The devoted, the Hindus and Wendy Doniger

by 21cstories

Hinduism is an old religion, and does not offer parallels with the established ones. Though it stands reformed after more than a century of efforts, it is still mired in superstition. Of the type that one can read in James Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’, and going beyond that into astrology and other sophisticated forms. In common parlance it’s called ‘manyata’, or simply, belief.

Having ‘studied’ Hindu religion as an academic subject at the master’s level, I can relate to what Doniger and others are trying to do. She reminds me of my professor.

But much of India is an anti-intellectual society not given to rational disposition.

At stake in this controversy is the purity and sanctity of the beliefs of Hindus (as seen by one side), versus an academic study of their religion, with a special intellectual highlighted box kept aside for sex. When the basic nature of people is formed out of superstition, than any remarks seen as disparaging are bound to arouse intense emotions. And it becomes hard to earn many admirers, secular or otherwise.

Doniger’s treatment and writing style always contains humour, and many slurs, slants and asides. The adoption of a Freudian framework, a form of rubbish (the dean of the University replied to the complaining students that it wasn’t of much value and now discredited), makes it highly incendiary to a society whose very base is still the dominant religion. Take it away, and there wouldn’t be much left to celebrate. Imagine America without its Christmas, or the Middle East without Eid.

Any ‘study’ of Hinduism or any religion is bound to elicit some reactions: Are we bolstering it, or undermining its status?

How many Indians would give up their religion after reading Doniger? The religion was not founded on such meta theories of the working of the mind. Nor is it practiced every day with these theories in view. Those foundations go back to the very beginning, about which no scholar is certain.

I read an article of Doniger on Hinduism, and I thought it wasn’t really serious scholarship. It was entertainment, often at the expense of the subject. Like she threw in a reference to Forbes 500 while talking about the vast number of gods and the few selected amongst these.

An issue somewhat related to plagiarism – of not separating the original from new additions – is well known in studies of Hinduism. We don’t know all the portions of the Vedas or Ramayana and Mahabharata that are original, or those verses and portions added later. The quote marks were not available in Sanskrit.

Practicing common Hindus wouldn’t pay much heed to the unsavoury myths and theories related to their gods and goddesses, especially those concocted today. They should therefore leave academic studies alone, and let them do their work.

So when someone of another religion says, ‘Oh Ramakrishna, he was xyz, no we can’t teach him here.’ Or when you hear ‘Oh Sita [or Rama], the one who xyz!’. What should a sane, devoted man do?

Do what a sane, devoted man would do, depending on the situation.

Because there is no open climate of thinking and respect on the streets and at other places. If it exists, counter punch. If not, avoid it. Just use your wit. Don’t incite a communal war, or an ideological dharma yudh, as in this case.


I wrote the below post over a year ago, when the Wendy Doniger book controversy was at its height. I haven’t read the book, but offered some views based on the excerpts I came to read. After all, the row isn’t so much about the underlying theories, but those few comments that some found difficult to digest. I was supposed to continue this post, and offer my final thoughts, after having read the book, but that never happened.

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doniger-hindutva-rajiv-malhotraA reviewer refers to the book ‘The Hindu’ as ‘one experimental hippy-trippy toke-toke giggle-giggle sprawl’. It should not hence ruffle feathers with readers browsing book shelves lined up with dozens of other works devoted to the glories of this religion.

It would, if this turned out to be a closer to truth, non-sugar coated pill.

I gave my young niece a copy of the Mahabharata when she visited us last year from UK. Written by a renowed author, it had an introduction by Ruskin Bond. Was I giving her a tome full of ancient wisdom, a compendium of folk tales, characters and myths that every Indian knows and ought to know? Or had I handed over, unwittingly and in utter naivete, a tale of no other than God preciding over mass genocide, and a chapter (Gita) that is “dishonest”?

I do believe we are utter naive when it comes to our religion. We are happy to splash colours and burst crackers and observer the fasts, without realising the inner workings. That might be so, and we are not to be blamed, though we ought to know better. See the truth, be as near to is as possible. Not stories churned out in million avatars.

Most of what I know about this book’s content is gleaned from what its virulent critics and opponents have written in their responses. So I can’t form my own views. So the previous comments and what follows, and these are just bits and pieces, is based on sources that I can’t vouch for in relation to the original.

There are sexual connotations in many religious books. Hinduism is full of them. When I was in school, I once borrowed the story of Parashurama written by KM Munshi, a renowned literary figure. A friend of mine remarked that I was really into reading ‘dangerous’ books. The story did have a scene in it, but it was described in Sanskrit-Hindi words that were not obscene.

The critics of Doniger did not like her interpretation of the word ‘lingam’, for instance. To give credit to Doniger, any real understanding of the meaning of God would preclude so many things that she probably had a hard time coming to terms with. Hinduism is a pagan religion. That should perhaps put some things in perspective.

The critics claim that she calls Rama impotent, Lakshman as a partner of Sita, and the references to sex mad goddesses, Freudian interpretations of other gods like Ganesha and his story, and Shiva and his rampaging and promotion of rape, sex and ritual murder in the temples. And the related controversy of another author’s work about Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.

Some of her claims might be true, though not all the way and in the stark manner of the above descriptions. The conflicts between the three main strands of Hinduism – Vaishnav, Shiva and Shakti are well known. The work as a whole however appears to contain too many claims that would render it a bitter pill for the devoted souls. And how badly they have been after her.

It’s difficult to blame Doniger entirely. Let’s look at this pic:


A form of Shakti – Chinnamasta, who is she standing over Kama and Rati (of Vedic fame), so the myth tells us. And why is her head cut? It’s the ‘ego’ that gets destroyed when lust is killed, so we are told. Some visuals show Shiva below her feet, or just her. There are other gory, explicit renderings of this scene, and the above is the more aesthetic of the lot.

For the Western mind, this is bloody interesting stuff! Straight from some dark underworld. For a Freudian scholar, juicy matter to speculate over.

My own amateur thinking is to see them as representing historical politico-social movements within Hinduism and the country. They are thus truly ‘symbolic’ of these outside movements, rather than psyco-sexual longings exhibited in mythical contexts. They could be, but that’s really a different field of investigation, and that’s where Doniger’s work lies.

The Shakti cult, or the Tantric cult, is one spectacular show of exoticism even for us. During my trip to Varanasi, I landed up at a temple of Tripura Sundari located near my hotel. She is another form of Shakti, and there I bumped into a Naga sadhu. I have recounted that experience in one of my fiction stories, but that was a hell of an experience to hear him babble out a litany of pure Hindu mythic and religious knowledge. The temple had beautiful carvings though.

To be  continued…