The Hindus: An Alternative History

The Hindus: An Alternative History June 2, 2014

Wendy Doniger’s 700 page exploration of Hinduism and the history of the Hindus has been extremely controversial. The Hindus: An Alternative History was  published in 2008, received scathing reviews from Hindus, and was banned for a time in India. This is how I heard of the book to begin with. What could possibly be so scandalous that a country would ban a book of its history? As someone with more than one degree in religious history and a practitioner of Hindu devotions* I wanted to check out this book.

First, who is this Wendy Doniger? She’s the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She’s got degrees from Harvard and Oxford, including not one, but TWO doctorates. She’s published more than 30 books and numerous journal articles. She is fluent in Sanskrit. I’m guessing she probably knows what she’s talking about.

Now, let’s look at some of the criticism against Professor Doniger’s book. My colleague, Ambaa, on the Hindu channel here at Patheos, has given a great rundown of articles critiquing the book. Ambaa’s post is the most thorough blog roll of posts connected with Doniger’s book that I could find. Another blogger on the Hindu channel posted about her objections to the book here. I have read many of the objections to Doniger’s book and mostly what I read goes something like this: She’s not Hindu, how can she be qualified to speak for Hindusim in any way? She’s obsessed with sex and animals. She’s deliberately distorting Hinduism.

After reading the offending book I can say this: I can understand why there are Hindus offended by this book, they don’t understand scholarship, and they’re missing the point.

Let’s address the scholarship point first. Doniger is a scholar. She is not attempting to speak for Hindus; she is attempting to shed new light on an ancient tradition. Reading her most recent collection of essays, On Hinduism, her opening chapter explains how she has been in love with the mythology and culture of South Asia since she was a girl. Doniger has devoted her entire life to the study of this tradition. While this does not make her a Hindu, nor override objections by Hindus, she is not just some brainless person without investment in the tradition, making things up. She’s got two doctorates in the field! I will go so far as to say she probably knows more about Hinduism than many Hindus.

It’s a lot like how I feel about Christianity. I often know far more about Christianity than many believers. For example, I have been told by many Christians (all conservative, usually Evangelical of some stripe) that Catholics aren’t Christians. They are entirely wrong on this point. I don’t care how many pastors may have told them this. It is incorrect, historically, theologically, entirely. There are Hindus who also will say that certain expressions and traditions of Hinduism are less Hindu or not correct or not even Hindu – and they would be incorrect. This is part what Doniger is running into.

As for her ‘obsession’ with sex and animals, Doniger makes plain her agenda in her introduction:

“Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition – women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables) – did actually contribute to Hinduism.” (pg 1)

And on page 7: “This is a history, not the history, of the Hindus.”

No wonder people are angry! Doniger is deliberately attempting to look at the history of Hinduism through the lenses of the marginalized. People hate it when this happens in any field! It’s why feminist, gender, multicultural (ie, non-white) studies face such struggles as well! I do not know why readers of this book missed these very clear statements of her intent. Doniger is not trying to fool anyone. She isn’t claiming that her history is the only history, only that she is looking around the edges of traditional histories to see what might have been left out. This is part of what scholars do.

Those who are offended by this book are most likely those who are invested in the more Brahmanical, mainstream variations of Hinduism. It is disturbing that people want to silence this book and its ideas. On page 25 Doniger says,

“There is no single founder or institution to enforce any single construction of the tradition, to rule out what is or is not a Hindu idea or to draw the line when someone finally goes too far and transgresses the unspoken boundaries of reinterpretation. Ideas about all the major issues – vegetarianism, nonviolence, even caste itself – are subject to debate, not a dogma. There is no Hindu canon.” [emphasis mine]

Now that I’ve addressed some of the criticism against Doniger’s writing, let’s get to the actual book review. If you’d like my summation now, here it is: I thought this book was excellent. I loved it.

Why did I like it so much? I appreciate what Doniger is doing with her history. I found her writing clear and amusing; her wit comes through in clever word play and cheeky references. I’m not sure how well these aspects would hold up in translations, but in English, she is delightful. I also found many of her insights relatable to Paganism/s.

In a chapter called “Time and Space in India,” Doniger looks at the desire to find an Origin story, the ur-origin of Hinduism that will give Authority to various claims. Paganism/s do this too. There seems to be a human desire for some kind of True Beginning, which will shed light into True Practice and Belief. She also addresses ideas of multiplicity and hybridity. There are no ‘pure’ strains of any one thing. Mixing elements, or acknowledging a variety of influences, is not admitting that something new has been created from ‘pure’ pieces; rather, all pieces have been influenced and mixed at some point in some way along the winding and vast road of Tradition. Hinduism and Paganism (and all religions) have this in common.

She also addresses the tension between monist, monotheistic, henotheistic, and polytheistic expressions of Hinduism – and acknowledges that many people vacillate between one or the other over time. Many Pagans can relate (I know I can). She briefly mentions that “there is an inverse correlation between the powers of goddesses or supernatural women in texts and natural women on the ground” (pg 378). Basically: the more glorified the goddess the more damned the earthly female. This is common in Christianity and its usage of the Virgin Mary. Just because a tradition has a goddess (or equivalent figure in the case of Mary) does not mean it is feminist in any way.

There are also helpful lessons on cultural appropriation, the perils of Orientalism, and how colonial British racism has influenced modern Hinduism. She looks at different “Hindu objections to American appropriation of Hinduism:

  1. Americans have gotten Kali and Tantra all wrong.
  2. Even when they get Kali and Tantra right, they are wrong, because they have gotten hold of the Wrong Sort of Hinduism; they should have written about the Bhagavad Gita and Vedantic philosophy.
  3. Even when Americans write about the Gita, they are desecrating and exploiting Hinduism, because only Hindus have a right to talk about Hinduism.”

Funny – this is JUST what Doniger herself comes up against! And I too relate what she goes on to say next:

“…[T]he features of Kali and Tantra that most American devotees embrace and celebrate are often precisely the aspects of the Hindu tradition has tried, for centuries, to tone down, domesticate, deny, or censor actively, the polytheistic, magical, fertile, erotic, and violent aspects. American intellectuals and devotees generally turn to Hinduism for theological systems, charismatic figures, and psychological practices unavailable in their own traditions.” (pg 651)

I suspect the above paragraph will resonate with many Pagans, who left their traditions of origin for something more personally meaningful and …. juicy.

In the end, Doniger sums up what I think her book offers to Pagans: “We can learn from India’s long and complex history of pluralism not just some of the pitfalls to avoid but the successes to emulate.” (pg 689)

This book succeeds in its stated aims and purposes. I learned a ton, had my existing knowledge of Hinduism and Indian history challenged and expanded, and enjoyed the journey. My one caveat for the book, though, is that this most definitely not a beginner’s book. The blurb across the top of my edition says it’s a graduate course in the topic, and I completely concur. For those who already have a background in Indian history, Hinduism/s, and/or the field of history, this will be an excellent read. All others might find this a challenging book to get through.

*Notice I did not say I am a Hindu. I am not. While I am serious about my Hindu devotions, I am not culturally Hindu and make no claims to be so.

"Did you ever read about St. Seraphim of Sarov? He is an Orthodox saint who ..."

What I Miss About Being A ..."
"Contemplation is a good beginning... Introspect, contemplate, initiate and once you find what you seek... ..."

Shiva the Witch God
"Wiccans can be polytheists too! Jason Mankey deftly proved this at last year's MGW. You ..."

Many Gods West 2016
"Congratulations! I'm glad to hear this will continue. If you'll have a Wiccan among you, ..."

Many Gods West 2016

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I have the book (and, I must admit, I didn’t get it until I heard Neil Gaiman say it was banned and how much he objected to its banning and therefore supports it…though I enjoy many of Doniger’s other books, and actually had a brief e-mail conversation with her a few years ago!), but have not read it yet…I hope I can soon after your review here!

    • I suspect you’ll enjoy it, though I’d love to hear what you think when you finally read it.

  • It’s certainly not a book designed for the beginner. I found it to be a challenging (though enlightening) read. I’ve seen it described as a “Master’s thesis” on Hindu history and while that might be an over-statement, it’s not that far-off. During my time with the book I found myself having to look up some things in order to better understand and appreciate the text.

    You are completely right about Doniger’s humor and wit. I laughed quite a bit while reading the book.

    Your observations are mostly in line with my own. The qualities I like best about many Hindu traditions (and deities, go Shiva!) are the ones being downplayed and marginalized.

    • Oh, I’d go farther. I’ve written a master’s thesis and this far beyond that scope!! I found many things that related to Paganism/s, or insights that could be useful for our developing project. I’m now reading her essay “On Hinduism” – also excellent.

  • Ambaa

    Woo-hoo, I have the best round up! lol.

    I’m so glad to read your thoughts. I haven’t read it and I’m not really an academic or scholar, so I was hoping someone would post a level-headed discussion of what’s actulaly in the book!

    • I didn’t want to dismiss concerns of those who were offended, but I sure wish the criticism has been…… better. When I saw how her agenda was stated *right up front* I was a little shocked that people clearly hadn’t read that! Why yes, this book does indeed focus on animals and gender!

      • Ambaa

        Sad as it is, I would bet that the majority of people reviewing and talking about the book have not read it but only read about it.

  • Deana

    A main issue people had with the book is that she is a professor and teaching all the people who go on to teach Hinduism in the US. So what she says gets taught as fact. When Hindus say that isn’t what something means, they’re basically told that she’s the scholar and they aren’t so she gets to say what it means. She has basically a position of power and privilege and doesn’t need to listen to actual Hindus. So if she says Ganesha’s trunk represents a limp phallus, and Hindus are offended, well, she gets to be the expert. It’s exactly like if a professor of religion was teaching that Wicca is in fact Satanism and when Wiccans protested, the professor’s voice trumped the practitioner’s voices.

    (I don’t agree at all with book banning and, anyway, what a disingenuous strategy. More people will read it because of that than would have otherwise.)

    • I understand that that is the main argument against the book, but it is one that doesn’t seem to understand how scholarship works. So any Christian who disagree that Catholics aren’t Christians is right because they’re Christians and a professor isn’t? That’s not how scholarship works. Besides, there are many other books, many other professors of religion writing on Hinduism. Dongier won’t be taught as ‘fact.’ She is not the be all, end all of modern scholarship in this field. She is listening to Hindus. But Hinduism is a WIDE river, and the Hindus who are upset also don’t get to say what is true Hinduism (that doesn’t exist).

      It is not at all like a professor teaching that Wicca is Satanism. That would be a completely wrong statement of fact. I don’t recall her saying that Ganesh’s trunk is a limp phallus in this book; she may have said that elsewhere. And what is the context of that? She herself discusses issues around the Shiva lingam, both for and against it being representative of a phallus. And there *are* arguments for each way of viewing it *from within the Hindu tradition*. Just because one Hindu says it’s not how he or his tradition view it, doesn’t mean there aren’t other traditions or people who do so.

      • Deana

        I never said anything about fundies insisting Catholics aren’t Christian. Are you saying that all Hindus are fundamentalists? It’s more along the lines of someone who isn’t Christian teaching that it’s a religion with a vampire god whose ritual centers on cannibalism. You could read it that way, but it would offend basically all the practitioners.

        There are other professors teaching Hinduism in the US. They’ve mostly studied under her or studied under her students (like Jeffrey Kripal, whose book Kali’s Child is a homoerotic reinterpretation of Ramakrishna).

        • I am not saying anything about fundamentalists. Plenty of non-fundy Christians believe that about Catholics.

          I am saying that the argument that because she’s not Hindu herself she cannot spend her life studying the tradition, and will automatically be incorrect, is completely wrong, populist in a negative way, and misunderstands how scholarship works.

          • Deana

            Ok, I see. You’re saying that a non-Hindu has the right to study Hinduism and write about it. I agree. I have been studying Hinduism for years and do in fact plan to write about it. The issue is that scholarship about Hinduism in the West has been filtered through colonialism for all these years. Hindus didn’t start immigrating here until 1965 (with the exception of a few gurus who Christianized their practices, like Yogananda), so they haven’t had a chance to establish their own voice in the universities, where the scholars are all non-Hindu and have studied under non-Hindu professors and taken colonialist sources and interpretations as fact.

          • Have you read this book? She addresses exactly these topics!

          • Deana

            I have read the book a long time back. I remember her talking about having an egg thrown at her (which is not an appropriate response). I’ve read other articles by her, in some of which she talks about choosing Sanskrit at a time when it seemed like a small area of study without much controversy and here she is all these years later amidst this controversy. I’m not for book banning at all. I wish more Hindu books were available.

  • Deana

    Here is an article that explains it better than I am. It starts:

    Imagine this:

    A book called The Women, written by a man who claims to be an expert on women.

    A book called The Poor, written by a millionaire who read a few books on poverty (written mostly by other rich people).

    A book called The Gays, written by a heterosexual who insists he loves them even if his subjects say he is quite homophobic.

    Now consider a book called The Hindus.

    • I read that. It is absurd. It saying that straight scholars will never have anything to add to queer studies, and so on. And in fact men have been writing about women for ages and ages, which yes, is problematic, but not all of it is wrong or useless!

      Have you read Doniger’s book? She never, not once, claims to be writing as a Hindu or for Hindus. Her scholarship does not negate Hindus’ own work in the field or their personal beliefs. If only insiders get to write about a topic, well then our shelves would be very thin indeed.

      • Deana

        I read it a few years ago before all the outrage. I don’t think all of the complaints against it are equally valid, but neither are they absurd. The shelves on Hinduism are already very thin. Go into any bookstore and it’s three different translations of the Gita plus Doniger. To get any other books you’ll have to order from an ashram or import from India. I waited years to get Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya because even after it had been released in India, Amazon wasn’t carrying it. I had it on pre-order and it kept getting delayed. It’s not as though the shelves are overflowing with Hindu voices and her book is among them. It’s that the shelves are void of Hindu voices and her book stands mostly alone.

        • Or order through an academic press. That Doniger stands alone is not her fault. I find the argument that there aren’t other voices a solid argument, but not against the contents of her book.

          • Deana

            Again, I’m not for book banning. I’m not for protesting a book or throwing eggs at the author. I do wish the shelves looked similar for Hinduism as they do for Buddhism or Judaism, which have a similar number of US practitioners. I’ve even wondered if Hindus don’t read as much — if it’s a religion of practice more than a bookish religion. I don’t believe in dismissing the criticisms of people who are offended by saying she’s a scholar and they aren’t so she gets more say. Practicing Hindus haven’t had equal opportunity to be in her position.

    • Ugh! I just can’t get in line with this way of thinking. How credible would studies of Christianity be if only undertaken by believers? A diverse amount of views is what’s necessary.

      • Deana

        That would be great — if there were diverse views in American academia regarding Hinduism. There aren’t. There’s Doniger, professors who were trained by her, professors who were trained by professors who were trained by her. Doniger is the “authority” in the US on Hinduism. India was still a colony until 1947. Indians were not allowed to immigrate to the US until 1965. US universities have diverse staff teaching religions other than Hinduism. There aren’t Hindu voices competing with Doniger’s in positions of power like hers. If there weren’t women running departments of women’s studies and they were all run by men who taught from The Women by Rush Limbaugh, that doesn’t seem like a potential issue?

        I don’t side with anyone who throws eggs or bans books. But Hindus have a valid point when they complain that their religion is taught in a way that’s offensive to them and they are not represented.

        After the huge discussion Paganism recently had about “Wiccanate privilege” I can’t believe there are Pagans who can’t see the issue with professors of religion who are teaching about Hinduism but didn’t learn what they’re teaching from actual Hindus. You want to talk about someone not having a place at the table? Or being told their voices don’t matter because they’re “just practitioners” and what would they know, compared to “scholars”?

        • No one is saying the Hindus who object shouldn’t do so. But you are assuming that they also speak for Hinduism as a whole and they don’t. There is no dogmatic Hinduism. I suspect there are plenty of Hindu scholars in India doing work on Hinduism. Yes it would be nice if more Hindus in America were in the academy, but disregarding non-Hindu scholarship because there aren’t enough Hindus doing it…. that’s just not how scholarship works!! That’s like saying no men should do work on women’s health issues until women are equal in sciences, or no one should write American history until there are equal Native American and African-American people also writing American history.

          Doniger’s history is deliberately a history from the edges and not a mainstream history. I cannot continue to repeat the same points over and over. My review basically sums it up. You keep repeating your objections and they just don’t hold water.

        • Evangelical Christians complain that their faith isn’t taught correctly, should we put Joel Olsteen in charge of how Christianity is taught in academia? Teaching “religion” in an academic context is not the same as teaching a religion to a practitioner of faith. They are completely different animals. Training to teach about a religion is different than training to teach a religion.

  • Deana

    Just as Pagan worship sites were destroyed throughout Europe and Christian temples put in their places, Hindu holy sites have been (and are being) destroyed throughout India and mosques put in their places. Not only does Doniger ridicule people who want to preserve these sites (see her section on the Rama Setu, for example), but she makes statements such as:

    Page 469 -”The mosque, whose serene calligraphic and geometric decoration contrasts with the perpetual motion of the figures depicted on the temple, makes a stand against the chaos of India, creating enforced vacuums that India cannot rush into with all its monkeys and peoples and colors and the smells of the bazaar”

    Ah, the mosque. Serenity. So much better than all those monkeys and chaos. How can this be interpreted in any way other than anti-Hindu?

    People aren’t criticizing her because they hate unbiased scholarship, but because this biased book is supposed to be authoritative.

    • I think you’re taking her way out of context. She does not mock. She does point out the ridiculous propaganda that both sides employed to say that their sites should stand and others’ shouldn’t. I think you are mistaking a sense of humor for mockery.

      It’s totally biased: *she states upfront what her biases are*. ALL scholarship is biased – EVEN THE HINDUS WHO WRITE ON HINDUISM ARE BIASED. I do not think you understand what scholarship is.

      • Deana

        You might be right. What you’re called a sense of humor, I’m seeing as condescension and mockery on almost every page. At any rate, I’ll read through the book again (which will take awhile) and see if I have a different opinion.

  • Henry Buchy

    “After reading the offending book I can say this: I can understand why there are Hindus offended by this book, they don’t understand scholarship, and they’re missing the point.”
    well that’s fairly condescending. maybe western scholars don’t really understand Hindus. Heh, shades of Caroline Tully there….
    “Hindu objections to American appropriation of Hinduism:
    1.Americans have gotten Kali and Tantra all wrong.
    I agree on that.
    2.Even when they get Kali and Tantra right, they are wrong, because they have gotten hold of the Wrong Sort of Hinduism; they should have written about the Bhagavad Gita and Vedantic philosophy.
    I totally disagree here. if anything, it’s the opposite. It’s only Vedanta and the gita that most Americans are familiar with, and also what most American Sanskrit scholars write about. I’d even say that what Prof. Doniger labels “Hindu” as meaning followers of Vedanta specifically, in this case, and then uses that as implying that ‘nonvedantic’ schools are somehow viewed as less “Hindu”.
    3.Even when Americans write about the Gita, they are desecrating and exploiting Hinduism, because only Hindus have a right to talk about Hinduism.”
    That I also disagree with. it’s a sweeping generalization. Tied to this is another statement:
    ““…[T]he features of Kali and Tantra that most American devotees embrace and celebrate are often precisely the aspects of the Hindu tradition has tried, for centuries, to tone down, domesticate, deny, or censor actively, the polytheistic, magical, fertile, erotic, and violent aspects. ”
    No, it hasn’t. There are at least a thousand vamarga tantric texts readily available, and probably thousands of vamarga pracitioners openly practicing in India today. There are also probably a thousand critiques, dialogues and even satires by one of the schools of thought on the others, all readily available.
    And no, I haven’t read her latest, but I have read enough of her other works, and works by other contemporary American Hindu/ Sanskrit scholars( among other disciplines) to have considered that they are still “Mullerish” in their approaches and reactions to their critics.

    • It is condescending, but the criticisms don’t hold! The criticisms do not seem to understand the aim of the project. I am open to being educated on why this book might be deeply offensive, but I haven’t come across it yet. Most of the arguments are: she’s wrong! She’s not a Hindu so she doesn’t count! She completely misrespresents my version of Hinduism, which is the right one!

      So the bullet points you break down are her repeating common Hindu objections to Americans practicing Hinduism, not her objections. Doniger definitely doesn’t limit Hinduism to Vedanta.

      • JRajBali

        I understand and appreciate your point of view but you have to understand as well that there are several thousand years of context behind being raised as a hindu and being a legitimate scholar of the language/culture versus being a scholar in the academia that was developed as a consequence of missionary activity and the want for the empire to displace native education systems with the British system. Most of the academic work that was done was done in an extremely shoddy manner with dubious translations that sensationalized the culture to the west. Agreed and appreciative of the fact that you yourself are a scholar and practice your form of sanatan dharma, which is no less valid, but is still less aware of the innate intricacy of the rituality that comes from being raised in the tradition. For example, many of the doctrines with regards to mainstream smarth rituals are borne out of the Narada Smriti, Manusmriti and Arthashastra as well as many of the internalized rules for interactions with society. Most peoples contentions with Wendy Doniger come from the fact that her level of sanskrit is dubious and many of her academic colleagues (Witzel, Parpola, et al) put serious doubt on her understanding of the traditional rules of grammar. After that, many times she uses dubiously translated sources from the aforementioned christian biased academia or uses the 3rd meaning of the word where the first meaning is more correct in context of the literature, the grammar and the cultural period. While you find her wit entertaining to many in the native sphere she is being pejorative and what people are taking umbrage with is that the alternative history will take over as the official history of hindus in the western arena where there is little internal cultural relevance to Hinduism. Christianity, Judaism and Islam do not suffer from this in the western arena because they’re doctrines are generally set in stone and scholarship of Doniger’s nature would be considered fringe rather than genuine. Here is a few of the articles that offer a breakdown of the situation.
        Rajiv Malhotra on the Politics of the Situation:

        On the consequences of western appropriation:

        Basic article of native sentiments:

        “Best-selling author of several books on Hindu mythology Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik points out that the “problem with Wendy’s writings is her unapologetic and rather naïve obsession with psychosexual analysis of Hindu gods.” But the bigger problem is, he warns, “Discomfort can turn to rage when American universities start promoting Wendy’s speculations as ‘the’ truth, rather than ‘a’ truth, one that may not necessarily align with popular beliefs on the ground.”

        A Chapter by Chapter breakdown of all the misconceptions and derogatory “scholarly” comments in the book:

        • But see, she addresses the shoddy colonial history. I doubt her history will take over, alternatives rarely do.

          But thank you for this! Your post is very helpful! I am not familiar with Doniger’s status in the academy. I will go through all the links after lunch.

          However, I refuse to outright accept that believers automatically are more knowledgeable about their own faith. Sometimes that is so, but the faithful perspective and the scholarly agenda are two different things. I didn’t read Doniger looking for a practicing Hindu’s views or experiences. If I was I would have looked to actual Hindu sources.

          • JRajBali

            Thanks for the erudite comments. To myself that (the lack of internalized context) is where the fundamental lack of scholarship is coming from. It’s again the question of scale take for example 4 people #1 is euro/no hindu basis #2 was raised hindu but has no base for it in adulthood #3 is euro, is extremely interested in hinduism but has bad knowledge of the language and as such can only read english translations of whatever has been translated #4 is was raised in a hindu tradition, speaks the languages and thus has access to a greater range of textual understanding for the culture in its native language. In that case, who would you perceive as the scholar with a more knowledgeable base? In this same sense no one discounts Doniger’s relevance as a scholar, however the academic structure which she works is pejorative and based out of a colonialist agenda.

            Again the problem that people have with her is the psychoanalytical model she uses which has generally been disavowed by modern anthropology, the lack of depth or proficiency in sanskrit so to misconstrue texts accepted by the general populace, a fundamental lack of engagement with critics and pushing a historical view that is at odds with archaeology and native history. Understandable that you didn’t read the Hindus to find the Hindu perspective because that is the crux of the problem that unfortunately has been extended by the pagan/wiccan/neofemenist communities, which is a wont of interest in genuine practice and perspective over sexualized and sensationalized stories that are more entertaining and counter to the abrahamic form. There’s nothing wrong with that but when a person like Doniger, that has substantial control over the portrayal of Hinduism in schools, textbooks, syllabi or even professorships is pushing her Alternative view to be studied, it will eventually become the accepted view in the west about Hinduism with the genuine perspective being suppressed.

            The problem is that the majority of actual Hindu sources are only in their native languages or preserved in an archaic memory form that requires the knowledge of around 5000 grammar rules to be able to decipher meaning. So when speaking about religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Daoism, the outsider perspective is almost inherently invalid because of a lack of context, meaning that there’s such a huge breadth of literature that cannot be covered by the mainstream scholar.

            Wow, sorry for the wordy post, hope it makes sense, enjoy chatting with you, I’ll keep up with your blog 🙂

          • I cannot speak for the rest of the Pagan community or other witches. I read the book for interest in its own merits, for the alternative perspective (having read quite a bit of other more ‘mainstream’ histories and Hindu perspectives in college and graduate school), and for the controversy. Just because I didn’t approach this book for a Hindu perspective is not to say I haven’t read or listened to that perspective in the past, and won’t in the future. However, at this time, I am finding it more fruitful to engage my own practice, rather than look to ‘traditional Hinduism’ – for several reasons. One, that I am not interested in practicing what is mainstream or acceptable Hinduism, I have issues with it. Two, I’m not Hindu. And three, my own exploration and relationship with the gods is more important than more book reading (I’ve read a lot and it was time to put the books the down and *practice*.) Discovering Tantra (and no, not Westernized sex cult Tantra, thank goodness!) and experiencing the gods on my own was amazing and what encouraged me to keep going. I hope that explains where I’m coming from a bit more.

            “the genuine perspective being suppressed.” While there may be significant issues with Doniger’s scholarship (again I don’t know Indian history well enough to spot errors), I do find suspect anyone claiming to have ‘the genuine [historical] perspective.” History is written by the winners. Doniger talks a lot about this idea and that is why she is looking around the margins – and I think this is crux of why people are angry. It’s challenging! Unless she flat out got facts wrong (again, she may, I don’t know), much of history is open to some interpretation.

            You mention needing to know Sanskrit – but doesn’t Doniger have an entire PhD in the language? (She does.) I’m guessing she isn’t ignorant. How many Hindus are fluent in Sanskrit anymore?

            My issue with the idea that outsider perspectives are invalid is that *we need outsider perspectives* just as much as we need insider ones! They serve different purposes and shed different kinds of light on a subject! Both have their own biases, both have their own wisdoms. Just because she is not Hindu does not invalidate her work – other scholarly issues might invalidate it, sure, but not being Hindu isn’t one of them.

            I quite appreciate your wordy replies! I am finding your comments very helpful.

          • JRajBali

            Haha oi there’s so much I want to respond to but at least you’re pretty proactive with research so there is a few things that I’ll address and most likely you’ll draw your own conclusions with your prodigious faculties. The “who is a hindu” debate is non-exhaustive and so one perspective says that all that follow Dharma (the path of righteousness) are sanatani (“hindus) regardless of who/when/how they pray to. The parable I was raised with is the man that prays ferverishly but acts only in an unrighteous/unjust way and therefore isn’t prosperous vs the man that doesn’t pray but acts well (charitable, mild, thoughtful) that is prosperous. The man that doesn’t pray but acts well being considered the more appropriate of the two. It’s actually impossible to define “traditional” Hinduism or exactly what Hinduism is because it covers 12 major philosophies 4 of which are Atheistic, on top of that there’s an innumerable amount of “tradition” thats only valid in a regional context, for example Garba being mainly in the Gujrati community. Glad that you’re interested in Tantra as am I.
            In saying that History is written by the winners you’ve hit the nail on the head of the “hindu gripe” and the fact is that Wendy, whether she believes herself to be or not, is (and its a sad fact of raciality) on the “winners” side. Most of what you have read with regards to scholarship on hinduism, mainstream or otherwise, was created as a mechanism to displace Hinduism in the Indian mindset and engender a shame for their history. With this displacement, there would be a vacuum that Anglican christianity would be able to fill. This is exactly the same mentality being taken by the American Evangelical missionaries in Assam, Karnataka and Nagaland etc. So from the Indian perspective, because of her non-engagement with native critics about her understanding of the text and which the reasonings behind translations. No doubt that she has a PhD and has an understanding of sanskrit, but its quite well shown by her critics (this one you’d honestly have to google yourself bc there is literally too much to even ref here) that most of interpretations are made from the translations of previous CC scholars or german scholars and then tweaked with a sanskrit dictionary. The best guage of her scholarly credential in being able to translate and interpret religious doctrine would be the opinions of Parpola and Witzel who (grudgingly) are extremely more qualified in the study of sanskrit. From my own viewings and readings, I would doubt that Doniger is fluent in sanskrit but thats again an issue for your own research. I can’t unfortunately give you many numbers on who of Hindus is still fluent in sanskrit but for example if you average 12 priests for every temple in India, the entirety of the Nambudiri and Kashmiri Pandit clans there is probably about 1-7% of the global population of indians still using sanskrit regularly for religiuos and as well there are about 14 schools world wide that offer a living sanskrit program, the biggest I think is in australia.
            So my argument to you not feeling that outsider perspectives are invalid is that agreed,no outsider perspective is invalid HOWEVER when that perspective takes supremacy over the native context and then dictate back to the culture being studied is where the outsider perspective invalidates itself. And again its coming back to the issue of yes hers is a fringe theory but a its a fringe theory that has a wide audience and thus the potential to become the legit theory to an uninformed base. I think my personal issue with her writings, is that yes she is extremely engaging as a writer but the perspective she is portraying back to the reader (who has a completely different perspective raised in the native tradition) engenders a shamefulness borne out of colonialist mentailities. To myself and many others, there is no problem with her having and promulgating her fringe theories as long as they are know, by and large, as fringe theories. Until that point, the fight is about getting the legitimate stories accepted. And yes in this case legitimacy comes from the native context.

          • I really appreciate this. You have some points that I need to reconsider! I will google her Sanskrit reputation. It’s very clear to me now that I should have done A LOT more research on Doniger’s wider reputation and how this book has been/is used. However, my review is in response to a handful of other reviews whose main issues focused on her outsider, non-Hindu status.

            As for shamefulness…. I can’t speak to what a Hindu would find shameful, but she addresses the role shame has played in understanding of Hinduism, that colonialist writings shamed Hindus and that some Hindus altered certain beliefs and practices in response; in my reading she was not shaming Hindus, but pointing out that very process in a critical way. And it seems to me that from the very beginning of her book she makes it clear that her writing is from the margins. She seems CLEAR on these things, but it seems that others are misunderstanding her – or not reading her writing at all. I mean, I quote her straight up words that hers is “A history, not THE history” (her emphasis!).

          • Henry Buchy

            I don’t think folks are misunderstanding her. Why? due to the title. As JRajBali has mentioned. There is a great depth to grammar and context. This carries over even in English speakers. the title itself is problematic “an alternative history”.
            it is neither “a history” nor “the history” but rather an alternative ‘view” of the history. One might say that’s just a matter of syntax, yet syntax is crucial part of the grammar rules, it is such subtleties that make a big difference in meaning that we in the west don’t find significant.

          • JRajBali

            I think one of the reasons that while she may present it clearly that her writing is on the margins, her position affords her a place in the structure that develops the education programs that put forward Hinduism to a larger audience, that practicing Hindus don’t have. What most legitimate Hindus feel is that her alternative view, while being alternative, will be promulgated to an audience that has less depth and will take her views as canon over missal (missal varying by sect while canon is the overarching doctrine). Really enjoyed chatting with you though and all things aside your review was erudite and well put together for the perspective you’re trying to portray. Keep writing!! 😀

            Also if you’re interested, look into Rajiv Malhotra of the Infinity Foundation.

          • Thank you!

        • Ok, I’m reading one of the links before lunch (the last one). I already disagree that Doniger’s book was all about lewd things: sex and alcohol and so on. She mentions these things, but there is no lasciviousness. I don’t get a sense that she is addressing these things with the glee for which she criticizes past colonialist scholars.

          This example: “iii. Page 128 – The book likens the Vedic devotee worshipping different
          Vedic deities to a lying and a philandering boyfriend cheating on his
          girlfriend(s).” I believe Doniger was equating the ideas of polytheism in a way that conservative Christians would understand. When I read that I did not get the sense that she believed that to be true, but that a certain Western Christian tendency to view polytheism as adulterous is the incorrect norm. She does not ignore the fact that Rig Veda says that the gods are born from one another and from the same source. She actually address that in more than one section.

          Many of the examples that this reviewer points out do not seem significant to me.

          And what is wrong with presenting some of the Hindu gods as lustful? Some of them are! Or rather, in some stories and experiences they are. Why is lust bad? Your experience and interpretation may be otherwise.

          • Henry Buchy

            “Many of the examples that this reviewer points out do not seem significant to me.”
            They may seem significant to others, It’s a difference in culture. western idioms may not translate the same, which is to say again perhaps it is western scholars don’t really understand Hindus. I’m not Hindu and I found the excerpts tasteless and rather insulting. I personally think it does scholarship a disservice to excuse them in the way they are being excused.
            think I’ll trot out one of my favorite quotes:
            ” ‘Tapa is innocent, study is harmless, the ordinance of the Vedas prescribed for all the tribes are harmless, the acquisition of wealth by exertion is harmless; but when they are abused in their practices it is then that they become sources of evil.’ “MahaBharata, Book 1, Adi Parva, section 1-Ganguli translation.

          • But if we disregard scholarship by an outsider because outsider don’t understand X, then most of scholarship is forfeit. And if we can disregard it because she’s not a Hindu, can we disregard criticism because the objectors aren’t scholars?

          • Henry Buchy

            nope it’s not forfeit, if the outsider takes the criticism with some grace, and leaves off with the superfluous asides, and metaphorical comparisons/comments. It isn’t an either/or situation, which seems to be how this is being portrayed. The criticisms are on one book, where the scholarly nature has really been forfeit by the author, and the criticism is not limited to non scholars. So are you saying if scholars are going to write what are technically non scholarly works, for general public consumption, any criticism by the general public is forfeit? then brand those criticisms based on the argument “the public doesn’t understand scholarship”?

          • Good points. I should try to track down some scholarly reviews. I can see how this was published for non-scholarly readers, but I think it fails in that regard, because this isn’t a ‘common people’ book.

            I still stand by my words, that the reviews that I read took issue with things Doniger herself directly addresses. She never claims that this is THE history, but A history, that she is not speaking for all Hindus or all Hinduisms and that she is deliberately looking at the margins. Many of the reviews and much of the outrage is centered on precisely these things, and those objections reveal a lack of understanding about scholarship and the purpose of the book.

          • JRajBali

            In actuality there is nothing wrong with lust in Hinduism. For a person to be able to progress beyond “Maya” they must engage with and then overcome the senses (the 5 physical senses and the 5 emotions). The 5 emotions are Kama (lust), Krodh (anger), Madh (intoxication) Moh (infatuation) Lobh (profit). A person has to engage with all of these before they can overcome them to progress spiritually.

      • Henry Buchy

        well yeah she does when she writes -“features of Kali and tantra.. etc”. And the bullet points aren’t ‘common” Hindu objections, at least only seen in a few from sectarian fanatics, and they may be the loudest as far as claims to be offensive, but they are in no means the only objections. She makes the same general assumptions other ‘Sanskrit’ scholars make and I’ve seen more about it being objectional from a scholarly stand point, and being very weak on history. I’ve seen it in other of her works, which is why I don’t bother with her stuff.

        Just with some of the passages I’ve read, I have to say, they don’t read like a ‘scholarly work’. I found them rather patronizing and condescending,But to be sure, i’ll be looking for it at the library.

        • And yet, I’m familiar with those objections. I come across them as regular objections. I am a poor judge of the veracity of her history, as I just don’t know the subject beyond broad, general brush strokes. However, her stated aim – to look at the history from the edges and marginalized – seemed to be well executed.

          I didn’t find her patronizing. I found her tone relieving in such a text! However, I may very well be missing nuances.

  • JRajBali

    While I appreciate that you call yourself a Hindu, style yourself a Hindu and practice your version of Hindu ritual and belief, there are literally a thousand intricacies of context that unless you’re raised in the Hindu/Indic cultural context you wont understand, especially with regards to the language of the prayers if you have no previous base for the language. Its not 100% of the facts that are wrong but more the pejorative and denigrative way they are presented that is off-putting to most; and yes while Hindus may not speak as a block, that doesn’t mean that we’re not humans and wouldn’t have the same spectrum of reactions as for example Jewish practitioners (convert to ultra-orthodox) would have with regards to an “Alternative History of the Holocaust”. My gathering would be that more than 75% of the population would have some negative response. This is the same case. Indians have as a consequence of our history and nearly 1000 years of conquests, invasions and submission been bred to innately be non-confrontational (because generally, even until the 1940s, being confrontational with the overseers meant humiliation and death).

    • I do not call myself a Hindu. Please see my end note above.

      I did not find her perjorative, but again, I’m not Hindu. Your comparison to the Orthodox outrage around a revisionist Holocaust history is apt, and actually quite helpful. However, I could see myself going either way, depending on how the scholarship played out.

  • JRajBali

    Should also mention that the book was NOT banned but was voluntarily removed by Penguin on the vague reasoning of “threats”, which were not filed to any police or governing body, so remain dubious. Even as such, only new paper copies were pulled but previous publishings were still in circulation and was still available in a digital version.

  • JRajBali
  • abhimanyu sirmaur

    Hindus are not ashamed of of kali worship or the polytheistic, magical, fertile, erotic, and violent aspects.
    western scholars may think these things are being excluded from the mainsteam Hinduism.But the fact is these people live in big cities where only Vedanta or Gita can reach because of its philosophical contents and so they think others are being excluded

    eg..–Lord Shiva is still worshipped in the “shivlingam” form all over India specially towns and villages.But since she lives in Chicago where Indian origin Hindus may be worshipping in the human form.But this effect on the chicago hindus is because of the western civilisation where “shivlingam” is considered a Hindus in Chicago may have civilised themselves according to the west.

    she cannot take the views of minority of Hindus living in Chicago(or the big cities like it) and superimpose on every Hindu and claim these are the views of the majority of Hindus.
    I live in a village so i know the practices better than her.

    And she claims to be a voice of the marginalised.she claims voices of the downtrodden have been silenced and she is writing their story.
    she says Brahminical Hinduism has usurped other kind of Hinduism.
    But she never defines what is Brahminical Hinduism.
    All kinds of Hinduism which you say is being discarded—polytheism, violent,magical etc.. is as intact as it was 1000 years back.

    Scholars say Vedic traditions are Brahminical Hinduism.But how many Hindus follow Vedas—-not even 1%.They still worship the same violent and magical “Shiva” in the form of “shivlingam”.So there is no clear line who is following Brahminical HInduism and who is not is not clear.

    And she claims its a one way process.But she never recognises that its a 2 way process.why do u think every house or a clan has a separate deity—why so many Gods?Its because every belief system coexisted with each other often creating a new one through intermixing of the belief.

    ##her only claim which i found right was the great emphasis on the “Gita” in the modern times.
    I think this is being done because “Gita” is the only book which can bring every Hindu together (people come together because of ideas).When in modern times Christian Evangelical are everywhere to find a prey to convert its necessary to bring everyone together.
    So Hinduism is trying to fight the evangelical menace.
    If people don’t make an umbrella to to save Hinduism then there won’t be one worshipping Shiva or Kali.

    • I don’t think she is claiming to be the voice of, nor speak for, anyone. She also says just what you say, that these aspects are indeed still practiced, but mainstream scholarship doesn’t look to those aspects. She actually does mention, repeatedly, that influence isn’t a one-way process; the entire book is about intermixing. Have you read this book?

      • abhimanyu sirmaur

        she does claim that she is writing for those whose story has not been
        written down .What does it mean when she says she is writing the story
        of the pariahs?

        i have read some random pages where she does her psycho-analysis on Hinduism.I read it even before the controversy arise.

        And i don’t want to read it further.

        you said the right point—“mainstream scholars doesn’t look to those
        aspects”———-It is because mainstream scholars are either filled
        with Whites or those born Hindus whose idea of civilisation is
        western.Yes there is difference between the two.

        An Indian born
        Hindu scholar is always treated as fundamentalist.So anyone who doesn’t
        see the world from western perspective is a savage.

        But these people have to change themselves because world is changing and fast.

        of the time she mentions about intermixing in a retrograde way.she says
        many times that India is not a nation of one idea but the way she
        writes gives an impression that powerful have maimed the weak.

        do understand that her intention was not to portray Hinduism in bad
        light but since she uses judeo-christian notion of
        beauty,civilisation,morality,time,space—–these things puts Hinduism
        in bad light.why?because both the traditions have just the opposite way
        of understanding things.
        If someone uses Indian notion to understand western civilisation,you will see the same kind of reaction.

        • “An Indian born
          Hindu scholar is always treated as fundamentalist.So anyone who doesn’t
          see the world from western perspective is a savage.” This has definitely been the case in the past, and Doniger acknowledges that, but that isn’t *always* the case.

          writes gives an impression that powerful have maimed the weak.” Well, the powerful do suppress ideas they don’t like. It happens all the time. The colonialists did it to Hindus and Hindus do it to each other as well.

          Let Hindus write about Western society! Yes! Westerners see through their lens, Hindus see through theirs. Why shouldn’t Westerners see our culture through other eyes?

          • abhimanyu sirmaur

            Indian society is not a monolith structure where anyone can suppress the ideas of another.
            India is not Americas or Australia where you can do what you people have done with the natives.

            this is the fault she made while using her western concepts.She is a “jewish” and she was persecuted by the Nazis but still she uses the same tricks against us.

            And if you know Indian history then you might know that any position of any community has not been permanent.But she shamelessly ignores that.

            And yes she uses all the fault lines in the Hindu society to prove whatever she wanted.

            Yes in the near future we Indians will surely do all kinds of analysis (including psycho analysis) on the thought process of the western society including “wendy doniger”.

            After all there is only one way to deal with the bigots—always be offensive.
            It should be a brown man duty to civilise the world after 500 years of white tyranny……the real peace—–a complete utopia.

          • The Aborigines of Australia and the Native Americans of North America are also not monolithic. Colonialists suppressed cultures here and they did it in India too.

            She is not “jewish,” she is Jewish.

            If she is being racist, I don’t see it. And perhaps, as a white person, I cannot. But I cannot speak to it, as I didn’t see it in her work. But yes, brown people of the world should speak up against white tyranny. I fully support that.

          • abhimanyu sirmaur

            suppressing as an outsider is a complete different scenario than when you are a part of the same society

            what whites did to the natives—they did it as an outsider.

            this was not the case with Hindus.There was no sense of an outsider.

            And yes i am not calling her a racist but you know there are other categories of bigots.

            History is not a piece of philosophy which you can interpret according to your own dimension of time and space.
            History doesn’t change as modernity changes.
            History and all its events are understood in that time frame and even if you use modern time,space dimension you cannot use it of other culture.why?because there is no correlation between the two,all the events in one culture is independent of other culture.

            hope you understand where the problem arises.

            Earth is not flat nor it is spherical—-it is oval in shape.And there is big difference between a oval and a sphere.

          • History does change and it is subject to interpretation! This is why I do not think many of the criticisms hold up, because most people don’t understand how the field of history works. We’d like to think that historical facts are facts, but shy of X event happened in Y year, reasons and details are most definitely subject to interpretation!

            I hope *you* can understand where the problem arises.

  • I’ve started to read it. I read the first page and you can see my comments below. I will work through it and get back to you.

  • Cibi Singaravel S

    Right, this mentality of psychoanalysing everything that they could is ugly. Try reading : Invading the sacred by Rajiv Malhotra.

  • Cibi Singaravel S

    Dear Niki, I dont know why westerners always want to squeeze the ideas and traditions of Eastern religions through their western, Judo-Christian mentality machines. The very idea of comparing eastern religions with the western ideas and seeing the Dharmic religions with an Abrahamic lens in will always end up in showing one is inferior and the other is superior. If you couldn’t get what I mean by this read about Wendy’s students’ work on Ramakrishna. Read : Invading the sacred.

    Hindus WILL NOT BE pleased by the westerner’s analysis of Indic Traditions.

    • Well, they do it 1)because they are Westerners and those are the eyes they see through and 2)even with careful practice they will always have Western eyes. Just like Hindus will always have Hindu eye, even as they learn to see with Western ones. I don’t think Doniger was deliberately looking or comparing with Western eyes. In fact, it seemed she was trying to get away from that. But I haven’t read any of her previous work.

      • Cibi Singaravel S

        Thanks for the reply.

  • Is this the same woman who wrote Shiva: The Erotic Ascetic? I bought that book. I found it difficult to read because as you said she has that scholarly approach. I felt perhaps I should just stay with Krishna. Later I learned the Siddhas consider Shiva to be Krishna. That’s interesting. I like that. I have no doctorates or even a baccalaureate degree in these matters. I am not sure one is even offered anywhere I could be accepted but I preferred a work like Heinrich Zimmer’s. It was long ago but I think I read his Myths and Symbols in India Art and Civilization. Probably in the 80’s.

  • JRajBali

    A word to every Indian that is ready to skewer this young woman for her opinion. You’re not doing any of us any justice. Be erudite, be respectful and offer opportunities for examination (both of ourselves and philosophies and of the other). This author has established her faith as something that has an inspiration in Dharma but is wholely pleasing and formulated for the experience of the author. You guys all have valid points but the best way to engage is through respectful discussion/explication/introspection (or as Rajiv says through Purva Paksha). We don’t need to be this dickish people.

    • Thank you! I have yet to get to the rest of the comments, but if anyone is unduly rude I will delete their comment. I am fine with disagreement, but I will shut down comments that are unnecessarily mean.

  • Naveenkumar K.U

    Wendy’s “alternate history” cannot be dogmatic, and she is not the only “scholar” around. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis was proved wrong in many instances by his own student Jung.

    An simple instance from the book:

    Wendy interprets the Sanskrit word “kama” (meaning desire) as sex, which is simply
    preposterous. Any number of such instances can be quoted from the book by an average student of Indian history or Sanskrit.

    It seems she is putting words into Valmiki’s mouth (sadly the original author is not around to defend).

  • Emily.E.N

    I only read through the first chunk of comments, so you may have already answered this, but can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by practicing Hindu devotion but not being Hindu? Is it because you don’t participate in other aspects of Indian culture or you feel connected to the gods but not to the traditions, etc? I’ve done a lot of, I don’t know, identity-wrangling (?) in this area and I’m curious about your perspective. (I’ve started reading through your blog from the most recent posts, so again, you may have addressed this in earlier posts.)

    • Hindu is a religious descriptor, ethnicity, and culture. I am certainly not of the the last two and only loosely the first. I practice Tantra, which sits decidedly (but firmly) at the margins of the Hindu tradition. I am not an orthodox Hindu in any sense. Add to that my white, Western ethnicity, location and culture, and any claims on my part of being Hindu would be the height of cultural appropriation.

      White Western people *can be* and *are* Hindu, but I am not.