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Book Review: The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

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What is this compendium not about? Little, and yet it is not the given wisdom, handed down in sacred texts that comprise the traditional history of the people who the rest of the world mistakenly call "Hindus."

And the reason that "Hindu" or "Hinduism" cannot apply to any group in general or a specific person is that the word would be defined by a series of negatives: not Muslim, not Christian, not Sufi, not Jewish, not Buddhist and not everything else. Still, the Hindu people practice religious and other traditions that include elements of every explanation, worship or philosophy that contacted them from the beginnings of humanity.

That is exactly where Doniger starts this tremendous undertaking: 50 million years ago when a chunk of earth separated from Madagascar and drifted northeast, possibly bringing the prototypes that became the first Indians. Or not. Doniger allows for many alternatives in her all-inclusive review of how the Hindus and Hinduism developed.

While The Hindus is deliberately not based on the Sanskrit teachings generated and preserved by the priestly caste, the Brahmins, Doniger has obviously read them all, and compared every version to the others. She's also read every book ever written about them. See the book's voluminous Bibliography. Her erudition becomes even more clear from the multitudinous quotations, notes, footnotes, poems, stories and fascinating asides that keep the writing refreshing and interesting as the story lumbers along through the millennia. The writing is eminently accessible for any reader, despite the author's position as the world's foremost authority on Hinduism.  No stuffy academic treatise, this.

"Imagine if the fundamentalists who run so many of the present governments of the world were replaced by Tantrics; now, there's a theocracy for you, to boggle the mind. Or perhaps we should regard Bill Clinton as our first Tantric president."

Some of the themes traced include the notions of "clean" and "unclean", the  roles of horses, cows and dogs, gender and social differences, the changing notions concerning sacrifice, householders versus renunciants, political leadership and temple building. Doniger points out the influences of all other religions and foreign rulers in the more ephemeral Indian arts and philosophy as well as the concretions of architecture.

Part of the charm of this book is the way Doniger illuminates the origins and variations of words. Sometimes the information generates a new understanding of other books read in the past. For example, the word "Mughal" (Turkish rulers of India from, roughly, 1500-1700) is from a Persian form, "Mongol," and became in English, "Mogul." Of great assistance is the "Glossary of Terms in Indian Languages and Names of Key Figures," along with detailed two-page Chronology to help the reader keep historical events in perspective.

Indeed, all of the 100 pages of back matter from the "Acknowledgments to About the Author" are invaluable to the serious reader. At some point, however, it becomes futile to keep referring to the Notes while attempting to concentrate on the text. Too many ibids spoil the storytelling. Fortunately for all readers, Doniger provides landmarks, or time marks, across the geographical distances as the centuries roll by. She draws parallels between similar movements and schools of thought in other parts of the occupied world, relating them to developments in Hindu philosophical writings and practices.

As many smaller tributaries build up the mighty Ganges, so a wide variety of sources contributed the multiplicities of attitudes and behaviors called Hinduism. Doniger presents a strong case for the influences of vernacular folklore, mythology, women and the lower castes on the "establishment" male, Brahmin Sanskrit teachings, and vice versa. It is indeed an alternative picture of the world's oldest, most vibrant and colorful approach to dealing with life.

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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.
  • AgniVayu

    The author is not a formal authority on anything. She is a racist anti-Hindu bigot who also has a very degenerate mind. She distorts the HIndu view and shows it as a hyper-sexual religion. This is more reflective of her personally than of Hinduism. Why would a racist narrow minded White non-Hindu become an authority on Hinduism? She is not even a Sanskrit scholar, one of the most basic things one must know to comment on Hinduism.
    She (& others like her) will become a relic of the past as more Hindus take ownership of their own history and stop letting racist imperial colonial historians tell them the history of their own people. Someone should tell these losers the colonial era is over.

  • Agnivayu

    No I havn’t read this book. But I have read other things Wendy Doniger has written (and they absolutely are propaganda). She teaches in a Divinity school (i.e. Christian) which is not unbiased ofcourse but interested in spreading Christianity.

    We are taking ownership of our own history. Just like Westerners don’t look to Indians/Hindus to learn about European/Christian history.

    Here is a link to a good response to her statements.

  • AgniVayu

    “Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.” (from Doniger’s article about Hinduism in the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia—Microsoft Encarta subsequently removed her entry in 2004″

    What kind of nonsense propaganda is this to defame Hinduism. Don’t Christians simulate eating the flesh and blood of Christ in Church, is that a toned down version of Cannibalism from before?

  • AgniVayu

    The book is entertainment for White audiences, so looks like it served that purpose. If Prof. Michael Witzel of Harvard University (no fan of Hinduism by any stretch of the imagination) considers Wendy Doniger’s translations to be unreliable that should tell you something.

  • AgniVayu

    Read the complete idiot’s guide to Hinduism if you want a good book on Hinduism.