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.