Ananya Vajpeyi reviews Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History.
From ancient times men have dominated the world of Sanskrit scholarship. Originally those men were Brahmins; then they became Europeans, then Englishmen, and finally Indians. It is only in the past 50 years or so that women have begun to enter this esoteric field of study, and in this regard, Wendy Doniger has been a pioneer and a force to reckon with. Her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History brings 30 years of her rigorous and innovative scholarly practice to a fitting climax – and I use the word advisedly. Doniger has studied Hinduism in its erotic, aesthetic and corporeal aspects, making her the target of envy as well as criticism from her colleagues. Her work, which includes a translation of the Kamasutra and extensive writing on Shiva, the Hindu god of cosmic destruction, who is worshipped in the form of a phallus (linga), is often seen to be titillating. She is interested in asceticism, but also in sexuality; in the spiritual, but also in the carnal.
Hindu traditions are diverse and heterodox enough to incorporate a number of parallel doctrines, theologies and belief systems, as well as an enormous repertoire of deities, symbols, rituals and concepts that contradict one another and yet coexist. Doniger’s openness to the varieties of religious experience permitted under the accommodating and multifarious rubric of Hinduism has upset all manner of people, from devout Hindus, to the votaries of Hindu nationalism (“Hindutva”), from American professors to German philologists. Nearly all of them misunderstand her work, particularly her creative ways of exploring how Hindu thought connects mind, body and soul, rather than placing them in conflict with each other.