Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago’s Divinity School writes about her new book:
People are being killed in India today because of misreadings of the history of the Hindus. In all religions, myths that pass for history--not just casual misinformation, the stock in trade of the internet, but politically-driven, aggressive distortions of the past--can be deadly, and in India they incite violence not only against Muslims but against women, Christians, and the lower castes.
Myth has been called "the smoke of history," and there is a desperate need for a history of the Hindus that distinguishes between the fire, the documented evidence, and the smoke; for mythic narratives become fires when they drive historical events rather than respond to them. Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat, sparked a revolution in India in 1857. We are what we imagine, as much as what we do.
....And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in "The Hindus: An Alternative History," to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it's a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, "The Hindus believe. . . ," is talking nonsense.
The Washington Post also has a review by Michael Dirda: Passages From India, which notes, inter alia:
While Doniger does trace the evolution of Hinduism from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (2,500 B.C.) to the present, she deliberately emphasizes a small number of recurrent threads, in particular the ways that "women, lower classes and castes, and animals" have endured or surmounted their traditional status. Horses, for instance, are typically glamorous, cows sacred and dogs despised -- but not always.
Dirda also notes, while describing her depictions of the Ramayana:
Although Sita proves and proves again her innocence, Doniger underscores the crassness of Rama's jealous-husband behavior but also notes certain textual hints that Sita is more sexual than she appears and that her feelings for Rama's brother Lakshmana might well be more than familial. As Sita is the classic model of Indian womanhood, such sacrilegious speculation once led to Doniger being egged at a London lecture.
He also refers to her "cheeky tone, given to jokes and wordplay":
According to Doniger, when Sita glimpses a golden deer encrusted with jewels, she is "delighted to find that Tiffany's has a branch in the forest." Such humor -- sometimes charming, as here -- reflects that strange desire of modern academics to be viewed not only as learned but also as hip and funky.
Now here's a book that is sure to be talked about quite a lot, and I am absolutely looking forward to reading it.
Read more about the contested versions of history: California Text Books Controversy & India Text Books Controversy
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