounding issue. Why this half-baked research? Oh well, maybe we expected too much from the bestselling book on Hinduism and it’s our fault. So, let’s try again, one last time. Where is India located? Ms. Doniger states, very clearly, without any ambiguity, on page 11 (footnote): “Most of India… is in the Northern Hemisphere.” I think I’ll stop here. * * * Full disclosure: I am a Goodreads author, but my book in no way competes with Ms. Doniger's books.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nandakishore Varma

    (Before reading) I need to read this book on priority. Hindus are shifting more and more to the right in India, which prompted Penguin to remove this from circulation and pulp the remaining copies. It is time that we fight against such intolerance, and save our country from becoming a theocracy! (After reading) I could understand why this book angers the Hindu right. It argues (rightly, IMO)that there is no monolithic "Hinduism" - no "Sanatana Dharma" (Eternal Law) as the conservatives claim. Americ (Before reading) I need to read this book on priority. Hindus are shifting more and more to the right in India, which prompted Penguin to remove this from circulation and pulp the remaining copies. It is time that we fight against such intolerance, and save our country from becoming a theocracy! (After reading) I could understand why this book angers the Hindu right. It argues (rightly, IMO)that there is no monolithic "Hinduism" - no "Sanatana Dharma" (Eternal Law) as the conservatives claim. America calls its culture the "Melting Pot", where various nationalities are fused together to form a single culture. In contrast, Canada calls itsel the "Salad Bowl" - where all cultures are mixed together, yet each keeps its own identity. In the case of India, the cultures fuse together, yet also maintain their identity. In Kerala, we have a tasty curry called "Avial". It is made from bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables and roots. Legend has it that Bhima invented this curry during his stint disguised as a cook in King Virata's palace. The Avial has its own distinct taste - but if you savour it slowly, you can distinguish the different vegetables. Hinduism is the world's Avial. Detailed review up on my blog.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Michael Flick

    Immature. I can't think of a better word to describe this book. It's often irreverent, disrespectful, flippant, snide, and glib. It's a scholarly, rather than a popular, work: 690 pages of text with 1,991 endnotes and innumerable footnotes (well, I didn't count them, but there were a great many--I'd guess more than 200). The author does her own translations of Sanskrit texts as short prose paragraphs (and not many), from which it is difficult to imagine the poetic original or why anyone would pass Immature. I can't think of a better word to describe this book. It's often irreverent, disrespectful, flippant, snide, and glib. It's a scholarly, rather than a popular, work: 690 pages of text with 1,991 endnotes and innumerable footnotes (well, I didn't count them, but there were a great many--I'd guess more than 200). The author does her own translations of Sanskrit texts as short prose paragraphs (and not many), from which it is difficult to imagine the poetic original or why anyone would pass it down for centuries. It's pretty much all trivialized--I guess the author thinks that's clever. Or cute. But to me it's just a lack of respect. The name of god isn't an an Abbot and Costello routine, the jeweled deer Rama pursues into the forest isn't a Tiffany's branch, Wilie Sutton doesn't explain why temples are razed, the word "cashmere" doesn't mean nothing but money, "God's Dog" isn't a palindrome in Sanskrit, Tantra isn't a wet dream, and many, many, many, many more inappropriate, inapt, cutesy passages. And it's not only Hinduism that's patronized--the reader is as well ("dear reader"). Unheard voices is a central concern, and the author often listens for them. There's a lot of inference about women, largely repetitive, but much less about lower castes, people outside the caste system, and tribal peoples. Homosexuality gets 5 paragraphs (and a bad pun: "Shastras: Sex and Taxes"). I could go on and on, but why bother? I'm not sorry I read this--as I went along, I did a lot of reading outside the book and learned quite a bit. But it left a nasty taste and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sam Schulman

    I am still reading this book, which has provoked both nonviolent and violent protests against it within the Hindu world, much to Wendy's dismay (see this http://hinduexistence.wordpress.com/2... and this http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/9664.... I am not a Hindu, and if you open the old girl's book you will see a chatty, discussion of Hinduism in an haut en bas style that you would be familiar with if it concerned itself with Christianity, for example, particularly in a feminist vein. But these I am still reading this book, which has provoked both nonviolent and violent protests against it within the Hindu world, much to Wendy's dismay (see this http://hinduexistence.wordpress.com/2... and this http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/9664.... I am not a Hindu, and if you open the old girl's book you will see a chatty, discussion of Hinduism in an haut en bas style that you would be familiar with if it concerned itself with Christianity, for example, particularly in a feminist vein. But these people seem to take their religion seriously, unlike us wiser and more superior New Yorkers. But start to read in Wendy's book, and you will learn much about Hinduism that you never knew - but you will also see the most incredible vulgarity of expression and manner - a vulgarity that is embarrassing to me as an American and a modern. There is no undergraduate joke that she can avoid, no accidental pun that she can resist passing by - and footnoting, often! She cannot resist explaining the concept of moksha (a kind of renunciation) in the life of a seeker of holiness: "For such a person, moksha is just another word for nothing left to lose.*" And then a footnote, for god's sake: "*To paraphrase Janis Joplin." Perhaps I spoke this way in my classes in the 70s when I was a young assistant professor - I pray I didn't. But to think that this now rather elderly woman demeans herself, mystifies her young students and imposes this junk on her readers - all in the interest of showing her superiority and disdain for Hinduism - is disgusting and disquieting. Her cultured Hindu despisers don't know the half of it, as Raymond Chandler used to say to Lillian Hellman on the old "Dobie Gillis" show. The Doniger enterprise to explain Hinduism as a whole - which should have been the capstone of her career - is undermined completely by the dead ends of pop culture and 20th century feminism, which serve only to degrade the subject - but to reveal their own uselessness as ways to understand the world. To the Arya - I apologize for this person. She knows much, but she turns out to have nothing much to teach any of us, except to avoid her way of thinking.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ulogan85

    The Hindus by Wendy Doniger is one of the worst books I've ever had the misfortune to read. As an Indian-American with an inherent love for academia, I picked up this book with high hopes, especially after I noticed it had won a few awards. Oh, how I wish I hadn't. It's true that Doniger has conducted a great deal of research, but I find her thinking, her writing, and her interpretations extremely ignorant and insulting. She lacks an understanding of the culture or the many subtleties within the The Hindus by Wendy Doniger is one of the worst books I've ever had the misfortune to read. As an Indian-American with an inherent love for academia, I picked up this book with high hopes, especially after I noticed it had won a few awards. Oh, how I wish I hadn't. It's true that Doniger has conducted a great deal of research, but I find her thinking, her writing, and her interpretations extremely ignorant and insulting. She lacks an understanding of the culture or the many subtleties within the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and she jumps to immediate hard-core western feminist conclusions rather than trying to work within the contexts of history, culture, and the world today. Collecting facts is no good without a wise, smart interpretation-- something she lacks. Her interpretation only reveals a lack of understanding for the people of India, their culture, and their history. Her writing is immature and offensive-- I am hard-pressed to believe that a respected authority wrote this book. I was so disgusted, I couldn't finish it. It is such a shame-- I feel that so many other western authors have had the ability to merge the best of the West with the best of the East. This author gives the Hindu culture no credit-- rather, she presumes to sit in judgment and mock. There are far better authors out there-- please avoid this one.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Cold Cream 'n' Roses

    The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is really not a history at all. In her book, Doniger retells Hindu stories and provides snarky interpretations. One story is about fusing the head of a Brahmin woman onto the body of a Dalit woman. Doniger provides several variants of the theme of transposed heads. Best use of The Hindus: As I read The Hindus: An Alternative History, I became aware of a pattern: it was as though several authors were writing as Wendy D The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is really not a history at all. In her book, Doniger retells Hindu stories and provides snarky interpretations. One story is about fusing the head of a Brahmin woman onto the body of a Dalit woman. Doniger provides several variants of the theme of transposed heads. Best use of The Hindus: As I read The Hindus: An Alternative History, I became aware of a pattern: it was as though several authors were writing as Wendy Doniger. Chapter 18, Philosophical Feuds in South India and Kashmir: 800 to 1300 CE, follows the historical timeline, but is thematically out of place. This chapter discusses the influences that South Indian Shaivism and Kashmiri Shaivism had on each other. This topic could be the subject of its own book. The whitewash of the plight of Hindus under Mughal rule in Chapters 19 and 20 should come as no surprise. Doniger dedicated her book to William Dalrymple, who romanticizes Mughal India. In her acknowledgements, Doniger singles out Dalrymple for giving her the inspiration to write this book. On the other hand, Chapter 21, Class, Caste, and Conversion in the British Raj, is a sober, even somber exposition of the plight of Hindus and Hinduism under the Raj. Chapter 23, Hindus in America, reads as though a high school student wrote it, as it skips through examples of how America pop culture has appropriated Hinduism. The chapter does not discuss the establishment of Vedanta centers (for example, St. Louis has had a dedicated building since the 1950s, and the presence of a swami since 1938), waves of Hindu migration to the U.S., acceptance in American society, or establishment of Hindu organizations and institutions, including temples. Although Doniger stridently defends her right as a non-Hindu to tell the story about Hindus and Hinduism, this is one chapter that a Hindu American should have written. The changes in tone between chapters suggest that there were many writers. Doniger acknowledges the role of her students in contributing to individual chapters, but I suspect that there is more to it to that: namely, the time-honored tradition of having students doing the professor’s work and her taking credit for it. Call it Doniger's "transposed heads." Doniger writes in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, “…the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices” [page 653:], which, according to her, is the purpose of her book. After completing The Hindus: An Alternative History, I doubt that Americans who read this book without prior introduction to Hinduism would come away with any admiration for Hinduism. It saddens me that one of the appeals of this book to American readers is the dropping of references to pop culture. I recommend The Hindus: An Alternative History only to those readers who have had a prior introduction to Hinduism. This book requires critical evaluation. For introductory books on Hinduism, I recommend: Understanding Hinduism from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies A Short Introduction To Hinduism by Klaus K. Klostermaier Disclosure: Penguin gave me a complimentary copy of The Hindus. As you can see, it has affected my review not in the least!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Edward

    I'm not done reading this book, and after months of attempts to get through it I've seriously contemplated abandoning it altogether. That is something that I rarely do, but I find this book to be incredibly tiring. The thing that annoys me the most, is the arrogant attitude of the author which comes across as almost being a parody of Feminist academics/ Women's Studies. As much as I had objections to Edward Said trashing Western scholarship on foreign cultures, this book really is Orientalist in I'm not done reading this book, and after months of attempts to get through it I've seriously contemplated abandoning it altogether. That is something that I rarely do, but I find this book to be incredibly tiring. The thing that annoys me the most, is the arrogant attitude of the author which comes across as almost being a parody of Feminist academics/ Women's Studies. As much as I had objections to Edward Said trashing Western scholarship on foreign cultures, this book really is Orientalist in the derogatory manner he popularized. I'm used to people ridiculing and trivializing Christianity, to suggest that the idea of transubstantiation is an idea nobody believes in anymore, and talk about historical Jesus vs the "Christ myth" that was fabricated by power hungry apostles like Paul, etc. However, I was rather shocked that such standards would be applied to Hinduism, with the trivialization of its history and tenets with a rather unprofessional glibness that uses criticism that crushes more than provides insight. I give credit for it in not being hypocritical at least like many other academics have in being too deferential to other faiths outside of the Judeo-Christian realm. Not to mention the writing style is juvenile, filled with stale pop culture references, bad gags and rather insipid metaphors that even Edward Bulwer-Lytton would find corny. I don't have a problem with scholarship that takes an unconventional approach and defies orthodoxy. However, the author should consider writing in a manner that fits her status as an academic.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jon Stout

    More than one friend has said, “Write a lot about this book,” so the pressure is on. When I first saw the reviews for The Hindus An Alternative History, I jumped at the chance to read an opinionated, panoramic discussion of Hinduism, because I have had miscellaneous experiences and opinions of Hinduism ever since my Peace Corps days in Nepal, and I wanted to deepen and consolidate my knowledge. Doniger acknowledges that hers is an “alternative” history, because it is written with a view to fillin More than one friend has said, “Write a lot about this book,” so the pressure is on. When I first saw the reviews for The Hindus An Alternative History, I jumped at the chance to read an opinionated, panoramic discussion of Hinduism, because I have had miscellaneous experiences and opinions of Hinduism ever since my Peace Corps days in Nepal, and I wanted to deepen and consolidate my knowledge. Doniger acknowledges that hers is an “alternative” history, because it is written with a view to filling in the non-Brahman threads in Hindu history, particularly the contributions of women, as well as of lower and outside castes such as untouchables and pariahs. She also discusses the roles of Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Christians and others who have interacted with Hinduism. So Doniger’s history is a sort of counter-culture history. I thought there might be a gay and lesbian component of a counter-cultural history, as there is to other stretches of world history, but Doniger limits discussion of homosexuality to only four pages out of 700, so I guess that is a topic for an alternative “alternative history.” Doniger’s discussion goes back to geologic prehistory, and then to the origin of Sanskrit as an Indo-European language. The discussion of the Indo-European speakers of ten thousand years ago, who are the ancestors of most cultures in Europe and the Middle East, seems ironic because the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic, horse-riding, cattle-rustling culture, seemingly like that of Genghis Kahn or Attila the Hun, and yet these progenitors in India developed into a society that stresses asceticism and non-violence as major values. A tiny piece of the evidence is the prevalence of horses in Hindu mythology, even though horses are not indigenous to India. I was very attentive to the role of Buddhists in Hindu history, because I had read that Buddhism started as a kind of reform movement within Hinduism (around 400 BCE), and therefore could be thought of as a branch of Hinduism. This made sense to me in the same sense that Christianity is a historical offshoot of Judaism, and people speak of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (though Harold Bloom, for one, would object). A Hindu friend once told me that Buddhism is “the export variety of Hinduism,” But I am also aware that Buddhism has traveled and undergone permutations throughout virtually all of Asia, quite independently of Hinduism. Doniger clarifies the issue because she tracks Hinduism over time, from the Vedas to the Upanishads to the epics to the Puranas, and so on. The Buddha was contemporaneous with the Upanishads, and had knowledge of the Vedas, in fact reacted in some ways against their authority, so that Buddhism (as well as Jainism), if a branch, is a very, very early branch of Hinduism. But Buddhism and Jainism coexisted with Hinduism throughout centuries, and thus they all mutually criticized and influenced each other. Doniger speaks of some periods in which Buddhists, Jains, Shaivas (devotees of Shiva) and Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu) were the prevalent groups, much as Eisenhower once said that Catholics, Protestants and Jews were the three denominations of Americanism. Doniger discusses how to define “Hinduism,” and points out that there are common sources, practices, beliefs, etc., but that for every generalization one can find opposing viewpoints, so that it is impossible to isolate specific sources or beliefs which define “Hinduism.” She concludes that we have to resort to a Zen diagram (a pun on Venn diagram) which is a Wittgensteinian “family,” that is, a group in which some members share resemblances, but no property is common to all. Her discussion (plus a little help from my friends) led me to understand, despite her opposing argument, that the Vedas are the source from which everything Hindu flows. This notwithstanding the fact that within Hinduism, anti-Vedic positions may be taken. I am always struck when Hindu history grapples with a theme in a way comparable to how European literature handles the same theme, probably because both traditions are dealing with perennial problems. There are many examples in Doniger’s book, but one comes to mind. The Brahmanas (commentary on the Rig Veda) try to answer questions like “Who is the god whom we should honor with oblation?” by inventing a god whose name is “Who.” “The creator asked the god Indra… ‘Who am I?,’ to which Indra replied. ‘Just who you said’ (i.e., ‘I am Who’), and that is how the creator got the name of Who.” This seems a remarkable parallel to me of Yahweh’s saying, in the Torah, “I am that I am” in a way that echoes the Hebrew name of Yahweh. I won’t try to analyze what “I am Who” or “I am that I am” means, but both formulations seem to express the insight that what is, is God, and to call attention to the revelatory nature of self-awareness. Both formulations are deep in ways that call for traditions of mythology and histories of analysis. I have long tried to get a visceral, personal sense of the Hindu gods and goddesses, which is sometimes difficult, because, for example, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around a Krishna who frolics with milkmaids and also is the destroyer of worlds. Doniger helps the process of understanding by using many snippets of the epic stories, ranging over many centuries, which show how the core of a story has been repeatedly reinterpreted to add layers or variations of meaning. An example would be the abduction of Sita in the Ramayana, in which originally Rama questions her honor, but in later versions he never doubts her, and anyhow Sita has a shadow version of herself to do the hard part. The endless reinterpretations serve the purpose of addressing a social or conceptual problem, such as accommodating the viewpoint of women. Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj fleshes out a lot which had been vague to me, such as the duration of British involvement in India, from Queen Elizabeth’s first charter of the East Indies Company in 1600 to Indian independence in 1947, more than three centuries. Doniger divides the Raj into three waves: First were “Conservatives and Orientalists… appreciative and tolerant,” who interfered minimally, while respecting, though romanticizing Hinduism. Second were “Evangelicals and Opportunists… scornful,” who tended to exploit India religiously and commercially. Third were “Unitarians and Anglicists… hostile,” who were judgmental and punitive in their attitudes. In other words there was a full range of interactions between British and Indians, ranging from love and respect to cruelty and exploitation. Doniger observes that Edward Said, the theorist of “Orientalism,” was surprisingly ambivalent about Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. While Kipling assumed the structures of British colonialism and implicitly endorsed them, nevertheless his obvious love for India, and the integrity of his vision, could still charm. Doniger says that, ironically “Gandhi referred to the British as ‘those who loved me.’ The British also loved India for the right reasons, reasons that jump off of every page of Kim: the beauty of the land, the richness and intensity of human interactions, the infinite variety of religious forms.” Doniger defends her own right to interpret Hinduism, “I believe that stories, unlike horses, and like bhakti in the late Puranic tradition, constitute a world of unlimited good, and an infinitely expansible source of meaning.” Her work erases, in my mind, the distinction between “western” and “eastern,” and places Hinduism squarely within a context which belongs to all of us.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Zanna

    Surely history is one of the most important things for us to imagine and to realise that we are imagining. I bought this book some time last year, with very little thought, because I heard it was being withdrawn from publication at the request of the BJP government. Normally, I try not to read books written by outsiders like this, but I don’t like book-banners so I made an exception with trepidation and tried to take the text with plenty of salt. As literature at least, this book turns out to be Surely history is one of the most important things for us to imagine and to realise that we are imagining. I bought this book some time last year, with very little thought, because I heard it was being withdrawn from publication at the request of the BJP government. Normally, I try not to read books written by outsiders like this, but I don’t like book-banners so I made an exception with trepidation and tried to take the text with plenty of salt. As literature at least, this book turns out to be pretty great, and I was cautiously on board with Wendy’s agenda to find marginalised stories or stories about marginalised folks, and to favour diversity, hybridity, contestation, both/and, imagination, questioning authority (the book is huge and its aims are much broader I feel, but if it has an overall argument, it is one in favour of such things). She’s also apt to apply a feminist lens and to draw attention to various forms of prejudice. There’s both humility and passionate defense in her presentation of the text itself, but also some explicit criticism of the BJP’s ideology and agenda. The approach varies, but most commonly focuses on texts and their contexts. The interpretive touch feels light, (although that’s potentially deceptive) and the mixture of stories, discussion and contextual facts is held together by various sustaining threads. Just bringing such a huge multiplicity of stuff together with coherence (but not too much) is impressive. There was never a dull chapter, but the two covering British rule were the easiest for me to read, since she is judiciously unsparing. This is probably as good a text as any to undeceive my fellow citizens about the Empire. About this topic, I can safely believe her. The last chapters that bring the book into the present, include some nuanced criticism of appropriation that I will probably re-read too. About the rest, I feel unqualified to speak.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Divya Singh

    This book is a result of incomplete research and the fact that it contains several unjustified judgments from someone with a distant perspective and incomplete understanding of Hindu culture, makes it a bad choice academic and teaching purposes. In the least of its understanding, this book is misleading and at times giving false information.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mera Bharat Mahan

    The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is really not a history at all. In her book, Doniger retells Hindu stories and provides snarky interpretations. One story is about fusing the head of a Brahmin woman onto the body of a Dalit woman. Doniger provides several variants of the theme of transposed heads. As I read The Hindus: An Alternative History, I became aware of a pattern: it was as though several authors were writing as Wendy Doniger. Chapter 18, Phil The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is really not a history at all. In her book, Doniger retells Hindu stories and provides snarky interpretations. One story is about fusing the head of a Brahmin woman onto the body of a Dalit woman. Doniger provides several variants of the theme of transposed heads. As I read The Hindus: An Alternative History, I became aware of a pattern: it was as though several authors were writing as Wendy Doniger. Chapter 18, Philosophical Feuds in South India and Kashmir: 800 to 1300 CE, follows the historical timeline, but is thematically out of place. This chapter discusses the influences that South Indian Shaivism and Kashmiri Shaivism had on each other. This topic could be the subject of its own book. The whitewash of the plight of Hindus under Mughal rule in Chapters 19 and 20 should come as no surprise. Doniger dedicated her book to William Dalrymple, who romanticizes Mughal India. In her acknowledgements, Doniger singles out Dalrymple for giving her the inspiration to write this book. For a deconstruction of the coverage on Mughal rule of India in The Hindus: An Alternative History, read the essay Hinduism Studies and Dhimmitude in the American Academy by Professor M. Lal Goel. On the other hand, Chapter 21, Class, Caste, and Conversion in the British Raj, is a sober, even somber exposition of the plight of Hindus and Hinduism under the Raj. Chapter 23, Hindus in America, reads as though a high school student wrote it, as its skips through examples of how America pop culture has appropriated Hinduism. The chapter does not discuss the establishment of Vedanta centers (for example, St. Louis has had a dedicated building since the 1950s, and the presence of a swami since 1938), waves of Hindu migration to the U.S., acceptance in American society, or establishment of Hindu organizations and institutions, including temples. Although Doniger stridently defends her right as a non-Hindu to tell the story about Hindus and Hinduism, this is one chapter that a Hindu American should have written. The changes in tone between chapters suggest that there were many writers. Doniger acknowledges the role of her students in contributing to individual chapters, but I suspect that there is more to it to that: namely, the time-honored tradition of having students doing the professor’s work. Call it Doniger's "transposed heads." Doniger writes in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, “…the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices” [page 653:], which, according to her, is the purpose of her book. After completing The Hindus: An Alternative History, I doubt that Americans who read this book without prior introduction to Hinduism would come away with any admiration for Hinduism. It saddens me that one of the appeals of this book to American readers is the dropping of references to pop culture. I recommend The Hindus: An Alternative History only to those readers who have had a prior introduction to Hinduism. This book requires critical evaluation. Americans who would like a better understanding of Hinduism should consult sources like the Vedanta Catalog for good books on Hinduism.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Simone Roberts

    Here's the thing. Doniger is one of the, no kidding, premier American scholars of India's philosophical and epic traditions. But, she's not a philosopher. She's a scholar of comparative religion and mythology; as such she uses more literary methods to read her subject texts. (Many reviewers seem surprised by this.) She's also at the mature end of her career. She displays a sense of humor about her subjects that comes from long, long familiarity. Some of her puns and jokes are hilarious, and some Here's the thing. Doniger is one of the, no kidding, premier American scholars of India's philosophical and epic traditions. But, she's not a philosopher. She's a scholar of comparative religion and mythology; as such she uses more literary methods to read her subject texts. (Many reviewers seem surprised by this.) She's also at the mature end of her career. She displays a sense of humor about her subjects that comes from long, long familiarity. Some of her puns and jokes are hilarious, and some fall a little flat. They are all, rather clearly, made with deep affection for her subject. In The Hindus, which she warns you is an *alternative* history, Doniger wants to trace and seek out the marginalized, the buried traces of Hindu life and culture -- Women, Low Castes, Animals -- that the dominant traditions exclude. She is, at long last, gently and with sympathy and humor reading an a aggressively patriarchal and androcentric tradition back against itself with its own stories. Given the heated negativity of many reviews here, I suggest that if you seek a more traditional and straightforward introduction to the epics or the other major texts of the Indian traditions ... read another book. There are many excellent such works.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kaśyap

    I couldn't go through more than a 100 pages of this. Wendy doniger's writing style is very unprofessional, immature and glib, filled with infantile and snarky "humour" that would put any reader off. I wonder why this is even called an "Alternate History" when this is just a rehash of the old colonial histories filled with ignorance and arrogance. A typical example of what Edward Said described as "Orientalism".

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sowmya

    It's a very informative read. The way the information has been organized into descriptively titled chapters, helps to get into the book by going to the chapter directly. There is no chronological flow in the specific details that the chapters give about a subject, however, the subjects do follow the pattern of change as it happened historically. For example, you may go directly to the chapter that talks about Mahabharata although it happened after Ramayana and the book places the chapter after R It's a very informative read. The way the information has been organized into descriptively titled chapters, helps to get into the book by going to the chapter directly. There is no chronological flow in the specific details that the chapters give about a subject, however, the subjects do follow the pattern of change as it happened historically. For example, you may go directly to the chapter that talks about Mahabharata although it happened after Ramayana and the book places the chapter after Ramayana. But this book is much much more that just these two epics. I especially loved the chapter "Escape Clauses in the Shastras" which refer to acts of penance that can get you out of going to hell for performing activities strictly prohibited for a Brahmin. Although it was not all I expected for I was looking for a tabulated (preferably an excel sheet) list of activities and related consequences along with the escape clauses. Yet most of the 'prohibited acts' were covered in a well put out style which included anecdotes of such happenings in history. And I can mostly vouch for this being a Hindu Brahmin, (although non-practicing in the sense that I do not visit temples and fast on auspicious days or follow any of those rules which seem to occupy most of my aging relatives' time), having endured an orthodox upbringing and having seen some such rules enforced. The history is all too familiar and there I sort of had a refresher course and a reminder of why I dislike the 'Rama' of Ramayana whom the devout in India embody as the ONLY male! A man who used his wife as a pawn in his political games just as much as Yudhishtra did literally in the Mahabharata when he bet his wife in a dice game. This book revealed a lot (to me at least) of the differences between the stories peddled in India and what is actually in the Upanishads,Vedas and Sastras. For instance Hinduism today is very male dominated but it wasn't meant to be. The texts are very liberally neutral and sometimes even overtly feminine in spite of purely male authoring. The dignity, independence and fierce self motivation attributed to the mortal version of Sita, not in interpretations but in actual renditions, is never described as such in most reproductions of the story. (In fact she is always portrayed as a demure helpless female who bides only by the males in the family) To do a complete review that does justice to this book of 600 odd pages will run this into a few more pages so I'll end by saying it is a must read for anyone who wants to learn more about Hinduism and its origins that began with the Gods, anti gods and Ogres and even otherwise its a hell of a good story.And there is a little bit about the Kama Sutra and tantric sex as well!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Viola

    A letter to Penguin India (my publishers) Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done—at your out-of-court settlement with an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit—in which you seem to have agreed to take Wendy Donniger'sThe Hindus: An Alternative History off the bookshelves of 'Bharat' and pulp it. There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay. Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the o A letter to Penguin India (my publishers) Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done—at your out-of-court settlement with an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit—in which you seem to have agreed to take Wendy Donniger'sThe Hindus: An Alternative History off the bookshelves of 'Bharat' and pulp it. There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay. Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world. You existed long before publishing became just another business, and long before books became products like any other perishable product in the market—mosquito repellent or scented soap. You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement. Why? You have all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle. Had you stood your ground, you would have had the weight of enlightened public opinion behind you, and the support of most—if not all—of your writers. You must tell us what happened. What was it that terrified you? You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least. The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning. Yes, it's looking bad, but they are not in power. Not yet. And you've already succumbed? What are we to make of this? Must we now write only pro-Hindutva books? Or risk being pulled off the bookshelves in 'Bharat' (as your 'settlement' puts it) and pulped? Will there be some editorial guide-lines perhaps, for writers who publish with Penguin? Is there a policy statement? Frankly I don't believe this has happened. Tell us it's just propaganda from a rival publishing house. Or an April Fool's day prank that got leaked early. Please say something. Tell us it's not true. So far I have had been more than happy to be published by Penguin. But now? What you have done affects us all. Arundhati Roy (Author of The God of Small Things, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic and other books all of which are published by Penguin India) http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/in... Read the text here http://www.sacw.net/article7617.html

  16. 5 out of 5

    Terence

    Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21...) so too my first exposure to any representation of Hinduism came via the same medium. In that book, Cyrus Spitama – grandson of Zoroaster and Darius of Persia’s ambassador to the Indian kingdoms – witnesses a Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important rituals of ancient Indian kingship: For an Indian ruler the horse sacrifi Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21...) so too my first exposure to any representation of Hinduism came via the same medium. In that book, Cyrus Spitama – grandson of Zoroaster and Darius of Persia’s ambassador to the Indian kingdoms – witnesses a Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important rituals of ancient Indian kingship: For an Indian ruler the horse sacrifice is all-important. For one thing it represents a renewal of his kingship. For another, if he is able to enlarge the kingdom that he inherited, he will be known as a high king…. …But today they felt the magic…of an event that seldom happens more than once in the reign of a king despite the ancient tradition that the first earthly king who celebrates one hundred horse sacrifices will overthrow the god Indra and take his place in the sky. (p. 236 of my edition) Say what you will about his politics, Vidal does his homework. I’ll spare you Vidal’s description of the decidedly “interesting” specifics of the rite since I want to keep this review family friendly but his version largely agrees with that described by Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History (pp. 154-6). Vidal’s actors take the rite a bit more literally than Doniger would allow but that’s one of the central themes of this work – In a tradition that has thrived for c. 4,000 years, one can find nearly anything. “Hinduism” has confronted, shaped and absorbed a tremendous variety of beliefs, and has adapted its native beliefs (e.g., the horse sacrifice) in any number of ways. How often was the sacrifice performed? How literally was the marriage of queen and stallion taken? Hindu writers can be found who take the sacrifice literally, others who argue that it was largely symbolic, and others writing that it was entirely symbolic, or even that it never took place but was a mental exercise meant to illustrate a religious point. In this book Doniger takes on the daunting task of tracing Hinduism’s evolution from its birth among the Vedic rituals and gods of the Indo-Aryan migrants to the Indus and Ganges valleys through the development of the Upanishads, the Puranas, bhakti, sectarianism (Vishnu and Siva), and Vedantic schools. What emerges from this sprawl is an immense, overwhelming culture that resists definition. (This despite the BJP’s best efforts or Doniger’s, for that matter. But whereas Doniger delights in such complexity, the BJP reacts to anything other than their own interpretations with horror and, sometimes, violence.) The best you (or a Hindu) can do is to respectfully study the traditions and remember that for every positive assertion you can make about Hindu belief, you can bet that you can find its opposite in someone’s creed that purports to be just as genuinely “Hindu.” I can’t distill this book down into a capsule description – I don’t have the time (not without pay, at any rate) and the scope and structure of the book defies such simplification. What I’ll try to do in the next few paragraphs is highlight a few of the more interesting aspects I discovered in my reading. To begin, Doniger identifies three alliances that characterize Hindu cosmology/theology (p. 108ff.). The first (and earliest) is that of the gods and humans vs. the asuras and rakshasas. Some versions of the Ramayana reflect this in Rama’s war against the rakshasa Ravana. The second alliance is that of the gods vs. humans. Humans, asuras and rakshasas threaten the position of the gods with their excessive piety and defiance of caste. Defiance of caste is of enormous influence on Hinduism’s development, and Doniger sees this emerge in the written culture with the Mahabharata, India’s second national epic. The third alliance emerges with the bhakti (devotion) movement and revolves around the gods extending their protection to all men, asuras and rakshasas. In its most radical forms, this protection extended even to people who inadvertently honor the gods and even to dogs, the lowest form of life. Doniger argues that there are three layers of development discerned in Hinduism. There’s the Vedic level, the earliest stratum, concerned with rituals and purity, and with little moral component as moderns understand the term. Even here, though, in the most ancient traditions there’re the beginnings of concern over the righteousness of animal sacrifice and the appropriateness of violence. The second layer, the Brahmanic, emerged in the wake of urbanization (c. the time Vidal’s Creation is set, the Axial Age). The third layer, the Vedantic, emerged with the Upanishads and developed further with the devotional sects of the Medieval and later eras. “Reincarnation” is, certainly, one of Hinduism’s most recognizable doctrines in Western eyes though we’ve tended to dumb it down into little more than excuses to find out what we did as incarnations of Cleopatra or Atlantean high priests. Hindus feared reincarnation because it meant another death – rather than “rebirth,” we should use “redeath” to describe how a Hindu saw the prospect of another life. Where Buddhism, Hinduism’s bastard child, rejected all heavens, hells and earths as mara, illusion, Hinduism contented itself with simply breaking the bonds of the earthly cycle of redeath and salvation in some heaven. There’s a delineation of the meanings of “karma” that I found of interest (p. 168f.): (1) action (any), from the verb “to do” (2) ritual action (Rg Veda) (3) morally significant action (Upanishads) (4) morally significant action that has consequences for future lives (5) the reverse of (4), actions that influence past lives (6) (4) and (5) type karma that can be transferred to others Something else that Doniger brings up but doesn’t develop sufficiently in my opinion is the decline of the old gods (Indra, Agni, etc.) and the growth of devotional cults, primarily to Vishnu and Siva. I would have liked to know why these new gods rose to prominence. In that same vein, I also would have liked to see greater analysis of the meaning of “ahimsa.” This is another term known in the West but little understood in its native context. Doniger makes the tantalizing assertion that Gandhi’s interpretation of the term was something of an innovation but doesn’t develop it much beyond that. (In Doniger’s defense, she does include a 22-page bibliography of secondary sources that could be plumbed for further reading.) Doniger notes that the “Bhagavad Gita” (an episode from the Mahabharata) outlined three paths to salvation: karma (in the sense of obeying dharma); jnana (faith), in relation to the renunciants’ ideal of moksha (release); and bhakti (devotion). From this emerges the idea of “karma without kama – action without desire. Arjuna can square his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior caste) with the karmic consequences of violence (all bad) by acting without desire. When done without desire, any action is without karmic impact. (At least that’s how I interpret Doniger’s interpretation.) The cynic in me sees this as justification for all sorts of mischief (“But, mom! I didn’t want to steal the cookie. It’s just the dharma of an 8-year-old!”). One of Doniger’s major aims in the book is to look at Hinduism through the lens of the dispossessed, that is the pariah castes and women, and how the Brahmins responded to them. Not surprisingly, neither Dalits or women fared well under the strictures of Brahmanic thought but in Doniger’s eyes the three great shastras – the Manu, the Arthrashastra and the Kamasutra – reflected idealizations that did not mirror the reality of day-to-day life (p. 304f.). Interesting culture factoid – the eight varieties of marriage: (1) Brahma – father gives daughter away (2) Gods – father offers daughter to officiating priest in course of a sacrifice (3) Sages – father gives daughter away for a cow or a bull (4) The Lord of Creatures – father gives daughter away saying “May the two of you fulfill your dharma together (5) Asuras – man takes a woman from desire and pays family and girl (6) Centaurs – girl and lover join out of desire (7) Rakshasas – man carries off woman but doesn’t pay for her (essentially legitimized rape) (8) Ghouls – man has sex with a woman who’s asleep, drunk or insane (the ancient version of date rape) Doniger touches on Tantrism with a useful anodyne to the stereotypical Western view of sexual orgies and perversions. She characterizes “tantrism” as an orthodox heresy. The doctrines were necessary to break the curse of untouchability. They were “training wheels” for people incapable of accepting the pure doctrines. The other justification for tantric ritual was that it drove the truly evil to the nadir of existence so that they could more quickly rise back up. In the end, Tantrism and the less heretical Puranic traditions helped to bring low-caste Hindus and outsiders into the fold and held out the possibility that their souls could be saved/released just like a high-caste Hindu’s. The original Brahmanic vision of the universe saw it as a finite thing with a finite amount of “good” and “evil” – for every person saved, another was doomed. Doniger argues that that limit was broken with tantrism and the Puranas. Salvation/release was infinite and potentially open to everyone. From a historical perspective, Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj is fascinating. Essentially, the British coerced Hinduism into developing a unitary doctrine centered around a few texts (the “Bhagavad Gita,” primarily) and fostered the emergence of actively hostile and intolerant sects. The author, rightly, doesn’t lay all the blame on the poor English. Many Hindus through the ages were perfectly capable of xenophobia and rivalry without evil Europeans egging them on. I think her focus on the specifics of the British is that they’re the most recent culprits, the best documented and India is still coping with the world they created (p. 574f.). To the bad: As I mentioned in a comment made while reading this book, Doniger tends to write in an annoyingly folksy style. Appropriate, perhaps, to a conversation at the local Starbuck’s or a blog but inappropriate, IMO, in a work such as this, even if it is directed to a general audience. It makes the first few chapters rather rough going. But when she focuses on a topic, Doniger can write with grace and insight. An example of this is contained in one of the more interesting sections of the book – her analysis of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As an example of one of the points she makes there’s the observation that the parallel stories of Rama/Ravana and the monkey kings Sugriva/Valin adumbrates Freudian psychoanalysis and Shakespeare’s Arden by 2,000 years: The forest and its denizens reflect the subconscious desires of Rama and human civilization. Or there’s the observation that the Ramayana is a triumphal celebration of Brahmanic civilization while the Mahabharata questions every one of its assumptions but offers no good answers. (It shouldn’t surprise that versions of both epics circulate that refute Doniger’s conclusions.) Despite my caveats, I would still recommend this to anyone interested in Indian culture/religion, or anthropological subjects in general. I’ve never been overly interested in Indian culture but this book is an accessible and overall good introduction, making a confusing landscape at least partially understandable.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sidharth Vardhan

    Additionally: This is just to add a remark about one of the biggest criticisms of this book - that it was written by an outsider and who (as critics seem to think 'it follows') didn't know anything about Hinduism. Doniger herself answers the criticism well. And anyway, I don't think most Hindus ever opened any of their bigger scriptures. Still.... MM Kalburgi, a rationalist with strong views against idolism and winner of Kendrya Sahitya Akademi Award was murdered on August 30 this year. MM Kalburg Additionally: This is just to add a remark about one of the biggest criticisms of this book - that it was written by an outsider and who (as critics seem to think 'it follows') didn't know anything about Hinduism. Doniger herself answers the criticism well. And anyway, I don't think most Hindus ever opened any of their bigger scriptures. Still.... MM Kalburgi, a rationalist with strong views against idolism and winner of Kendrya Sahitya Akademi Award was murdered on August 30 this year. MM Kalburgi doesn't even have his works listed on goodreads perhaps because he wrote in local languages. Earlier Govind Pansare was murdereed on February 20. His best selling book 'Shivaji Kaun Hota' showed Shiva ji as a 'secular' leader. Although nobody knows who killed them; the investigation is still going .... and it can be a pure coincidence that both of them (like Donigner) had real differences with Hindutava ideoligies. So there you have it friends, this is what happens when insiders write about Hinudism. And journalists in the country seem to be pretty easy with it. Wendy Doniger was lucky to escape mrely with her book taken out of publication. Want more? Narendar Dabolkar, a social activist who demanded an anti-superstition bill was killed in 2013. Not that our popular great pseudo-writers have much to say about this. The only place where I have seen those killings mentioned on goodreads is link to the blog by Taslima Nasrin. Journalists seemed to have shown greater support for Charlie Hebdo, who were distant and where their support was risk-free . I don't think most people ever got the real threat contained in Penguin's taking this book out of publication. It wasn't that particular book was challenged but that it showed that publishers seems to be scared or what wrong they might have suddenly seen in a book they had previously published willingly. What bigger proof of self-censorship could be there? And even if someone mustered courage to write his heart even with all these risks, what is the chance that he/she will ever be published in a country where whatever few real publishers there are, are so scared? ____________________________________ In his book, the 'The God Delusion, Richard Hawkins debated about the undeserved respect given to religious issues. This, very same undeserved respect is responsible for the genuine resistance, this book has met. It is undeserved because no religion or belief can be shielded from criticism. Much of the fuss is however made by Hindutava whose political agendas will be badly affected if Doniger's version of history gains popularity - specially the parts relating to Ram-setu and Ayodhya Ram Mandir. The so called danger this book is supposed to cause on hidu religion is only a red hearing to mask their own little interests. To stop any book from being read is wrong but even if these fundamentalists feel so protective of their little gods then why don't they fight against such books like Ajaya, Asura or Shiva trilogy (or - well Chota Bheem)? That Penguin group should remove it,is something which is scary for all of us. Arundhati Rai's letter to Penguin group is something I will never forget: "Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are?" Who should read this book? As it should be, anyone can. I think it is not perfect book to start with, for a person not already somewhat sufficiently acquainted with the Hindu religion - tat just because it is not an introduction to Hinduism, it is a history and you might end up judging the present in terms of forgotten past. The gods in Hindu mind are created and developed over centuries and it would be wrong to judge them (the images in Hindu mind)purely on basis of past. if you don't know about Hinduism much, then you should make it a second read, the first read being some other book (even if it is by same author). A second requirement if you want to read it would be an open mind, please. Why should I read this book? There is this whole market of readers interested in mythology, however they would rather go for badly researched retellings instead of a serious book like this. If you are really interested in mythology, have guts to be serious with your reading. Now about the content of the book: The author starts by answering questions raised on very validity of book like - should a foreigner write on Hinduism, please do read them again before reviewing the book. The author then goes onto define her objectives and also explains to you a few rules of logic - that she will be using. She also question the assumption of 'old is gold'. The book is full of footnotes, references and so on - the way well researched works are. You could see the transformations that took place in Hinduism through the history. The tone she uses is chatty and frequently humorous giving it a light touch which is always good. Anyone who thinks that religion should always be discussed with hanging faces may simply avoid it. In India, it is very common for people to discuss their gods in this fashion. Then there are those extracts and short stories, which the author translates, which I loved the most. The author condemns the oriental-ism prevalent in west, clarifying the traditions wrongly interpreted. She also provides a fairly critical review of Hinduism of present day India. and now, the but: There is not much of a 'but'. The author seems to be genuinely trying and mostly successfully to avoid speculation but at time she seemed to be just carried away. She tells us how Kalidas tries to shield Dushyant by creating an alternative history for him in Shankuntala - something she herself tries best to avoid but yet, very rarely ... She also seems a bit obsessed with Hinduism's interest in animals - something exploited to excess (for example I can't see why Yudhistra's dog had to be anything other than Dharamraj or a dog). and so, to conclude I don't think, on a question that looks so open ended and vast, two sufficiently knowledgeable persons can agree but Doniger is greatly agreeable. This is a very good and serious book that unfortunately, for all of us fell prey to narrow mindedness of a few fundamentalists and cowardice of its publishers - showing what joke our country has as freedom of speech.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Uma

    An interesting read... for a change found a Western Writer who got the stories right... Wendy Doniger has a Phd in Indian Studies and Sanskrit.. and she has done her homework with this book... Really liked the format of the book and the snippets of the stories that she has given... Gives a very nice perspective on hinduism, its myths and the popular stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The take on the evolution of the different practices in the religious context are given without any bias An interesting read... for a change found a Western Writer who got the stories right... Wendy Doniger has a Phd in Indian Studies and Sanskrit.. and she has done her homework with this book... Really liked the format of the book and the snippets of the stories that she has given... Gives a very nice perspective on hinduism, its myths and the popular stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The take on the evolution of the different practices in the religious context are given without any bias or judgement.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Baklavahalva

    Doniger covers so much ground, from pre-Aryan times to yesterday, and most of the contraversial topics (suttee, caste, tantra, beef-eating in the past, multiplicity of and contradictions among the sacred texts, relations with other religions), and she does it, as far as I can tell, with erudition, delicacy, and wit. She's also very knowledgeable of pop cultural adaptations of Hindu materials, both in India and outside. A very smooth, engrossing read. I wished for more pictures.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Riju Ganguly

    Do you remember those elders who tried to appear modern and 'up-to-date' in social gatherings, and ended up committing a series of faux pas that made everyone cringe? This is one such book. It tries to cover everything that a non-Hindu would try to seek while studying the various texts. Humans, Animals, Gods, Vedas, Brahmanas, Sacrifice and Renunciation, Position of Women, various interpretations of epics, philosophical feuds, caste, class, reforms under the East India Company— everything have bee Do you remember those elders who tried to appear modern and 'up-to-date' in social gatherings, and ended up committing a series of faux pas that made everyone cringe? This is one such book. It tries to cover everything that a non-Hindu would try to seek while studying the various texts. Humans, Animals, Gods, Vedas, Brahmanas, Sacrifice and Renunciation, Position of Women, various interpretations of epics, philosophical feuds, caste, class, reforms under the East India Company— everything have been discussed here. If I claim that the author didn't know what was being written, it would be wrong. Wendy Doniger is undoubtedly an erudite scholar who has studied ancient India rigorously in terms of culture, literature, language, rituals etc. But she committed two cardinal mistakes that a historian should NEVER make. Firstly, she tries to appear as someone who is painfully modern, in this monumental tome. As a result, the book is full of pop references that belong to the world of an American teenager. It's sprinkled with the author's bizarre notions regarding sex and violence in ancient 'Hindu' society (a huge misnomer, since the concept of 'Hindu' started denoting religion or culture only during the last thousand year or so). This made the experience incredibly jarring. Secondly, she made it very clear in the preface itself that the aim of this book would be akin to an attempt to cut the Hindu right wing to size. Ma'm, if you want to play a role in Indian politics, join one of those agencies who are employed by Pakistan, China and sundry others for explicitly that purpose. Please don't waste your obvious knowledge and understanding on such misguided attempts in the name of history. Dear reader, you have been advised now.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sajith Kumar

    This book is officially banned in India in response to the huge outrage followed its publication in 2009. Penguin had withdrawn all copies from circulation and destroyed the available ones. I got this copy from the public library, which must have somehow escaped the culling. People usually make much ado about nothing, especially if a book dealt with subjects considered to be holy, in an unconventional way. I was under the impression that this one also might have been misunderstood by the masses This book is officially banned in India in response to the huge outrage followed its publication in 2009. Penguin had withdrawn all copies from circulation and destroyed the available ones. I got this copy from the public library, which must have somehow escaped the culling. People usually make much ado about nothing, especially if a book dealt with subjects considered to be holy, in an unconventional way. I was under the impression that this one also might have been misunderstood by the masses on account of some of the indiscreet references in the text. However, I was bitterly disappointed by its style and content. The book runs to 779 pages, with a lot of research and references made in its writing. Its 25 chapters cover the whole gamut of time from the origins of humanity to the present. However, the shrill tone of negativity that pervades the whole narrative is thoroughly demoralizing for the reader. Topics that are to be handled very delicately, on account of the beliefs and traditions of a billion people, are treated cavalierly in street language. Freedom of expression is definitely to be protected, but what if one goes on pointless abuse in the form of his or her ideas? This book deserved to be banned and for one, the government has done the right job. Wendy Doniger is an American writer with two doctorates on Sanskrit and Indian Studies. She is the author of several translations of Sanskrit texts and many books about Hinduism, now working as professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago. The author tries to bring out an alternate version of the history of Hinduism from the perspective of the backward castes and women by challenging the established canons of Brahmin orthodoxy. Altogether, the book is a symbol of how books just fail to achieve the lofty ideals of the author. Scanning the ocean of cultural artifacts that make up Hindu culture, the author identifies that nonviolence is only an ideal propped up against the cultural reality of violence rather than an actual way of life. As a civilization that suffered much from chronic and terminal violence, it held the last hope of a cure. However, the Vedas and brahmanas (religious texts which chronologically followed the Vedas) advocated violence in the form of sacrifices. The book goes back even to the Neolithic age in order to produce a charade of comprehensiveness. Origins of the term ‘Hindu’ are investigated, and it may surprise many to learn that an Indian ruler used the title ‘Lord of the Hindus’ only after the 17th century. Doniger regards the greatness of Hinduism as its vitality, its earthiness, and its vividness and remarks that these are precisely the qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny. The author’s mood swings abruptly from wholehearted appreciation to seething antipathy in the space of a few paragraphs. She looks forward to pick up a fight with nationalists where none is warranted and out of context with irrelevant comparison between Aurangzeb, Reginald Dyer and M S Golwalkar (p.21). The first one was the bigoted Mughal emperor who began the downfall of his own dynasty; the second was the British military officer who ordered indiscriminate fire on the unarmed people assembled at Jallianwala Bagh and the third was the leader of the RSS, who built the edifice of the organization. Readers are left bewildered to wonder why the comparison was made other than for political reasons. However, another of Doniger’s observation that the Bhagavad Gita started to be highly regarded by the Hindus only after the westerners began to praise it may have an element of truth in it. The irreverent tone of the book sometimes assumes the shape of bad taste, as when it discusses the building discovered in Mohenjo Daro and considered to be the College of Priests. In Doniger’s point of view, it can only be said to be a big building and wonders why it couldn’t have been a dormitory, or a hotel, or a hospital, or even a brothel (p.79) as if these are enterprises (except the last one) which one would normally encounter in a civilization that flourished nearly 3000 years ago! The book has much to say about the Indus Valley Civilization. Showing the rebellious spirit again, the author refuses the convenience of hindsight in assigning the function of artifacts found in Indus sites to that of similar objects which were used in later Hinduism. Isn’t this an objection for objection’s only sake? While contemplating the likely causes of the decline of the civilization, Doniger meekly lists out the established schools of thought, even at the cost of contradiction with what she had claimed a few pages ago. One possible reason is said to be a change of course of the river. Doniger had stated earlier that the geographic span of the civilization was spread over 750,000 square km and a length of 600 km. Would such an urban society go totally out of the picture, if the river has changed its course? A rare useful identification in the book is the fact that the term Aryan does not denote a race, but a group of languages. There are no Aryan noses, only Aryan verbs, no Aryan people, and only Aryan-speaking people. The book furnishes conclusions without submitting any proof. When talking about the name to be given to the group of languages from which Sanskrit originated, it says that “Hindu is a somewhat tainted word, but there are no other easy alternatives; ‘Aryan’, by contrast, is a deeply tainted word” (p.91). We understand how ‘Aryan’ came to be tainted since the time of Hitler, but how is the word ‘Hindu’ tainted? There is no explanation here, just assertions. In all probability, the author has borrowed heavily from leftist historians like Romila Thapar for her historical references. These lines seem to be taken bodily out of some leftist political propaganda flyer! The study is not coherent. Doniger is an expert in Sanskrit, but when it comes to correlate the texts, she miserably fails to deliver, and appears to have lost the connection to relevant topics in the labyrinthine textual references. The Indus Valley Civilization is said to be not possessing iron, but there is no satisfactory guess on how it came about later. In the Rig Veda, ‘ayas’ means bronze, but by the time of Atharva Veda, ‘red ayas’ is bronze and ‘black ayas’ is iron. What happened in the meantime? She then makes the outlandish suggestion that iron was not imported, but developed in India from rich lodes in South Bihar, which is handicapped by incongruity in geography as well as time. The book lists some cognate words of Sanskrit terms found in Greek, English or other Indo-European languages, which is quite useful to appreciate the striking resemblance between them. The author follows religious thoughts developed in the post-Vedic period like an analyst does a census report. There is no detailed narrative on Buddhist and Jaina thought. The text must be credited with bringing about the suggestion that an alternative history exists for the backward castes and women, but has proved woefully inadequate to its mission in carrying it to fruition. Sex is the obsessive focal point of Doniger throughout the text, as she sees it everywhere she looks! The tension between Rama and Lakshmana in the Ramayana, which is said to be a major motivation of its plot is ascribed to be over Sita (p.237), thereby tempting the readers to think up illicit liaison. The stories of Shambuka and Ekalavya are – quite expectedly – trumpeted from the rooftop, in a pompous attempt to read an epic written down 2000 years ago in the glow of the enlightenment of a future era. Gupta age, which is called the classical or golden age, becomes the age of fool’s gold for Doniger. The reason? Because we find better architectural style in later years! The literary career of Kalidasa and his contemporaries are totally ignored in this assessment. Another absurdity put forward in justification is that the average standard of living was lower in the Gupta period as can be gleaned from archeological excavations from one or two sites. It is fortunate that she didn’t compare Gupta structures with New York skyscrapers to which city she belongs. But the pride of place in silliness must be given for the observation that the triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva might have been sustained, if not invented, in response to the Christian trinity (p.384)! The author’s characterization of Hindu tantra as largely predetermined by what you want to say about it (p.497) marks the attitude reflected in the entire book. The book sheds tears about backward castes, but there is no convincing narrative about how castes came about and multiplied. The causes circulated among scholars are simply copied down. However, in one of the rare instances of genuine insight, it declares that contradictions at Mahabharata’s heart are not the mistakes of a sloppy editor but enduring cultural dilemmas that no author could ever have resolved. This book is notorious for the irreverence and outright disregard for decency in the narrative. I am forced to list below some of the passages in the text verbatim so that the level of perversion may be visible to all. Those who are sensitive or very young MUST SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH and shall not read below this line. On the anecdote of Sita eyeing Maricha as a golden deer which captivated her, Doniger says that “the princess in exile is delighted to find that Tiffany’s has a branch in the forest” (p.231). Such humourless jokes abound in the book. Then, on the author of the Mahabharata, it claims that Vyasa, its author, appears as a walking semen bank (p.293). On Tantra, it crosses all limits as she says that “after all, people have imagined that they have flown to heaven and walked among the gods, so why not imagine that you’re drinking your sister’s menstrual blood?” (p.430). No wonder this filth was banned in India. Doniger lists a multitude of reasons why the Muslim sultans just demolished or desecrated temples, which is interesting to read (p.455). They are 1) some earlier Hindu rulers also demolished temples 2) some are lured by the legendary wealth of temples 3) temples were the centres of political and economic power 4) temples housed treasures that Hindu rulers had already stolen from other temples or Buddhist stupas 5) some temples were military strongholds In short, anything but the fanaticism and bigotry of the Jihadis! The fourth reason is especially notable for the amount of schadenfreude in coming up with such an insensitive argument. In a naked case of double standards, while Doniger is all scorn and contemptuous towards anything Indian (perhaps as a result of somebody from the Hindu Right throwing an egg at her during one of her speeches in London), she bends over backwards in the extraordinary caution not to say anything that can even remotely be construed as anti-Islamic. Every sane person agrees that the poll tax of Jizya imposed upon the non-Muslims living in a Muslim country is barbaric. Just see what the Islamic State is doing in Syria and Iraq. But the author justifies and even endorses it in her testimony that it was just a payment for military protection (p.449). Holy wars are, in Doniger’s view, more often politically motivated though now we properly call them Jihad and its perpetrators Jihadis. She is pained to see someone attributing religious intentions behind them! Then comes the strange assertion that Turkish women adopted the Purdah system from the Rajputs. Women circulated like money in those times and many Muslims took Hindu wives, but the author conveniently fails to mention that the reverse process – of Hindu men taking Muslim wives – never took place. Again, it is an established fact that mass conversions at the point of the sword occurred during the Mughal rule in India. This is countered with a farcical statement that “there is evidence for the conversion of only 200 Hindus to Islam during Mughal rule” (p.546), and then lists a number of instances of Muslims converting to Hinduism. She seems to be in a wonderland with no integral idea of what she was talking about, as is seen in the claim that there were no Rama temples in Ayodhya until Babur built it there (p.550). Regarding the modern era, what the author has to say is that Mangal Pandey, the sepoy who sparked off the riot that later enraged as the First War of Independence in 1857, was acting under the influence of opium. The book is a huge one, with a comprehensive index and a sizeable section of Notes. A glossary and chronology is provided that is very useful. For historical references, she has subcontracted the work to Romila Thapar’s politically coloured analysis. Doniger has retold many stories from obscure texts often to buttress her claims, but those provide a rare insight to differences of opinion in ancient times. The book’s division of Indian religious life in the ancient period to belong to three eras of Vedic (sacrifices and rituals), sects (worship of Krishna, Shiva) and bhakti (temples, pilgrimage) appears to be emphasized accurately. The book is not recommended.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Vandita

    I read the heavy tome that is 'the Hindus' around 2 yrs back. It is one of those books which I was left a little ambivalent about (though the author earned my respect by sheer expanse and knowledge of Hinduism, given she is an authority on the subject, not a surprise). It is not a 'here is Hinduism so let me let you about it right from the start' kind of a book. It is a book which is best read once one is comfortable with the 'Hinduism' epics, stories as we already know them. Then read this as ' I read the heavy tome that is 'the Hindus' around 2 yrs back. It is one of those books which I was left a little ambivalent about (though the author earned my respect by sheer expanse and knowledge of Hinduism, given she is an authority on the subject, not a surprise). It is not a 'here is Hinduism so let me let you about it right from the start' kind of a book. It is a book which is best read once one is comfortable with the 'Hinduism' epics, stories as we already know them. Then read this as 'the alternate history' which is the sub title of the book. It is the classic ' counter view/ counter culture' view point - covering topics and slants which are not mainstream in brahamanical narrations, retelling of stories and characters and history of Hinduism (as we know it). The emphasis is on fishing out angles on how non Brahmins were treated, reacted to royal and priest class, how women played a part (or not, as the case any be) and a sweep at historical perspective of how Hinduism interacted with contemporary faiths /contexts (be it Jainism, Buddhism, Mughal rulers or later the raj period). Thus, one can at times feel a bit disappointed (eg chapter on Mahabharata concentrates on draupadi, an episode on eklavya to make a point on tribal / caste issue and a surreal (though well crafted) interpretation of what dog who followed yudhishtar to heaven represents and stands for. Having said that, one needs to read this book (written in an engaging manner, with humour which some may think irreverent but I quite enjoyed) with an open mind, without feeling insecure about one's faith or interpretations that are 'known' and take the titbits of episodes weaved together (lots of those to fill 700+ pages) to understand an 'alternate', even if at times it seems being looked at through contemporary, modern lens (not entirely appropriate for religious, semi historical theme) and sometimes stretched and repetitive (eg feminist, post modern take on some issues). On the most positive side, this is not a flippant, badly researched (though at times some minor historical inaccuracies do creep in) or sensationalised piece of work which some have made it out to be: one may not agree with the 'importance' of her conclusions but it is an engaging, well thought out view point of what may not the 'first' lens of looking at Hinduism and its history( stories). My ambivalence stems from the fact that I'm not sure that I thought the 'seeming patterns' of issues that she classifies as the 'missed/ not commented upon' really require 700+pages. so, read if you have strong arm muscles (the hardcover was heavy!) and an appetite for the 'counter point'.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Girish

    "Non-sense" might have been too strong a word to use here. But I always have a problem reading something where the author has a conclusion in mind, and then cites facts and evidence to make the point. In this case, Wendy states that her intention for writing the book was to show that the "peripheral" characters (women, Dailits, animals, etc.) also made contributions to the formation of Hinduism. She then cites text, interprets the text, and presents it to support her conclusion. To her credit, s "Non-sense" might have been too strong a word to use here. But I always have a problem reading something where the author has a conclusion in mind, and then cites facts and evidence to make the point. In this case, Wendy states that her intention for writing the book was to show that the "peripheral" characters (women, Dailits, animals, etc.) also made contributions to the formation of Hinduism. She then cites text, interprets the text, and presents it to support her conclusion. To her credit, she does say that this but one interpretation. Unfortunately, she got her facts wrong on Jainism. Look at "Jainas" and "Jina" in her glossary. She says that Jainas are followers of the religion founded by the Jina, in the fifth century BCE. Additionally, she says Jina is Vardhamana Mahavira, founder of Jainism. "Jina" is a term used to connote the highest state of enlightenment that a human can achieve. Like Nirvana, this is the state that Jains try to achieve. There is no founder of Jainism called Jina. Mahavir Swami was last of the 24 Tirthankars that have kept Jainism alive over several millenniums. In Jainism, a Tirthankar is a human being who helps in achieving liberation and enlightenment. I don't think any legitimate Vedic historian would argue that Hinduism became too ritualistic, ingrained in the caste system, and completely separated from the true Vedantic teachings. This is why both Jainism and Buddhism formed as counter movements to Hinduism. Even within Hinduism, Adi Shankara reformed Hinduism through the doctrine of advaita vedanta in 8 century CE. I am sure I am missing the main thesis and point of this book. But in my defense, her writing style and approach does not help. Just read her write-up on "IS INDUS RELIGION A MYTH?" around page 63. She describes the baths and other structures, and then proceeds to sarcastically mock the interpretations and importance other historians may have given to these. She does this by posing sarcastic questions to poke holes, and then reaches her own conclusion without any evidence other than it being her interpretation. See this chapter by chapter rebuttal: http://hindureview.com/2010/04/02/%C2...

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rohit Sharma

    When it comes to picking up books that I want to read, I usually have a weird way of choosing what to read :) starting from a terrific looking book cover to a never heard Author (that happens a lot) to an unbelievable title to a too cheap a book by the looks of it ;) and so many more such unbelievable reasons. But there is another superb way that I get my books (where the book picks me) through Author / Publishers or from friends and family as Gifts. Last year our kiddo gave us a shock by declar When it comes to picking up books that I want to read, I usually have a weird way of choosing what to read :) starting from a terrific looking book cover to a never heard Author (that happens a lot) to an unbelievable title to a too cheap a book by the looks of it ;) and so many more such unbelievable reasons. But there is another superb way that I get my books (where the book picks me) through Author / Publishers or from friends and family as Gifts. Last year our kiddo gave us a shock by declaring that she wanted to convert to Christianity as soon as we came back from a long vacation covering parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Her reason for doing the same was that she was being pushed out from all the Temples we visited but no one bothered her when she was sitting and praying in a church even on the eve of Christmas day. Her first choice was Islam but unfortunately my father in law is a devout (read Hardcore Extremist) Hindu, she dare not go against him :). At that stage I wondered how he would react to her Christianity stand. And while all this was going through in my household and my wifey was looking for a book to gift me, she couldn't find a better one than "The Hindus" as she thought this may enlighten me about our own roots and I may share some of the enlightenment with our kiddo :). So, I got this book as a gift in 2018 and last night (on the eve of my birthday) I finished it looking forward to another equally entertaining gift from her yet again. Let's see what she gets me this time. Oh! and before I forget to mention, "The Hindus" is a solid entertainer when it comes to Hinduism as it is typically an American perspective of an Indian religion and written exactly the same way they make movies on our part of the world. If you know what I mean :). The book is a mammoth 700+ pages with Introduction running to some 25+ pages and the glossary in the end about 150+ pages strong. It took me a little over a month to finish it, although I thoroughly enjoyed Wendy Doniger's commentary on Hinduism which was more on India than on the religion. And it would have been better if she had titled it "Indians or India" (in last 50 million years till now). I have no doubts on her research or the efforts she has put in putting this incredible work together but it is heartening (or rather laughable) to read that as per her Indian mythology especially Ramayan and Mahabharat are now a cult all thanks to the 80's TV series' based on Amar Chitra Katha Comics. She goes on to the extent of saying that the Indians believe and follow what these comics have told the so called stories of both the epics as there is no concrete evidence so far that they ever took place in real time. As per her, Bollywood too has a huge impact on how the History now is told in our part of the world, especially after someone like a SRK plays a violent king Ashoka in one of the epic movies of India. It is unbelievable to read (her opinion) that whenever a movie is made in our part of the world from a historical chapter, it holds the power to change the facts. A majority of the book is commentary on India and Hindu Muslim relations in last few centuries than Hinduism, its inception, progress or current state. Through her research and disclosed sources she even claims that we are no Aryans, we are rather descendants from South Africa. And as per the geographical movements of the tectonic plates, we got cut off some 50 million years ago from the African continent and our part of continent physically moved to where we are today :). I have no idea of her research or its authenticity or even its critical or literary acclaim but one thing is for sure that she presented it all in a very interesting manner and I had a jolly good time reading our own history especially from the last 2000 odd years to the current date. She has covered previous 50 million years to 2009 in this book before it got published. One thing that I totally loved about Wendy Doniger's Hindus is that a major of her work is inspired or I can say is in awe of amazing authors like Rudyard Kipling (a huge lot), Konrad, Voltaire, George Orwell, William Dalrymple, Shashi Tharoor etc, even JK Rowling gets a mention in her account of our History. Also, a majority of the book as I said is a commentary on what was going in India in those many years that she covered based on her research of material available. 50% of the book is based on Manu Smriti and Kamasutra (Shocking and surprisingly). I am now totally intrigued to lay my hands on both the original (translations of-course) at the earliest as she has totally piqued my interest in them as well a few of Kipling's as multiple mention of few of his works and how that was relevant to Hinduism or Indian culture was totally rocking stuff (I mean entertaining in a good way). Also, she has credited Romila Thapar and her work so much in the same field that I believe it will be a great idea to pick up her book and read it ASAP. Co-incidentally I gifted the same book last week to a very dear friend of mine as I was reading the Hindus :). This is one of those few books that one (Indian) may read out of sheer curiosity to know about our own roots and culture from the eyes of an American. If I may be allowed to say, I will go on to say that "The Hindus" is actually Wendy Doniger's "Satanic Verses". If we Hindu's had something called a Fatwa (Hindu sentence) she would be running for her life from all of us :). She is actually too brave to write so much about Hindus, Hinduism, Muslims, Indian Christians, Sikhs, Congress Govt VS BJP Government, RSS, Hindu Muslim relations, Authenticity of Babri Masjid, Taj Mahal, Ramayan, Mahabharat and so many more sensitive topics in her own way. It is pretty offensive at times to read but then we live in a free world and she has her own right in writing the history as she / they know or feel it. I can go on and on about the book but I will stop right here although I am now very curious to know if she wrote the history of Christianity too, I would love to know her views on her own religion (assuming she is a Christian) or if she wrote anything on Islam (that would be very interesting and a Fatwa would have followed for sure). Have you read "The Hindus"? If you have, do let me know if you like it (for any reason like me), if not, I suggest you stay away unless you really need something funny which may take a lot of precious time but will certainly give you some superb food for your thoughts. PS: That blurb by Amartya Sen is such a heart-break especially after I have finished the book. Wonder if he really read the book before endorsing it. PS2: I will be looking forward to Authentic Translations of Manusmriti and Kamasutra (literature), do let know if you have any recommendations on the subjects.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Saurabh

    Doniger's book is one of the most unreadable books I've ever attempted to read. The text is meandering, excessively verbose, and narcissistic. Her sense of humour has not outgrown elementary school. From the 100 or so pages I forced myself to go through, there is nothing even remotely bannable other than poor writing. I suspect the ban was "arranged" -- nobody would have bought the book otherwise.

  26. 4 out of 5

    John Russon

    An outstanding book. I highly recommend this book to any educated adult, in order to get a rich and insightful look at one of the most important religious cultures in the world. Fantastically learned, clearly and engagingly written, brilliant.

  27. 5 out of 5

    M

    Lucky I don't own this book ... Wendy Doniger needs a brain transplant.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ajay

    Disgusting.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mukesh Kumar

    Started reading this as a protest against the disgusting capitulation of Penguin India in front of the fanatics. And before I knew it, was stuck for good in its tilism like, meandering passages, with their stories within stories and myths within histories within myths kind of labyrinths, grinding my way at times, gliding at others. The whole book is a huge tome on Hinduism, a mind bogglingly detailed and researched work, full of history, myths, legends, stories and anecdotes, popular and counter Started reading this as a protest against the disgusting capitulation of Penguin India in front of the fanatics. And before I knew it, was stuck for good in its tilism like, meandering passages, with their stories within stories and myths within histories within myths kind of labyrinths, grinding my way at times, gliding at others. The whole book is a huge tome on Hinduism, a mind bogglingly detailed and researched work, full of history, myths, legends, stories and anecdotes, popular and counter culture related. No doubt, Wendy Doniger calls it a product of her lifetime of research. And I doubt if she has left any strand, any concept out of the vast ocean that was ancient Hinduism. She covers everything from the puritanical to the eclectic, from the ancient pre-vedic to modern militant 'Hindutva', from the devotional Bhakti to materialist Lokayats and more, from Dualists ( dvaits of Shankar ) to Advaits, from Virshaivs to Vasihnavs, to Satnamis and modern day Adivasis, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, all strands and offshoots, covering the entire spectrum that was Hinduism. The author in its initial chapter makes it clear that she would be focussing on the voices of animals, women and the sub-altern and would look for subtexts in the scriptures that would seem like their voices. And she does that throughout, with an active intent. Another aspect that is quite clear is the author's intense affection for Hinduism for its adoptive, accommodative nature and ability to assimilate conflicting, contradictory voices and giving them space for existence, and also for not being orthodox till the last two centuries. So, it is even more ironical, to have the fanatics arguing that the book was anti-Hinduism. While the truth is that the author bends over backwards to defend even the most degrading of Hinduism's practices and cites innumerable counter-narratives and liberal voices throughout. The only criticism that I could find for the book was its sometimes too dense, scholarly content which was bit fo slog to go through. But as I said, it was an exhausting but rewarding experience. And I can't over-state the fact that this book single-handedly enhanced my understanding of India's multiculturism, its ancient philosophies and faith systems. Must read and a new favourite.

  30. 5 out of 5

    JP Schmidt

    I was drawn to this book by a lifelong interest in the complexities of Indian religion and society. The author, an American scholar of Sanskrit and Indian religion, rights engagingly if she sometimes goes in a bit too much for jokey plays on words and ideas. The gist of what makes the book "alternative" is that she more or less rejects the traditional Hindu narrative on the origins of various facets and strains of the multifarious religious tradition. She wisely avoids coming down on any particul I was drawn to this book by a lifelong interest in the complexities of Indian religion and society. The author, an American scholar of Sanskrit and Indian religion, rights engagingly if she sometimes goes in a bit too much for jokey plays on words and ideas. The gist of what makes the book "alternative" is that she more or less rejects the traditional Hindu narrative on the origins of various facets and strains of the multifarious religious tradition. She wisely avoids coming down on any particular side on the issue of the relationship between the Indus Valley people and later Indian cultures. However, she does present evidence that draws into question any strong link between the two. While the Aryan invasion hypothesis has been called into question by many, particularly in India, as yet another offshoot of European colonialism. So she begins with Vedic religion and then argues that what we now call Hindu really rose in dialog with various movements against the Brahmanism, i.e. Buddhism and Jainism. Of course, the Brahmin tradition reasserts itself over and over. Interestingly, what is considered by contemporary Hindus as the core text is regarded by scholars like Doniger as Vedic religion having incorporated many Buddhist critiques. What is always interesting about India is the pluralism: different religious philosophies and sects live side by side and have for millenia. What is also fascinating is the depth and variety of thought in India. What is always dismaying, of course, is the persistence of notions of caste which impose severe limitations on the rights of various groups. Doniger's coverage of the British Raj is both complex and hard-hitting. It's hard to see that much good came from it in her account. Later sections on Tantrism were maybe too much detail for me. If you like historical ironies and paradoxes this book and India are for you!

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