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Wendy Doniger’s Hindus

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Wendy Doniger’s Hindus
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Note: This is a republication of a 2010 essay is authored by Shyam N. Shukla. 

Dr. Wendy Doniger has impressive credentials with two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, from Harvard and Oxford universities. She has taught at University of London and University of California (Berkeley). She has written many books on Hinduism and has translated some well known Sanskrit books. Her present book, The Hindus, An Alternative History has close to 800 pages with 25 chapters in it. She has listed hundreds of references used by her for writing this book. She is a Sanskrit scholar, who has devoted all her life studying Hindu scriptures.

After reading her book a layman may get an impression that she is well versed in all the Hindu scriptures. However, a Sanskrit scholar who is not a practicing Hindu and has not been taught the Hindu scriptures by a learned guru, cannot understand them. For example, the peace invocation (Shantipatha) of the Ishavasya Upanishad, if translated literally, seems to say, “That is full; this is full. Even after this full came out of that full, the latter remains full”. This translation does not make any sense. Only a person with the knowledge of the Vedanta philosophy and its technical terminology understands that ‘That’ in the Shantipatha stands for Brahman and ‘this’ stands for the universe.  In the Chhandogya Upanishad we read about the sadness of sage Narada[7] who had studied the four Vedas, the Puranas and the Itihasas, but felt that he lacked in the cardinal knowledge of the scriptures. When he approached Sanatkumara and was taught about Brahman he understood the scriptures really well.

Doniger’s book was published last year (2009) by Penguin Press, New York. Since then Hindu scholars who read it have been appalled by her bias against Hinduism, though she claims in her book, “… I intend to go on celebrating the diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus that I have loved for about fifty years now and still counting (p. 16).”

Recently her book was also published by Penguin, India. After that many Hindu scholars like, Aseem Shukla, Vishal Agarwal, V.V. Raman, M. Lal Goel, Aditi Banerjee, Pankaj Mishra, U. Narayana Das, etc. have written their critical reviews on Doniger’s book.  By now the protest has escalated to the extent that there was a signature campaign requesting Penguin to withdraw her book. The book seems to reflect Doniger’s own agenda of denigrating Hinduism using the screen of scholarship, as did works of Frederich Max Müller, Michael Wetzel, Romila Thapar, etc. Her book has hundreds of factual errors about the chronology of events and wrong interpretations of the Hindu scriptures. Here and there she tries to be humorous and makes a derogatory remark. For example, she writes, “If the motto of the Watergate was ‘Follow the money’, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ or, more often ‘Follow the horse’ (p. 40).”

In November 2000, in a lecture titled “The Complicity of God in the Destruction of Human Race” Doniger is said to have mentioned[8] to an audience of about 150, “The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata, the enormous Hindu epic of which the Gita is a small part, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behavior such as war in order to relieve “mother Earth” of its burdensome human population and the many demons disguised as humans…. The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war.” Here she is judging the Mahabharata war with her own ethical standard of today, without understanding the reasons why Lord Krishna urges Arjuna to fight the just war. For her a war for any reason is ethically wrong. Does she think that the USA was wrong to fight against the Nazis in the World War II?

Doniger has earned notoriety even earlier through her publications of some books related to Hindu dharma, such as Siva – the Erotic Ascetic, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology,  Kamasutra, etc. She causes outrage by her Freudian interpretations of Hindu traditions. She sees a lot of sex, violence, drugs, liquor and other vices in the ancient Hindus. Although she knows that the word linga means a ‘symbol’, in Sanskrit, she talks with titillating sleaze about the Shiva-linga as an erect phallus of Lord Shiva (p. 22). Professor Michael Witzel, a Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, who himself is very unpopular among Hindu scholars for his derogatory remarks about Hindu religion, called Doniger’s translations “unreliable” and “idiosyncratic”.

Doniger claims that her present book is about women, lower caste Hindus, horses, cows and dogs, but indulges in erotic descriptions while talking about their contributions to the Hindu society. She states that the horses, cows and dogs stand for power, purity and pollution in Hinduism (p.40).

In Chapter 4 Doniger gives an incorrect chronology of historical events. For example, she mentions that in 1700 to 1500 BCE nomads in the Punjab wrote the Rigveda and horses arrived in Northwest India. Actually by now Vedic scholars have accepted the period of the Mahabharata war as 3200 BCE on the basis of the astronomical events described in the Mahabharata, with the help of computer programs available now. The Rigveda was written by the Rishis, who lived on the banks of the Sarasvati and were very learned spiritual individuals. It was definitely not written by nomads of Punjab, as she claims. By calling the writers of the Vedas as nomads Doniger has shown her contempt for the Vedas and the Hindu religion, as she has done in many other places in her book.  The Rigveda devotes about 90 verses to describe the Sarasvati. According to it the Sarasvati was the largest and the holiest river of India in the Vedic period. The Mahabharata (3.133.8) praises the Sarasvati for bringing the Vedas to life[10]. The Rigveda (3.23.4) glorifies the Sarasvati as the mother of the Vedic people and calls the Sarasvati-Drishadvati region the most sacred on earth[11]. This shows that the Rigveda was definitely written on the banks of the Sarasvati. Also the time when the Rigveda was written must be prior to 3200 BCE not 1500 BCE.  She argues strangely that the inhabitants of the Indus Valley civilization (IVC) were not the same people who wrote the Rigveda. She believes that with the destruction of the IVC the people of the area too disappeared. She writes that the nomads who wrote the Vedas were immigrants from Europe, who brought the Indo-European language Sanskrit with them to India, even though she emphasizes, “…the people of the Indus were building great cities and the people of the Vedas creating a great literature at a time when the British were still swinging in trees (p. 93)”. Frederich Max Muller also first wrote, under the influence of Thomas Macaulay, who had his own political agenda, that the writers of the Vedas were illiterate nomadic people from Central Asia. But after reading the contents of the Vedas he confessed that the writers of the Vedas were not ordinary people but highly learned and knowledgeable scholars. Doniger’s conjecture that horses arrived in Northwest India in1700-1500 BCE is also absurd. It is influenced by the debunked “Aryan Invasion Theory”. In the Mahabharata war many top generals fought while riding on their chariots drawn by horses. Arjuna’s chariot was drawn by four very fine white horses. The excavations at the ancient cities along the dried Sarasvati, which are contemporary of the Indus Valley civilization, have shown that horses existed[12]in India about five thousand years ago.

In Chapter 5 Doniger paints a very negative picture of the Hindu society in the Vedic period. She writes, “Unbelievers and infidels, as well as Pariah and women, were forbidden to learn the Vedas, because they might defile or injure the power of the words, pollute it…” (p. 105). A student of the Upanishads knows very well that Gargi Vachaknavi was a learned lady vedantin in the court of King Janaka. Yajñavalkya’s wife Maitreyi was a very intelligent lady, whom he taught the Vedanta before he entered the monastic life. In the Ramayana[13], Queen Kaushalya performed the daily agnihotra with Vedic mantras, and so did Tara and Sita. In the Mahabharata period too Savitri and Amba performed Vedic rituals with the recitation of Vedic mantras. Later, however, the women were debarred from performing the Vedic rituals and from reciting Vedic mantras. Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya mentions that there were women scholars who studied the Katha Shakha of the Yajurveda. The Shudras performing Vedic sacrifices is recorded in Apastamba Srautrasutra (1.19-23).

On page 116, Doniger writes, “The Vedic people at first distinguished two classes (varnas), their own (which they called Arya) and that of the people they conquered, whom they called Dasas (or Dasyus, or, sometimes, Panis).”  Here she seems to be accusing the Vedic people of being racist in the same way as Max Muller did when he advanced his “Aryan Invasion Theory.” Later, Max Muller changed his stand completely[14]. He said, “The word ‘ārya’ could refer only to a family of languages that included Sanskrit… It could never apply to a race”. There is absolutely no proof that the Vedic people came from outside and that they conquered any native people of India. Rigveda says, Krinvantam Vishvamaryam (Let us make the entire world Aryan). If “Arya” meant a race, does this mantra mean that Negroid and Mongoloid people could be converted to Aryan race? Arya simply means a civilized, educated and well behaved person. Sita addressed Rama as “O Arya.”

While commenting on verse 10.162 of the Rigveda she writes, “It appears that a women’s brother too is someone she might expect to find in her bed…” (p. 124). This shows her perverted thinking and her contempt for the Hindu religion. Then in the same sentence she contradicts her statement by saying, “…the Rig Veda (10.10) severely condemns sibling incest…” About after-life in the Rigveda, Doniger writes (p. 133), “When it comes to the inevitable end of that span, the Rig Veda offers varied but not necessarily contradictory images of a rather muted version of life on earth: shade (remember how hot India is), lots of good-looking women (this heaven is imagined by men), and good things to eat and drinks.” This is Doniger’s own imagination. The Rigveda mentions nothing about good-looking women available in the heaven.

In the beginning of Chapter 6, Doniger lists the dates of the composition of the Aranyakas, the Shrauta Sutras and some Upanishads as 400 to 600 BCE, which are close to the times of Buddha and Mahavira and, therefore, are very late and incorrect. While talking about the theory of reincarnation (p. 170-171) she says, “The theory of reincarnation, a recycling not of tin cans but of souls, may reflect an anxiety of overcrowding, the claustrophobia of a culture fenced in, a kind of urban Angst…Is this fear of crowds related to the shock of the new experience of city life in the Ganges Valley?…If a fear of this sort is what inspired the theory of reincarnation, who precisely was it who was afraid.”  Doniger’s this kind of statement shows that she is not thinking rationally. If the dead come back to the earth after reincarnation, how does it solve the problem of overcrowding? Actually the reincarnation theory solves the mystery of why we are born with different privileges, when the God treats everyone equally. On this earth someone is rich while another is poor; someone is healthy while another is sick from childhood. This happens because we get new births according to our karmas of the last birth.

In Chapter 8, titled “The Three (Or Is It Four) Aims of Life in the Hindu Imaginary” Doniger gives the date of composition of Manu’s Dharmashastra (Manusmriti) as 100 CE, which is too late according to the conventional history of Hinduism. Manu, the law giver of the Hindu dharma, is like Adam of Judo-Christianity and therefore, his book must have been composed much earlier, though other scholars must have interpolated many verses into it later. In this chapter Doniger simply does nitpicking. For example, on page 210 she points out that Manu includes ‘nonviolence’ as one of the recommended virtues at two places of his Dharma text but does not include it in his ten commandments. In his verse 6.92 Manu gives his ten commandments (truth, non-stealing, purity, control of senses, wisdom, learning, patience, forgiveness, self-control, and lack of anger) for dvijas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas), who go through the four ashramas in life. In verse 10.63 he talks about five essential qualities (non-violence, truth, non-stealing, purity, and control of senses) for all the four varnas.  In verse 12.83 Manu talks about six essential qualities (non-violence, control of senses, recitation of the Vedas, tapas, knowledge and serving the gurus) which lead the Vipras (Brahmins) to moksha. But Doniger criticizes Manu for not prescribing the same virtues in all the three cases, causing unnecessary controversy.

In Chapter 9, titled “Women and Ogresses in the Ramayana”, Doniger again gives wrong chronology for the composition of the Ramayana as well as for the Mahabharata as 200 BCE-200 CE and 300 BCE-300 CE, respectively. It is widely known that Valmiki, the composer of the Ramayana was a contemporary of Lord Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Vyasa who wrote the Mahabharata saw the war described in it. Doniger seems to be obsessed with sex, as is usual of her, when she explains how queen Kaikeyi achieved her goal of getting the throne for her son Bharata. On page 223 she writes, “…the youngest queen Kaikeyi, uses sexual blackmail (among other things) to force Dasharatha to put her son, Bharata, on the throne instead and send Rama into exile.” By the way, Sumitra,  not Kaikeyi is the youngest queen. According to the Valmiki Ramayana[15]Manthara, the hunchback maid servant of Kaikeyi reminds her that king Dasharatha owed her two promises, which she should use to get the throne for Bharata and exile for Rama. Doniger makes a blatant statement, ““Dasharatha’s son is certainly lustful” is a key phrase.” (p. 225). In the beginning of the Ramayana it is mentioned  that when Valmiki meets Narada, he asks him as to who is full of virtues in this world at present, is possessed of right conduct, is friendly to all living beings, is a man of knowledge, has conquered anger, etc. (Valmiki Ramayana 1.1.1-3). In his answer Narada says, that person is Rama. In spite of this Doniger makes the above derogatory statement against Lord Rama. This shows her ‘love’ for Hinduism.

In Chapter 10 Doniger mentions on page 255, “Thus the (Ashokan) pillar… was the first representation of the horse…”  This, of course, is not correct because the excavations of some Harappan age cities excavated along the Sarasvati river have shown terra-cotta and clay figurines of horses. She further says, “The Ramayana cites the Mahabharata from time to time…”  (p. 262). This is incorrect because the Ramayana does not quote the Mahabharata anywhere. She highlights violence in the Mahabharata – violence towards animals and violence among the humans as well. On page 253 she mentions, “…the narratives of the Mahabharata on all levels, were …about the treatments of animals, about the treatment of Pariahs symbolized by animals, and about human violence as an inevitable result of the fact that humans are animals and the animals are violent.” Here Doniger jumps to her own outrageous interpretation that animals symbolized Pariahs in the Mahabharata.

In her Chapters 19 and 20, which deal with Mughal rule in India, Wendy Doniger seems to be very appreciative of the Mughal rulers. C.J. Edmunds[16], based on his intensive research, points out that the writers of Indian history have wrongly described Babur as a ‘Mughal’ (a term for Mongol in Arabic, Turkish and Persian). According to him Babur was actually a young prince of Turkish origin from a western province of Iran, adjoining Turkey. After his father’s death, his uncle usurped the sultanate and threw Babur out. Babur ran away from home with a few trusted soldiers westward to Afghanistan. His role-model was Genghis Khan, in spite of the fact that the latter had brutally terrorized the entire West Asia with his plunders and murders. Because he killed thousands of residents of Bagdad in one night, he is known as ‘Butcher of Bagdad’. When Babur succeeded in establishing his dynasty in India he named it “Mughal”, after the notorious Mongol.

Doniger says, “But the Mughals also made spectacular contributions to the civilization of the world in general and Hinduism in particular.” (p. 528). She, however, fails to identify as to what ‘spectacular contributions’ they have made to Hinduism. On the contrary they – from Babur to Aurangzeb (barring Akbar) – destroyed thousands of Hindu temples to build mosques above their foundations, converted innumerable Hindus to Islam forcibly and imposed Jaziya tax on them. Jehangir had Guru Arjan murdered after torturing him. Aurangzeb persecuted Hindus and Sikhs including Guru Tegh Bahadur. The biggest misrepresentation of historical fact is when Doniger writes (p. 546), “There is evidence of fewer than 200 conversions under Aurangzeb.” Actually in Kashmir alone, during his reign thousands of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. Doniger’s interpretations are colored by her bias and the bias of the Marxist historians in India. She makes an absurd statement on page 550, “Since there were no Rama temples in Ayodhya until the sixteenth century, there is some irony in the strong possibility that Babur, whose mosque was to become such a cause célèbre, may have sponsored the first Rama temples in Ayodhya, built when he built the ill-fated Babri Mosque.”  On the contrary, Babur, like most of the Muslim invaders of the era, had no tolerance for the Hindu religion. He went all the way from Delhi to Ayodhya, one of the holiest places of Hindus, destroyed the Rama temple there and built a mosque on its foundation, just to humiliate the Hindus, whom he had conquered.

On page 551, Doniger quotes a statement of Amitav Ghosh, “It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under the Mughal rule.” On page 552 she further mentions, “Devotional Vaishnavism flourished under the Mughals in the sixteenth century in ways that are foundational for subsequent Hinduism.” The credit for flourishing of the devotional practices and Vaishnavism certainly does not go to the Mughals. The Bhakti-yoga was seeded in the Upanishads. The Bhakti movement was rejuvenated by saints Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Kabirdas, etc. during the Mughal rule. It highlighted an aspect of Hinduism that was also free of rituals and endorsed direct relationship between the devotee and the God. It was a means to bear the atrocities of the unsympathetic Mughal rule. Tulsidas[17] makes Kakabhushundi narrate to Garuda the decay of the Hindu dharma in the Kaliyuga, which is nothing but Tulsidas’s observation of the decline of the dharma under the Mughal rule. He also says that in the Kaliyuga chanting of Lord Rama’s praise is superior to yajnas and tapas (7.103.3).

Dr. Wendy Doniger must have gone through so many books and articles of various authors in her research, to write this book. However, she seems to share the bias of the western Indologists about the timeline of the Vedic civilization and interpretation of the scriptures. Therefore, if her book, The Hindus, An Alternative History, is used as a reference book by students of history and religion, it will certainly misrepresent the Hindu Dharma and its history. The book is full of errors, from the beginning to the end. Only a few of them could be mentioned here, for lack of space. If one really loves Hinduism one should strive for a deeper understanding of its scriptures, by studying them with shraddha (a sincere devotion) under a learned guru, in the Hindu tradition.

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IndiaFacts Staff

IndiaFacts Staff articles, reports and guest pieces