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The Hindus: An Alternative History

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From one of the world's foremost scholars on Hinduism, a vivid reinterpretation of its history

An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth that offers a new way of understanding one of the world's oldest major religions, The Hindus elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds.

Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a strictly chronological account: many of its central texts cannot be reliably dated even within a century; its central tenets—karma, dharma, to name just two—arise at particular moments in Indian history and differ in each era, between genders, and caste to caste; and what is shared among Hindus is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another. Yet the greatness of Hinduism—its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness—lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that continue to inspire debate today.

Wendy Doniger is one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world. With her inimitable insight and expertise Doniger illuminates those moments within the tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon. Without reversing or misrepresenting the historical hierarchies, she reveals how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of and compassion toward women and lower castes; how they debate tensions surrounding religion, violence, and tolerance; and how animals are the key to important shifts in attitudes toward different social classes.

The Hindus brings a fascinating multiplicity of actors and stories to the stage to show how brilliant and creative thinkers—many of them far removed from Brahmin authors of Sanskrit texts—have kept Hinduism alive in ways that other scholars have not fully explored. In this unique and authoritative account, debates about Hindu traditions become platforms from which to consider the ironies, and overlooked epiphanies, of history.

800 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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Wendy Doniger

102 books221 followers

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Author 27 books36 followers
July 26, 2016
Where Exactly Is India, Ms. Doniger?

Banned in Bangalore, the New York Times op-ed said. Why ban a book, no matter how offensive, the literati fumed. No one can truly ban a book in the Internet age, friends pointed out. Naturally, I bought a copy—and more to the point, read the book.

Before we proceed, let me say that I do not support banning any book (or even legally requiring a book to be withdrawn from circulation, as was the case with this book in India). But I do hold that every banned book isn’t necessarily a well-written, scholarly work. Indeed, a ban of any kind instantly confers an aura of hyper-legitimacy on the banned work, regardless of its intrinsic merit, and I believe that’s what happened with Ms. Doniger’s book. I contend that her book is biased and sloppy, and that’s what this review is all about.

Let’s start with the big picture. A well-written alternative history of anything, let alone Hinduism, generally has the effect of making the reader pause and think twice about what he may have held all along as the truth. From someone of Ms. Doniger’s stature, I was hoping to hear a serious insight or two that would make me go, "Gosh, I’ve known that story all my life, but why didn’t I look at things that way before?"

So, what major insights does the book offer? According to the author, the main aspects are diversity and pluralism in Hindu thought, treatment of women and lower castes, the erotic side of Hinduism, and the many tensions and conflicts within Hinduism.

That’s where my disappointment started—those are not major insights, nor do they add up to an alternative history. Let’s go item by item. Diversity and Pluralism? Caste system? Anyone with a passing interest in India knows about it. Treatment of women? I am not trying to minimize the importance of women, but what’s new here? Were the other ancient cultures any better? Conflict and tension within? Hardly surprising for a country of a billion people. Eroticism in ancient India? Oh please, who hasn’t heard of that? Yes, yes, Ms. Doniger adds a ton of detail, but my point is that things don’t become groundbreaking by adding detail. It’s as if someone wrote a very detailed book about the Mississippi river and Southern cuisine and called it "The Americans: An Alternative History."

All the detail opens up an even bigger disappointment. It appears that Ms. Doniger frequently cherry-picked the facts to suit her views, and on occasion, even twisted them to suit her narrative. I realize these are harsh accusations and the burden of proof lies on me, so please allow me to present enough examples to make my case (within the space limitations of an opinion piece).

Let’s begin with the epic Ramayana, with the king Dasharatha and his three wives. The youngest, the beautiful Kaikeyi, assists the king in a hard-fought battle. In return, the king grants her two wishes, to be claimed at any time of her choosing. Many years later, when the king is about to retire and Rama, his son from the eldest wife, is about to be crowned, Kaikeyi claims her two wishes: that her son Bharata be named king, and Rama be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. The king is torn between his promise to Kaikeyi and his obligation to name the eldest son as the next king, as convention dictated. When Rama hears of the king’s predicament, he abdicates his claim to the throne and leaves the city. This is a defining moment for Rama—the young man respects the king’s word (i.e., the law) enough to renounce his own claim to the throne and loves his father so much that he spares him the pain of having to enact the banishment. Indeed, this point in Rama’s life even foretells the rest of the story—that the young man would, in the years to come, make even bigger personal sacrifices for the sake of his ideals.

That’s the mainstream narrative. Let’s hear Ms. Doniger’s alternative narrative, in her own words. “The youngest queen, Kaikeyi, uses sexual blackmail (among other things) to force Dasharatha to put her son, Bharata, on the throne instead and send Rama into exile.”

Now, was Kaikeyi beautiful? Yes. Was the king deeply enamored with her? Yes. Did Kaikeyi lock herself in a room and create a scene? Absolutely. Was the king called a fool and other names by his own sons? You bet. But there is far more to Rama’s exile than sexual blackmail. Ms. Doniger covers this topic in excellent detail (page 223 onwards), but it’s interesting that she doesn’t bring up the king’s longstanding promise. Before we draw conclusions, let’s move on to a different story from the same epic.

Ms. Doniger retells the story of the ogre Shurpanakha, who approaches Rama and professes her love for him. Rama tells her he is a married man and mocks her. In the end, Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana mutilates the ogre. To Ms. Doniger, this data point (to be fair, not the only data point) indicates Rama’s cruelty toward women. Ms. Doniger then contrasts this story with one from the Mahabharata, where an ogre named Hidimbi professes her love for Bheema and is accepted as his wife—again underscoring the author’s point about Rama’s cruelty. All of this might sound reasonable at first glance, but let’s look closer.

This is how the story goes in the epic. Shurpanakha approaches Rama when he is sitting next to his wife, Sita. When Rama mocks her, the ogre gets angry and charges at Sita. Rama holds the ogre back to save Sita and then orders his younger brother to mutilate the ogre. Rama even says, “That ogre almost killed Sita.” One would think these details are pertinent to the discussion, but strangely enough, Ms. Doniger doesn’t bring them up. Also, Rama was a committed monogamist, whereas Bheema was (at that point in the story) a single man. Aren’t we comparing apples to oranges here? Isn’t this just the kind of nuance one would expect a researcher to pick up?

To be fair to Ms. Doniger, there are many versions of the Ramayana (and sadly enough, some scholars have received a lot of undeserved flak for pointing this out). So, is it possible that she and I were reading different renditions of the same epic? I checked. Turns out we both got our details from the Valmiki Ramayana (also known as the original Sanskrit version). What’s going on here?

Normally, one would expect an alternative narrative to add nuance—as if to say, “There is more to the story than what you lay people know.” But Ms. Doniger manages to do the opposite—she takes a nuanced, compelling moment in the epic and reduces it to sexual blackmail or cruelty or sexual urges, whatever her current talking point is. Speaking of sexual urges, indeed there are no sex scenes in her book. But it can justifiably be called a veritable catalog of all the phalluses and vaginas that ever existed in ancient India, and there is no dearth of detail in Doniger’s book when it comes to private parts. She even cares to tell you whether any given phallus is erect or flaccid. Details, people!

But enough about men and women. Let’s move on to animals. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna burns up a large forest and many creatures die; the epic even describes the animals’ pain at some length. Somehow, Ms. Doniger finds this worthy of filing under the “Violence toward Animals” section. Was Arjuna supposed to first clear the forest of all the wild animals and only then set the forest on fire? Is that how other cultures cleared forests so they could grow crops and build cities? Has it occurred to Ms. Doniger the very fact that the narrator of the epic bothered to describe the animals’ pain (instead of just saying “Arjuna burned the forest”) indicates some sympathy toward animals in those times? Then the professor brings up—and this is a recurring talking point under the cruelty section—the line from Mahabharata that says, “fish eat fish.” Ms. Doniger calls it “Manu’s terror of piscine anarchy.” Oh, the humanity!

Yet there is no mention of what Bheeshma says in the Mahabharata (Book 13), over pages and pages of discourse, on the virtues of vegetarianism and kindness toward all animal life. Bheeshma calls “abstention from cruelty” the highest religion, highest form of self-control, highest gift, highest penance and puissance, highest friend, highest happiness and the highest form of truth. One would think this passage merits a mention when discussing cruelty towards animals in the Mahabharata, but it doesn’t get one.

Ms. Doniger uses the phrase “working with available light” when describing how she had approached her subject matter, which is very true when working with a complex topic such as Hinduism. But the problem is, she then proceeds to turn off many lights in the house and use a microscope to detail the bits she cares to see. She is of course free to do what she likes, but can someone please explain to me why the end result from such an approach qualifies as an “alternative” map of my home?

Still on the topic of animals, let’s discuss dogs, a subject Ms. Doniger covers in great detail. Even lay readers of the Mahabharata remember that in the end, Yudhishtira declined his chance to go to heaven unless the stray dog that had been loyal to him was also allowed in, and many Mahabharata enthusiasts may recall a different dog at the beginning that was unjustly beaten up. Ms. Doniger’s book mentions many other dogs as well, and for good measure, she even shares a weird story from contemporary India, 150 words long, quoted verbatim from an Indian newspaper, about a man marrying a dog.

What about Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad Gita, where he says wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and someone who might cook a dog? Ms. Doniger does mention those lines, but with an interesting twist. She prefaces those 24 words with “though” and reverts to her chosen narrative without even waiting for that thought to finish: “though the Gita insists that wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a dog cooker, the Mahabharata generally upholds the basic prejudice against dogs.” Has it occurred to Ms. Doniger that, while men were beating up dogs, God was professing a kinder, more egalitarian approach? The whole man vs. God angle escapes her, and in the end we are left with a world where “man marries dog” gets 150 words and God’s words of compassion are limited to 24, topped with a though.

Ms. Doniger calls her book “a history, not the history, of the Hindus,” which is, of course, fine. Further, I do not hold the mainstream narrative to be beyond reproach, nor do I expect an alternative narrative to merely confirm the status quo. Alternative histories do very frequently upset the balance, and, frankly, that’s how progress is made. But my problem here is that Ms. Doniger seems to think the mainstream narrative is ipso facto a biased one, and that her alternative narrative is more compelling, never mind the facts and the counterevidence. She draws the graph first and then looks for data points. That’s a very interesting trend you’ve spotted there, Ms. Doniger, but what about all those big, ugly blots of truth that don’t fit your graph?

So much for stories from ancient India. For the benefit of any kind souls from the Western world who have been patiently reading through all this, let me throw in an example from relatively recent times that involves America. No doubt you've heard what the physicist Robert Oppenheimer said while reflecting on the first nuclear blast he had helped spawn. He quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Why would he quote Gita? The simplest explanation I can think of is that Oppenheimer was a well-read man, and he felt the passage was appropriate when describing the unprecedented firepower he had just witnessed. It’s not much different from Carl Sagan’s quoting Mahapurana in his book Cosmos, one would think. But no, there is more to it. Ms. Doniger’s take:

“Perhaps Oppenheimer’s inability to face his own shock and guilt directly, the full realization and acknowledgment of what he had helped create, led him to distance the experience by viewing it in terms of someone else’s myth of doomsday, as if to say: ‘This is some weird Hindu sort of doomsday, nothing we Judeo-Christian types ever imagined.’ He switched to Hinduism when he saw how awful the bomb was and that it was going to be used on the Japanese, not on the Nazis, as had been intended. Perhaps he moved subconsciously to Orientalism when he realized that it was “Orientals” (Japanese) who were going to suffer.”

There you have it. Weird Hindu doomsdays. Sex-crazed kings. Cruel gods. Men marrying dogs. Phalluses everywhere—some erect and some flaccid. Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have an alternative history of Hinduism. And yes, left uncontested, in all likelihood these are the “insights” a whole new generation of students and researchers might learn, internalize, and cite in future scholarly works.

So much for an alternative history. Now, how about some mundane, regular history stuff? Let’s go back to the Mahabharata, an epic that Ms. Doniger brings up dozens of times in her book (she even calls the Mahabharata “100 times more interesting” than the Iliad and the Odyssey). Let’s ask two questions: When did the main events of Mahabharata occur? And exactly how long is the epic?

Ms. Doniger mentions the years as: between 1000 BCE and 400 BCE, most likely 950 BCE, or around 3012 BCE, or maybe 1400 BCE. That narrows down the chronology quite a bit, doesn't it? Really, there is more to writing history (particularly the alternative kind) than looking up the reference books and throwing in all the numbers one could find. But in Ms. Doniger’s defense, she is not a historian per se (and she clearly tells us so), so let’s let this one slide by. I’d even say she does deserve some credit here for at least bothering to look up things. On the next topic, she fails to do even that.

Ms. Doniger says the Mahabharata is about 75,000 verses long. Then she helpfully adds, “sometimes said to be a hundred thousand, perhaps just to round it off a bit." My goodness, 25,000 verses is some rounding error, don't you think? Most sources put it between 75,000 and 125,000. It took me all of two hours to find a very detailed account (not on the Internet though), compiled in the 11th century, putting the total at 100,500—and I’m not a researcher, not by a long shot. And yes, the exact number of verses is secondary to the big picture. What bothers me is the offhandedness with which Ms. Doniger brushes off 25,000 verses as a rounding issue. Why this half-baked research?

Oh well, maybe we expected too much from the bestselling book on Hinduism and it’s our fault. So, let’s try again, one last time. Where is India located?

Ms. Doniger states, very clearly, without any ambiguity, on page 11 (footnote): “Most of India… is in the Northern Hemisphere.”

I think I’ll stop here.

* * *

Full disclosure: I am a Goodreads author, but my book in no way competes with Ms. Doniger's books.
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,255 reviews2,301 followers
February 29, 2016
(Before reading)

I need to read this book on priority. Hindus are shifting more and more to the right in India, which prompted Penguin to remove this from circulation and pulp the remaining copies. It is time that we fight against such intolerance, and save our country from becoming a theocracy!

(After reading)

I could understand why this book angers the Hindu right. It argues (rightly, IMO)that there is no monolithic "Hinduism" - no "Sanatana Dharma" (Eternal Law) as the conservatives claim.

America calls its culture the "Melting Pot", where various nationalities are fused together to form a single culture. In contrast, Canada calls itsel the "Salad Bowl" - where all cultures are mixed together, yet each keeps its own identity. In the case of India, the cultures fuse together, yet also maintain their identity.

In Kerala, we have a tasty curry called "Avial". It is made from bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables and roots. Legend has it that Bhima invented this curry during his stint disguised as a cook in King Virata's palace. The Avial has its own distinct taste - but if you savour it slowly, you can distinguish the different vegetables.

Hinduism is the world's Avial.

Detailed review up on my blog.

Profile Image for Michael Flick.
505 reviews642 followers
August 24, 2012

I can't think of a better word to describe this book. It's often irreverent, disrespectful, flippant, snide, and glib.

It's a scholarly, rather than a popular, work: 690 pages of text with 1,991 endnotes and innumerable footnotes (well, I didn't count them, but there were a great many--I'd guess more than 200). The author does her own translations of Sanskrit texts as short prose paragraphs (and not many), from which it is difficult to imagine the poetic original or why anyone would pass it down for centuries. It's pretty much all trivialized--I guess the author thinks that's clever. Or cute. But to me it's just a lack of respect. The name of god isn't an an Abbot and Costello routine, the jeweled deer Rama pursues into the forest isn't a Tiffany's branch, Wilie Sutton doesn't explain why temples are razed, the word "cashmere" doesn't mean nothing but money, "God's Dog" isn't a palindrome in Sanskrit, Tantra isn't a wet dream, and many, many, many, many more inappropriate, inapt, cutesy passages.

And it's not only Hinduism that's patronized--the reader is as well ("dear reader").

Unheard voices is a central concern, and the author often listens for them. There's a lot of inference about women, largely repetitive, but much less about lower castes, people outside the caste system, and tribal peoples. Homosexuality gets 5 paragraphs (and a bad pun: "Shastras: Sex and Taxes").

I could go on and on, but why bother? I'm not sorry I read this--as I went along, I did a lot of reading outside the book and learned quite a bit. But it left a nasty taste and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
Profile Image for Sam Schulman.
255 reviews85 followers
February 11, 2019
I am still reading this book, which has provoked both nonviolent and violent protests against it within the Hindu world, much to Wendy's dismay (see this http://hinduexistence.wordpress.com/2... and this http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/9664.... I am not a Hindu, and if you open the old girl's book you will see a chatty, discussion of Hinduism in an haut en bas style that you would be familiar with if it concerned itself with Christianity, for example, particularly in a feminist vein. But these people seem to take their religion seriously, unlike us wiser and more superior New Yorkers.
But start to read in Wendy's book, and you will learn much about Hinduism that you never knew - but you will also see the most incredible vulgarity of expression and manner - a vulgarity that is embarrassing to me as an American and a modern. There is no undergraduate joke that she can avoid, no accidental pun that she can resist passing by - and footnoting, often! She cannot resist explaining the concept of moksha (a kind of renunciation) in the life of a seeker of holiness: "For such a person, moksha is just another word for nothing left to lose.*" And then a footnote, for god's sake: "*To paraphrase Janis Joplin."
Perhaps I spoke this way in my classes in the 70s when I was a young assistant professor - I pray I didn't. But to think that this now rather elderly woman demeans herself, mystifies her young students and imposes this junk on her readers - all in the interest of showing her superiority and disdain for Hinduism - is disgusting and disquieting. Her cultured Hindu despisers don't know the half of it, as Raymond Chandler used to say to Lillian Hellman on the old "Dobie Gillis" show.
The Doniger enterprise to explain Hinduism as a whole - which should have been the capstone of her career - is undermined completely by the dead ends of pop culture and 20th century feminism, which serve only to degrade the subject - but to reveal their own uselessness as ways to understand the world.
To the Arya - I apologize for this person. She knows much, but she turns out to have nothing much to teach any of us, except to avoid her way of thinking.
4 reviews1 follower
April 17, 2012
The Hindus by Wendy Doniger is one of the worst books I've ever had the misfortune to read. As an Indian-American with an inherent love for academia, I picked up this book with high hopes, especially after I noticed it had won a few awards. Oh, how I wish I hadn't.

It's true that Doniger has conducted a great deal of research, but I find her thinking, her writing, and her interpretations extremely ignorant and insulting. She lacks an understanding of the culture or the many subtleties within the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and she jumps to immediate hard-core western feminist conclusions rather than trying to work within the contexts of history, culture, and the world today. Collecting facts is no good without a wise, smart interpretation-- something she lacks. Her interpretation only reveals a lack of understanding for the people of India, their culture, and their history. Her writing is immature and offensive-- I am hard-pressed to believe that a respected authority wrote this book. I was so disgusted, I couldn't finish it.

It is such a shame-- I feel that so many other western authors have had the ability to merge the best of the West with the best of the East. This author gives the Hindu culture no credit-- rather, she presumes to sit in judgment and mock. There are far better authors out there-- please avoid this one.

Profile Image for Cold Cream 'n' Roses.
101 reviews5 followers
June 3, 2018
The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is really not a history at all. In her book, Doniger retells Hindu stories and provides snarky interpretations. One story is about fusing the head of a Brahmin woman onto the body of a Dalit woman. Doniger provides several variants of the theme of transposed heads.

Best use of The Hindus:
Door Stopper

As I read The Hindus: An Alternative History, I became aware of a pattern: it was as though several authors were writing as Wendy Doniger.

Chapter 18, Philosophical Feuds in South India and Kashmir: 800 to 1300 CE, follows the historical timeline, but is thematically out of place. This chapter discusses the influences that South Indian Shaivism and Kashmiri Shaivism had on each other. This topic could be the subject of its own book.

The whitewash of the plight of Hindus under Mughal rule in Chapters 19 and 20 should come as no surprise. Doniger dedicated her book to William Dalrymple, who romanticizes Mughal India. In her acknowledgements, Doniger singles out Dalrymple for giving her the inspiration to write this book.

On the other hand, Chapter 21, Class, Caste, and Conversion in the British Raj, is a sober, even somber exposition of the plight of Hindus and Hinduism under the Raj.

Chapter 23, Hindus in America, reads as though a high school student wrote it, as it skips through examples of how America pop culture has appropriated Hinduism. The chapter does not discuss the establishment of Vedanta centers (for example, St. Louis has had a dedicated building since the 1950s, and the presence of a swami since 1938), waves of Hindu migration to the U.S., acceptance in American society, or establishment of Hindu organizations and institutions, including temples. Although Doniger stridently defends her right as a non-Hindu to tell the story about Hindus and Hinduism, this is one chapter that a Hindu American should have written.

The changes in tone between chapters suggest that there were many writers. Doniger acknowledges the role of her students in contributing to individual chapters, but I suspect that there is more to it to that: namely, the time-honored tradition of having students doing the professor’s work and her taking credit for it. Call it Doniger's "transposed heads."

Doniger writes in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, “…the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices” [page 653:], which, according to her, is the purpose of her book.

After completing The Hindus: An Alternative History, I doubt that Americans who read this book without prior introduction to Hinduism would come away with any admiration for Hinduism. It saddens me that one of the appeals of this book to American readers is the dropping of references to pop culture.

I recommend The Hindus: An Alternative History only to those readers who have had a prior introduction to Hinduism. This book requires critical evaluation. For introductory books on Hinduism, I recommend:

Understanding Hinduism from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
A Short Introduction To Hinduism by Klaus K. Klostermaier

Disclosure: Penguin gave me a complimentary copy of The Hindus. As you can see, it has affected my review not in the least!
67 reviews4 followers
March 10, 2013
I'm not done reading this book, and after months of attempts to get through it I've seriously contemplated abandoning it altogether. That is something that I rarely do, but I find this book to be incredibly tiring. The thing that annoys me the most, is the arrogant attitude of the author which comes across as almost being a parody of Feminist academics/ Women's Studies. As much as I had objections to Edward Said trashing Western scholarship on foreign cultures, this book really is Orientalist in the derogatory manner he popularized.

I'm used to people ridiculing and trivializing Christianity, to suggest that the idea of transubstantiation is an idea nobody believes in anymore, and talk about historical Jesus vs the "Christ myth" that was fabricated by power hungry apostles like Paul, etc. However, I was rather shocked that such standards would be applied to Hinduism, with the trivialization of its history and tenets with a rather unprofessional glibness that uses criticism that crushes more than provides insight. I give credit for it in not being hypocritical at least like many other academics have in being too deferential to other faiths outside of the Judeo-Christian realm. Not to mention the writing style is juvenile, filled with stale pop culture references, bad gags and rather insipid metaphors that even Edward Bulwer-Lytton would find corny.

I don't have a problem with scholarship that takes an unconventional approach and defies orthodoxy. However, the author should consider writing in a manner that fits her status as an academic.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,894 followers
October 30, 2022
An incredible book; an impossible book

Perhaps not a book for you if you have zero knowledge about Hinduism, I imagine the more you bring to it the more you will get out of it.

For that reason alone it is a pity that it was withdrawn from publication in India, but this is where everything gets political.

I have wondered quite a bit how to review this book, soon after reading I read the now venerable A History of India by Romila Thapar and the second volume by Percival Spear, from these I learnt that in broad outlines there is nothing new or exceptional in what Doniger has to say in her history it is, or perhaps was, the standard one and remains the standard one outside of India. My friend H.Balikov asked what was alternative about the history, which was the promise of the subtitle, this was such a good question that I don't have an answer to it, except in negative ways. Firstly to observe that this history is not about the Hindus as in all the Hindus but about those who lived and live in the region of contemporary India or who emigrated to The USA in relatively recent times, admittedly in modern times there are not that many Hindus in south Asia outside of India (comparatively speaking), but historically Hindus and Hinduism that been extremely significant throughout the region; this I put to you, ladies and gentlemen & other honourable readers; is the first clue.

The second clue is that neither Hindu nor Hinduism is ever defined except in a negative sense: a Hindu is not a Jain, or a Buddhist, or a Jew, or Muslim, or a Christian although they may all co-exist and their beliefs may inter- penetrate, mix, cross fertilize, mutually enrich, challenge, and even, believe it or not, influence each other.

Implicitly then for Doniger Hinduism is a phenomenon existing in time and concentrated in certain but changing regions that is characterised by being indefinable, malleable, and adaptable. For Doniger Hinduism is a living exemplar of Ovid's epic,: vital and polyphonic. It can eat whole other peoples and traditions, absorb them, be transformed and yet claim to be the same while always changing. Well so what? You may well say, so isn't that true of all cultural traditions - at least the ones that are not dead? Yes, but her point is -I think- that this is the opposite of what a currently politically dominant currant in contemporary Hinduism says. Such views in Doniger's opinion are unHindu .

The book itself is something like a sacrificed pawn in chess, it's withdrawal from publication in the face of complaints, shows the world a narrow-minded ideology which cannot abide criticism of itself, implicit or directly stated.

For the rest of us it is an incredibly rich journey through an aspect of the culture of India. It plainly comes from a writer with long experience in oral story telling as practised in institutes of higher education - a style that is marked by a delight in bad jokes and puns, not all of which will make you groan aloud. One that she particularly likes is the Zen diagram, which gives you a taste of her manner.

Thee are quite a few maps - when really one would have been quite enough - although the book does cover a long span of time, the rivers and the mountains didn't move around that much, sadly there are very few illustrations. The basic structure is chronological. The essential argument is that contemporary Hinduism is a confluence of many traditions, even relatively core elements such as which gods are the most important, or the nature of sacrifice have changed dramatically. Something that Doniger repeatedly gives credit to is the creativity of Hindu tradition, allowing practitioners escape from absolute obligations and to recycle ideas from other cultures.

It is an amazing book - though in part I have to think that after working through almost 700 pages or 1.299 kilos of paperback book. Well worth reading.
Profile Image for Jon Stout.
283 reviews60 followers
June 22, 2009
More than one friend has said, “Write a lot about this book,” so the pressure is on. When I first saw the reviews for The Hindus An Alternative History, I jumped at the chance to read an opinionated, panoramic discussion of Hinduism, because I have had miscellaneous experiences and opinions of Hinduism ever since my Peace Corps days in Nepal, and I wanted to deepen and consolidate my knowledge.

Doniger acknowledges that hers is an “alternative” history, because it is written with a view to filling in the non-Brahman threads in Hindu history, particularly the contributions of women, as well as of lower and outside castes such as untouchables and pariahs. She also discusses the roles of Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Christians and others who have interacted with Hinduism. So Doniger’s history is a sort of counter-culture history. I thought there might be a gay and lesbian component of a counter-cultural history, as there is to other stretches of world history, but Doniger limits discussion of homosexuality to only four pages out of 700, so I guess that is a topic for an alternative “alternative history.”

Doniger’s discussion goes back to geologic prehistory, and then to the origin of Sanskrit as an Indo-European language. The discussion of the Indo-European speakers of ten thousand years ago, who are the ancestors of most cultures in Europe and the Middle East, seems ironic because the Indo-Europeans were a nomadic, horse-riding, cattle-rustling culture, seemingly like that of Genghis Kahn or Attila the Hun, and yet these progenitors in India developed into a society that stresses asceticism and non-violence as major values. A tiny piece of the evidence is the prevalence of horses in Hindu mythology, even though horses are not indigenous to India.

I was very attentive to the role of Buddhists in Hindu history, because I had read that Buddhism started as a kind of reform movement within Hinduism (around 400 BCE), and therefore could be thought of as a branch of Hinduism. This made sense to me in the same sense that Christianity is a historical offshoot of Judaism, and people speak of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (though Harold Bloom, for one, would object). A Hindu friend once told me that Buddhism is “the export variety of Hinduism,” But I am also aware that Buddhism has traveled and undergone permutations throughout virtually all of Asia, quite independently of Hinduism.

Doniger clarifies the issue because she tracks Hinduism over time, from the Vedas to the Upanishads to the epics to the Puranas, and so on. The Buddha was contemporaneous with the Upanishads, and had knowledge of the Vedas, in fact reacted in some ways against their authority, so that Buddhism (as well as Jainism), if a branch, is a very, very early branch of Hinduism. But Buddhism and Jainism coexisted with Hinduism throughout centuries, and thus they all mutually criticized and influenced each other. Doniger speaks of some periods in which Buddhists, Jains, Shaivas (devotees of Shiva) and Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu) were the prevalent groups, much as Eisenhower once said that Catholics, Protestants and Jews were the three denominations of Americanism.

Doniger discusses how to define “Hinduism,” and points out that there are common sources, practices, beliefs, etc., but that for every generalization one can find opposing viewpoints, so that it is impossible to isolate specific sources or beliefs which define “Hinduism.” She concludes that we have to resort to a Zen diagram (a pun on Venn diagram) which is a Wittgensteinian “family,” that is, a group in which some members share resemblances, but no property is common to all. Her discussion (plus a little help from my friends) led me to understand, despite her opposing argument, that the Vedas are the source from which everything Hindu flows. This notwithstanding the fact that within Hinduism, anti-Vedic positions may be taken.

I am always struck when Hindu history grapples with a theme in a way comparable to how European literature handles the same theme, probably because both traditions are dealing with perennial problems. There are many examples in Doniger’s book, but one comes to mind. The Brahmanas (commentary on the Rig Veda) try to answer questions like “Who is the god whom we should honor with oblation?” by inventing a god whose name is “Who.”

“The creator asked the god Indra… ‘Who am I?,’ to which Indra replied. ‘Just who you said’ (i.e., ‘I am Who’), and that is how the creator got the name of Who.”

This seems a remarkable parallel to me of Yahweh’s saying, in the Torah, “I am that I am” in a way that echoes the Hebrew name of Yahweh. I won’t try to analyze what “I am Who” or “I am that I am” means, but both formulations seem to express the insight that what is, is God, and to call attention to the revelatory nature of self-awareness. Both formulations are deep in ways that call for traditions of mythology and histories of analysis.

I have long tried to get a visceral, personal sense of the Hindu gods and goddesses, which is sometimes difficult, because, for example, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around a Krishna who frolics with milkmaids and also is the destroyer of worlds. Doniger helps the process of understanding by using many snippets of the epic stories, ranging over many centuries, which show how the core of a story has been repeatedly reinterpreted to add layers or variations of meaning. An example would be the abduction of Sita in the Ramayana, in which originally Rama questions her honor, but in later versions he never doubts her, and anyhow Sita has a shadow version of herself to do the hard part. The endless reinterpretations serve the purpose of addressing a social or conceptual problem, such as accommodating the viewpoint of women.

Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj fleshes out a lot which had been vague to me, such as the duration of British involvement in India, from Queen Elizabeth’s first charter of the East Indies Company in 1600 to Indian independence in 1947, more than three centuries. Doniger divides the Raj into three waves: First were “Conservatives and Orientalists… appreciative and tolerant,” who interfered minimally, while respecting, though romanticizing Hinduism. Second were “Evangelicals and Opportunists… scornful,” who tended to exploit India religiously and commercially. Third were “Unitarians and Anglicists… hostile,” who were judgmental and punitive in their attitudes.

In other words there was a full range of interactions between British and Indians, ranging from love and respect to cruelty and exploitation. Doniger observes that Edward Said, the theorist of “Orientalism,” was surprisingly ambivalent about Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. While Kipling assumed the structures of British colonialism and implicitly endorsed them, nevertheless his obvious love for India, and the integrity of his vision, could still charm. Doniger says that, ironically “Gandhi referred to the British as ‘those who loved me.’ The British also loved India for the right reasons, reasons that jump off of every page of Kim: the beauty of the land, the richness and intensity of human interactions, the infinite variety of religious forms.”

Doniger defends her own right to interpret Hinduism, “I believe that stories, unlike horses, and like bhakti in the late Puranic tradition, constitute a world of unlimited good, and an infinitely expansible source of meaning.” Her work erases, in my mind, the distinction between “western” and “eastern,” and places Hinduism squarely within a context which belongs to all of us.

Profile Image for Divya Singh.
10 reviews
February 14, 2014
This book is a result of incomplete research and the fact that it contains several unjustified judgments from someone with a distant perspective and incomplete understanding of Hindu culture, makes it a bad choice academic and teaching purposes. In the least of its understanding, this book is misleading and at times giving false information.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews967 followers
April 12, 2017
Surely history is one of the most important things for us to imagine and to realise that we are imagining.

I bought this book some time last year, with very little thought, because I heard it was being withdrawn from publication at the request of the BJP government. Normally, I try not to read books written by outsiders like this, but I don’t like book-banners so I made an exception with trepidation and tried to take the text with plenty of salt. As literature at least, this book turns out to be pretty great, and I was cautiously on board with Wendy’s agenda to find marginalised stories or stories about marginalised folks, and to favour diversity, hybridity, contestation, both/and, imagination, questioning authority (the book is huge and its aims are much broader I feel, but if it has an overall argument, it is one in favour of such things). She’s also apt to apply a feminist lens and to draw attention to various forms of prejudice. There’s both humility and passionate defense in her presentation of the text itself, but also some explicit criticism of the BJP’s ideology and agenda.

The approach varies, but most commonly focuses on texts and their contexts. The interpretive touch feels light, (although that’s potentially deceptive) and the mixture of stories, discussion and contextual facts is held together by various sustaining threads. Just bringing such a huge multiplicity of stuff together with coherence (but not too much) is impressive.

There was never a dull chapter, but the two covering British rule were the easiest for me to read, since she is judiciously unsparing. This is probably as good a text as any to undeceive my fellow citizens about the Empire. About this topic, I can safely believe her. The last chapters that bring the book into the present, include some nuanced criticism of appropriation that I will probably re-read too. About the rest, I feel unqualified to speak.
1 review3 followers
December 12, 2009
The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is really not a history at all. In her book, Doniger retells Hindu stories and provides snarky interpretations. One story is about fusing the head of a Brahmin woman onto the body of a Dalit woman. Doniger provides several variants of the theme of transposed heads.

As I read The Hindus: An Alternative History, I became aware of a pattern: it was as though several authors were writing as Wendy Doniger.

Chapter 18, Philosophical Feuds in South India and Kashmir: 800 to 1300 CE, follows the historical timeline, but is thematically out of place. This chapter discusses the influences that South Indian Shaivism and Kashmiri Shaivism had on each other. This topic could be the subject of its own book.

The whitewash of the plight of Hindus under Mughal rule in Chapters 19 and 20 should come as no surprise. Doniger dedicated her book to William Dalrymple, who romanticizes Mughal India. In her acknowledgements, Doniger singles out Dalrymple for giving her the inspiration to write this book. For a deconstruction of the coverage on Mughal rule of India in The Hindus: An Alternative History, read the essay Hinduism Studies and Dhimmitude in the American Academy by Professor M. Lal Goel.

On the other hand, Chapter 21, Class, Caste, and Conversion in the British Raj, is a sober, even somber exposition of the plight of Hindus and Hinduism under the Raj.

Chapter 23, Hindus in America, reads as though a high school student wrote it, as its skips through examples of how America pop culture has appropriated Hinduism. The chapter does not discuss the establishment of Vedanta centers (for example, St. Louis has had a dedicated building since the 1950s, and the presence of a swami since 1938), waves of Hindu migration to the U.S., acceptance in American society, or establishment of Hindu organizations and institutions, including temples. Although Doniger stridently defends her right as a non-Hindu to tell the story about Hindus and Hinduism, this is one chapter that a Hindu American should have written.

The changes in tone between chapters suggest that there were many writers. Doniger acknowledges the role of her students in contributing to individual chapters, but I suspect that there is more to it to that: namely, the time-honored tradition of having students doing the professor’s work. Call it Doniger's "transposed heads."

Doniger writes in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, “…the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted precisely by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices” [page 653:], which, according to her, is the purpose of her book.

After completing The Hindus: An Alternative History, I doubt that Americans who read this book without prior introduction to Hinduism would come away with any admiration for Hinduism. It saddens me that one of the appeals of this book to American readers is the dropping of references to pop culture.

I recommend The Hindus: An Alternative History only to those readers who have had a prior introduction to Hinduism. This book requires critical evaluation. Americans who would like a better understanding of Hinduism should consult sources like the Vedanta Catalog for good books on Hinduism.
Profile Image for Kaśyap.
271 reviews123 followers
March 16, 2020
I couldn't go through more than a 100 pages of this. Wendy doniger's writing style is very unprofessional, immature and glib, filled with infantile and snarky "humour" that would put any reader off.
I wonder why this is even called an "Alternate History" when this is just a rehash of the old colonial histories filled with ignorance and arrogance. A typical example of what Edward Said described as "Orientalism".
Profile Image for Simone Roberts.
41 reviews20 followers
May 3, 2013
Here's the thing. Doniger is one of the, no kidding, premier American scholars of India's philosophical and epic traditions. But, she's not a philosopher. She's a scholar of comparative religion and mythology; as such she uses more literary methods to read her subject texts. (Many reviewers seem surprised by this.) She's also at the mature end of her career. She displays a sense of humor about her subjects that comes from long, long familiarity.

Some of her puns and jokes are hilarious, and some fall a little flat. They are all, rather clearly, made with deep affection for her subject.

In The Hindus, which she warns you is an *alternative* history, Doniger wants to trace and seek out the marginalized, the buried traces of Hindu life and culture -- Women, Low Castes, Animals -- that the dominant traditions exclude.

She is, at long last, gently and with sympathy and humor reading an a aggressively patriarchal and androcentric tradition back against itself with its own stories.

Given the heated negativity of many reviews here, I suggest that if you seek a more traditional and straightforward introduction to the epics or the other major texts of the Indian traditions ...

read another book. There are many excellent such works.
Profile Image for Sidharth Vardhan.
Author 23 books699 followers
August 12, 2016

This is just to add a remark about one of the biggest criticisms of this book - that it was written by an outsider and who (as critics seem to think 'it follows') didn't know anything about Hinduism. Doniger herself answers the criticism well. And anyway, I don't think most Hindus ever opened any of their bigger scriptures.

Still.... MM Kalburgi, a rationalist with strong views against idolism and winner of Kendrya Sahitya Akademi Award was murdered on August 30 this year. MM Kalburgi doesn't even have his works listed on goodreads perhaps because he wrote in local languages.

Earlier Govind Pansare was murdereed on February 20. His best selling book 'Shivaji Kaun Hota' showed Shiva ji as a 'secular' leader.

Although nobody knows who killed them; the investigation is still going .... and it can be a pure coincidence that both of them (like Donigner) had real differences with Hindutava ideoligies.

So there you have it friends, this is what happens when insiders write about Hinudism. And journalists in the country seem to be pretty easy with it. Wendy Doniger was lucky to escape mrely with her book taken out of publication.

Want more? Narendar Dabolkar, a social activist who demanded an anti-superstition bill was killed in 2013.

Not that our popular great pseudo-writers have much to say about this. The only place where I have seen those killings mentioned on goodreads is link to the blog by Taslima Nasrin.

Journalists seemed to have shown greater support for Charlie Hebdo, who were distant and where their support was risk-free .

I don't think most people ever got the real threat contained in Penguin's taking this book out of publication. It wasn't that particular book was challenged but that it showed that publishers seems to be scared or what wrong they might have suddenly seen in a book they had previously published willingly. What bigger proof of self-censorship could be there? And even if someone mustered courage to write his heart even with all these risks, what is the chance that he/she will ever be published in a country where whatever few real publishers there are, are so scared?

In his book, the 'The God Delusion, Richard Hawkins debated about the undeserved respect given to religious issues. This, very same undeserved respect is responsible for the genuine resistance, this book has met. It is undeserved because no religion or belief can be shielded from criticism.

Much of the fuss is however made by Hindutava whose political agendas will be badly affected if Doniger's version of history gains popularity - specially the parts relating to Ram-setu and Ayodhya Ram Mandir. The so called danger this book is supposed to cause on hidu religion is only a red hearing to mask their own little interests.

To stop any book from being read is wrong but even if these fundamentalists feel so protective of their little gods then why don't they fight against such books like Ajaya, Asura or Shiva trilogy (or - well Chota Bheem)?

That Penguin group should remove it,is something which is scary for all of us. Arundhati Rai's letter to Penguin group is something I will never forget:
"Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are?"

Who should read this book?

As it should be, anyone can. I think it is not perfect book to start with, for a person not already somewhat sufficiently acquainted with the Hindu religion - tat just because it is not an introduction to Hinduism, it is a history and you might end up judging the present in terms of forgotten past. The gods in Hindu mind are created and developed over centuries and it would be wrong to judge them (the images in Hindu mind)purely on basis of past. if you don't know about Hinduism much, then you should make it a second read, the first read being some other book (even if it is by same author).
A second requirement if you want to read it would be an open mind, please.

Why should I read this book?

There is this whole market of readers interested in mythology, however they would rather go for badly researched retellings instead of a serious book like this. If you are really interested in mythology, have guts to be serious with your reading.

Now about the content of the book:

The author starts by answering questions raised on very validity of book like - should a foreigner write on Hinduism, please do read them again before reviewing the book.

The author then goes onto define her objectives and also explains to you a few rules of logic - that she will be using. She also question the assumption of 'old is gold'. The book is full of footnotes, references and so on - the way well researched works are. You could see the transformations that took place in Hinduism through the history.

The tone she uses is chatty and frequently humorous giving it a light touch which is always good. Anyone who thinks that religion should always be discussed with hanging faces may simply avoid it. In India, it is very common for people to discuss their gods in this fashion.

Then there are those extracts and short stories, which the author translates, which I loved the most.

The author condemns the oriental-ism prevalent in west, clarifying the traditions wrongly interpreted. She also provides a fairly critical review of Hinduism of present day India.

and now, the but:

There is not much of a 'but'. The author seems to be genuinely trying and mostly successfully to avoid speculation but at time she seemed to be just carried away. She tells us how Kalidas tries to shield Dushyant by creating an alternative history for him in Shankuntala - something she herself tries best to avoid but yet, very rarely ...

She also seems a bit obsessed with Hinduism's interest in animals - something exploited to excess (for example I can't see why Yudhistra's dog had to be anything other than Dharamraj or a dog).

and so, to conclude

I don't think, on a question that looks so open ended and vast, two sufficiently knowledgeable persons can agree but Doniger is greatly agreeable.

This is a very good and serious book that unfortunately, for all of us fell prey to narrow mindedness of a few fundamentalists and cowardice of its publishers - showing what joke our country has as freedom of speech.

Profile Image for Riju Ganguly.
Author 32 books1,452 followers
October 5, 2020
Do you remember those elders who tried to appear modern and 'up-to-date' in social gatherings, and ended up committing a series of faux pas that made everyone cringe?
This is one such book.
It tries to cover everything that a non-Hindu would try to seek while studying the various texts. Humans, Animals, Gods, Vedas, Brahmanas, Sacrifice and Renunciation, Position of Women, various interpretations of epics, philosophical feuds, caste, class, reforms under the East India Company— everything have been discussed here.
If I claim that the author didn't know what was being written, it would be wrong. Wendy Doniger is undoubtedly an erudite scholar who has studied ancient India rigorously in terms of culture, literature, language, rituals etc. But she committed two cardinal mistakes that a historian should NEVER make.
Firstly, she tries to appear as someone who is painfully modern, in this monumental tome. As a result, the book is full of pop references that belong to the world of an American teenager. It's sprinkled with the author's bizarre notions regarding sex and violence in ancient 'Hindu' society (a huge misnomer, since the concept of 'Hindu' started denoting religion or culture only during the last thousand year or so). This made the experience incredibly jarring.
Secondly, she made it very clear in the preface itself that the aim of this book would be akin to an attempt to cut the Hindu right wing to size. Ma'm, if you want to play a role in Indian politics, join one of those agencies who are employed by Pakistan, China and sundry others for explicitly that purpose. Please don't waste your obvious knowledge and understanding on such misguided attempts in the name of history.
Dear reader, you have been advised now.
Profile Image for Terence.
1,168 reviews394 followers
January 12, 2010
Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21...) so too my first exposure to any representation of Hinduism came via the same medium. In that book, Cyrus Spitama – grandson of Zoroaster and Darius of Persia’s ambassador to the Indian kingdoms – witnesses a Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important rituals of ancient Indian kingship:

For an Indian ruler the horse sacrifice is all-important. For one thing it represents a renewal of his kingship. For another, if he is able to enlarge the kingdom that he inherited, he will be known as a high king….

…But today they felt the magic…of an event that seldom happens more than once in the reign of a king despite the ancient tradition that the first earthly king who celebrates one hundred horse sacrifices will overthrow the god Indra and take his place in the sky.
(p. 236 of my edition)

Say what you will about his politics, Vidal does his homework. I’ll spare you Vidal’s description of the decidedly “interesting” specifics of the rite since I want to keep this review family friendly but his version largely agrees with that described by Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History (pp. 154-6). Vidal’s actors take the rite a bit more literally than Doniger would allow but that’s one of the central themes of this work – In a tradition that has thrived for c. 4,000 years, one can find nearly anything. “Hinduism” has confronted, shaped and absorbed a tremendous variety of beliefs, and has adapted its native beliefs (e.g., the horse sacrifice) in any number of ways. How often was the sacrifice performed? How literally was the marriage of queen and stallion taken? Hindu writers can be found who take the sacrifice literally, others who argue that it was largely symbolic, and others writing that it was entirely symbolic, or even that it never took place but was a mental exercise meant to illustrate a religious point.

In this book Doniger takes on the daunting task of tracing Hinduism’s evolution from its birth among the Vedic rituals and gods of the Indo-Aryan migrants to the Indus and Ganges valleys through the development of the Upanishads, the Puranas, bhakti, sectarianism (Vishnu and Siva), and Vedantic schools. What emerges from this sprawl is an immense, overwhelming culture that resists definition. (This despite the BJP’s best efforts or Doniger’s, for that matter. But whereas Doniger delights in such complexity, the BJP reacts to anything other than their own interpretations with horror and, sometimes, violence.) The best you (or a Hindu) can do is to respectfully study the traditions and remember that for every positive assertion you can make about Hindu belief, you can bet that you can find its opposite in someone’s creed that purports to be just as genuinely “Hindu.”

I can’t distill this book down into a capsule description – I don’t have the time (not without pay, at any rate) and the scope and structure of the book defies such simplification. What I’ll try to do in the next few paragraphs is highlight a few of the more interesting aspects I discovered in my reading.

To begin, Doniger identifies three alliances that characterize Hindu cosmology/theology (p. 108ff.). The first (and earliest) is that of the gods and humans vs. the asuras and rakshasas. Some versions of the Ramayana reflect this in Rama’s war against the rakshasa Ravana. The second alliance is that of the gods vs. humans. Humans, asuras and rakshasas threaten the position of the gods with their excessive piety and defiance of caste. Defiance of caste is of enormous influence on Hinduism’s development, and Doniger sees this emerge in the written culture with the Mahabharata, India’s second national epic. The third alliance emerges with the bhakti (devotion) movement and revolves around the gods extending their protection to all men, asuras and rakshasas. In its most radical forms, this protection extended even to people who inadvertently honor the gods and even to dogs, the lowest form of life.

Doniger argues that there are three layers of development discerned in Hinduism. There’s the Vedic level, the earliest stratum, concerned with rituals and purity, and with little moral component as moderns understand the term. Even here, though, in the most ancient traditions there’re the beginnings of concern over the righteousness of animal sacrifice and the appropriateness of violence. The second layer, the Brahmanic, emerged in the wake of urbanization (c. the time Vidal’s Creation is set, the Axial Age). The third layer, the Vedantic, emerged with the Upanishads and developed further with the devotional sects of the Medieval and later eras.

“Reincarnation” is, certainly, one of Hinduism’s most recognizable doctrines in Western eyes though we’ve tended to dumb it down into little more than excuses to find out what we did as incarnations of Cleopatra or Atlantean high priests. Hindus feared reincarnation because it meant another death – rather than “rebirth,” we should use “redeath” to describe how a Hindu saw the prospect of another life. Where Buddhism, Hinduism’s bastard child, rejected all heavens, hells and earths as mara, illusion, Hinduism contented itself with simply breaking the bonds of the earthly cycle of redeath and salvation in some heaven.

There’s a delineation of the meanings of “karma” that I found of interest (p. 168f.):

(1) action (any), from the verb “to do”
(2) ritual action (Rg Veda)
(3) morally significant action (Upanishads)
(4) morally significant action that has consequences for future lives
(5) the reverse of (4), actions that influence past lives
(6) (4) and (5) type karma that can be transferred to others

Something else that Doniger brings up but doesn’t develop sufficiently in my opinion is the decline of the old gods (Indra, Agni, etc.) and the growth of devotional cults, primarily to Vishnu and Siva. I would have liked to know why these new gods rose to prominence. In that same vein, I also would have liked to see greater analysis of the meaning of “ahimsa.” This is another term known in the West but little understood in its native context. Doniger makes the tantalizing assertion that Gandhi’s interpretation of the term was something of an innovation but doesn’t develop it much beyond that. (In Doniger’s defense, she does include a 22-page bibliography of secondary sources that could be plumbed for further reading.)

Doniger notes that the “Bhagavad Gita” (an episode from the Mahabharata) outlined three paths to salvation: karma (in the sense of obeying dharma); jnana (faith), in relation to the renunciants’ ideal of moksha (release); and bhakti (devotion). From this emerges the idea of “karma without kama – action without desire. Arjuna can square his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior caste) with the karmic consequences of violence (all bad) by acting without desire. When done without desire, any action is without karmic impact. (At least that’s how I interpret Doniger’s interpretation.) The cynic in me sees this as justification for all sorts of mischief (“But, mom! I didn’t want to steal the cookie. It’s just the dharma of an 8-year-old!”).

One of Doniger’s major aims in the book is to look at Hinduism through the lens of the dispossessed, that is the pariah castes and women, and how the Brahmins responded to them. Not surprisingly, neither Dalits or women fared well under the strictures of Brahmanic thought but in Doniger’s eyes the three great shastras – the Manu, the Arthrashastra and the Kamasutra – reflected idealizations that did not mirror the reality of day-to-day life (p. 304f.).

Interesting culture factoid – the eight varieties of marriage:

(1) Brahma – father gives daughter away
(2) Gods – father offers daughter to officiating priest in course of a sacrifice
(3) Sages – father gives daughter away for a cow or a bull
(4) The Lord of Creatures – father gives daughter away saying “May the two of you fulfill your dharma together
(5) Asuras – man takes a woman from desire and pays family and girl
(6) Centaurs – girl and lover join out of desire
(7) Rakshasas – man carries off woman but doesn’t pay for her (essentially legitimized rape)
(8) Ghouls – man has sex with a woman who’s asleep, drunk or insane (the ancient version of date rape)

Doniger touches on Tantrism with a useful anodyne to the stereotypical Western view of sexual orgies and perversions. She characterizes “tantrism” as an orthodox heresy. The doctrines were necessary to break the curse of untouchability. They were “training wheels” for people incapable of accepting the pure doctrines. The other justification for tantric ritual was that it drove the truly evil to the nadir of existence so that they could more quickly rise back up. In the end, Tantrism and the less heretical Puranic traditions helped to bring low-caste Hindus and outsiders into the fold and held out the possibility that their souls could be saved/released just like a high-caste Hindu’s. The original Brahmanic vision of the universe saw it as a finite thing with a finite amount of “good” and “evil” – for every person saved, another was doomed. Doniger argues that that limit was broken with tantrism and the Puranas. Salvation/release was infinite and potentially open to everyone.

From a historical perspective, Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj is fascinating. Essentially, the British coerced Hinduism into developing a unitary doctrine centered around a few texts (the “Bhagavad Gita,” primarily) and fostered the emergence of actively hostile and intolerant sects. The author, rightly, doesn’t lay all the blame on the poor English. Many Hindus through the ages were perfectly capable of xenophobia and rivalry without evil Europeans egging them on. I think her focus on the specifics of the British is that they’re the most recent culprits, the best documented and India is still coping with the world they created (p. 574f.).

To the bad: As I mentioned in a comment made while reading this book, Doniger tends to write in an annoyingly folksy style. Appropriate, perhaps, to a conversation at the local Starbuck’s or a blog but inappropriate, IMO, in a work such as this, even if it is directed to a general audience. It makes the first few chapters rather rough going. But when she focuses on a topic, Doniger can write with grace and insight. An example of this is contained in one of the more interesting sections of the book – her analysis of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As an example of one of the points she makes there’s the observation that the parallel stories of Rama/Ravana and the monkey kings Sugriva/Valin adumbrates Freudian psychoanalysis and Shakespeare’s Arden by 2,000 years: The forest and its denizens reflect the subconscious desires of Rama and human civilization. Or there’s the observation that the Ramayana is a triumphal celebration of Brahmanic civilization while the Mahabharata questions every one of its assumptions but offers no good answers. (It shouldn’t surprise that versions of both epics circulate that refute Doniger’s conclusions.)

Despite my caveats, I would still recommend this to anyone interested in Indian culture/religion, or anthropological subjects in general. I’ve never been overly interested in Indian culture but this book is an accessible and overall good introduction, making a confusing landscape at least partially understandable.
Profile Image for Shankar.
167 reviews4 followers
August 4, 2023
The word religion conjures up images of countless things - idols, places of worship, Gods, beliefs, prayers … the list is endless. This exemplifies the subject itself.

Wendy Doniger - has gone to great lengths to cover this in the preface - that this her spin on the subject of the origins of this religion. And it’s not intended to make any other versions sound less authentic.

This book is full of facts and the reference posts are wide and numerous - rock and roll music hit lyrics and opera song themes and movie dialogues. She is indeed a thorough writer and definitely a great historian.

The reason I say is that time is a great healer (or otherwise. )What is known to be true changes with time - for various reasons. And on topics such as these ( especially religion ) one should remain egalitarian and democratic.

It’s a marathon read and wonderful one at that. I enjoyed the 600 + pages.
Profile Image for Vandita.
69 reviews22 followers
September 10, 2016
I read the heavy tome that is 'the Hindus' around 2 yrs back. It is one of those books which I was left a little ambivalent about (though the author earned my respect by sheer expanse and knowledge of Hinduism, given she is an authority on the subject, not a surprise). It is not a 'here is Hinduism so let me let you about it right from the start' kind of a book. It is a book which is best read once one is comfortable with the 'Hinduism' epics, stories as we already know them. Then read this as 'the alternate history' which is the sub title of the book. It is the classic ' counter view/ counter culture' view point - covering topics and slants which are not mainstream in brahamanical narrations, retelling of stories and characters and history of Hinduism (as we know it). The emphasis is on fishing out angles on how non Brahmins were treated, reacted to royal and priest class, how women played a part (or not, as the case any be) and a sweep at historical perspective of how Hinduism interacted with contemporary faiths /contexts (be it Jainism, Buddhism, Mughal rulers or later the raj period). Thus, one can at times feel a bit disappointed (eg chapter on Mahabharata concentrates on draupadi, an episode on eklavya to make a point on tribal / caste issue and a surreal (though well crafted) interpretation of what dog who followed yudhishtar to heaven represents and stands for. Having said that, one needs to read this book (written in an engaging manner, with humour which some may think irreverent but I quite enjoyed) with an open mind, without feeling insecure about one's faith or interpretations that are 'known' and take the titbits of episodes weaved together (lots of those to fill 700+ pages) to understand an 'alternate', even if at times it seems being looked at through contemporary, modern lens (not entirely appropriate for religious, semi historical theme) and sometimes stretched and repetitive (eg feminist, post modern take on some issues). On the most positive side, this is not a flippant, badly researched (though at times some minor historical inaccuracies do creep in) or sensationalised piece of work which some have made it out to be: one may not agree with the 'importance' of her conclusions but it is an engaging, well thought out view point of what may not the 'first' lens of looking at Hinduism and its history( stories). My ambivalence stems from the fact that I'm not sure that I thought the 'seeming patterns' of issues that she classifies as the 'missed/ not commented upon' really require 700+pages. so, read if you have strong arm muscles (the hardcover was heavy!) and an appetite for the 'counter point'.
Profile Image for Uma.
94 reviews12 followers
November 30, 2009
An interesting read... for a change found a Western Writer who got the stories right... Wendy Doniger has a Phd in Indian Studies and Sanskrit.. and she has done her homework with this book... Really liked the format of the book and the snippets of the stories that she has given... Gives a very nice perspective on hinduism, its myths and the popular stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The take on the evolution of the different practices in the religious context are given without any bias or judgement.
Profile Image for Sajith Kumar.
606 reviews101 followers
October 23, 2016
This book is officially banned in India in response to the huge outrage followed its publication in 2009. Penguin had withdrawn all copies from circulation and destroyed the available ones. I got this copy from the public library, which must have somehow escaped the culling. People usually make much ado about nothing, especially if a book dealt with subjects considered to be holy, in an unconventional way. I was under the impression that this one also might have been misunderstood by the masses on account of some of the indiscreet references in the text. However, I was bitterly disappointed by its style and content. The book runs to 779 pages, with a lot of research and references made in its writing. Its 25 chapters cover the whole gamut of time from the origins of humanity to the present. However, the shrill tone of negativity that pervades the whole narrative is thoroughly demoralizing for the reader. Topics that are to be handled very delicately, on account of the beliefs and traditions of a billion people, are treated cavalierly in street language. Freedom of expression is definitely to be protected, but what if one goes on pointless abuse in the form of his or her ideas? This book deserved to be banned and for one, the government has done the right job. Wendy Doniger is an American writer with two doctorates on Sanskrit and Indian Studies. She is the author of several translations of Sanskrit texts and many books about Hinduism, now working as professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago. The author tries to bring out an alternate version of the history of Hinduism from the perspective of the backward castes and women by challenging the established canons of Brahmin orthodoxy. Altogether, the book is a symbol of how books just fail to achieve the lofty ideals of the author.

Scanning the ocean of cultural artifacts that make up Hindu culture, the author identifies that nonviolence is only an ideal propped up against the cultural reality of violence rather than an actual way of life. As a civilization that suffered much from chronic and terminal violence, it held the last hope of a cure. However, the Vedas and brahmanas (religious texts which chronologically followed the Vedas) advocated violence in the form of sacrifices. The book goes back even to the Neolithic age in order to produce a charade of comprehensiveness. Origins of the term ‘Hindu’ are investigated, and it may surprise many to learn that an Indian ruler used the title ‘Lord of the Hindus’ only after the 17th century. Doniger regards the greatness of Hinduism as its vitality, its earthiness, and its vividness and remarks that these are precisely the qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny. The author’s mood swings abruptly from wholehearted appreciation to seething antipathy in the space of a few paragraphs. She looks forward to pick up a fight with nationalists where none is warranted and out of context with irrelevant comparison between Aurangzeb, Reginald Dyer and M S Golwalkar (p.21). The first one was the bigoted Mughal emperor who began the downfall of his own dynasty; the second was the British military officer who ordered indiscriminate fire on the unarmed people assembled at Jallianwala Bagh and the third was the leader of the RSS, who built the edifice of the organization. Readers are left bewildered to wonder why the comparison was made other than for political reasons. However, another of Doniger’s observation that the Bhagavad Gita started to be highly regarded by the Hindus only after the westerners began to praise it may have an element of truth in it. The irreverent tone of the book sometimes assumes the shape of bad taste, as when it discusses the building discovered in Mohenjo Daro and considered to be the College of Priests. In Doniger’s point of view, it can only be said to be a big building and wonders why it couldn’t have been a dormitory, or a hotel, or a hospital, or even a brothel (p.79) as if these are enterprises (except the last one) which one would normally encounter in a civilization that flourished nearly 3000 years ago! The book has much to say about the Indus Valley Civilization. Showing the rebellious spirit again, the author refuses the convenience of hindsight in assigning the function of artifacts found in Indus sites to that of similar objects which were used in later Hinduism. Isn’t this an objection for objection’s only sake? While contemplating the likely causes of the decline of the civilization, Doniger meekly lists out the established schools of thought, even at the cost of contradiction with what she had claimed a few pages ago. One possible reason is said to be a change of course of the river. Doniger had stated earlier that the geographic span of the civilization was spread over 750,000 square km and a length of 600 km. Would such an urban society go totally out of the picture, if the river has changed its course? A rare useful identification in the book is the fact that the term Aryan does not denote a race, but a group of languages. There are no Aryan noses, only Aryan verbs, no Aryan people, and only Aryan-speaking people.

The book furnishes conclusions without submitting any proof. When talking about the name to be given to the group of languages from which Sanskrit originated, it says that “Hindu is a somewhat tainted word, but there are no other easy alternatives; ‘Aryan’, by contrast, is a deeply tainted word” (p.91). We understand how ‘Aryan’ came to be tainted since the time of Hitler, but how is the word ‘Hindu’ tainted? There is no explanation here, just assertions. In all probability, the author has borrowed heavily from leftist historians like Romila Thapar for her historical references. These lines seem to be taken bodily out of some leftist political propaganda flyer! The study is not coherent. Doniger is an expert in Sanskrit, but when it comes to correlate the texts, she miserably fails to deliver, and appears to have lost the connection to relevant topics in the labyrinthine textual references. The Indus Valley Civilization is said to be not possessing iron, but there is no satisfactory guess on how it came about later. In the Rig Veda, ‘ayas’ means bronze, but by the time of Atharva Veda, ‘red ayas’ is bronze and ‘black ayas’ is iron. What happened in the meantime? She then makes the outlandish suggestion that iron was not imported, but developed in India from rich lodes in South Bihar, which is handicapped by incongruity in geography as well as time.

The book lists some cognate words of Sanskrit terms found in Greek, English or other Indo-European languages, which is quite useful to appreciate the striking resemblance between them. The author follows religious thoughts developed in the post-Vedic period like an analyst does a census report. There is no detailed narrative on Buddhist and Jaina thought. The text must be credited with bringing about the suggestion that an alternative history exists for the backward castes and women, but has proved woefully inadequate to its mission in carrying it to fruition. Sex is the obsessive focal point of Doniger throughout the text, as she sees it everywhere she looks! The tension between Rama and Lakshmana in the Ramayana, which is said to be a major motivation of its plot is ascribed to be over Sita (p.237), thereby tempting the readers to think up illicit liaison. The stories of Shambuka and Ekalavya are – quite expectedly – trumpeted from the rooftop, in a pompous attempt to read an epic written down 2000 years ago in the glow of the enlightenment of a future era. Gupta age, which is called the classical or golden age, becomes the age of fool’s gold for Doniger. The reason? Because we find better architectural style in later years! The literary career of Kalidasa and his contemporaries are totally ignored in this assessment. Another absurdity put forward in justification is that the average standard of living was lower in the Gupta period as can be gleaned from archeological excavations from one or two sites. It is fortunate that she didn’t compare Gupta structures with New York skyscrapers to which city she belongs. But the pride of place in silliness must be given for the observation that the triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva might have been sustained, if not invented, in response to the Christian trinity (p.384)! The author’s characterization of Hindu tantra as largely predetermined by what you want to say about it (p.497) marks the attitude reflected in the entire book. The book sheds tears about backward castes, but there is no convincing narrative about how castes came about and multiplied. The causes circulated among scholars are simply copied down. However, in one of the rare instances of genuine insight, it declares that contradictions at Mahabharata’s heart are not the mistakes of a sloppy editor but enduring cultural dilemmas that no author could ever have resolved.

This book is notorious for the irreverence and outright disregard for decency in the narrative. I am forced to list below some of the passages in the text verbatim so that the level of perversion may be visible to all. Those who are sensitive or very young MUST SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH and shall not read below this line. On the anecdote of Sita eyeing Maricha as a golden deer which captivated her, Doniger says that “the princess in exile is delighted to find that Tiffany’s has a branch in the forest” (p.231). Such humourless jokes abound in the book. Then, on the author of the Mahabharata, it claims that Vyasa, its author, appears as a walking semen bank (p.293). On Tantra, it crosses all limits as she says that “after all, people have imagined that they have flown to heaven and walked among the gods, so why not imagine that you’re drinking your sister’s menstrual blood?” (p.430). No wonder this filth was banned in India.

Doniger lists a multitude of reasons why the Muslim sultans just demolished or desecrated temples, which is interesting to read (p.455). They are

1) some earlier Hindu rulers also demolished temples
2) some are lured by the legendary wealth of temples
3) temples were the centres of political and economic power
4) temples housed treasures that Hindu rulers had already stolen from other temples or Buddhist stupas
5) some temples were military strongholds

In short, anything but the fanaticism and bigotry of the Jihadis! The fourth reason is especially notable for the amount of schadenfreude in coming up with such an insensitive argument. In a naked case of double standards, while Doniger is all scorn and contemptuous towards anything Indian (perhaps as a result of somebody from the Hindu Right throwing an egg at her during one of her speeches in London), she bends over backwards in the extraordinary caution not to say anything that can even remotely be construed as anti-Islamic. Every sane person agrees that the poll tax of Jizya imposed upon the non-Muslims living in a Muslim country is barbaric. Just see what the Islamic State is doing in Syria and Iraq. But the author justifies and even endorses it in her testimony that it was just a payment for military protection (p.449). Holy wars are, in Doniger’s view, more often politically motivated though now we properly call them Jihad and its perpetrators Jihadis. She is pained to see someone attributing religious intentions behind them! Then comes the strange assertion that Turkish women adopted the Purdah system from the Rajputs. Women circulated like money in those times and many Muslims took Hindu wives, but the author conveniently fails to mention that the reverse process – of Hindu men taking Muslim wives – never took place. Again, it is an established fact that mass conversions at the point of the sword occurred during the Mughal rule in India. This is countered with a farcical statement that “there is evidence for the conversion of only 200 Hindus to Islam during Mughal rule” (p.546), and then lists a number of instances of Muslims converting to Hinduism. She seems to be in a wonderland with no integral idea of what she was talking about, as is seen in the claim that there were no Rama temples in Ayodhya until Babur built it there (p.550). Regarding the modern era, what the author has to say is that Mangal Pandey, the sepoy who sparked off the riot that later enraged as the First War of Independence in 1857, was acting under the influence of opium.

The book is a huge one, with a comprehensive index and a sizeable section of Notes. A glossary and chronology is provided that is very useful. For historical references, she has subcontracted the work to Romila Thapar’s politically coloured analysis. Doniger has retold many stories from obscure texts often to buttress her claims, but those provide a rare insight to differences of opinion in ancient times. The book’s division of Indian religious life in the ancient period to belong to three eras of Vedic (sacrifices and rituals), sects (worship of Krishna, Shiva) and bhakti (temples, pilgrimage) appears to be emphasized accurately.

The book is not recommended.
Profile Image for Baklavahalva.
86 reviews
May 9, 2009
Doniger covers so much ground, from pre-Aryan times to yesterday, and most of the contraversial topics (suttee, caste, tantra, beef-eating in the past, multiplicity of and contradictions among the sacred texts, relations with other religions), and she does it, as far as I can tell, with erudition, delicacy, and wit. She's also very knowledgeable of pop cultural adaptations of Hindu materials, both in India and outside. A very smooth, engrossing read. I wished for more pictures.
Profile Image for Biswajit Chakraborty.
23 reviews45 followers
June 13, 2020
লক ডাউনের কল্যাণে দীর্ঘদিন পর এমন থান ইট সাইজের একটা নন-ফিকশন পড়া গেল। দুর্দান্ত বললেও কম বলা হবে। ওয়েন্ডি ডনিগার মোটামুটি অসম্ভব পর্যায়ের একটা কাজ করেছেন। এতটা সাবলীলভাবে এই মাপের গবেষণামূলক একটা ইতিহাসের বই লেখা, তাও আবার অল্টারনেটিভ হিস্ট্রি, আমার কাছে কাজটা দুরূহই বটে। লেখিকাকে প্রথমেই লম্বা স্যালুট!

বাজারে হিন্দুধর্ম বিষয়ক হাজারখানেক বই থাকার পরেও এই বই কেন পড়া উচিত এমন প্রশ্নের উত্তর লেখিকা নিজেই দিয়েছেন বইয়ের শুরুতে। এই বই পড়া উচিত কেননা এটা অল্টারনেটিভ হিস্ট্রি। তথাকথিত শিক্ষিত সমাজে হিন্দুধর্মের যে ইতিহাস গেলানো হয় এই বই তার বাইরে গিয়ে কথা বলে। প্রচলিত ইতিহাসে যাদের আওয়াজ পাওয়া যায় তলানিতে, লেখিকা এই বইয়ে তাদের কথা শোনা এবং শোনানোর চেষ্টা করেছেন। একারণে এই বইয়ের তিন উল্লেখযোগ্য চরিত্র ��ল নারী, দলিত শ্রেণী এবং যাবতীয় প্রাণী, বিশেষত ঘোড়া, গরু এবং কুকুর। হিন্দুধর্মের যে মূলধারার ইতিহাস যা কিনা হাজার বছরে ধরে পুরুষ ব্রাহ্মণ সমাজ নিজেদের পৈত্রিক এবং জন্মগত সম্পত্তি হিসেবে চর্চা করে আসছে, তাতে উক্ত তিন শ্রেণী বরাবরই সবচেয়ে নিগৃহীত। এই বই তাদের কথাই বলার চেষ্টা করেছে। ইতিহাসের বিভিন্ন সময়ে এই তিন শ্রেণীর কিরূপ দশা ছিল তা এই বইয়ের অন্যতম আলোচ্য বিষয়। তবে এই কাজ করতে গিয়ে লেখিকা যে মূল্ধারার ইতিহাসকে সম্পূর্ণ উপেক্ষা করেছেন তা নয়, তিনি বরং একটা পরিপূরক ইতিহাস বর্ণনা করেছেন। মূলধারার ইতিহাস উক্ত তিন শ্রেণীকে যতই দূর-ছাই করুক না কেন, এদেরই আওয়াজ যে বিভিন্ন সময় বিভিন্নভাবে মূলধারায় এসেছে, এমনকি প্রভাব বিস্তারও করেছে সে ব্যাপারটাই লেখিকা দেখানোর চেষ্টা করেছেন।

লেখিকা বেশ লম্বা একটা সময়কাল ধরে কাজ করেছেন। ভারতবর্ষের ভৌগোলিক উৎপত্তি থেকে শুরু করে সিন্ধু সভ্যতা, এরপর বেদ- উপনিষদের হাত ধরে রামায়ণ-মহাভারত-পুরাণ, মৌর্য সাম্রাজ্য থেকে মুঘল, ব্রিটিশ উপনিবেশ হয়ে স্বাধীন ভারত, এই বিশাল সময়ে হিন্দুধর্ম কিভাবে বিবর্তিত ও পরিবর্তিত হয়েছে, হিন্দু জনগোষ্ঠী কিভাবে পরিবর্তিত হয়েছে তাই ধরা হয়েছে এই বইতে। এত লম্বা সময়ের প্রতিটি মুহূর্তের নির্ভরযোগ্য ঐতিহাসিক তথ্য পাওয়া কারো পক্ষেই সম্ভব নয়। আর বিষয়টা যেখানে ধর্ম আর জায়গাটা যেখানে ভারত��র্ষ, সেখানে নির্ভরযোগ্যতার ব্যাপারটা আরো ঘোলাটে। ফ্যাক্ট আর ফিকশন যেখানে হাত ধরাধরি করে চলে, যে ভূখন্ডের জনগোষ্ঠীর এক বিরাট অংশ ফ্যাক্টের চেয়ে ফিকশনকেই এখনও প্রাধান্য দেয় বেশি, সেখানে ঐতিহাসিক নির্ভরযোগ্যতা ব্যাপারটাই একটা মিথ মনে হয়। তবুও লেখিকা সর্বোচ্চ নিরপেক্ষতার সাথে ঐতিহাসিক এবং প্রত্নতাত্ত্বিক তথ্য-উপাত্ত পর্যালোচনা করেছেন। যেসব ক্ষেত্রে কোন ধরনের ফ্যাক্ট পাওয়া যায���নি, সেখানে তিনি ফিকশন থেকে ফ্যাক্ট বের করে এনেছেন। ইতিহাস, বিশেষত ভারতবর্ষের ইতিহাস চর্চার ক্ষেত্রে এটা বিশাল গুরুত্ববহ। কেননা ভারতবর্ষের ইতিহাসের অনেক গুরুত্বপূর্ণ অধ্যায়েরই কোন উল্লেখযোগ্য নিদর্শন নেই। এর মধ্যে সবচেয়ে রহস্যময় অধ্যায় হচ্ছে সিন্ধু সভ্যতার পতনের পর থেকে তথাকথিত বৈদিক সময় অর্থাৎ যে সময়ে বেদ রচনা করা হচ্ছে সে সময়কালটা। মোটামুটি খ্রিস্টপূর্ব ২০০০-১৫০০ সালের মামলা। এই সময়টার উল্লেখযোগ্য কোন প্রত্নতাত্ত্বিক নিদর্শন পাওয়া যায় না। আবার সিন্ধু সভ্যতার নিদর্শন থেকে প্রাপ্ত লিপির কোন সুরাহা না হওয়ায় লিখিত কোন নিদর্শনও নেই এই সময়টার। যে কারণে আজো স্পষ্ট নয় কেন পতন হয়েছিল সিন্ধু সভ্যতার, পতনের পরে সেই মানুষগুলোর কি হয়েছিল। জানা যায়নি কারা ছিল বেদের রচয়িতা, কোথা থেকে তারা এসেছিল। একারণেই দাবী করা হয় বেদ হল ‘অপৌরুষেয়’ যা কিনা কোন ব্যক্তিবিশেষের রচনা নয়। মুনি-ঋষিরা ধ্যানের মাধ্যমে বৈদিক জ্ঞান লাভ করেছেন। সে অর্জন কতটা ধ্যানের মাধ্যমে আর কতটা উচ্চমার্গের ‘সোমরস’ সেবনের মাধ্যমে তা অবশ্য বিতর্কের বিষয়। যাকগে সে কথা। বেদ পর্যালোচনা করে লেখিকা জানিয়েছেন কেমন ছিল সেই মানুষগুলো। বেদ থেকে দেখা যায় সেসময়ের মানুষ ছিল মূলত প্রকৃতি-পূজারী। তাদের প্রধান দেবতা ছিল ইন্দ্র-অগ্নি-বরুণ। অগ্নিতে আহূতির মাধ্যমে যজ্ঞানুষ্ঠান করাই ছিল মূল ধর্মাচার। অশ্বমেধ যজ্ঞ ছিল এর মধ্যে অন্যতম প্রধান যার নাম শুনেই বোঝা যাচ্ছে এতে আহূতি দেওয়া হতো ঘোড়া। ঘোড়া ছিল সবচেয়ে উচ্চ মর্যাদার প্রাণী। আর সবচেয়ে নিচে ছিল কুকুর। প্রাণিজগতের এরূপ শ্রেণীবিভাগ আসলে মনুষ্যজগতে বিদ্যমান বিভক্তিকেই নির্দেশ করে। ঘোড়াকে যোদ্ধা তথা ক্ষত্রিয় ব���্ণের পরিপূরক হিসেবেই দেখানো হয়; আর অন্যদিকে কুকুর নির্দেশ করে অস্পৃশ্য, অচ্ছুত গোষ্ঠীকে। কুকুরের মতো এই গোষ্ঠীও নিকৃষ্টজ্ঞানে পরিত্যাজ্য। বেদের ঐশ্বরিক বাণী তাই অস্পৃশ্য গোষ্ঠীর কাছ থেকে সযত্নে আগলে রাখা হয়েছে হাজার বছর ধরে। প্রযুক্তির এই যুগে অচ্ছুত, দলিত শ্রেণীকে হয়তো বেদপাঠ থেকে আর বিরত রাখা যায়নি; কিন্তু বিভক্তি আর বৈষম্যের যে ইতিহাস বর্ণপ্রথার মাধ্যমে শুরু হয়েছে সেই বৈদিক যুগে তা অব্যাহত রয়েছে এখনও।

নারীর প্রতি বৈষম্যের ইতিহাসও এই বৈদিক যুগ থেকেই শুরু। ভারতবর্ষের বিস্তীর্ণ অঞ্চলে সন্তানহীন দম্পতির জন্মদানে অক্ষমতার দায়ভার যে এখনও বহুলাংশে নারীকেই বহন করতে হয় এর শুরুটা বোধ করি বেদের হাত ধরেই। এর প্রমাণ পাওয়া যায় অশ্বমেধ যজ্ঞের ইতিবৃত্তে। এই যজ্ঞের পেছনে বিভিন্নজনের বিভিন্ন উদ্দেশ্য থাকলেও একটা সাধারণ উদ্দেশ্য ছিল সন্তানহীন দম্পতির সন্তান লাভের কামনা। ব্রাহ্মণভোজন আর আগুনে আহূতি দেওয়ার পাশাপাশি সন্তান লাভের আশায় এক্ষেত্রে স্ত্রীকে এমনকি উৎসর্গীকৃত ঘোড়ার পাশে শুয়ে কাল্পনিক সঙ্গমের অভিনয় মঞ্চস্থ করতে হতো। ‘তেজী ঘোড়া’ শব্দযুগলের ব্যবহার বোধ করি সেই থেকেই চলে আসছে।

বেদের পরে উপনিষদ হয়ে রামায়ণ-মহাভারতের কাহিনীতে ভারতবর্ষে নারীর প্রতি মনোভাব নানা মাত্রা পেয়েছে। এর মধ্যে উপনিষদে পাওয়া যায় গার্গী নাম্নী অসামান্য পণ্ডিত এক নারীর কথা। নারীর প্রতি বৈষম্যের অভাব না থাকলেও এসময়ে রচিত উপনিষদ এবং অন্যান্য সংস্কৃত লেখায় নারীর আওয়াজ পাওয়া যায় যথেষ্টই। লেখিকা দেখিয়েছেন এর পেছনে বৌদ্ধ ধর্মের বিস্তার, বিশেষত বিভিন্ন বৌদ্ধ বিহারে উল্লেখযোগ্য সংখ্যায় নারীর প্রবেশের একটা ভূমিকা হয়তো থাকতে পারে।

তবে ভারতবর্ষের ইতিহাসে সবচেয়ে আদর্শ নারীর পরিচয় পাওয়া যায় রামায়ণে সীতার মধ্যে যাকে এখনো নারীশ্রেষ্ঠ হিসেবেই আরাধনা করা হয়। আদর্শ স্ত্রী হিসেবে তাই এখনও সীতার নামই মানুষের মুখে ফেরে। আর তা হবে নাই বা কেন? স্বামীর প্রতিজ্ঞা পালনের অংশ হিসেবে সীতা যান বনবাসে। সেখান থেকে রাক্ষসরাজ রাবণ তাকে হরণ করে নিয়ে যায় লঙ্কায়। দীর্ঘ সময় পর পুরুষের গৃহে বন্দী থাকলেও সীতা এমনকি স্বপ্নেও স্বামী ছাড়া আর কাউকে কখনো কল্পনাও করেননি। অথচ সেই স্বামী রামই কিনা লঙ্কাজয় করে সীতাকে উদ্ধারের পরেই তাকে পরীক্ষা দিতে বলেন সতীত্বের। তাও একবার নয়, তিন তিনবার। সীতাকে এমনকি আবার বনবাসে পাঠাতেও দ্বিধা করেননা রাম; সবই কিনা প্রজাদের চাপে। আর সীতাও বাধ্য স্ত্রীর মতো স্বামীর সব নির্দেশ মেনে চলেন। শেষ পর্যন্ত আর না পেরে অবশ্য ধরিত্রীমাতার কাছে নিজেকে সমর্পণ করেন। স্বামীর আদর্শ রক্ষায় এহেন আত্মত্যাগ না করলে কি আর সীতা হওয়া যায়? বিয়ের বাজারে তাই এখনও লোকে স্ত্রী হিসেবে সীতার মতো নারীদেরই খুঁজে বেড়ায়।

মোটামুটি সমসাময়িক এবং অনেক বেশি ক্যারিশম্যাটিক হওয়া সত্ত্বেও মহাভারতের দ্রৌপদীকে কিন্তু অতটা মহিমান্বিত করা হয়নি কখনো যতটা করা হয়েছে সীতাকে। বিয়ের বাজারে লোকে আর যাই হোক দ্রৌপদীর মতো কাউকে খুঁজে বেড়ায় না। কারণটা খুব স্বাভাবিক। হোক পঞ্চপাণ্ডব, দ্রৌপদীর স্বামী তো ছিল পাঁচজন। পুরুষ মানুষের পাঁচ কেন, আরো বেশি স্ত্রীও থাকতে পারে; প্রজা স্বার্থে তাদের এক দুইজনকে হয়তো বনবাসেও পাঠানো যেতে পারে; কিন্তু এক নারীর পাঁচ স্বামী? নৈব চ নৈব চ। তবে লেখিকা দেখিয়েছেন নারীর বহুবিবাহ হয়তোবা স্বাভাবিক না হলেও গার্গী এবং দ্রৌপদীর মতো চরিত্ররা আসলে সেসময়ে নারীর তুলনামূলক বেশি স্বাধীনতার একটা আভাস দেয় যা কিনা আগে পরের অনেক সময়েই ভারতবর্ষে নারীর কপালে আর জোট��নি।

এই রামায়ণ-মহাভারতের সময়কাল থেকেই হিন্দুধর্ম বহু মত-পথে বিভক্ত হতে শুরু করে। এর আগ পর্যন্ত বেদই ছিল মোটামুটি একমাত্র পথ। ব্রাহ্মণ- উপনিষদ এসব ছিল বেদান্ত, বেদেরই বিশ্লেষক এবং পরিপূরক। যজ্ঞানুষ্ঠান ছিল মূল ধর্মাচার, ইন্দ্র-অগ্নি-বরুণ ছিল মূল আরাধ্য দেবতা। কিন্তু রামায়ণ আর মহাভারতের হাত ধরে শিব আর বিষ্ণু ক্রমশ প্রভাব- প্রতিপত্তি বিস্তার করতে শুরু করেন। যজ্ঞানুষ্ঠান ধীরে ধীরে প্রতিস্থাপিত হতে থাকে মূর্তি পূজা দ্বারা। যজ্ঞের পশুবলির প্রথাও ধীরে ধীরে কমতে কমতে প্রায় বিলুপ্তই হয়ে যায়। ব্রাহ্মণ সমাজ বেদকে আঁকড়ে ধরে প্রজন্মের পর প্রজন্ম ধরে হিন্দুধর্মের যে ঝাণ্ডা উঁচিয়ে রেখেছিল তার নিচে জায়গা করে নিতে শুরু করে আরো অনেকে। এই প্রসঙ্গে লেখিকা হিন্দু ধর্মকে তুলনা করেছেন বটবৃক্ষের সাথে। বৈদিক পথ যদি সেই বৃক্ষের প্রথম শিকড় হয়ে থাকে তবে রামায়ণ-মহাভারত-গীতার মাধ্যমে তা অগণিত শাখা-প্রশাখার জন্ম দিতে শুরু করে। এই সমস্ত মত-পথ যে সর্বত্র শান্তিপূর্ণভাবে অবস্থান করেছে তা কিন্তু নয়। ক্ষমতাসীন ব্রাহ্মণ সমাজ সব পথকে সুদৃষ্টিতে দেখেনি সব সময়। এক দল আরেক দলের সাথে নানা বিভেদে জড়িয়েছে। দক্ষিণ ভারতের ভক্তিবাদ, বাংলায় শক্তির পূজা, উত্তর ভারতের শিবপূজা, মধ্য আর পশ্চিমে বৈষ্ণব মতবাদ, আর এসবের বাইরে আরো অগণিত স্থানীয় দেবদেবীর পূজার্চনা এসমস্তই বিস্তার লাভ করেছে। আর উপনিষদ থেকে শুরু হয়েছে সংসার ত্যাগ করে সন্ন্যাসের মাধ্যমে মোক্ষলাভের পথ। এই সংসার ত্যাগীর দল আরো ভারী হয়েছে বুদ্ধের হাত ধরে। সংসার ত্যাগী এই শ্রমণদের গৃহী লোকেরা সব সময় যে খুব শ্রদ্ধার চোখে দেখেছে তা নয়। ফলে দুই দলের মধ্যে বিভেদ, সংঘর্ষ খুব স্বাভাবিক ঘটনা হয়েই দাঁড়িয়েছে। ভারতবর্ষের অনেক জায়গায় এর নজির এখনও পাওয়া যাবে।

হিন্দুধর্মের এই অগণিত মত ও পথের মধ্যে নানা বিভেদ, সংঘর্ষ থাকলেও এবং ব্রাহ্মণ সমাজ সব পথকে সুদৃষ্টিতে না দেখলেও কোন পথই সম্পূর্ণ বিলুপ্ত হয়ে যায় নি; এক মতের অনুসারীরা আরেক মতকে ��নেক সময় অগ্রাহ্য করলেও তার মূলোৎপাটন করতে সিদ্ধহস্ত হয়নি। একারণে তেত্রিশ কোটি দেবদেবীর এই ধর্ম সবাইকে নিয়েই মিলে মিশে টিকে আছে। প্রতিযোগিতার মুখে পড়ে বরং অনেক দেবদেবীর অবস্থান আরো পাকাপোক্ত হয়েছে, অনেক মত-পথ নতুন করে মানিয়ে নিয়েছে পরিবর্তিত হয়ে। এর পেছনে ক্ষমতাসীন শ্রেণীরও যথেষ্ট ভূমিকা রয়েছে। উদাহরণস্বরূপ বলা যেতে পারে বুদ্ধের কথা। বৌদ্ধধর্ম বিস্তার লাভের শুরুর দিকে অ���েক হিন্দুরাই একে স্বাগত জানায়, বিশেষত মৌর্য সম্রাট অশোকের পৃষ্ঠপোষকতায় তা আরো বৃদ্ধি পায়। কিন্তু ধীরে ধীরে বৌদ্ধদের ক্ষমতা বৃদ্ধি পেতে থাকলে তথাকথিত ব্রাহ্মণ সমাজের জন্য তা পীড়াদায়ক হয়ে ওঠে। এসময় বৌদ্ধধর্মের বিরুদ্ধে নানা প্রচার হতে থাকে, বুদ্ধের শিক্ষাকে ভ্রান্ত এবং তার নির্দেশিত পথকে অবক্ষয়ের পথ হিসেবে আখ্যায়িত করে নানাভাবে আক্রমণ করা হতে থাকে। এই আক্রমণে কোণঠাসা হতে হতে এক সময় বৌদ্ধরা ভারতে ক্ষমতা হারায়, ভারতবর্ষ থেকে এক প্রকার বিতাড়িতই হয় বলা চলে। অতঃপর এই ক্ষমতাহীন সংখ্যালঘু বৌদ্ধদের জন্য আবার এক ধরনের সহানুভূতির আভাস পাওয়া যায়। তাদেরকে হিন্দুধর্মের বিশাল ছায়ার নিচে আবার একত্রিত করার প্রয়াস দেখা যায়। এর প্রমাণ দেখি যখন পুরাণে বুদ্ধকে বিষ্ণুর অন্যতম অবতার হিসেবে প্রতিষ্ঠিত করা হয়।

হিন্দুধর্মের এই যে আত্তীকরণের প্রবণতা, ক্রমশ শাখা-প্রশাখা বিস্তার করার ক্ষমতা, এর পেছনে একটা বড় কারণ হল হিন্দুধর্মের কোন সীমারেখা নেই, কখনই ছিলনা। হিন্দুধর্ম বা হিন্দু জনগোষ্ঠী এই শব্দ যুগলেরও খুব একটা ঐতি��াসিক ভিত্তি নেই। ঐতিহাসিকভাবে হিন্দুধর্মের কোন সংজ্ঞা টানা হয়নি কখনো। বিভিন্ন শাস্ত্র বিভিন্নভাবে ধর্মের সংজ্ঞা দিয়েছে (যার মধ্যে মনুসংহিতার নাম হয়তো প্রথমে আসবে); কিন্তু তা ধর্মের সংজ্ঞা, অধর্ম থেকে ধর্মকে আলাদা করে পরিচিত করার সংজ্ঞা। হিন্দুধর্মের কোন সংজ্ঞা সে অর্থে কেউ দেয়নি। কি করলে বা কি না করলে হিন্দু হওয়া যাবে, কি করলে আর হিন্দু থাকা যাবে না, এরূপ কোন চূড়ান্ত সীমারেখা কেউ কখনো কোথাও টানেনি। এরূপ সংজ্ঞাহীনতা, সীমাহীনতার কারণেই আসলে হিন্দুধর্ম এতটা বিস্তৃত হয়েছে, এত এত মত ও পথের সম্মেলন হয়েছে, সব পথই স্বকীয়তার সাথে প্রসারিত হয়েছে।

হিন্দুধর্মে উদারতা, সহিষ্ণুতার পরিচয় যেমন পাওয়া যায় সব সময়, প্রদীপের এই আলোর নিচে বর্ণপ্রথার অন্ধকারের অস্তিত্বও পাওয়া যায় সর্বত্র। সময়ের সাথে, বিবর্তনের পথে কিংবা প্রয়োজনের খাতিরে হিন্দুধর্ম নিজেকে পরিবর্তিত করেছে নানাভাবে, কিন্তু বর্ণপ্রথার অবসান কখনো হয়নি। বিভিন্ন সময় বিভিন্নভাবে বর্ণ বৈষম্যের বিরোধিতা হলেও এর মূলোৎপাটন হয়নি কখনো। এর সবচেয়ে সুন্দর একটা দৃষ্টান্ত লেখিকা দিয়েছেন মহাভারত থেকে। মহাভারতের বহুল প্রচারিত গল্পের একটি হল যুধিষ্ঠির আর কুকুররূপী ধর্মরাজের সাক্ষাৎ। স্বর্গারোহণের পথে চার ভাইয়ের একে একে মৃত্যুর পর যুধিষ্ঠিরের সঙ্গী হয় একটি কুকুর। পরে স্বয়ং দেবরাজ ইন্দ্র যখন যুধিষ্ঠিরকে স্বশরীরে স্বর্গে নেওয়ার জন্য উপস্থিত হন রথ নিয়ে, কুকুরটিকে ছাড়া যুধিষ্ঠির স্বর্গে যেতে অস্বীকৃতি জানান। ইন্দ্র তাকে বারবার বুঝান কুকুর নোংরা, অপবিত্র; স্বর্গে যার কোন স্থান নেই। সামান্য একটা কুকুরকে ছেড়ে আসলে ধর্মের কোন ক্ষতি হবেনা। যুধিষ্ঠির তাও অস্বীকৃতি জানালে শেষ পর্যন্ত দেখা যায় কুকুরটি আসলে ধর্মরাজ স্বয়ং, যুধিষ্ঠিরের পরীক্ষা নেওয়ার জন্য ছদ্মবেশে ছিলেন। এই গল্প বলা বাহুল্য যুধিষ্ঠিরকে মহিমান্বিত করে। পাশাপাশি সব প্রাণির মধ্যেই ঈশ্বর আছেন, হিন্দুধর্মের এই বহুল প্রচারিত উদার মানসিকতারও পরিচয় বহন করে। কিন্তু যতই উদারতা দেখানো হোক না কেন, কুকুরটি কিন্তু শেষ পর্যন্ত স্বর্গে যেতে পারেনা। কুকুরের মতই অস্পৃশ্য দলিত শ্রেণিরও তাই আর স্বর্গে যাওয়া হয়না। ভগবান যেখানে তাদের সৃষ্টি করেছেন শূদ্র করে সেখানে তাদের কপালের লিখন আর কে খন্ডায়। যুধিষ্ঠির সেখানে কোন ছাড়। লেখিকা বাস্তবিকই তাই বলেছেন যুধিষ্ঠিররা ভারতবর্ষে এসেছেন গিয়েছেন, কিন্তু শূদ্ররা শূদ্রই থেকে গিয়েছে, কোন কুকুরেরও তাই আর স্বর্গে যাওয়া হয়ে ওঠেনি।

সেই বেদের সময় থেকে শুরু করে এখন পর্যন্ত হিসাব করলে হিন্দুধর্মের ইতিহাসে অন্ধকার অধ্যায়ের আসলে কোন শেষ নেই। কিন্তু এর পরেও হিন্দুধর্মের জটিল আর বিস্তীর্ণ শাখা-প্রশাখার মধ্যে ভালোর দিকটাও নেহাত কম নয়। অসংখ্য কুসংস্কারের ভেতরেও বিভিন্ন ক্ষেত্রে বিভিন্ন সময়ে এর অর্জন কম নয়। লেখিকা দেখিয়েছেন এর পেছনে আসলে হিন্দুধর্মের ব্যপ্তি আর বিস্তৃতি প্রধান ভূমিকা পালন করেছে। কারণ হিন্দুধর্ম কখনো সরলরৈখিক পথে আগায়নি; অসংখ্য বিশ্বাস, চিন্তাধারা, প্রথা আর দর্শনের মাধ্যমে অসংখ্য পথ সমান্তরালভাবে তৈরি হয়েছে, বিকশিত হয়েছে। যে কোন ব্যাপারে, জীবনের যে কোন সমস্যা নিয়ে হিন্দুধর্মে তাই একাধিক এবং সম্পূর্ণ বিপরীত মতামত সব সময় পাওয়া যায়। কোন বিষয়েই চূড়ান্ত কোন মতামত নেই, কোন চূড়ান্ত কর্তৃপক্ষ নেই নিয়ম ঠিক করার। যেমন গোহত্যাকে এখন মোটামুটি শাস্তিযোগ্য অপরাধ হিসেবে ভারতে প্রতিষ্ঠা করার চেষ্টা চললেও স্বয়ং বেদে এর দৃষ্টান্ত রয়েছে। হিন্দুদের সাধারণভাবে মূর্তি পূজারী, বহু-ঈশ্বরবাদী হ��সেবে দেখানো হলেও একেশ্বরবাদী এমনকি ঈশ্বরহীন নাস্তিক মতাবলম্বীদের দেখাও মেলে। গৃহী আর সন্ন্যাসী দ্বন্দ্বের কথা তো আগেই বলা হয়েছে। এমনকি রামায়ণ মহাভারতেরও আসলে একক কোন সংস্করণ নেই, এক এক অঞ্চলে একই চরিত্রদের নিয়ে নানাভাবে গল্প বলা হয়েছে। এই তালিকা আসলে শেষ হবার নয়। হাজার বছর ধরে অসংখ্য পথে গড়ে ওঠা এই হিন্দুধর্মের যদি সত্যিকার অর্থে গর্বের কোন বিষয় থাকে আমার মতে তা হল এর ব্যপ্তি, বিস্তৃতি এবং এর বৈচিত্র্য।

কিন্তু আফসোসের বিষয় এই বৈচিত্র্যকেই এখন অগ্রাহ্য করার, অস্বীকার করার অপচেষ্টা চলছে। ইস্কনের অর্থে, আরএসএসের শক্তিতে আর বিজেপির ক্ষমতায় হিন্দুধর্মের হাজার বছর ধরে যে সমান্তরাল বিকাশ তাকে উলটো স্রোতে নেওয়া হচ্ছে। হিন্দুধর্মের নামে প্রতিষ্ঠা করা হচ্ছে হিন্দুত্ববাদের, পথ পাচ্ছে উগ্র জাতীয়তাবাদ আর ধর্মান্ধতা। সম্ভবত এই পথে হেঁটেই জার্মানি এগিয়েছিল নাৎসিবাদের দিকে। যে তীব্র ঘৃণা আর অবিশ্বাস নিয়ে দেশভাগ হয়েছিল সাতচল্লিশে তা তো কমেইনি বরং উত্তরোত্তর বেড়েছে। আর বর্তমানে তা যেন ক্রমশ আরো বিকৃত রূপ নিচ্ছে। বাবরি মসজিদ কিংবা এখনের এনআরসি, সিএএ, এসব আসলে কোন বিচ্ছিন্ন ঘটনা নয়; ঘৃণা আর উগ্রতার যে পথে হিন্দুত্ববাদ হেঁটেছে এবং হাঁটছে তারই প্রতিফলন। লেখিকা নিজেই এই উগ্র হিন্দুত্বের শিকার। নানান অভিযোগ তুলে এই বইটিই ভারতে নিষিদ্ধ করা হয়েছিল দীর্ঘদিন, পেঙ্গুইনকে বাধ্য করা হয়েছিল এই বই সরিয়ে ফেলতে। আর এটাই সম্ভবত এই বইয়ের সাফল্য এবং বর্তমান সময়ে এর প্রাসঙ্গিকতা আরো বেশি করে প্রমাণ করে। যে পরিমাণ পরিশ্রম আর গবেষণার মাধ্যমে লেখিকা এই বিশাল বইটি লিখেছেন তার কিয়দংশও যদি এই বই বাজেয়াপ্তকারীরা করত তাহলে হয়তো আর এত কথার প্রয়োজন হতো না। পরিতাপের বিষয় হল এই বাজেয়াপ্তকারীদের গলার স্বরই এখন সর্বত্র আর সর্বাগ্রে শোনা যাচ্ছে। আর এই কারণেই এই বই এখন আরও বেশি প্রাসঙ্গিক মনে হয়। হিন্দুধর্ম এবং তার সাথে সাথে গোটা ভারতবর্ষকে অন্ধকার কোন ভবিষ্যতের দিকে নেওয়ার আগে এখন তাই বেশি করে প্রয়োজন ইতিহাস চর্চা, বিশেষ করে এরকম অল্টারনেটিভ হিস্ট্রির চর্চা। এখনই বেশি প্রয়োজন সেইসব শ্রেণীর মানুষের কথা শোনা যাদেরকে প্রচলিত ইতিহাস বরাবরই অস্বীকার করে এসেছে, মুছে ফেলতে চেয়েছে যাদের কথা বারবার। তা না হলে উল্টো স্রোতে যাওয়ার যে সর্বব্যাপী প্রচেষ্টা চলছে তার গতি রোধ করা যাবেনা কখনই।

Profile Image for Mukesh Kumar.
146 reviews55 followers
September 7, 2014
Started reading this as a protest against the disgusting capitulation of Penguin India in front of the fanatics. And before I knew it, was stuck for good in its tilism like, meandering passages, with their stories within stories and myths within histories within myths kind of labyrinths, grinding my way at times, gliding at others. The whole book is a huge tome on Hinduism, a mind bogglingly detailed and researched work, full of history, myths, legends, stories and anecdotes, popular and counter culture related. No doubt, Wendy Doniger calls it a product of her lifetime of research. And I doubt if she has left any strand, any concept out of the vast ocean that was ancient Hinduism. She covers everything from the puritanical to the eclectic, from the ancient pre-vedic to modern militant 'Hindutva', from the devotional Bhakti to materialist Lokayats and more, from Dualists ( dvaits of Shankar ) to Advaits, from Virshaivs to Vasihnavs, to Satnamis and modern day Adivasis, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, all strands and offshoots, covering the entire spectrum that was Hinduism. The author in its initial chapter makes it clear that she would be focussing on the voices of animals, women and the sub-altern and would look for subtexts in the scriptures that would seem like their voices. And she does that throughout, with an active intent. Another aspect that is quite clear is the author's intense affection for Hinduism for its adoptive, accommodative nature and ability to assimilate conflicting, contradictory voices and giving them space for existence, and also for not being orthodox till the last two centuries. So, it is even more ironical, to have the fanatics arguing that the book was anti-Hinduism. While the truth is that the author bends over backwards to defend even the most degrading of Hinduism's practices and cites innumerable counter-narratives and liberal voices throughout.
The only criticism that I could find for the book was its sometimes too dense, scholarly content which was bit fo slog to go through. But as I said, it was an exhausting but rewarding experience. And I can't over-state the fact that this book single-handedly enhanced my understanding of India's multiculturism, its ancient philosophies and faith systems. Must read and a new favourite.
19 reviews
March 11, 2014
"Non-sense" might have been too strong a word to use here. But I always have a problem reading something where the author has a conclusion in mind, and then cites facts and evidence to make the point. In this case, Wendy states that her intention for writing the book was to show that the "peripheral" characters (women, Dailits, animals, etc.) also made contributions to the formation of Hinduism. She then cites text, interprets the text, and presents it to support her conclusion. To her credit, she does say that this but one interpretation.

Unfortunately, she got her facts wrong on Jainism. Look at "Jainas" and "Jina" in her glossary. She says that Jainas are followers of the religion founded by the Jina, in the fifth century BCE. Additionally, she says Jina is Vardhamana Mahavira, founder of Jainism. "Jina" is a term used to connote the highest state of enlightenment that a human can achieve. Like Nirvana, this is the state that Jains try to achieve. There is no founder of Jainism called Jina. Mahavir Swami was last of the 24 Tirthankars that have kept Jainism alive over several millenniums. In Jainism, a Tirthankar is a human being who helps in achieving liberation and enlightenment.

I don't think any legitimate Vedic historian would argue that Hinduism became too ritualistic, ingrained in the caste system, and completely separated from the true Vedantic teachings. This is why both Jainism and Buddhism formed as counter movements to Hinduism. Even within Hinduism, Adi Shankara reformed Hinduism through the doctrine of advaita vedanta in 8 century CE.

I am sure I am missing the main thesis and point of this book. But in my defense, her writing style and approach does not help. Just read her write-up on "IS INDUS RELIGION A MYTH?" around page 63. She describes the baths and other structures, and then proceeds to sarcastically mock the interpretations and importance other historians may have given to these. She does this by posing sarcastic questions to poke holes, and then reaches her own conclusion without any evidence other than it being her interpretation.

See this chapter by chapter rebuttal: http://hindureview.com/2010/04/02/%C2...
Profile Image for Sanjay Varma.
340 reviews29 followers
June 28, 2018
Cannot continue. Chapter 1 opens with a Sufi quote. Chapter 2 opens with E.M. Forster. Apparently there are no Indians/Hindus qualified to describe India. Every sentence of this book argues that Hindus don’t really exist. We have stolen everything from other cultures. As one of her supporting points, the author points out that even the Indian continent itself should be thought of as a part of Africa that migrated north due to plate tectonics. Ms. Doniger claims that Hindus know this and are ashamed of ourselves.

Profile Image for Saurabh.
121 reviews4 followers
June 24, 2014
Doniger's book is one of the most unreadable books I've ever attempted to read. The text is meandering, excessively verbose, and narcissistic. Her sense of humour has not outgrown elementary school. From the 100 or so pages I forced myself to go through, there is nothing even remotely bannable other than poor writing. I suspect the ban was "arranged" -- nobody would have bought the book otherwise.
Profile Image for John Russon.
32 reviews5 followers
July 3, 2009
An outstanding book. I highly recommend this book to any educated adult, in order to get a rich and insightful look at one of the most important religious cultures in the world. Fantastically learned, clearly and engagingly written, brilliant.
Profile Image for M.
162 reviews2 followers
January 12, 2016
Lucky I don't own this book ... Wendy Doniger needs a brain transplant.
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