Everyone’s religion

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].

Tangentially related, here’s a good read from a good friend: Salil Tripathi in Tehelka examines Wendy Doniger’s [wiki] most recent work, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

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.

18 thoughts on “Everyone’s religion

  1. Prem,
    I agree with what you say. I will explain why I said it is a wrong person you highlighted.I may be wrong in my argument but the reason is not that I do not want to discuss different opinions or I have that divisive mentality.
    (a) For me when people write thesis about a subject or make profound statements then they also should have a basic respect for that subject or should try to make an evaluation through all angles, it should not be with a single mindset. From whatever I understand of her views it is just that.
    (b) I read this article originally in FAITH section of Washington post online. Its reach is world wide and definitely persons who do not have an earlier idea about Hinduism and want to understand will consider this as a validation as I have taken pointers from established newspapers on subjects which I have no prior or proper introduction. Their faith columnists if you see contain 2 person representing Hindu religion one of them your friend Rajan Zed. So when you talk about discussing different view points how can that happen here. How can a discussion happen between persons like Rajan Zed/Deepak Chopra and a person like Wendi Doniver who definitely presents her argument in a better fashion. How can a person like me argue with her?, neither I have the knowledge on my religion ( I am really starting to learn at this stage of my life) nor I have her platform.
    (c)As far as I understand she does not say anything positive about hindusim , as evident when linking political issues like Babri Masjid with a philosophical material. She is from divinity school of Chicago university and teaches Hinduism, where she teaches her view point. So where and who raises the counter arguments against her view point to her students.
    (d) If today there is a person like Vivekananda who had the ability or standing to argue with these persons opinion /thesis I could have understood things better. There is none. All I see is a 2 groups , one led by fundamentalists who throw eggs at her and another who are impressed with her intellectual arguments. Why can’t there be a 3rd group who want to bring the right or wrong in her arguments.
    (e) I depend on your blog to get these arguments because as I mentioned I do not have on myself that capability. As you explained you certainly want to do that but if you see your original article it seemed like it ridicules everyone opposing her and highlights her as a right person. That is why I wrote my original comment
    I want to say that I am not a divisive person having married across region , languages and it may be the disappointment that there are no intellectuals today taking on Wendi Doniger in an intelligent and academic way

  2. Sunil thinks I have erred in setting Wendy Doniger up as an ‘expert’ on Hinduism; Padmanabhan thinks I am ‘highlighting a wrong person’; Vincent is none too happy that I link to Salil’s post, and reckons I should ‘keep in mind’ the ‘fact’ that he works for Amnesty International…

    To all of these, I have a portmanteau response: These comments strike me as being precisely the problem that, over the years, has created in our country the culture of book banning, intolerance of the opinions of others, and such.

    Sunil, think about this: at no point do I use ‘expert’ and ‘Doniger’ in the same sentence, so what provoked your response? Doniger has written a book; I take note of it. In time, when I get hold of a copy, I intend to read it — that is what I do when books catch my attention. If in course of my reading I find things that I agree with, fine; if I find stuff I disagree with, that is fine, too. It is, all said and done, a book. I have sufficient intelligence to not just read, but to understand, what the text says and to accept or reject as the merits of the arguments prompt me to do. Where lies the problem?

    For Padmanabhan: Why is Wendy Doniger a “wrong person”? Someone whose views don’t tally with yours? But by that token, you then become a “wrong person” for the Donigers of this world, and over time we end up with a world where half the people don’t talk to the other half. If you have problems with what someone says, if you think the arguments are wrong, what stops you from refuting it? It is out of argument and rebuttal that insight comes, or am I a “wrong person” too for suggesting that?

    Vincent, Salil’s a very good friend of many years standing, but this is the first I knew he worked for Amnesty. Really?! And incidentally, assuming he does — what then? Since when did “he works for Amnesty” become a pejorative on the lines of “he worked for the Nazis”?

    Look, I don’t suggest that you read every single book or article I link to, or even that you agree with every single thought of mine. Disagreement is fine, when done right it could even be useful. Thing though is, there is a difference between arguing your own PoV, and simply dismissing those with different viewpoints. Speaking for myself, on this blog I welcome the former, and am somewhat saddened by occasional evidence of the latter.

  3. Hi Prem,
    Good for you that you consider Wendy an expert in Hinduism. According to Wendy, Ganesha’s trunk represents a limp Phallus and also says Ganesha & Parvathi had sexual relationship. Its truly liberal to denigrate Hinduism thru tools which they would not use to interpret the events/characters to their own religion. Oh yeah BTW please refer to Rajeev Malhotra etc as to how your favourite Wendy et al encourage true discussion by blocking out dissenters to their ideas which you suggested are originating in US universities.


  4. Prem,
    It is sad that you have put a person like Doniger as an expert on Hinduism. To me the article she wrote is full of bad interpretations and felt she is twisting the facts. Being a Hindu who was saddened and knowing several hundreds who feel the same when Babri Masjid was destroyed her representations are wrong. A person who is employed with an university aimed at spreading another religion when interprets another and then view everything through sensuality angle or some relatively new thinking ( like ganesha stopping his father was explained with sexual connotation) that does not sound right. So some people protested against that does not mean they are wrong. As for me I believe that we have to interpret these philosophies through out our life and should take different interpretations from learned persons, that includes you. But at the same time we should be able to distinguish people who has wrong motives or wrong interpretations. First of all you need to have a basic respect for the philosophy before trying to interpret it otherwise it is all brick and mortar. For me I am trying to understand the interpretation given by Nityachaitanya Yeti in malayalam on geeta and see how it goes. Again I am disappointed that you highlighted a wrong person. Also language is not my greatest skill so I many not have explained why I don’t agree with you on this well, it is just that when you interpret something you respect that as well also realize that people who are not very intellectual also can understand the motives behind people like Doniver , sorry she is not the one to appreciate

  5. Some say-End justifies the means (The Americans apply it to the Guantanoma Bay detainees)
    Others say-The journey matters as much as the destination .
    My uncle says-Man judges by deeds-God judges by intent (Which is a thought process -I can easily relate to/subscribe )
    The Gita theory about action-was with good deeds-so the question of Holocaust or other evil deeds does not arise in relation to Gita-in a sense most perpetrators of the Holocaust were traced and punished.

    • Fair argument. I only brought up what Das said to underline the point that the central tenets of the religion continue to be discussed and debated in a way that most other religions are not — which is a good thing; and that contrasts with the fundamentalists who insist on monopolizing the religion and permitting no discussion that is contrary to their narrow interpretations. Whether that Jewish student was right or wrong is secondary, IMHO — the fact that he could have such a discussion with someone like Das is good; pity is it happens outside of India, but increasingly less and less in India itself.

  6. Looking at the various reviews, she’s definitely got some people riled with her book. That’s sufficient cause to read it, I would think 🙂

      • Well, MS Encarta investigated her lack of scholarship and racism and found both charges to be true. One point is true though – all of the West has very superficial ideas of other societies, but Indians are unique in harboring an inferiority complex and being enamored of Whites merely for having White skin. This is the sole reason Doniger finds supporters among Indians.

        In case of Mr. Tripathi, keep in mind that he is an employee of Amnesty International and his book contains the claims dictated by Amnesty International. I say this after reading his works as well as the works of Doniger and Amnesty International documents.

        • Vincent,

          I don’t work at Amnesty International. So you’ve got that basic fact wrong. The rest of the argument you’ve built, while mildly entertaining, is also wrong.



  7. the best faculty teaching and researching Sanskrit exist on US campuses

    i am sure you are aware of the Clay Sanskrit Library that has taken up the gargantuan task of providing translations of Mahabharata and Ramayana. the format is interesting in that it alternates between sanskrit and english. explains the 32 volumes! serves well for readers and collectors alike.

    • Yeah, remember reading about it a couple of months back or so. Brilliant! If I wanted to go someplace in India where I could read the various versions of the Mahabharat, and the various interpretations and commentaries, I’d be at a loss.

  8. Manish,

    My understanding was that the Gita doesn’t prohibit to work towards the right results. I believe that all it says is that you should not worry about the results. You should not feel bad if the results don’t come, neither should you be overjoyed if the results do come. Please let me know if you disagree.


    • Saurabh

      I understand what you are trying to say.
      Trouble starts when theory is put to action. Should I cheat in examinations? Should I pay the traffic cop to avoid a ticket? Both of these would lead to “right” result.?

      There are two questions here:
      1. Who defines the “right” results?
      2. Once the “rightness” of the results is established, is it justified to go to any means to achieve those results (Do ends justify the means)?

      Both of the above are separate questions and hugely debatable in themselves.


  9. Ouch, that’s a tough one simply because I cannot think of any *one* book that makes for a halfway decent introduction to Hinduism. If pushed, I’d actually say read the Mahabharat — what it does is get you to ask yourself questions, and those questions trigger a gradual exploration of the philosophies underlying the religion. And yeah, that bit about the Mahabharata story and the Gita’s precepts is one of the underlying dichotomies of the epic, a result I suspect of having the philosophy subsequently retro-fitted onto an existing tale.

    • Let me try to track down a book I read when I first quit Christendom and wanted to check out other religions. I came across a book written by an Indian who lived in Australia or someplace who gave information on the objectives and also on what each of the works like Vedas, Upanishads, etc., were about. It was a clean explanation of everything in an easy to read book for the layman.

  10. Interesting, that discussion with Jewish boy. I had a similar one with my sister (she is 22, younger to me by 11 years) last week, where I was arguing on similar lines that what I feel right, might actually be wrong, and this can justify any action…her argument being “but you know, its wrong…”.
    In a similar discussion with a well-read friend, he commented that Mahabharat events actually go against the basic premise of Gita. All the actions are motivated to get the right result, hence focussed on the result, and not the action per-se.

    Anyways, Prem, if someone were to ask you to suggest a book/reading to get introduced to Hinduism (knowing fully well that its a huge subject and even a full life time is short to understand it, etc. etc.), what would you suggest?

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