An Alternative History of Hindus
Source Dave Anderson
Date 09/05/02/21:08
Another Incarnation

Visiting India in 1921, E. M. Forster witnessed the eight-day
celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. This first encounter with
devotional ecstasy left the Bloomsbury aesthete baffled. “There is no
dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling
from Hindu India, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively
rational world of Islam. Describing the muezzin’s call at the Taj
Mahal, he wrote, “I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard;
it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines
and horizons.”

Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s
polytheistic muddle to superb effect in his novel “A Passage to
India,” was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions
of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural
practices. The British Army captain who discovered the erotic temples
of Khajuraho in the early 19th century was outraged by how “extremely
indecent and offensive” depictions of fornicating couples profaned a
“place of worship.” Lord Macaulay thundered against the worship, still
widespread in India today, of the Shiva lingam. Even Karl Marx
inveighed against how man, “the sovereign of nature,” had degraded
himself in India by worshipping Hanuman, the monkey god.

Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of
India went so far as to invent what we now call “Hinduism,” complete
with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirely of Sanskrit
philosophical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. In
fact, most Indians in the 18th century knew no Sanskrit, the language
exclusive to Brahmins. For centuries, they remained unaware of the
hymns of the four Vedas or the idealist monism of the Upanishads that
the German Romantics, American Transcendentalists and other early
Indophiles solemnly supposed to be the very essence of Indian
civilization. (Smoking chillums and chanting “Om,” the Beats were
closer to the mark.)

As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of
Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British
Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a
“Protestant bias in favor of scripture.” In “privileging” Sanskrit
over local languages, she writes, they created what has proved to be
an enduring impression of a “unified Hinduism.” And they found keen
collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars and translators. This
British-Brahmin version of Hinduism — one of the many invented
traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries — has
continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering
from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful
and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a
muscular international power, stand in a direct line of 19th-century
Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving a Hinduism
perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly
upper-caste and middle-class nationalists have accelerated the
modernization and homogenization of “Hinduism.”

Still, the nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical
traditions of India that escaped the attention of British scholars
flourish even today. Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals,
rites and legends that vary across India still form the worldview of a
majority of Indians. Goddesses, as Doniger writes, “continue to
evolve.” Bollywood produced the most popular one of my North Indian
childhood: Santoshi Mata, who seemed to fulfill the materialistic
wishes of newly urbanized Hindus. Far from being a slave to mindless
superstition, popular religious legend conveys a darkly ambiguous view
of human action. Revered as heroes in one region, the characters of
the great epics “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” can be regarded as
villains in another. Demons and gods are dialectically interrelated in
a complex cosmic order that would make little sense to the theologians
of the so-called war on terror.

Doniger sets herself the ambitious task of writing “a narrative
alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in
Sanskrit.” As she puts it, “It’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the
Gita.” It’s also not about perfidious Muslims who destroyed
innumerable Hindu temples and forcibly converted millions of Indians
to Islam. Doniger, who cannot but be aware of the political
historiography of Hindu nationalists, the most powerful interpreters
of Indian religions in both India and abroad today, also wishes to
provide an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they

She writes at length about the devotional “bhakti” tradition, an
ecstatic and radically egalitarian form of Hindu religiosity which,
though possessing royal and literary lineage, was “also a folk and
oral phenomenon,” accommodating women, low-caste men and illiterates.
She explores, contra Marx, the role of monkeys as the “human
unconscious” in the “Ramayana,” the bible of muscular Hinduism, while
casting a sympathetic eye on its chief ogre, Ravana. And she examines
the mythology and ritual of Tantra, the most misunderstood of Indian

She doesn’t neglect high-table Hinduism. Her chapter on violence in
the “Mahabharata” is particularly insightful, highlighting the tragic
aspects of the great epic, and unraveling, in the process, the hoary
cliché of Hindus as doctrinally pacifist. Both “dharma” and “karma”
get their due. Those who tilt at organized religions today on behalf
of a residual Enlightenment rationalism may be startled to learn that
atheism and agnosticism have long traditions in Indian religions and

Though the potted biographies of Mughal emperors seem superfluous in a
long book, Doniger’s chapter on the centuries of Muslim rule over
India helps dilute the lurid mythology of Hindu nationalists.
Motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism, the
Mughals destroyed temples; they also built and patronized them. Not
only is there “no evidence of massive coercive conversion” to Islam,
but also so much of what we know as popular Hinduism — the currently
popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna, the network of
pilgrimages, ashrams and sects — acquired its distinctive form during
Mughal rule.

Doniger’s winsomely eclectic range of reference — she enlists Philip
Roth’s novel “I Married a Communist” for a description of the Hindu
renunciant’s psychology — begins to seem too determinedly eccentric
when she discusses Rudyard Kipling, a figure with no discernible
influence on Indian religions, with greater interpretative vigor than
she does Mohandas K. Gandhi, the most creative of modern devout
Hindus. More puzzlingly, Doniger has little to say about the forms
Indian cultures have assumed in Bali, Mauritius, Trinidad and Fiji,
even as she describes at length the Internet-enabled liturgies of
Hindus in America.

Yet it is impossible not to admire a book that strides so intrepidly
into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-­Arab
relations. During a lecture in London in 2003, Doniger escaped being
hit by an egg thrown by a Hindu nationalist apparently angry at the
“sexual thrust” of her interpretation of the “sacred” “Ramayana.” This
book will no doubt further expose her to the fury of the modern-day
Indian heirs of the British imperialists who invented “Hinduism.”
Happily, it will also serve as a salutary antidote to the fanatics who
perceive — correctly — the fluid existential identities and commodious
metaphysic of practiced Indian religions as a threat to their project
of a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the
World” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India,
Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond.”

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho