Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus An Alternative History (2009), is an almost unbelievably obtuse work of 700+ pages. After a first read-skim in 2009, I summed it up thus: “A work equaled in its confusion, incomprehension and malice perhaps only by John Mills’ History and Katherine Mayo’s Mother India. “
I noted one passage in particular as exemplifying the author's overall attitude and approach; on page 294, explaining the beginnings of the story of the Mahabharata, she writes:
“Where Rama and his brothers have different mothers and different wives but share both a single human father and a single divine father, the five Pandavas have one mother (and one wife) and one human father but different divine fathers.
“In this disastrous levirate, two wives give birth to three sons (two of whom have, for great-grandparents, a female fish, two Brahmins, and five kshatriyas, while the third has a Kshatriya, a female fish, two Brahmins and four slaves. Are you still with me?)”
Doniger's writing ensures that the reader has no chance to be “with” her, and most could be forgiven for thinking the Mahabharata is a freak show. Nowhere in the book does she assay the enormous wisdom of the epic or tell of its central role in shaping India.
Can we imagine any respectable scholarly work dealing with the New Testament or the Koran in this manner?
That is not the only reason for complaint.
Doniger is a professor of Sanskrit untrained in history or theology; all her knowledge of Hinduism is a sort of accidental accretion upon a vulgar, highly sexualized sensibility.
That explains why her naive measure of Hinduism never departs from the standard of her own Judeo-Christian heritage.
On page 25 she explains earnestly, “There is no single founder or institution to enforce any single construction of the tradition, to rule on what is or is not a Hindu idea or to draw the line when someone finally goes too far and transgresses the unspoken boundaries of reinterpretation. Ideas about all the major issues – vegetarianism, nonviolence, even caste itself – are subjects of a debate, not a dogma. There is no Hindu canon. The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita), were not always so highly regarded by ‘all Hindus,’ certainly not before the Euro-Americans began to praise them.”
She thinks vegetarianism, nonviolence and caste are the "major issues" of Hinduism?! And even more nonsensical is the observation about the Gita. Similar absurdities litter almost every one of the 692 pages of the main text.
From the Hindu tendency to debate all things about their faith, Doniger deduces that “there is no such thing as Hinduism in the sense of a single unified religion…” The whole book is an extended argument of the well-worked colonial theme that Hinduism does not exist.
She seems oblivious to the fact that it is not a virtue in a religion to be "single" and "unified," for their inevitable corollaries are Inquisitions, fundamentalisms and wars. Hinduism is undefinable because it is focused on that most overweening of all realities, God.(See here for a series on Hinduism.)
Many other errors and falsifications are picayune. Chapter 21 takes us on a "fast gallop" over the "two centuries during which India was part of the British Empire."
Now which two centuries would that be?
Bengal fell to the British in 1757. Over the next 100 years British rule expanded slowly across the country; Punjab was taken in 1849. Then came the earthshaking events of 1857. After that their rule lasted 90 years. It would be accurate to say that bits and pieces of India were under British rule for a two-century period; overall, some 3/5ths of the country was part of it for half that time.
On page 574 she highlights the "Black Hole of Calcutta" as causing "dozens of deaths," and a few pages later, gives details, drastically lowering the number of British prisoners (146) that imperial propagandists had reported held in a dungeon under inhuman conditions, killing 123.
The story of the Black Hole was originally cooked up six months after the supposed atrocity by the head Calcutta honcho of the East India Company as he sailed back to Britain. His motive was to justify the aggression that brought Bengal under British rule, and it worked like a charm; no one in London thought of questioning how 146 Englishmen (and one woman) could possibly have fit in a cell 18 feet by 14.
It is a mystery why Doniger reprised the story in 2009 as if were true and falsified figures to make it seem believable.
But it does put the book in context and explain its dedication to British propagandist William Dalrymple, “inspiration and comrade in the good fight.”
I am sorry to see any book destroyed, but cannot join in the general censure of Penguin India. Its editors should have seen this coming a long way off and imposed a minimum of quality control.