A book critics award for Wendy Doniger?

I have mixed feelings on seeing Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” as one of the finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award.   Perhaps it might make more people read the book, I tell myself, and more Americans will get a better understanding of Hinduism, instead of thinking of it as just a religion with millions of Gods and multi-armed deities.

But then, I’m not sure if the book itself is an accurate depiction of Hinduism or Indian history.   I have blogged in the past about how I found portions of her book unbelievably wrong – like her insistence on calling the Aryans cattle thieves.  In my post, I quote people ranging from the American historian John Fiske to Dr. Gopalan Shastri to show that her statement, and the story she narrates to justify it, come from a wrong reading of the Rig Veda, and an inadequate understanding of the symbolisms involved.  The story is a symbolic one – the Sanskrit word go means both “cow” and “light”;  but Wendy ignores the alternate meaning of  “light” (does not even mention it) and goes on to elaborate on how the Aryans were cattle rustlers and how they had showed the same scornful attitude as American cowboys did to native Indians.

Perhaps it’s difficult for the direct Western mind to understand the deep symbolism involved in so many aspects of Hinduism ?  However, you’d expect that anyone claiming such erudition in Sanskrit should be quite familiar with symbolisms, since all Sanskrit literature is littered with them.


There are other opinions in her book that I find fascinating.  I love her portrayal of Sita as someone who knew her own mind, was equal to stating her opinions to Rama and calling him out when he was wrong.  This Sita is so much better than Deepika Chikhalia’s weepy, fearful version (does anyone even remember Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan anymore?) I don’t want my goddesses to be weepy women, I’d much rather they have strong personalities.

But on the whole,  I have problems believing many sections of her book.  If you give a seven year old child a poem by Shelley or Longfellow, the child can understand each word, but can he/she understand the deeper meaning behind the words?  Wendy’s reading of the Vedas and the Ramayana is perhaps like that seven year old child’s interpretation.

It is also interesting to note her obsession with sensuality and interpreting texts through the lens of sensuality (like her infamous portrayal of Dasaratha as a sex-addict, or her claim that Lakshmana lusted after Sita).  Perhaps she is aiming for controversy to sell her book, but she runs the risk of damaging her credibility.

Oh, and then there is her obsession with dogs and their portrayal in Sanskrit texts, which I can only find amusing and typically Western.

In the final analysis, Wendy Doniger just perpetuates one more Western stereotype about India -as the land of erotica and sensuality.  It’s rather sad that even a supposedly eminent Indologist cannot go beyond stereotypes about India.


30 thoughts on “A book critics award for Wendy Doniger?

  1. I am always interested in reading Vedic history but have reservations when scriptures are treated like historic records and not symbolism or mythologies. Do you know any book which can summarize arguments, discussions and different perspectives on Aryan vs Dravidian debate? I find individual works humongous to read and feel reading all of them would be monumental feat

    • No 😦 I was hoping to get a comprehensive view of Indian history (and a different perspective) from Wendy’s book, going by the title, but it didn’t work out that way. On the Aryan vs Dravidian debate, all I found from her book was (and I refer to it in my previous post) that no one knows exactly who the Aryans were or where they came from. There are at least 4 different theories, apparently (I mention them in the post), and they seem to cover all possible scenarios 🙂

  2. At the risk of sounding patronizing, India has several nuances and some subtle enough to be misunderstood, even by those with an Indic perspective.
    Do we need to make allowances for that? I can’t say!

    • Well, this is a woman who has 2 doctorates on the subject and more importantly, has been teaching her views/ interpretation of India/ Hinduism since 1978 at the University of Chicago. So she has been studying India for more than 30 years, and if she still gets basic issues wrong like alternate meanings of common words, I don’t know what to think 😦

  3. Is it really such a surprise that Doniger wants to eroticize India yet again? Much of her previous work (as well as her students’ i.e. Paul Courtright, etc) is down the same lines. From “Siva” to “Ganesa” – Doniger & Co’s obsession with psychoanalytic study of Hinduism based on a weak understanding of Sanskrit perhaps says more about Doniger than about Hinduism.

    • Was it you I remember discussing this with before? That thread was unfortunately hijacked by someone calling himself variously as Sanjay, Sita, Sita (actual Hindu girl) and whatnot.

      But you’re right, psychoanalysis (even apart from the controversy over its validity) is not what Doniger has trained in, and I can see from the book how she can completely misinterpret Sanskrit texts. I hadn’t been aware of how controversial her interpretations are, and how many people have objected not just on the differences in perception, but actual mistakes. But I did learn more about her after I read her book. She can publish whatever interpretation she wants to, but I wonder if she is right to call it “History”. Isn’t that a little misleading?

      I have less issue with alternative interpretations than I have with inaccuracies and errors, and those seem to be present in her book too. Given all that, I’m a little surprised that her work is a finalist in the book critics circle awards. Am I too naive in thinking the critics could do better?

      • That was my wife, actually. I use the moniker “Aditya” on my wife’s blog.

        I wasn’t aware of the other thread – though GG’s blog has been hijacked by similar trolls in the past.

        I actually focussed in the study of contemporary Hinduism in undergrad, and my senior thesis was based on critiquing Jeffrey Kripal’s (also U of Chicago) Kali’s Child – another extremely problematic interpretation of Ramakrishna based on bizarre translations… throughout the book, Kripal insists there existed a homo-erotic relationship between Ramakrishna and Vivekanada based on the translation of “Uddipana” as “erection”.

        My theory is that U Chicago “psycho-analysts” are simply raking controversy to sell more books and get more press.

      • Ah, that explains it 🙂 Gorigirl didn’t seem to be a group blog, hence my question.

        You’re right, the reading of Ramakrishna’s relationship with Vivekananda is really bizarre and does reek of sensationalism. Controversy sells, of course, plus the authors might be calculating that people will swallow such theories since the West is so inured to thinking of India as the land of the Kama Sutra,

  4. “Perhaps it’s difficult for the direct Western mind to understand the deep symbolism involved in so many aspects of Hinduism ?”

    It is not just Western minds, I see many Indian blogs that quote Indian epics/ Hinduism references without understanding the context and symbolism. The direct lift to compare what happened then to present time is ignorance.

    Agree to thequark’s comment above. “I have reservations when scriptures are treated like historic records and not symbolism or mythologies.”

    • I agree there are a lot of Indian blogs (and non-bloggers) who misquote epics/ scriptures; there are also others who misinterpret symbolism or see them where there is none (like attempts to explain superstitions as some grand practice with religious significance). There is a lot of misinformation and sophistry out there.

      I can see Wendy’s point that if one has to attempt to decipher India’s history, one has to start with the Vedas, scriptures and mythologies because those are the only stories we have of the people living then. But the problem, as you mentioned, is that (a) they are not intended as historical records but more as religious/ spiritual texts, (b) there are multiple versions (like Ramayana), (c) there is no chronological sequence (or we don’t know the chronological sequence of the scriptures and epics and the stories in them). Take the Mahabharata, for instance – some of the stories in them could be older than the Ramayana, some much later and so on.. Wendy does mention all these issues too; she is not unaware of them, so her selective misquoting is all the more inexplicable.

  5. Be careful, Lekhni. If you protest and highlight legitimate errors/mistakes by “esteemed” American professors (with impressive Chair titles named after European historians) who have a strict monopoly on interpreting Hinduism, very soon you’ll be labeled a Hindu bigot/saffronite/fascist, or worse, a self-appointed keeper of Hinduism. 😀

  6. Lekhni: I really appreciate your thoughtful, thorough analysis of Wendy Doniger’s book. I am not a big fan of Doniger’s. While her translations are superb, her interpretive analysis is almost entirely through the lenses of her own (very strong) political biases. And I am suspicious of anyone whose work is laced with gender and sexual interpretations. That said, I do think it would be a useful book to have – my father has bought it in India, and says many of the things you have, but he does appreciate the thoroughness of her research and the fact that all this material is available in one book.

    • I am certainly glad I read the book. It’s thought-provoking, even though I don’t agree with her interpretations. But it does give you a perspective of Indian history through the ages, and also shows how little historians really know. Take the Aryan invasion theory – as Wendy herself mentions, it is only one of four different theories. which just goes to show how little we know of ancient history and our origins. We are proud of our culture and history, but what I remember from history books at school is mostly about a few dynasties. I give her credit for even attempting to put together some kind of coherent chronicle of a few thousand years.

    • Thanks, I hadn’t read this interview. I found this statement of hers in the interview particularly amusing – “It’s a book about the history of the Hindus, from 50 million B.C.E. to the present. It says that there is no evidence that Rama was born in the place that is now known as Ayodha and there is no evidence that there was a Hindu temple on the spot where the Babur Mosque was. And that there is no evidence that Rama and a bunch of monkeys built a bridge from India to Sri Lanka, as the Hindu Right have claimed. That’s just mythology, which is lovely, I’ve studied it all my life, but you don’t legislate on the basis of mythology.

      The reason it’s amusing is – it so happens that her book is all about trying to understand Indian history from mythology and religious texts 🙂 She tries to date the Vedas, try and understand the life of the Aryans/ Vedic people from the Vedas and other texts, and now she piously claims that mythology is not history? 🙂

    • In the interview Doniger claims to know ‘what it’s all about’:
      “When you wander around temples when there isn’t a ceremony, there’s a kind of peacefulness about them, and I recognize the scenes and the icons. That’s Shiva doing this, that’s Parvati doing that. Whereas when I go to the Vatican, I have to have someone explain to me what the Sistine Chapel is all about. So I’m at home in Hinduism in that sense, I know what it’s all about.”

      Whew, talk about high self-esteem!

  7. I fully comprehend the feelings of my Hindu brothers, but the same brothers were rejoicing when Salman Rushdie was discrediting, ridiculing, mocking, fabricating stories, vilifying and insulting the tender feelings of 1500 million Muslims by his filthy and factually and historically erroneous book and the Hindu Fundamentalist parties such as Rashtra Sevak Sang and Bharatiya Janata Party secretly produced Hindi Translation of Salman Rushdie’s book in India even though India had banned the book. No one has any right to insult any religion Hinduism or Islam for that matter. I would agree with many views expressed by Dr. Doniger but still I feel that the book should not be allowed in India
    because it is an insult to Sanatana Dharma of Hinduism, the philosophy that my forefathers followed before converting to monotheistic Islam in India. After all my ancestors were Hindus too. Change in ideology does not make me not to love my nation India

    • It’s not the same at all. Salman Rushdie wrote FICTION. He never made claims that Satanic verses covered te true history of Islam.

      Doniger & co. are saying the opposite.

      • Abhi: Salman Rushdie is a hypocrite and a lier, he claims he has written a fiction. Will you accept if I write a fiction using your real name Abhi, your parents real names, your sisters real names, your cousins real names and I say Abhi’s family runs a brothel and I go on writing filth, lies, pornography on a decent and cultured person like you and my interntion was to insult and mock you and your family out of jealous, greed for money or to show my vengence on your family, that is what Salamn the manufiq did and he called it fiction to make the Muslim world believe him and thus save his head, in a brothel in salmans book the names of the prostitutes used are the real names of the wives of the Prophet whom Muslims consider as their mothers.

  8. salmon, you are a man of few words. Let the Supreme God be witness between you and me and decide on the issue. No culture that has any decency can allow vilification, mockery and insult. Read more and May God guide to the right path. It is far below my dignity to take up an issue with you on the question of who is a bigger idiot.

  9. one of the reasons why hinduism is left outof true discussions is because so called”scholars” arrogantly say that our texts are “mythology”,well im sorry to report this but the purana’s ect. are NOT,i repeat,NOT mythology anymore than the bible or the koran.this anti-hindu agendra,or actually,nastik agenda dedicated to KILLING hinduism cannot be allowed to come to fruitition.we must recognize our shastras in the samle light that our muslims brother on this site recognizes the historical acuracy of the night journey where Mahamad journeyed to the heavens via Al Buraq.if muslims have the balls to admit this is historical,why dont hindu “scholars” and other’s have the balls to admit the battle of kurushetra,vijaya and jaya’s incarnating as raavan ect. due to the curse from sanakadika?? if you really are a hindu,then you shouldnt have any problem at all believein in the historical accuracy of ALL purana’s,not just gita ect. in the same way that muslims view the koran as historically accurate.i ask not only my fellow hindus,but muslims as well to fight this bogus scholar’s like doniger theologically by defending the purana’s and Koran as historically 100% accurate period!!!

    • To be considered history, we need dates. We have reasonable evidence that Prophet Muhammad lived during the 6th century. We have no idea (or evidence or references) as to when the events of the Ramayana happened.

  10. Pingback: Why Wendy Doniger’s book should not be withdrawn | The Imagined Universe

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