This book is a compendium of 63 papers, selected by the author from her long list of essays written over a long period of time and arranged into seven logical topics.
This book is a compendium of 63 papers, selected by the author from her long list of essays written over a long period of time and arranged into seven logical topics. It must have been a difficult task, for all her essays are important. She mentions in the introduction, “And so I arranged the essays not chronologically but logically”. She further declares, “ … now, for the first time, I designed a book specifically for an Indian audience.”
A distinguished professor of at the University of Chicago and a scholar of Sanskrit, who has translated Rig Veda, Manu’s Laws and Kamasutra into English, Doniger is able to analyse the Indian texts available in epic and other forms with surgical precision and present to the reader her findings in a most readable way. In fact the book is easy to read from any page as the reader chooses. Written in an engaging style and with a fine sense of humour the text delights the reader. (While comparing Kautilya to Machiavelli she says, “Kautilya makes Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa”).
Analysing the concept of heresy in Hinduism she remarks, Hindus regard heresy as a failure of understanding rather than as the deliberate choice of a wrong idea. Elaborating on this, she refers to the meaning of the Sanskrit term Pashanda and the changing connotation of this term over a period of time leading to gradual intolerance, a point that other western authors of Hindu study have not touched in detail.
“God’s body . . .” is another chapter written with deep understanding, where she calls the symbol of Linga a signifier that is understood across barriers of caste and language and with an unmatched sense of humour says the symbol is a linga franca! She concludes with a statement that the contrasting aspects of the “lingam”, “phallic” and “abstract” god are not in conflict but always simultaneously present, each illuminating another. She bases her analysis on the fact that the ambivalence remained a matter of peaceful coexistence until the non-Hindu rulers intervened. While Muslims destroyed the figures of lingam, the English made Indians feel ashamed of the same with their Victorian morality.
“Gods, Humans and Anti-Gods” is yet another paper with a lot of information, especially on sacrifices and substitute for sacrifices. Written with quotes from various sources, this provides a new approach to this aspect of earlier texts and practices. Feminism in its earliest form in the world is noted by the author in this essay.
Her obsession however, appears to be Sex, Kamasutraand Manu’s Laws in all the texts studied by her. While that being so, she has rightly pointed that the administrators in British India beginning with Warren Hastings wanting to use Manu as the basis of a legal system, whether or not it was in fact used that way in India at that time. Manu’s both ‘because’ and ‘this is why’ arguments are discussed in this chapter without any bias. Similarly the quotations from Kamasutra are narrated with several examples from puranic stories. When she narrates any story from the puranas, we can see her excitement and wonder, though at times her statements appear rather irreverent and leave a kind of inadequacy in understanding the philosophical part of the story. But one cannot deny the scholarship with which she puts her points. With erudition she shows through her writing the enormous diversity in the Hindu religion with its remarkable ability to hold together all the differences.
The book is at once both a delight to read and a source that can provoke. For instance she makes a statement “ … Vivekananda set himself firmly against all forms of caste distinction and advised people to eat beef.” She relies for this information on the book (as referred by her) Swami Vivekananda and His Guru (published by The Christian Literary Society for India in 1897 page 25.) Actually in the book and in the page as referred to by her, it simply says that a Dr. Barrow went with Vivekananda to the restaurant in the basement of the Art Institute and said to him “What shall I get you to eat?” According to him the latter replied “Give me beef!” In spite of the fact that Swami Vivekananda had his own views of non-vegetarianism and never preached shunning of meat, this statement made from a reference used by the author does not ring true.
Under the heading “Impermanence and Eternity in Hindu Epic, Art and Performance”,an important portion of this book, she deals with oral and written preservation of the texts on Vedas and epics (Shadows of Ramayana, Women in Mahabharata and The history of Ekalvya). The sanctity of preservation by oral tradition of the Rig Veda is held in esteem and she says unlike the other works, in Rig Veda there were no changes in spite of its oral preservation. It was not so in the written Mahabharata and she says, “The Mahabharatha is not contained in a text; the story is there to be picked up and found, to be claimed like a piece of uncultivated land, salvaged as anonymous treasure from the ocean of story; it is constantly retold and rewritten …”.
Other chapters deal with subjects that cover almost all in the Hindu traditional writings, stories that can be read as the reader wishes to understand and as the writer perceives with his/her background.
The book is titled “On Hinduism” and therefore one would expect more on the philosophy but the narration is more about changing social customs in India and the paradigm shift in understanding the contents of the texts. It is also unfortunate that the author has dealt with mostly the stories of North India. Not much is seen from the South though passing references are made about Azhwars and Kannappa giving a short shrift to the important people and events of the South. One would have expected a little more from Tamil texts such as Thirukural and other Bakthi literature. One is surprised to see no mention of Kannagi and Madurai. (Meenakshi is mentioned only in the Limerick!)
Though one may not agree with all that is said in the book, one cannot deny the profound knowledge the author possesses of the Hindu texts. There is also a mix-up of the social customs and conditions with philosophy as usual with most Western scholars.
“It is the time when we achieve attitude prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘action without ambition’ (nishkama Karma).” That state, she feels, she has reached after her voluminous writings about the Indian way of religion and philosophy.
Some of the limericks are indeed great. Not just comic relief but something to think on!
(K.R.A. Narasiah is a marine engineer who writes fiction and historical works)