Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Understanding Hinduism

Wendy Doniger, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, is arguably the foremost, and unarguably the most prolific, scholar of Hinduism in the western world. Apart from translating the Rig Veda, Manu and Kamasutra into English, she has authored a number of monographs. When a scholar of her stature brings to bear half-a-century's work and understanding to provide a synthesised account of the subject, it necessarily evokes wide interest. Simply put, the reader is not disappointed...

The self-appointed custodian of Hinduism who threw an egg at Wendy Doniger at a lecture hall in London in 2003 was evidently ignorant of her credentials.Doniger comes in a long line of western scholars who have widened the world's understanding of one of its major religions, Hinduism. The 25-page bibliography lists the works mostly of western scholars on Hinduism. (It is symptomatic that it confuses the Indian historians Ranajit Guha and Ramachandra Guha!) This staggering list should have a salutary effect on anyone who claims an exclusive right to interpret and represent Hindu religion.

It is indeed a tall order to provide a historical account of a religion whose nomenclature itself is the subject of debate and dispute.Within a chronological framework, Doniger manages to give an engrossing account of Hindu religion across five millennia. There are enough standard historical accounts of Hinduism in English, but her book attempts an “alternative history,” the word ‘alternative' referring to the marginalised groups — namely women, lower castes and, yes, animals — rather than one from the perspective of texts written by men of the Brahmin community. She also seeks to bring in the vernacular, meaning non-Sanskritic, traditions of Hinduism into the picture. This is what makes the book different. I wonder if there is another book that looks at animals in such a detailed, empathetic, and informed fashion. The horse rears its head throughout the book, taking on different meanings at various moments, and it could well be a metaphor.

The philologist in Doniger keeps pointing to cognates across languages and language families, sometimes illuminating the argument and occasionally providing diversionary relief. Stories, replete in the text, are her device to push the narrative forward. Putting together all the tales narrated in the book would in itself add up to a lively anthology, although one may not always agree with her often Freudian readings of them. Doniger is at her best when she handles the texts and discusses gods, animals, and humans figuring in the Vedas, women and ogresses in the Ramayana, and the violence in the Mahabharata. 

Full report here The Hindu

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