I happened to meet Gurcharan Das over the weekend, in connection with this book [More on the book and the author later, after I file the stories for Rediff and for India Abroad].
In course of a catching-up chat before the actual interview, we were discussing the time he went back to school, in a manner of speaking, some three years earlier to refresh his memory of the Mahabharat and other Hindu texts. He talked of how he found himself a worldly-wise septuagenarian among bright, inquisitive twenty-somethings, and of the kind of discussions he had with his class mates.
In particular, he recalled this boy of Jewish extraction who, in Das’s words, “argued vehemently” against the Bhagwad Gita’s central tenet. The thrust of the argument, Das said, was that if you take the concept of ‘dharma’, of ‘your right to the action only, leave the good and bad to me’ philosophy to its logical conclusion, you can then use it to justify any act no matter how evil — as for instance the Holocaust.
That debate apart, what intrigued me about Das’s experience was the kind of interest there is abroad about Sanskrit, about Hinduism and its literature [Das was pointing out among other things that the best faculty teaching and researching Sanskrit exist on US campuses].
Early in this impressive walk through Hinduism, Doniger notes the coexistence of apparent contradictions within the faith: “You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that they have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee (sic), and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes and that they have fought for their equality.”
And it is this plurality that offends Hindutva adherents, who believe it weakens Hinduism. Historically, Indian scholars and practitioners have viewed the faith on their personal terms, providing radical or conservative interpretations. Abroad, Hinduism has fascinated experts for a long time. But Hindu nationalists now want discourse to be only from within – external views, particularly critical, or unconventional (in their eyes, that is) interpretations, must be ignored, since they come from outside the faith.
While on the book, here from my archives is an earlier Michael Dirda review, which is where I first read of the book. And here’s Doniger herself on her blog [a large part of the comments that follow are illustrative of what Salil is talking about — our lack of tolerance for external views]. From Doniger:
Myth has been called “the smoke of history,” and there is a desperate need for a history of the Hindus that distinguishes between the fire, the documented evidence, and the smoke; for mythic narratives become fires when they drive historical events rather than respond to them. Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat, sparked a revolution in India in 1857. We are what we imagine, as much as what we do.
Hindus in America, too, care how their history is taught to their children in American schools, and the voices of Hindu action groups ring out on the internet. Some of these groups, justifiably incensed by the disproportionate emphasis on the horrors of the caste system in American textbooks, and by the grotesque misrepresentation of Hindu deities in American commercialism, ricochet to the other extreme and demand that all references to the caste system be expunged from all American textbooks.
And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it’s a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “The Hindus believe. . . ,” is talking nonsense.