Banned in Bangalore, the New York Times op-ed said. Why ban a book, no matter how offensive, the literati fumed. No one can truly ban a book in the Internet age, friends pointed out. Naturally, I bought a copy—and more to the point, read the book.
Before we proceed, let me say that I do not support banning any book (or even legally requiring a book to be withdrawn from circulation, as was the case with this book in India). But I do hold that every banned book isn’t necessarily a well-written, scholarly work. Indeed, a ban of any kind instantly confers an aura of hyper-legitimacy on the banned work, regardless of its intrinsic merit, and I believe that’s what happened with Ms. Doniger’s book. I contend that her book is biased and sloppy, and that’s what this review is all about.
Let’s start with the big picture. A well-written alternative history of anything, let alone Hinduism, generally has the effect of making the reader pause and think twice about what he may have held all along as the truth. From someone of Ms. Doniger’s stature, I was hoping to hear a serious insight or two that would make me go, "Gosh, I’ve known that story all my life, but why didn’t I look at things that way before?"
So, what major insights does the book offer? According to the author, the main aspects are diversity and pluralism in Hindu thought, treatment of women and lower castes, the erotic side of Hinduism, and the many tensions and conflicts within Hinduism.
That’s where my disappointment started—those are not major insights, nor do they add up to an alternative history. Let’s go item by item. Diversity and Pluralism? Caste system? Anyone with a passing interest in India knows about it. Treatment of women? I am not trying to minimize the importance of women, but what’s new here? Were the other ancient cultures any better? Conflict and tension within? Hardly surprising for a country of a billion people. Eroticism in ancient India? Oh please, who hasn’t heard of that? Yes, yes, Ms. Doniger adds a ton of detail, but my point is that things don’t become groundbreaking by adding detail. It’s as if someone wrote a very detailed book about the Mississippi river and Southern cuisine and called it "The Americans: An Alternative History."
All the detail opens up an even bigger disappointment. It appears that Ms. Doniger frequently cherry-picked the facts to suit her views, and on occasion, even twisted them to suit her narrative. I realize these are harsh accusations and the burden of proof lies on me, so please allow me to present enough examples to make my case (within the space limitations of an opinion piece).
Let’s begin with the epic Ramayana, with the king Dasharatha and his three wives. The youngest, the beautiful Kaikeyi, assists the king in a hard-fought battle. In return, the king grants her two wishes, to be claimed at any time of her choosing. Many years later, when the king is about to retire and Rama, his son from the eldest wife, is about to be crowned, Kaikeyi claims her two wishes: that her son Bharata be named king, and Rama be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. The king is torn between his promise to Kaikeyi and his obligation to name the eldest son as the next king, as convention dictated. When Rama hears of the king’s predicament, he abdicates his claim to the throne and leaves the city. This is a defining moment for Rama—the young man respects the king’s word (i.e., the law) enough to renounce his own claim to the throne and loves his father so much that he spares him the pain of having to enact the banishment. Indeed, this point in Rama’s life even foretells the rest of the story—that the young man would, in the years to come, make even bigger personal sacrifices for the sake of his ideals.
That’s the mainstream narrative. Let’s hear Ms. Doniger’s alternative narrative, in her own words. “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.”
Now, was Kaikeyi beautiful? Yes. Was the king deeply enamored with her? Yes. Did Kaikeyi lock herself in a room and create a scene? Absolutely. Was the king called a fool and other names by his own sons? You bet. But there is far more to Rama’s exile than sexual blackmail. Ms. Doniger covers this topic in excellent detail (page 223 onwards), but it’s interesting that she doesn’t bring up the king’s longstanding promise. Before we draw conclusions, let’s move on to a different story from the same epic.
Ms. Doniger retells the story of the ogre Shurpanakha, who approaches Rama and professes her love for him. Rama tells her he is a married man and mocks her. In the end, Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana mutilates the ogre. To Ms. Doniger, this data point (to be fair, not the only data point) indicates Rama’s cruelty toward women. Ms. Doniger then contrasts this story with one from the Mahabharata, where an ogre named Hidimbi professes her love for Bheema and is accepted as his wife—again underscoring the author’s point about Rama’s cruelty. All of this might sound reasonable at first glance, but let’s look closer.
This is how the story goes in the epic. Shurpanakha approaches Rama when he is sitting next to his wife, Sita. When Rama mocks her, the ogre gets angry and charges at Sita. Rama holds the ogre back to save Sita and then orders his younger brother to mutilate the ogre. Rama even says, “That ogre almost killed Sita.” One would think these details are pertinent to the discussion, but strangely enough, Ms. Doniger doesn’t bring them up. Also, Rama was a committed monogamist, whereas Bheema was (at that point in the story) a single man. Aren’t we comparing apples to oranges here? Isn’t this just the kind of nuance one would expect a researcher to pick up?
To be fair to Ms. Doniger, there are many versions of the Ramayana (and sadly enough, some scholars have received a lot of undeserved flak for pointing this out). So, is it possible that she and I were reading different renditions of the same epic? I checked. Turns out we both got our details from the Valmiki Ramayana (also known as the original Sanskrit version). What’s going on here?
Normally, one would expect an alternative narrative to add nuance—as if to say, “There is more to the story than what you lay people know.” But Ms. Doniger manages to do the opposite—she takes a nuanced, compelling moment in the epic and reduces it to sexual blackmail or cruelty or sexual urges, whatever her current talking point is. Speaking of sexual urges, indeed there are no sex scenes in her book. But it can justifiably be called a veritable catalog of all the phalluses and vaginas that ever existed in ancient India, and there is no dearth of detail in Doniger’s book when it comes to private parts. She even cares to tell you whether any given phallus is erect or flaccid. Details, people!
But enough about men and women. Let’s move on to animals. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna burns up a large forest and many creatures die; the epic even describes the animals’ pain at some length. Somehow, Ms. Doniger finds this worthy of filing under the “Violence toward Animals” section. Was Arjuna supposed to first clear the forest of all the wild animals and only then set the forest on fire? Is that how other cultures cleared forests so they could grow crops and build cities? Has it occurred to Ms. Doniger the very fact that the narrator of the epic bothered to describe the animals’ pain (instead of just saying “Arjuna burned the forest”) indicates some sympathy toward animals in those times? Then the professor brings up—and this is a recurring talking point under the cruelty section—the line from Mahabharata that says, “fish eat fish.” Ms. Doniger calls it “Manu’s terror of piscine anarchy.” Oh, the humanity!
Yet there is no mention of what Bheeshma says in the Mahabharata (Book 13), over pages and pages of discourse, on the virtues of vegetarianism and kindness toward all animal life. Bheeshma calls “abstention from cruelty” the highest religion, highest form of self-control, highest gift, highest penance and puissance, highest friend, highest happiness and the highest form of truth. One would think this passage merits a mention when discussing cruelty towards animals in the Mahabharata, but it doesn’t get one.
Ms. Doniger uses the phrase “working with available light” when describing how she had approached her subject matter, which is very true when working with a complex topic such as Hinduism. But the problem is, she then proceeds to turn off many lights in the house and use a microscope to detail the bits she cares to see. She is of course free to do what she likes, but can someone please explain to me why the end result from such an approach qualifies as an “alternative” map of my home?
Still on the topic of animals, let’s discuss dogs, a subject Ms. Doniger covers in great detail. Even lay readers of the Mahabharata remember that in the end, Yudhishtira declined his chance to go to heaven unless the stray dog that had been loyal to him was also allowed in, and many Mahabharata enthusiasts may recall a different dog at the beginning that was unjustly beaten up. Ms. Doniger’s book mentions many other dogs as well, and for good measure, she even shares a weird story from contemporary India, 150 words long, quoted verbatim from an Indian newspaper, about a man marrying a dog.
What about Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad Gita, where he says wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and someone who might cook a dog? Ms. Doniger does mention those lines, but with an interesting twist. She prefaces those 24 words with “though” and reverts to her chosen narrative without even waiting for that thought to finish: “though the Gita insists that wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a dog cooker, the Mahabharata generally upholds the basic prejudice against dogs.” Has it occurred to Ms. Doniger that, while men were beating up dogs, God was professing a kinder, more egalitarian approach? The whole man vs. God angle escapes her, and in the end we are left with a world where “man marries dog” gets 150 words and God’s words of compassion are limited to 24, topped with a though.
Ms. Doniger calls her book “a history, not the history, of the Hindus,” which is, of course, fine. Further, I do not hold the mainstream narrative to be beyond reproach, nor do I expect an alternative narrative to merely confirm the status quo. Alternative histories do very frequently upset the balance, and, frankly, that’s how progress is made. But my problem here is that Ms. Doniger seems to think the mainstream narrative is ipso facto a biased one, and that her alternative narrative is more compelling, never mind the facts and the counterevidence. She draws the graph first and then looks for data points. That’s a very interesting trend you’ve spotted there, Ms. Doniger, but what about all those big, ugly blots of truth that don’t fit your graph?
So much for stories from ancient India. For the benefit of any kind souls from the Western world who have been patiently reading through all this, let me throw in an example from relatively recent times that involves America. No doubt you've heard what the physicist Robert Oppenheimer said while reflecting on the first nuclear blast he had helped spawn. He quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Why would he quote Gita? The simplest explanation I can think of is that Oppenheimer was a well-read man, and he felt the passage was appropriate when describing the unprecedented firepower he had just witnessed. It’s not much different from Carl Sagan’s quoting Mahapurana in his book Cosmos, one would think. But no, there is more to it. Ms. Doniger’s take:
“Perhaps Oppenheimer’s inability to face his own shock and guilt directly, the full realization and acknowledgment of what he had helped create, led him to distance the experience by viewing it in terms of someone else’s myth of doomsday, as if to say: ‘This is some weird Hindu sort of doomsday, nothing we Judeo-Christian types ever imagined.’ He switched to Hinduism when he saw how awful the bomb was and that it was going to be used on the Japanese, not on the Nazis, as had been intended. Perhaps he moved subconsciously to Orientalism when he realized that it was “Orientals” (Japanese) who were going to suffer.”
There you have it. Weird Hindu doomsdays. Sex-crazed kings. Cruel gods. Men marrying dogs. Phalluses everywhere—some erect and some flaccid. Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have an alternative history of Hinduism. And yes, left uncontested, in all likelihood these are the “insights” a whole new generation of students and researchers might learn, internalize, and cite in future scholarly works.
So much for an alternative history. Now, how about some mundane, regular history stuff? Let’s go back to the Mahabharata, an epic that Ms. Doniger brings up dozens of times in her book (she even calls the Mahabharata “100 times more interesting” than the Iliad and the Odyssey). Let’s ask two questions: When did the main events of Mahabharata occur? And exactly how long is the epic?
Ms. Doniger mentions the years as: between 1000 BCE and 400 BCE, most likely 950 BCE, or around 3012 BCE, or maybe 1400 BCE. That narrows down the chronology quite a bit, doesn't it? Really, there is more to writing history (particularly the alternative kind) than looking up the reference books and throwing in all the numbers one could find. But in Ms. Doniger’s defense, she is not a historian per se (and she clearly tells us so), so let’s let this one slide by. I’d even say she does deserve some credit here for at least bothering to look up things. On the next topic, she fails to do even that.
Ms. Doniger says the Mahabharata is about 75,000 verses long. Then she helpfully adds, “sometimes said to be a hundred thousand, perhaps just to round it off a bit." My goodness, 25,000 verses is some rounding error, don't you think? Most sources put it between 75,000 and 125,000. It took me all of two hours to find a very detailed account (not on the Internet though), compiled in the 11th century, putting the total at 100,500—and I’m not a researcher, not by a long shot. And yes, the exact number of verses is secondary to the big picture. What bothers me is the offhandedness with which Ms. Doniger brushes off 25,000 verses as a rounding issue. Why this half-baked research?
Oh well, maybe we expected too much from the bestselling book on Hinduism and it’s our fault. So, let’s try again, one last time. Where is India located?
Ms. Doniger states, very clearly, without any ambiguity, on page 11 (footnote): “Most of India… is in the Northern Hemisphere.”
I think I’ll stop here.