The Hindus: An Alternative History

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9780143116691: The Hindus: An Alternative History

"Don't miss this equivalent of a brilliant graduate course froma feisty and exhilarating teacher."
-The Washington Post


An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth, The Hindus offers a new way of understanding one of the world's oldest major religions. Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a strictly chronological account. Many of its central texts cannot be reliably dated within a century; its central tenets arise at particular moments in Indian history and often differ according to gender or caste; and the differences between groups of Hindus far outnumber the commonalities. Yet the greatness of Hinduism lies precisely in many of these idiosyncratic qualities that continues to inspire debate today. This groundbreaking work elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds, the inner life and the social history of Hindus.

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About the Author:

Wendy Doniger holds doctorates in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard and Oxford. She is the author of several translations of Sanskrit texts, including Penguin Classics editions of Hindu Myths and The Rig Veda, as well as many books about Hinduism. She is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

PREFACE:

 

CHAPTER 1 - INTRODUCTION: WORKINGWITH AVAILABLE LIGHT

CHAPTER 2 - TIME AND SPACE IN INDIA 50 Million to 50,000 BCE

CHAPTER 3 - CIVILIZATION IN THE INDUS VALLEY 50,000 to 1500 BCE

CHAPTER 4 - BETWEEN THE RUINSAND THE TEXT 2000 to 1500 BCE

CHAPTER 5 - HUMANS, ANIMALS, AND GODS IN THE RIG VEDA 1500 to 1000 BCE

CHAPTER 6 - SACRIFICE IN THE BRAHMANAS 800 to 500 BCE

CHAPTER 7 - RENUNCIATION IN THE UPANISHADS 600 to 200 BCE

CHAPTER 8 - THE THREE (OR IS IT FOUR?) AIMS OF LIFE IN THE HINDU IMAGINARY

CHAPTER 9 - WOMEN AND OGRESSES IN THE RAMAYANA 400 BCE to 200 CE

CHAPTER 10 - VIOLENCE IN THE MAHABHARATA 300 BCE to 300 CE

CHAPTER 11 - DHARMA IN THE MAHABHARATA 300 BCE to 300 CE

CHAPTER 12 - ESCAPE CLAUSES IN THE SHASTRAS 100 BCE to 400 CE

CHAPTER 13 - BHAKTI IN SOUTH INDIA 100 BCE to 900 CE

CHAPTER 14 - GODDESSES AND GODS IN THE EARLY PURANAS 300 to 600 CE

CHAPTER 15 - SECTS AND SEX IN THE TANTRIC PURANAS AND THE TANTRAS 600 to 900 CE

CHAPTER 16 - FUSION AND RIVALRY UNDER THE DELHI SULTANATE 650 to 1500 CE

CHAPTER 17 - AVATAR AND ACCIDENTAL GRACE IN THE LATER PURANAS 800 to 1500 CE

CHAPTER 18 - PHILOSOPHICAL FEUDS IN SOUTH INDIA AND KASHMIR 800 to 1300 CE

CHAPTER 19 - DIALOGUE AND TOLERANCE UNDER THE MUGHALS 1500 to 1700 CE

CHAPTER 20 - HINDUISM UNDER THE MUGHALS 1500 to 1700 CE

CHAPTER 21 - CASTE, CLASS, AND CONVERSION UNDER THE BRITISH RAJ 1600 to 1900 CE

CHAPTER 22 - SUTTEE AND REFORM IN THE TWILIGHT OF THE RAJ 1800 to 1947 CE

CHAPTER 23 - HINDUS IN AMERICA 1900 -

CHAPTER 24 - THE PAST IN THE PRESENT 1950 -

CHAPTER 25 - INCONCLUSION, OR, THE ABUSE OF HISTORY

 

Acknowledgements

CHRONOLOGY

GUIDE TO PRONUNCIATION AND SPELLINGOF WORDS IN SANSKRIT AND OTHERINDIAN LANGUAGES

ABBREVIATIONS

GLOSSARY OF TERMS IN INDIAN LANGUAGES AND NAMES OF KEY FIGURES

NOTES

BIBLIOGRAPHY: WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED

PHOTO CREDITS

INDEX

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ALSO BY WENDY DONIGER

Siva, the Erotic Ascetic
The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology
Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities
Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India

 

 

TRANSLATIONS:
The Rig Veda
The Laws of Manu
and
Kamasutra

THE PENGUIN PRESS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada),
90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada
Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green,
Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road,
Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd,
11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive,
Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa)
(Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

 

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in 2009 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

Copyright © Wendy Doniger, 2009

All rights reserved

Acknowledgments for permission to reprint copyrighted works
appear on page 754.
Illustration credits appear on page 754.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Doniger, Wendy.
The Hindus : an alternative history / Wendy Doniger.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-02870-4

1. Hinduism—Social aspects—History. 2. Women in Hinduism—History.
3. Pariahs in Hinduism—History.
4. Hinduism—Relations. I. Title.
BL1151.3.D66 2009
294.509—dc22
2008041030

 

 

 

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

KATHERINE ULRICH—student, friend, editor supreme—
and
WILL DALRYMPLE—inspiration and comrade in the good fight

INDIA’S MAJOR GEOGRAPHICAL FEATURES

INDIA FROM 2500 BCE TO 600 CE

INDIA FROM 600 CE TO 1600 CE

INDIA FROM 1600 CE TO THE PRESENT

PREFACE:

THE MAN OR THE RABBIT
IN THE MOON

AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY

The image of the man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit, will serve as a metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.

Since there are so many books about Hinduism, the author of yet another one has a duty to answer the potential reader’s Passover question: Why shouldn’t I pass over this book, or, Why is this book different from all other books? This book is not a brief survey (you noticed that already; I had intended it to be, but it got the bit between its teeth and ran away from me), nor, on the other hand, is it a reference book that covers all the facts and dates about Hinduism or a book about Hinduism as it is lived today. Several books of each of those sorts exist, some of them quite good, which you might read alongside this one.1 The Hindus: An Alternative History differs from those books in several ways.

[TOP] The Mark on the Moon, [MIDDLE] Wittgenstein’s Duck/ Rabbit, and [BOTTOM] The Rabbit in the Moon

First, it highlights a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit (the literary language of ancient India) and represented in most surveys in English. It tells a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people—people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women). Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism. My hope is not to reverse or misrepresent the hierarchies, which remain stubbornly hierarchical, or to deny that Sanskrit texts were almost always subject to a final filter in the hands of the male Brahmins (the highest of the four social classes, the class from which priests were drawn) who usually composed and preserved them. But I hope to bring in more actors, and more stories, upon the stage, to show the presence of brilliant and creative thinkers entirely off the track beaten by Brahmin Sanskritists and of diverse voices that slipped through the filter, and, indeed, to show that the filter itself was quite diverse, for there were many different sorts of Brahmins; some whispered into the ears of kings, but others were dirt poor and begged for their food every day.

Moreover, the privileged male who recorded the text always had access to oral texts as well as to the Sanskrit that was his professional language. Most people who knew Sanskrit must have been bilingual; the etymology of “Sanskrit” (“perfected, artificial”) is based upon an implicit comparison with “Prakrit” (“primordial, natural”), the language actually spoken. This gives me a double agenda: first to point out the places where the Sanskrit sources themselves include vernacular, female, and lower-class voices and then to include, wherever possible, non-Sanskrit sources. The (Sanskrit) medium is not always the message;a it’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the Gita. I will concentrate on those moments within the tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon, moments that forged bridges between factions, the times of the “mixing of classes” (varna-samkara) that the Brahmins always tried—inevitably in vain—to prevent.

Second, in addition to focusing on a special group of actors, I have concentrated on a few important actions, several of which are also important to us today: nonviolence toward humans (particularly religious tolerance) and toward animals (particularly vegetarianism and objections to animal sacrifice) and the tensions between the householder life and renunciation, and between addiction and the control of sensuality. More specific images too (such as the transposition of heads onto bodies or the flooding of cities) thread their way through the entire historical fabric of the book. I have traced these themes through the chapters and across the centuries to provide some continuity in the midst of all the flux,2 even at the expense of what some might regard as more basic matters.

Third, this book attempts to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (pitha). I have organized the topics historically in order to show not only how each idea is a reaction to ideas that came before (as any good old-fashioned philological approach would do) but also, wherever possible, how those ideas were inspired or configured by the events of the times, how Hinduism, always context sensitive,3 responds to what is happening, at roughly the same moment, not only on the political and economic scene but within Buddhism or Islam in India or among people from other cultures entering India. For Hinduism, positioning kings as gods and gods as kings, seldom drew a sharp line between secular and religious power. In recent years a number of historians of religions, particularly of South Asian religions, have contextualized particular moments in the religious history of the subcontinent.4 This book attempts to extend that particularizing project to the whole sweep of Indian history, from the beginning (and I do mean the beginning, c. 50,000,000 BCE) to the present. This allows us to see how certain ongoing ideas evolve, which is harder to do with a focus on a particular event or text at a particular moment.

This will not serve as a conventional history (my training is as a philologist, not a historian) but as a book about the evolution of several important themes in the lives of Hindus caught up in the flow of historical change. It tells the story of the Hindus primarily through a string of narratives. The word for “history” in Sanskrit, itihasa, could be translated as “That’s what happened,” giving the impression of an only slightly more modest equivalent of von Ranke’s phrase for positivist history: “Wie es [eigentlich] gewesen ist” (“The way it [really] happened”). But the iti in the word is most often used as the Sanskrit equivalent of “end quote,” as in “Let’s go [iti],” he said. Itihasa thus implies not so much what happened as what people said happened (“That’s what he said happened”)—narratives, inevitably subjective narratives. And so this is a history not of what the British used to call maps and chaps (geography and biography) but of the stories in hi-story. It’s a kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history, a quilt like those storytelling cloths that Indian narrators use as mnemonic devices to help them and the audience keep track of the plot. The narrator assembles the story from the quilt pieces much as the French rag-and-bones man, the bricoleur, makes new objects out of the broken-off pieces of old objects (bricolage).5

Like any work of scholarship, this book rests on the shoulders of many pygmies as well as giants. I have kept most of the scholarly controversies out of the text, after laying out the rules of the game in these first two chapters of methodological introduction and in the pre-Vedic period (chapters 2 through 4), which might stand as paradigms for what might have been done with all the other chapters, as well as a few other places where the arguments were so loony that I could not resist the temptation to satirize them. Many a “fact” turns out, on closer inspection, to be an argument. There is another story to be told here: how we know what we know, what we used to believe, why we believe what we believe now, what scholars brought up certain questions or gave us the information we now have, what scholars now challenge that information, and what political factors influenced them. Those arguments tell a story that is interesting in itself but to which I merely allude from time to time. I also write in the shadow of a broad scholarship of theories about religion and history, and I will keep that too out of the text. I have tried to avoid setting my opinions against those with whom I disagree or using them as fall guys, beginning an argument by citing the imagined opponent. I have, rather, simply presented each subject in what I believe to be the best scholarly construction, in order to concentrate on the arguments about it within the Hindu texts themselves.

Many crucial questions remain unanswered, and I hope that this book will inspire some readers to go back to the sources and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with me. The relevant materials can be found in the bibliography as well as in the notes for each chapter, which will also provide browsing material for those readers (I confess that I am one of them) who go straight to the back and look at the notes and bibliography first, reading the book like Hebrew, from right to left, to see where the author has been grazing, like dogs sniffing one another’s backsides to see what they have eaten lately.b

SANSKRITIZATION, DESHIFICATION, AND VERNACULARIZATION

Sanskrit texts from the earliest period assimilated folk texts that were largely oral and composed in languages other than Sanskrit, vernacular languages. But even in the Vedic age, Sanskrit was not what has been called a kitchen language, c not the language in which you said, “Pass the butter.”6 (Actually, Brahminsprobably did say, “Pass the butter...

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