Wendy Doniger. The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin Books, 2009. See here to buy the book.
The Hindus: An Alternative History is a diachronic study of Hinduism that highlights the complexity and diversity of the religion. Many non-Hindu Westerners have ideas about what Hindus believe. They may be aware of the caste system in India, and the belief in reincarnation and karma. They may have the idea that Hindu Indians revere cows and do not eat meat. They may be familiar with the Indian custom of widows immolating themselves on top of their late husband’s corpse. They may know about certain Hindu Scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita, and Hindus’ loving devotion to their gods. Some may respect and admire (or disagree with) Hinduism’s religious tolerance, its belief that there are different paths to the divine that should be respected.
But, as Wendy Doniger shows, there is more to the story, in each of these cases:
—-The caste system was not always set in stone but fluctuated at times. There were power struggles among the upper castes, as well as attempts to democratize religion and thereby include the lower castes.
—-Reincarnation and karma are significant aspects of Hinduism, but so is going to heaven or hell after death. There is also a Hindu strand of universalism, which holds that a god may save people regardless of their lack of karma, changing them despite themselves; some even believe that hatred for a god can count as love, since it is a form of attachment to the god.
—-Vegetarianism did emerge within Hinduism, but the Vedas depict animal sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of horses. There did exist some consciousness that animals should be respected, however, and Doniger lists different rationales for vegetarianism: a response to increasing violence, and a belief that a person could be reincarnated as an animal and thus should treat animals with respect in this life. In addition, while Hindus have valued cows due to the cows’ association with the priestly Brahmin caste, Hindus are not entirely consistent on this, for some Hindus have turned a blind eye when cows have been slaughtered for meat. Doniger also says that Hindus give cows the same liberty to roam that they give to other animals.
—-There was not always a custom of widows immolating themselves on top of their husband’s corpse. A number of widows kept on living after the death of their husband, even though restrictions were placed upon them. When the custom did emerge, Hindu limitations were placed upon it: widows with children, for example, could not engage in it. A number of widows have voluntarily immolated themselves out of respect for their late husband, believing that they are assisting their husband in reaching the afterlife, and that their practice will be rewarded. In many cases, however, shame is a factor, since a woman may be stigmatized as one who did not take proper care of her husband if her husband precedes her in death. Doniger addresses the British abhorrence of the practice and the issue of cultural relativism, and she arrives at a middle ground: respect the complex motivations that underlie the practice, and recognize that it has been criticized even within Hinduism.
—-According to Doniger, the Bhagavad Gita is not as prominent within Hinduism as Westerners may think, as important as the work is. For Doniger, the British prioritized texts in their attempt to understand Hinduism because of their own Protestant valuation of religious texts: Protestantism sees the Bible as the primary religious authority.
—-Not all of Hinduism has been tolerant. Some Hindus believe that they alone have the truth and seek to proselytize. There have been times of conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism, and Hinduism and Islam. There have also been times of peace, however, and Hindus have sometimes sought to unite their religion with other religions: to absorb aspects of other religions, or to harmonize their own religion with what other religions teach.
Many Western non-Hindus have an essentialist understanding of Hinduism: Hindus believe such-and-such. Even a number of Hindus, according to Doniger, believe that many of their rituals, practices, and customs are eternal. There is also a tendency to associate certain works with certain groups: the Vedas were composed by the priests. Doniger’s contention is that the situation is more complex than that. Hinduism is, and long has been, diverse. Customs were not eternal but developed in history, not always receiving universal acceptance. And, while the priests did compose the Vedas, the work also absorbed traditions from other Indian groups and castes. Some Hindu traditions actually posit atheist ideas, which occur in texts alongside traditions that believe in a god, or gods. Doniger divides her book by historical periods, and she largely comments on specific texts.
A criticism that I have of the book (or perhaps of me as a reader) is that I did not always grasp the rationale for or implications of certain Hindu beliefs and practices. Doniger demonstrated that Hinduism valued animals, but why did it do so? She referred to the Hindu belief that all of reality is a manifestation of a single divine essence. Stoicism believed something similar, as I read recently in Robert Price’s The Reason Driven Life, and its conclusion was that a rational essence pervades the universe, and thus events occur as they are logically supposed to occur: even pain has a purpose, namely, to build character. What implications has Hinduism drawn from the Hindu belief (or one Hindu belief) that all of reality manifests a single divine essence? And why were there Hindus who wanted to democratize access to the divine? I can think of reasons that democratization of religion is good, but I do so from a Protestant perspective, one that emphasizes a personal relationship with a loving God, who is the source of my being. I do not want to project my Protestant rationale and assumptions onto Hinduism, so I am curious about Hindu rationales for the democratization of religion.
Another question that occurred to me is why Hindus have deemed their gods to be worthy of devotion. I can tell you why I, as a Protestant, find my god to be worthy of devotion: because he loves me, because he is righteous, and because Christ died for my sins. But why do Hindus worship their gods? Again, what is their rationale? I do recognize, respect, and honor that there are strong traditions within Hinduism of love and devotion for deities, but why do Hindus love their deities? Doniger makes statements about Hindu views on the divine. On pages 108-109, in discussing the Rig Veda, she says that the gods are not necessarily moral, but they are powerful: “indeed the gods often lie and cheat far more than [their opponents] the antigods do; power corrupts, and divine power corrupts divinely…” At the same time, in a chapter on Tantrism, she discusses a tradition in which the god Shiva is a savior figure: Shiva sins and delays his own salvation in order to save others. In this case, a Hindu god is self-sacrificial, which is what the Christian God is.
There were other interesting details in this book. I think of Hindu opposition to homosexuality, which exists alongside a tentative acceptance of it as a concession to human weakness. There are also Hindu stories about the Flood, and one story that reminded me of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11: the gods are afraid of all these humans coming to heaven, so they set limitations on the humans.
Doniger’s book is informative and authoritative.