Reading for World Religions

Image The Hindus cover
Not quite 700 pages of delightfully readable and wittily informative prose.

This [delightful, but massive] book1 has been on my shelf for at least five years – long past the time it was withdrawn from the Indian market, according to one commentator because it “wasn’t boring enough.” I have managed to read the introduction and chapter one more than once. But it has always gotten set aside for the sake of something more urgent, though, and until now I haven’t managed to get farther.

This year, with “World Religions I – Eastern” on the horizon, I vowed to make The Hindus: An Alternative History the more urgent thing. I have at last progressed beyond Doniger’s detailed discussion of possible theories of Harappan civilization and their relationship to academic and cultural politics, which was enlightening every time, and have managed to make it through the Vedas and Upanishads to read Doniger’s discussion of the Ramayana through to the end.

Throughout this alternative history Doniger focuses on the ways women, animals, and violence appear in the key textual sources that shape people’s impressions of Hinduism, and in the process illustrates over and over again the incredible ability of Hinduism to incorporate and live with contradictions. Her treatment of the Ramayana in this regard is fascinating and entertaining. She looks at the way the stories in the epic reflect cultural arrangements around and throughout the [long] time of it’s composition; she looks carefully at the way animal characters and ogres represent human social categories, and the way the sprawling literary work encodes cultural tensions and contradictions – animals, for instance, represent various human possibilities, and show what might happen in a less-than-perfect fictional world, though they sometimes simply show up as themselves. But as Doniger says, “[u]nlike dogs and Nishadas, ogres and antigods cannot represent themselves because, in my humble opinion, they do not exist; they are imaginary constructions. Therefore they are purely symbolic, and the question is, What do they symbolize?”2 She concludes, or seems to, that the ogres – good as well as bad – might represent humans of particular “types,” but seem more to function as representatives of the human characters’ “shadow sides,” enacting or absorbing dangerous human impulses, or serving as the objects of actions (violence, e.g.) that humans cannot safely direct toward one another.

1 Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguin, 2009).
2 Doniger, 245.

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