The Hindus: An Alternative History
Wendy Doniger, currently the most outstanding American scholar of Hinduism, serves us a feast of tasty historical events and interpretative myths in this rich curry of a book, covering social and cultural developments in the Indian subcontinent from prehistoric times to the modern day. It is an “alternative history” in that it concentrates on the interactions between the religious texts and rituals created mainly by those whom Gurcharan Das calls “Dead Male Brahmins” and the alternative peoples Doniger finds so significant in the evolution of the multiform Hindu tradition, such as lower-castes, women, Buddhists, Muslims.
Doniger’s themes include violence versus nonviolence towards humans and animals, tensions between the worldly “householder life” and ascetic renunciation, the desire to obtain a good rebirth on earth and the desire to avoid rebirth altogether. She emphasizes the Hindu sense of time, the feeling that things that happened in the past are the source of things happening now, that the past comes to fruition in the present, and the value of oral traditions in preserving variant voices in society. She maintains the importance of the history of ideas and the stories that express those ideas: “For we are what we imagine, as much as what we do.” Tales of animals are especially vital in Hindu mythology, and she recounts many different stories in which animals such as horses, cows, tigers, monkeys, dogs and an occasional cat play key roles. Gods even become incarnate as animals and are associated with particular animals, such as Shiva with his bull, Nandi.
Another important focus of Doniger’s work is the representation of the female gender, whether in animals or women, goddesses or ogresses. From the ancient myth of the doomsday mare in the depths of the sea, , to the rise of popular worship of the dark goddess Kali, the female in Hindu mythology is dangerous and must be controlled and propitiated. Doniger argues that there is “an inverse correlation between the powers of goddesses or supernatural women in texts and natural women on the ground.” The female divinities of India can be divided into goddesses of the breast, peaceful wives and mothers, and goddesses of the tooth, unmarried, independent of male control, often killers. Doniger finds that the situation in India, in general, destroys “the pious hope of goddess feminists” that the worship of goddesses is a good thing for women. The powers attributed to goddesses have not encouraged men to grant to women, or women to seize from men, greater political and economic powers. Indeed, the shakti or creative power seen as inherent in women leads men to try harder to control women, to silence them, except for those rebel women who defy convention and allow themselves to be possessed by the spirit of the fierce goddesses.
Doniger devotes considerable attention to the development of the custom of suttee, or burning wives on the funeral pyres of their husbands, along with other abuses such as female infanticide and the dowry murders of daughters-in-law still occurring in modern India. She notes that some eyewitnesses give evidence of widows who seemed willing to go to the pyre and others of widows forced to sacrifice themselves, adding that the voice we most want to hear is missing: “the voice of the woman in the fire.” We can never hear the testimony of the women who wanted to die and did, whether for pragmatic or religious reasons. The ritual itself arises from the mythology linking women and fire in the cycle of marriage, death, and rebirth.
The final chapters of this impressive study analyze the political and religious activities of Mahatma Gandhi, the efforts to reform or repeal the caste system, the migration of Hindus and Hinduism to England and America, and the political and religious controversies in present-day India. The Hindu goddesses continue to evolve: in Kerala in 2008 the goddess Bhagavati paid a ceremonial visit to her “twin sister,” the Virgin Mary, at a near-by church. Meanwhile the women painters of Mithila, who traditionally made wall and floor paintings in their homes for marriages and other domestic rituals, have begun to make and sell similar paintings on paper to art collectors in India and around the world. In spite of conflicts, the rich diversity of the Hindu culture is moving forward to a promising future.