Aside the chariot: ‘The Hindus: An alternative history’ by Wendy Doniger

Two years after the Indian state channel Doordarshan began daily broadcasting, when only Delhi-ites were lucky enough to get their first taste of television, a question was asked during a children's quiz show: "Who was the mother of Ram?" The participating children, who had earlier effortlessly handled all the stumpers on Greek mythology, were now dumbfounded. Such was Kaushalya's status in 1967. This rather inconsequential moment in India's secular era would have simply passed by had one chance viewer not felt so deeply humiliated by the way "the glorious heritage of India" had once again been trumped. The viewer, Anant Pai, soon left his career with the Times of India, which brought American superheroes like Phantom and Mandrake to Indian readers through Indrajal Comics, and launched his own ­Amar Chitra Katha, through which he issued monthly and fortnightly comic books based on episodes from Hindu epics and puranas. Uncle Pai, as he is better known, thought of himself as an educator, and he must consider it an enormous feat that, after a sensational reception of his comics, golden boys and girls on Bournvita Quiz Contest no longer miss questions on Hindu legends.

In the following decades, Uncle Pai's comics sold by the millions, which perhaps not astonishingly coincided with the resurgence of 'Hindu values' in Indian politics. Assembling the narratives of dazzling characters like Ram, Krishna and Hanuman from stories originating from different ends of India – dotingly ironing out the contradictions, and while at it ridding the 'unpleasant' bits – Uncle Pai had one eye on the Hindu past and the other on the post-Independence project of national integration. This double vision of Amar Chitra Katha would prove to be remarkably self-legitimising, becoming imperative to subsequent raconteurs of Hindu legends. Uncle Pai, as it turned out, was only one of the many in modern India who was hoping to simplify the bewilderingly and boisterously diverse past for an emerging country. Following his success, in the late 1980s the triumphant creators of the Ramayana and Mahabharata serials on the by-then-pervasive Doordarshan heralded what can veritably be called a golden age of Hinduism – an uncanny kind of unification guided by the light of television screens, where millions of Hindus everywhere, of hitherto disparate traditions, could for the first time access, claim and share a uniform set of stories.

This prologue is necessary to understand what the scholar Wendy Doniger, in her new work, means by 'alternative'. Alternative to what? Doniger has in mind the overbearingly malicious and fanatical turn of contemporary Hinduism that has much beleaguered her; but even more so, her adversary here is the troubling standardisation of the general Hindu outlook. Her book then is a colossal tribute to the plurality of Hinduism's history, a millennia-long saga that wildly defies both the narrative of Brahminical orthodoxy as well as the pre-eminence of modern homogeny. Doniger's attempt is significant. Tolerance, diversity and open-endedness become much more than vague and tiresome touts about the virtuous side of Hinduism; they appear embedded here within continuous struggles over ideas, influence and institutions. Particularly attentive to the sparse presence (or apparent absence, as Doniger would perhaps argue) of women, Dalits, Adivasis and other pariahs in predominant accounts of Hinduism, Doniger's claim is not just that their views can be found in the various texts composed since the Vedas, but that they sometimes even command the voice of the Brahmin authors through curious circumstances of cultural ventriloquism. In other words, the beliefs of the high-caste males that have come down to us and the perspectives of the 'subalterns' that remain hidden are often overlaid, hybridised, the latter occasionally capable of 'speaking' through the former.

This is a titillating argument. In vast lacunas of historical and archaeological evidence, Doniger's hope is that a certain chronology of 'alternative people' can nevertheless be deduced from the texts written largely by Brahmins, most of them decidedly fictive. Doniger's "hermeneutic of suspicion", as she calls it, or the interrogation of authorial motive, is not without merit. The book flaunts a deep affection for and immense knowledge of the texts, and the author draws on an incredible bounty of stories to make her case. Starting with the moments of self-doubt among the Vedic bards, to displays of self-assurance in the Brahmanas, encounters in the Upanishads between sacrificial rituals and the notions of renunciation and non-violence, challenges by the ascendancy of Buddhism and Jainism, conflicts between Brahmins and Kshatriyas for political dominance, ambivalent portrayal of women and the low castes in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the subsequent influx of devotional movements, adjustments under Islamic and British rules, and finally moving on to the revivalist innovations of the post-Independence champions of Hinduism – in all of this, the author's choice of stories reveals the ideological evolution inherent in the texts, and hence a stimulating possibility for understanding the historical implications of those changes. She means to undermine the stereotypical (and the old Orientalist) imagination of Hinduism as a static source of wisdom, and disrupt the seemingly unbroken tradition of Sanskrit writing through oral, rural and folk interpolations.

Congratulating Brahmins
Nevertheless, the question of how useful Doniger's textual interpretation is to building historical narratives of Hinduism is debatable, especially given her treatment of these texts in relative isolation from other sources. For historians in general, who must strive to yield an objective account notwithstanding the obvious barriers, Doniger's blending of history and mythology, fact and fiction (her allegorical fire and smoke), and particularly her assertion that "ideas are facts too" can be a troubling approach to the past. In the context of women's lives during the Gupta period, with regard to the early Puranas, the author contends that "the myths reflect attitudes toward rather than the actual history of real women, but they also influence the subsequent actual history of real women." But can literary evidence then fill the cracks of political evidence? Rather than this group or that, it is the stories themselves that appear both as the effect and the agent of history in this book, and Doniger anticipates that the shifting realm of ideology that the texts represent will sufficiently guide and constitute our comprehension of the pre-modern Hindu world. The erratic stride and the distortive habits of ideologies is, for her, like King Triyayuna's chariot (to use one of her stories), which Brahmin chaplain Vrisha is to drive "with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brakes".

The difficulty is not so much with applying the ideological contents of literary texts to drive historical narratives, but rather with the recounting of 'alternative histories' from what is practically the Hindu canon. According to Doniger for example, in the Puranas excluded people and their "folk materials" enter the Sanskrit tradition because "the Brahmins were no longer able to ignore them." Brahmin writers appear here as petty thieves who stole and concealed vernacular tales with older norms of storytelling. Given that in the general period of the early Puranas vast folds of non-Hindus were entering the Brahminical tradition, Doniger's way of correcting this imbalanced flux is to strip the Brahmin authors of any new imagination. Any criticism in the texts of the social order and mockery of the previously accepted beliefs must henceforth be of 'alternative' origin. Yet the very clamour of what Doniger interprets as belonging to women, untouchables and pariahs is also a backhanded way of congratulating the male Brahmin authors. As the writers of these texts, they are the true agents, the accidental victors, of Doniger's alternative history. And while it is doubtful that they are constantly at the service of a monolithic Brahmin class or caste interest, they appear all the same to bear the faculty of drowning all other voices into their own.

Ironically, the same anecdotes from the vast Hindu corpus that attest to the plurality and flexibility of the Hindu past can also awkwardly indicate the consistency and endurance of the Hindu hierarchy. One must wonder, then, whether tolerance and diversity are sufficient categories by which to gauge the extent of Hindu practices and beliefs, or whether they work as powerful roadblocks to the riotous pace of the Hindutva chariot in the latest modern period – whose profile in this book while fairly minor, does heavily sway the consciousness of both the author and reader. Is the legacy of multiplicity really incompatible with the omnivorous appetite belonging also to Hinduism? The fascinating array of stories that Doniger has dug out from the Hindu texts may, on the one hand, hint at the continual challenge put up by the subordinate people and local traditions of the religion. But the stories also signify a breathtaking capacity for assimilation and absorption, qualities generally contrary to the pluralistic impetus.

Astride the chariot
Doniger's stately ambition of extracting Hinduism from its presently monolithic form, by distinguishing it from its phenomenally composite past, sometimes turns dishearteningly into a durable chronicle of domination by means of adaptation. In some ways, what Uncle Pai is doing now does not seem much different from what the bowdlerising Brahmin scribes did centuries earlier. After running into the ire of a Punjabi Dalit organisation in 1976 for describing Valmiki as a Brahmin thief, Uncle Pai learned the value of sensitively accommodating the 'alternative' people. Thereafter, the other untouchable heroes, such as Chokhamela, Ravidas and even Guru Nanak, appeared godlier than gods with regard to Amar Chitra Katha's pious goal of revitalising Hinduism for the modern nation.

Another far more significant adaptation is underway, too, as Uncle Pai's main patrons, the Indian middle class, galvanise global capitalism with the same verve of Hinduism. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's growing clout among the corporate houses and in the foreign investment sector, and his winning hybrid of Hindutva and development, is a direct symptom of this. More relevantly, when Doniger brings the example of goddess Santoshi Mata as evidence of Hinduism's continuing progress, she should also have underscored the proximity of this handy, wish-granting deity of contentment to the consumerist evolution of India. Originating in the cities of Uttar Pradesh and worshipped by women, as Doniger notes, this goddess rose to a national prominence after a 1975 mythological film, ­Jai Santoshi Ma. The fulfiller of practical wishes – "household appliances" for wives and "promotions" for husbands – Santoshi Mata is the goddess of small things that commands the ethics of the modern Indian middle class, who are now the charioteers of economic progress (with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brakes).

This double helix of Hinduism and capitalism, the concurrent events of Hindu revivalism and economic liberalisation, is one more paradox which will be difficult to grapple with in the absence of alternative histories. Doniger does not supply the answer to this and many other conundrums of history, but there are numerous epiphanies in her book to guide us in searching them out.

~ Diwas Kc is a scholar and a filmmaker based in Kathmandu.

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