Bending over Wendy: Sanskritist’s “alternative history” is an opportunity to make Hindus’ intellectual heritage more accessible

hindusEven as taking issues with “The Hindus, An Alternative History”, senior journalist Abhishek Kapoor* believes the book, withdrawn by Penguin India under pressure from a group of religious bigots, is “an encyclopedia on Hinduism with an ethnocentric spin”. He adds, “It does narrate a story one would not get to hear easily from mainstream sources as a Hindu… Each page contains mythological stories with a meticulous cross reference of multiple Hindu texts”

As the Pandavas ascend to heaven, a dog leads the way. Why of all animals a dog? Before this scene in the Mahabharata there is no mention of Pandavas’ love for dogs. My curiosity led me to some bookshops catering to religious tastes, but I did not succeed. My interactions with elders and family pundits too did not yield results. May be I should have searched more, but before that a bureaucrat friend gifted me this book by Wendy Doniger – “The Hindus, An Alternative History” (THAAH). And my search ended. The dog was Dharma incarnate, the father of Yudhishthir, leading his son to high heavens. I was hooked. This was two years ago.

Wendy is now accused of demeaning Hinduism, of disparaging its gods, of belittling the heritage of this great religion through the very same book. May be she intended all of the above. In the book she is cheeky of the kind to juxtapose Draupadi and Sita; comes out as sex-obsessed (Freudian would be a mild description); and even BBC has called her crude, rude, and lewd. If one believes her opponents, much like the Russians in Goa, Wendy has colonized the territory of Hindu studies outside of India, and is the reigning mafia queen of that terra firma.

Or may be she did not. Breathtaking is inadequate to explain the sweep of the Hindu dharmashashtras contained in the book. THAAH is a tome spilling over 750 pages covering a span from pre-history to Hindus in the present day America. Each page contains mythological stories with a meticulous cross reference of multiple Hindu texts. For example she traces Radha from Bhagvata Purana to Gita Govinda to the Bhakti era.

While writing on Ramayana, she weaves in details from the Brahmavaivarta Purana that it was an illusory Sita that was abducted by Ravana and not the real Sita, something we do not get to read in both Tulsi and Valmiki versions. She locates satire in Upanishads and finds it bolshie (revealing her left orientation?), obviously something the Brahmins won’t do. To that extent she rescues the religion from the tyranny of the Brahmin clique. She seems to be on a mission to focus on the Hinduism narrative minus the Brahmin Sanskritists. Need we object? Has it not been attempted many times earlier from within? After all Buddha and Mahavir were not Jews.

wendySo far so good.

Wendy declares her beef is with the privileged Hindu male who gets to construct, deconstruct, and guide the Hindu narrative, and hence her agenda of focusing on alternative people whom she defines as all those who are not high caste males. She believes and writes that Hindus seldom drew a sharp line between secular and religious? Well, does the Hebrew Bible not do the same? Was Moses not a king, a doctor, a judge, a priest, all rolled into one? Is it not the Levite male that constructs, deconstructs, and guides the narrative of her religion? Do not Paul and Mohammed guide Christianity and Islam respectively?

In her search of the alternative she meets adventurous, feisty, and intellectually sharp women in Draupadi, Gargi, Kunti, and Maitreya. In contrast, the only adventurous woman that comes out of Bible was an Egyptian queen from Sheba. Though Esther was Hebrew, she blossomed only as a Persian queen.

She gets it awfully wrong at places like when she claims that Hindus developed respect for the Gita only after the British and the Americans found and praised it. She is even more perplexed that a book written in the context of war can be a weapon of non-violence of equal measure in the hands of a Gandhi. So much for five decades of scholarship!

So the larger question is how we deal with her and her work. Is pulping the best option? This kind of counter attack renders us susceptible to be labeled as bigots. It’s a trap we can well avoid. THAAH is not a thesis. It’s an encyclopedia on Hinduism with an ethnocentric spin. But it does narrate a story one would not get to hear easily from mainstream sources as a Hindu. I would wager we take it in stride. The religion of the Hindus survived the Charvakas who called Vedas full of internal contradictions and useless repetition.

I am sure it would survive Wendy. If anything we should see this as an opportunity to make our religion’s intellectual heritage more accessible – a sort of taking it away from the snooty Brahmins. We don’t need less Wendy; we need more of her, but from within our own stables. I know it is easier said than done in the context of the contested domain of history studies in our country with the dominance of the Left. But that’s the only way to go.

* With Times Now, Ahmedabad. Courtesy: http://abhishek-kapoor.blogspot.in

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