Understanding Hinduism

Doniger, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, is arguably the foremost, and unarguably the most prolific, scholar of Hinduism in the western world. Apart from translating the Rig Veda, Manu and Kamasutra into English, she has authored a number of monographs. When a scholar of her stature brings to bear half-a-century's work and understanding to provide a synthesised account of the subject, it necessarily evokes wide interest. Simply put, the reader is not disappointed.

Updated - November 18, 2016 10:31 pm IST

Published - March 30, 2010 12:45 pm IST - Chennai



The self-appointed custodian of Hinduism who threw an egg at Wendy Doniger at a lecture hall in London in 2003 was evidently ignorant of her credentials.

Engrossing account

Doniger comes in a long line of western scholars who have widened the world's understanding of one of its major religions, Hinduism. The 25-page bibliography lists the works mostly of western scholars on Hinduism. (It is symptomatic that it confuses the Indian historians Ranajit Guha and Ramachandra Guha!) This staggering list should have a salutary effect on anyone who claims an exclusive right to interpret and represent Hindu religion.

It is indeed a tall order to provide a historical account of a religion whose nomenclature itself is the subject of debate and dispute.

Within a chronological framework, Doniger manages to give an engrossing account of Hindu religion across five millennia. There are enough standard historical accounts of Hinduism in English, but her book attempts an “alternative history,” the word ‘alternative' referring to the marginalised groups — namely women, lower castes and, yes, animals — rather than one from the perspective of texts written by men of the Brahmin community. She also seeks to bring in the vernacular, meaning non-Sanskritic, traditions of Hinduism into the picture. This is what makes the book different. I wonder if there is another book that looks at animals in such a detailed, empathetic, and informed fashion. The horse rears its head throughout the book, taking on different meanings at various moments, and it could well be a metaphor.

The philologist in Doniger keeps pointing to cognates across languages and language families, sometimes illuminating the argument and occasionally providing diversionary relief. Stories, replete in the text, are her device to push the narrative forward. Putting together all the tales narrated in the book would in itself add up to a lively anthology, although one may not always agree with her often Freudian readings of them. Doniger is at her best when she handles the texts and discusses gods, animals, and humans figuring in the Vedas, women and ogresses in the Ramayana, and the violence in the Mahabharata.


A philologist trained in the Orientalist tradition, Doniger leans towards textual Sanskrit and north India, despite her claim that she is a recovering, if not a repentant, Orientalist. Further, her understanding of history is chronological, rather than processual or structural, even though she is at pains to point out that Hinduism, for the most part of its history, has been in dialogue with other religions, from Buddhism to Islam and Christianity.

Another shortcoming of the book is the imbalance in covering different periods of history. While the ancient period occupies more than half of the book, the colonial era is treated summarily in just two chapters. India's encounter with colonial modernity had the most wide-ranging impact on religion, what with the proliferation of exciting reform movements across time and region. The chapter on transnational Hinduism, restricted to a discussion of its vicissitudes in the United States, is impressionistic and it would have read better as an epilogue.

Although the vernacular traditions come in for serious discussion, the southern and eastern regions, — not to speak of, say, Hinduism in Manipur and Assam — get a somewhat short shrift. One would have expected a more extensive discussion on ‘Murugan', who has a devotional following across the seas. While there is a bit of Kabir, there is no reference at all to the Tamil ‘Siddhars'. The argument that a book cannot cover everything will not help in explaining away regional specificities and variations.

The book, which is rather unwieldy, could have gained from some vetting. There are too many digressive footnotes and self-indulgent passages (such as the one on Charles Napier's conquest of Sindh).

The writing style is engaging, funny and at times even irreverent. The author's penchant for alluding to American popular culture left me clueless on many occasions. These criticisms notwithstanding, Doniger has produced a serious work of scholarship which is also accessible to the average reader. Anyone seriously concerned with Hinduism in the contemporary world will be well advised to read, enjoy, engage, and even argue with the book.

THE HINDUS - An Alternative History: Wendy Doniger; Penguin/ Viking, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 999.

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