“The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger: A bundle of falsehood


By: Madan Lal Goel (Professor Emeritus of Political Science, The University of West Florida)

I do not believe in burning books, but Wendy Doniger’s 779-page tome titled, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 2009, is a hurtful book.  It is laced with personal editorials, folksy turn of the phrase and funky wordplays.  She has a large repertoire of Hindu mythological stories.  She often narrates the most damning story—Vedic, Puranic, folk, oral, vernacular—to demean, damage and disparage Hinduism.  After building a caricature, she laments that fundamentalist Hindus (how many and how powerful are they?) are destroying the pluralistic, tolerant Hindu tradition.  But, why save such a vile, violent religion, as painted by the eminent professor?  There is a contradiction here.

We organized a panel discussion on Doniger’s book at the 2011 conference of Association of Asian Studies (AAS).  We invited Dr. Doniger to attend and dialog with us.  She made lame excuses and declined to participate.  So much for open discussion and dialog!

Doniger’s book is at odds with the increasing acceptance in the United States of key Hindu spiritual precepts.  Lisa Miller (Newsweek, 31 August, 2009) reports that Americans “are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.” Miller cites the following data:

1.      67 percent of Americans believe that many religions, not only Christianity can lead to eternal life, reflecting pluralistic Hindu ethos rather than exclusivist Christian doctrine;

2.      30 percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual, not religious;”

3.      24 percent say they believe in reincarnation;

4.      And, more than a third choose Cremation rather than Burial.  See:  http://www.newsweek  .com/id/212155

Falsifying Islam’s Record in India

The following review of Doniger’s very large book focuses on only one section:  the chapters dealing with the incursion of Islam into India.

As is well known, Islam entered Malabar Coast in south India with Arab merchants and traders in the 7th Century. This was peaceful Islam.  Later, Islam came to India as a predatory and a conquering force.  Mohammad bin Qasim ravaged Sindh in 711.  Mahmud Ghazni looted and destroyed numerous Hindu temples around 1000 CE.  The Muslim rule begins with the Delhi Sultanate, approximately 1201 to 1526.  The Sultanate gave place to the Mughal Empire in1526, which ended with the establishment of British Raj, about 1757.

Wendy Doniger makes the following dubious points on the Muslim imperial rule in India (1201-1707).

1.      Muslim marauders destroyed some Hindu temples, not many. Ch 16

2.      Temple destruction was a long standing Indian tradition.  In an earlier period, Hindus destroyed Buddhist and Jain stupas and rival Hindu temples and built upon the destroyed sites– “the Muslims had no monopoly on that.” P 457

3.      Muslim invaders looted and destroyed Hindu temples because they had the power to do so.  If Hindus had the power, they would do the same in reverse.  Pp. 454-57

4.      The Jizya—the Muslim tax on non-Muslims—was for Hindu protection and a substitute for military service. Pp. 448-49

5.      Hindu “megalomania” for temple building in the Middle Ages was a positive result of Muslim demolition of some Hindu temples. P 468

6.      The Hindu founders of the Vijayanagara Empire double-crossed their Muslim master in Delhi who had deputed them to secure the South.  P 467

7.      Hindus want Muslims and Christians to leave India for Hindustan is only for Hindus. Concluding chapter.

I will take each one of these arguments and point out its falsity.

1.       Muslim invaders beginning with Mahmud Ghazni in 1000 CE looted, pillaged and destroyed not few but several thousand Hindu and Buddhist temples.  Accounts written by the conquering hero and/or by the Muslim chroniclers who accompanied the invader describe the destruction of many Hindu shrines. The destruction of  infidel places of worship is a meritorious act under Islam.  See, for example:  The Mohammedan period as described by its own historians, by Sir H.M. Elliot, The Grolier Society, 1906.

Alberuni, the Muslim scholar who accompanied Mahmud Ghazni (also known as Gazhnavi) to India in 1,000 CE, describes one such event:  “Mathura, the holy city of Krishna, was the next victim. In the middle of the city there was a temple larger and finer than the rest, which can neither be described nor painted.  The Sultan was of the opinion that 200 years would have been required to build it. The idols included ‘five of red gold, each five yards high,’ with eyes formed of priceless jewels. . . The Sultan gave orders that all the temples should be burnt with naphtha and fire, and leveled with the ground.  Thus perished works of art which must have been among the noblest monuments of ancient India.” [1]

At the destruction of another famous temple, Somnath, some 50,000 were massacred. The fabulous booty of gold was divided according to Islamic tradition–the Sultan getting the royal fifth, the cavalry man getting twice as much as the foot soldier. Women were sold into concubinage and children raised as Muslim.

2.       The esteemed professor asserts that during an earlier period, Hindus persecuted Jains and Buddhists and destroyed their shrines.  She narrates the now discarded story about the impaling of Jains at the hands of Hindu rulers in the Tamil country. Then she says that “there is no evidence that any of this actually happened, other than the story.” (p 365).  Then why narrate the story?  

Hindu sectarian violence existed but it pales in comparison to the level of violence that occurred under Islam. (See the riveting account of the history of pillage of minorities under Islam by Egyptian born Jewish writer Bat Ye’or.  Google her.)  The truth is that both Jainism and Buddhism were integrated into Hinduism’s pluralistic tradition.  The Buddha is regarded as one of the Avatars.  Exquisite Jain  temples at Mt Abu at the border of Gujarat and Rajasthan built around 1000 CE survive in the region dominated by Hindu Rajput rulers, falsifying notions of Hindu carnage of Jain temples.

3.       Wendy Doniger suggests that Hindus would do the same to Muslims if they had the power to do so (p 457).  Hindus did come to power when the Mughal rule rapidly declined after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707.  The Hindu Marathas were the strongest power in Western and Southern India, as the Sikhs were in North India.  There is no account of large scale demolition and looting of Muslim places of worship either by the Marathas or the Sikhs.  If a copy of the Quran fell into the hands of Maratha soldiers, Shivaji instructed that the same should be passed on to a Muslim follower rather than being burned.

4.       Dr. Doniger argues that Jizia or the special tax levied on non-Muslims was for Hindus protection and a substitute for military service. Jizya is a long held Muslim tradition.  It was levied to begin with on the defeated Jews and Christians, the People of the Book, as a price for the cessation of Jihad.  Hindus, not being one of the People of the Book, did not deserve to live by paying the special tax. If defeated in battle, their only option was Islam or death. This was the position taken by the leading Islamic clergy. Unlike the clergy, however, the Muslim rulers were practical men.  If they had killed the Hindus en masse for failing to adopt Islam, who would build their palaces, fill their harems, cut their wood and hue their water? [2]

5.       Doniger argues that Hindu ‘megalomania’ for temple building resulted from Muslim destruction of some Hindu temples.  In other words, because the Muslims destroyed some of the Hindu temples, the Hindus went on a building spree.  If Doniger’s argument is accepted, Hindus should thank Islamic rulers for the destruction of their shrines. The truth is that in northern India which experienced 500 years of Islamic rule (1201-1707), few historical temples of any beauty remain. In contrast, temple architecture of some beauty does survive in southern India, the region that escaped long Muslim occupation.

6.       Doniger opines that the Hindu founders of the Vijayanagara empire in the South double-crossed their Muslim masters in Delhi and established an independent kingdom in the South.  This is one among the innumerable editorial negative portrayal of Hindu character.  One may ask: why wouldn’t the oppressed double cross his oppressor?

7.       Contrary to what Doniger writes, the view that Muslims and Christians should leave India is held only by a minority on the extreme fringes, and not the mainstream Hindu population. Muslim population has increased in India from about 9 percent at the time of Independence in 1947 to about 13 percent in 2012.  In contrast, in Pakistan, Hindu population has declined from 10 percent and now constitutes less than two percent.  In Muslim Bangladesh in the same period the Hindu population has declined from 30 percent to less than 10 percent.  People vote with their feet. Muslims hold important positions in government and business in contemporary India.  Among the richest person in India is a Muslim, Premji; the most popular film stars are Muslim: Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan; Muslims leaders have served as governors at the state level.  The single most important leader for the last decade in India is Italian-born Sonya Gandhi and the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a Sikh.  The former President of India APJ Kalam was a Muslim and before that K R Narayanan, a lower caste.  In Federal and State civil service, 50 percent of the jobs are reserved for backward classes, in order to compensate for past discrimination.  India has moved.

Invasion of Sindh by Qasim, 712-13 CE

Doniger describes the invasion of Sindh by Arab soldier of fortune Muhammad bin Qasim as follows:

Qasim invaded Sindh in 713.  The terms of surrender included a promise of guarantee of the safety of Hindu and Buddhist establishments.  “Hindus and Buddhists were allowed to govern themselves in matters of religion and law.”  Qasim “kept his promises.”  The non-Muslims were not treated as kafirs.  Jizya was imposed but only as a substitute for military service for their “protection.”  He brought Muslim teachers and mosques into the subcontinent.  (paraphrased)

From Doniger’s assessment, Qasim should be regarded as a blessing.  Andrew Bostom in “The Legacy of Islamic Jihad in India,” provides the following disquieting picture, based on Islamic sources.[3]

The Muslim chroniclers . . .include enough isolated details to establish the overall nature of the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad b. Qasim in 712 C.E. . . . Baladhuri (an Islamic writer), for example, records that following the capture of Debal, Muhammad b. Qasim earmarked a section of the city exclusively for Muslims, constructed a mosque, and established four thousand colonists there.  The conquest of Debal had been a brutal affair . . .  Despite appeals for mercy from the besieged Indians (who opened their gates after the Muslims scaled the fort walls), Muhammad b. Qasim declared that he had no orders (i.e., from his superior al-Hajjaj, the Governor of Iraq) to spare the inhabitants, and thus for three days a ruthless and indiscriminate slaughter ensued. In the aftermath, the local temple was defiled, and “700 beautiful females who had sought for shelter there, were all captured.”

R. C. Majumdar, another distinguished historian, describes the tragic outcome:

Muhammad massacred 6,000 fighting men who were found in the fort, and their followers and dependents, as well as their women and children were taken prisoners. Sixty thousand slaves, including 30 young ladies of royal blood, were sent to Hajjaj, along with the head of Dahar [the Hindu ruler]. We can now well understand why the capture of a fort by the Muslim forces was followed by the terrible jauhar ceremony (in which females threw themselves in fire kindled by themselves), the earliest recorded instance of which is found in the Chachnama. (Cited in Bostom.)

Selective Scholarship

Doniger extensively footnotes Romila Thapar, John Keay, Anne Schimmel and A. K. Ramanujan as her sources for Islamic history, providing an impression of meticulous scholarship.  Missing are works of the distinguished historians: Jadunath Sarkar, R. C. Majumdar, A. L. Srivastava, Vincent Smith, and Ram Swarup.

Doniger writes at page 458: when Muslim royal women first came to India, they did not rigidly keep to purdah (the veiling and seclusion of women).  They picked the more strict form of purdah from contact with the Hindu Rajput women. Doniger finds much to praise in Muslim women during this period: some knew several languages; others wrote poetry; some managed vast estates; others set up “feminist” republics within female quarters (harems); some debated fine points on religion; some even joined in drinking parties (chapters 16, 20). Such descriptions are patently negated by other historians. See for example, The Mughal Harem (1988) by K S Lal, available free on the Internet.

If Hinduism is the source of strict purdah among Muslim women, as Doniger contends, how does one explain the strict veiling of women in the Middle East, a region far removed from Hindu influence?  Or, the absence of purdah in southern India, a region that escaped extended Islamic domination?

Doniger writes at page 627, “the Vedic reverence for violence flowered in the slaughters that followed Partition.” And, Gandhi’s nonviolence succeeded against the British.  But it failed against the tenaciously held Hindu ideal of violence that had grip on the real emotions of the masses.

Doniger blames “the Vedic reverence for violence” for post-Partition destruction that engulfed both India and Pakistan. What is one to make of this weighty pronouncement uttered in all seriousness by the author?  Could it perhaps be an expression of the hurt feelings on the part of a scholar?  While discussing the Hindu epic Ramayana in London in 2003, Doniger put forth her usual gloss: that Lakshman had the ‘hots’ for his brother Rama’s wife Sita, and that sexually-charged Sita reciprocated these feelings. An irate Hindu threw an egg at her and conveniently missed it.  This incident is her cause célèbre.

Part of a Larger Trend of  Dhimmi Attitudes of Subservience

Doniger’s scandalous book on the Hindus makes sense only in the light of a larger global trend—a trend that seeks to re-package Islamic history as a force for tolerance and progress.

Doniger is not alone in holding such views. Dhimmi attitudes of subservience have entered the Western academy, and from there into journalism, school textbooks and political discourse. One must not criticize Islam. For, “to do so would offend the multiculturalist ethos that prevails everywhere today. To do so would endanger chances for peace and rapprochement between civilizations all too ready to clash.”  See Bat Ye’or, http://www.dhimmitude.org/archive/by_lecture_10oct2002.htm

The field of Middle East Studies in the U.S. is now controlled by pro-Middle East professors, according to Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle Eastern Quarterly“The crucial turning point occurred in the late 1970s when Middle East studies centers, under /Edward/ Said’s influence, began to show a preference for ideology over empirical fact and, fearing the taint of the ‘orientalist’ bias, began to prefer academic appointments of native-born Middle Easterners over qualified Western-born students.”  Search the link at:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_17_119/ai_90989239/.

In contrast, the field of Hinduism studies by and large is controlled by non-Hindus and anti-Hindus.  Hindu gods and goddesses are lampooned and denigrated.  Hindu saints are described as sexual perverts and India in danger of being run over by Hindu fundamentalists.  In these portrayals, Doniger is joined by Martha Nussbaum, Paul Courtright, Jeffrey Kripal, Sarah Caldwell, Stanley Kurtz, to name only a few. Unhappily also, the American born Hindu youth choose lucrative careers in medicine, law, finance and engineering rather than in the social sciences and the humanities.

Doniger is quite harsh on the British record in India (1757-1947).  She compares the British argument that they brought trains and drains to India to Hitler’s argument that he built the Autobahn in Germany (p. 583).  Censuring Britain and giving a pass to the more draconian Islamic rule fits with the dhimmi attitude described forcefully by Bat Ye’or.  Consequently, attitudes of concession and appeasement are on the rise in the academy. A reversal of language occurs.  Jihad is called ‘struggle within’.  Dhimmitude is called tolerance.  Jizya is called protection.  No wonder that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and on elite American college campuses.


[1] Vincent Smith, The Oxford History of India, Delhi, 1981, pp. 207-08. Smith derives his account of Mahmud’s raids from the account written by Alberuni, the Islamic scholar who traveled with Sultan Mahmud to India.

[2] See Ram Swarup’s Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, 1992.  And, Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims, 2005, at: http://www.andrewbostom.org/loj/.

[3] Published in 2005 in the American Thinker  by Andrew Bostom and available at: http://www.islam-watch.org/Bostom/Legacy-of-Islamic-Jihad-terrorism-in-India.htm

__._,_.___
Advertisements

Ms. Wendy Doniger versus Ali Sheikh: Duel on “The Hindus – An Alternative History”


Ms. Wendy Doniger penned a book “The Hindus – An Alternative History” and there was a great uproar in India about this author’s treatment of Hindus in her alleged alternative history of these people. Provocatively suggestive title of the book gave an impression that the traditional history of Hindus was a lie and Ms. Doniger belabored herself to correct this mistake by a serious research.

Of course, the book was critical of the traditional history and it made the blood boil in India over her claims. It was but natural that the intellectual world was on her side to defend her rights. It is justified that one should support her right of opinion. But if it turns out on deeper study of the book that it is not an opinion (since she is not so naive or intellectually dumb!) but an ill motivated intentional twisting of the history of a people, then what would one make of her claim and her right of expression?

Shri Ali Sheikh has read her book and gone into the merits of its contents in depth. He has posted his review of the book (Link). Ms. Wendy Doniger has been exposed by Ali Sheikh of her claims and intentions. Here is this review:

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.

%d bloggers like this: