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Wednesday, Oct 27, 2021
Outlook.com

When Shloka Speaks To Shloka

A text-centric conspectus studies Hinduism’s pluralistic ways, ignores living reality

When Shloka Speaks To Shloka
When Shloka Speaks To Shloka
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Can one tell a history of the Hindus through their stories? That is the challenge that American scholar and Sanskritist Wendy Doniger sets herself in this book, a culmination of many years of teaching and engagement with Hindu thought and writing. One thing those years have made clear to Doniger is the difficulty of defining Hinduism. The term itself lacks any roots within India—only after the seventeenth century can we find the first usage of the title ‘Hindupati’ or Lord of the Hindus—and there is no agreed doctrine, founder, or church-like institution with which it is identified. There is no Hindu canon. Nor do the Hindus themselves form a race, or inhabit a narrowly specified territory.

What does connect them and set them apart, Doniger argues, is the fact that their imaginations, and many of their social practices, are structured by a vast web of stories—texts that spin across and through the languages and cultures of the subcontinent. Doniger calls it ‘intertextuality’, the self-conscious reference to stories that came before, all the way back to the Rig Veda. And from there on, the Brahmanas, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Shastras, Puranas, Tantric texts, the philosophical schools whose networks extended from the Tamil South up to Kashmir, the poetry and song of the Bhakti movements. There is no comparable output in any of the other great instances of the moral and religious imagination still available to us today.

Such texts can’t, however, be read as open windows on the societies that produced them. We don’t even know when some of the most fertile Hindu texts were composed. The Mahabharata and Ramayana, for instance, can only be dated to some time between 300 BC and AD 300 and 200 BC and AD 200 respectively. Still, Doniger is interested in the...

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