Divine Malarkey

The Hindu sense of time is intense; the importance of time as an agency for change, the sense that things that happen come to fruition at a particular moment- now- pervades the great history called the Mahabharata

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternate History

SouthAsia emerges from prehistory in the grip of two equally frustrating protagonists. On the one hand is the ‘Indus Valley Civilization’ , rich in symbolism but spare on meaning till the script is deciphered. With the fading of the Indus cities ride in the pastoral tribes popularly called ‘Aryan’, who left little to account for their existence save a literary tradition. This juxtaposition of those who speak against those who act is a prototype for subsequent Indian history, with the literati firmly secluded and policed behind caste lines.

The Hindus takes on that complacent literati with its own arsenal, and she spends much of the book pointing out instances in Indian mythology and philosophy where the brahmins denounce interesting folk in their society. Her choice of texts (apart from a digression into Tantra, albeit a domesticated Tantra) is the orthodox combination of the Shruti and Smriti, a Pujari couldn’t ask for better. Considerable energy has been devoted in Indian historiography towards freedom from their hegemony, and the paradox of Doniger’s work is that it bolsters the  very orthodoxy she challenges. It is a challenge from inside the tradition of authorized texts, which raises the hackles of its conservators while the rest of us doze, or revel in the anarchy.

All art in this post is by the gorgeous Antoine Helbert, and thank you bluefloppyhat for bringing him to my attention by downloading his stuff onto my laptop.

Doniger is unflaggingly affectionate, but rarely indulgent, towards the people she calls “Hindus”. The book extends into modern times, and includes a chapter on Hindu-Americans, the identity at the nub of the latest diaspora, but the real meat of the book is pre-colonial India. Many reviewers have derided this incompleteness, I think it’s apt. Doniger’s project is to let the texts speak for themselves, and the rough outlines of a canon were in place around the period her narrative begins winding down.  The heated theological ‘scene’ Doniger describes evolves into the classical texts the British and then the nationalists were so keen on.

Somewhere between colonialism and modernity, Indian historiography lost the pulse of “itihas”- history by and of the precolonial subcontinent. I’m proof of this bias: with its lack of interest in linearity and frequent fatalism, ‘itihas’ had me flummoxed. How can respectable history loop around endlessly and accommodate centaurs, bird-women, ambiguous reptiles, immortal sages? Doniger helped me understand that ellipses are easier patterns to trace than straight lines. Texts in her telling shadow one another, defying modern epistemology. So much was forgotten and relearned, yet people managed to debate across millennia, and things that were forgotten in Magadha were remembered in Madras (imperial organization, for instance).

There is no category for the sacerdotal in most Hinduisms; ritual literature (Atharva Veda, the Brahmanas) was irrelevant to popular praxis before Christ was born. The rest of the canon is poetry (the Rig Veda), philosophy (Upanishads), technical treatises (Shastras, Sutras) and mythological history (Puranas). The epics- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata- are poems, histories, morality tales, philosophical debates and political charters. But in Hinduism these distinct “subjects” blend: the Brahmanas have their share of mythology, the Puranas and the Tantras their distinct philosophies, the Upanishads their share of political controversy: each supplementing the others, spawning countless commentaries in a dialogue across history. The basic element of the ‘Hindu’ heuristic arsenal is the story, with everything embedded into narrative: sermonising, dissent, change, disapproval, quandaries, riddles. Stories were bastardised, purged, overhauled; evolving into an intertwined tapestry of ideas that survives better than any ruin from prehistory.

Doniger’s book is an elaborate exegesis of the Hindu canon, a magnum opus of literary criticism. Is that, in itself, a history? She liberates a corpus of texts from stodgy Brahmanical tellings, and picks on specific themes: animals, women, ogres. It is certainly a service to the ignorant. Doniger, by unpacking, organizing and dating the texts for me, and highlighting the bits I would’ve sought in them, fills an important gap in my reading. The nuanced, interminable debates about the after life, the shifting relationship with the divine, the stories people tell about themselves are more revelatory of the zeitgeist than dynastic lists.

Doniger can only be read alongside an academic history for a full glimpse into the society she describes. Otherwise one would have no idea of the context within which these debates are being held; why, at certain times, certain ideas sprouted up in certain places: why Kashmir became so active in the Tantra debates in the 12th century and how South India successfully challenged the notion that it was the North’s shabby cousin. This was done not only by ideas and ideologues, as one would think reading Doniger’s work- but by armies, traders, and politicos of every stripe- people The Hindus alludes to, but rarely discusses.

This is the nub of my problem with The Hindus: it too easily substitutes the human for the divine and assumes that conversations about the divine can replace conversations about the human. It treats theology and politics like they are two sides of the same coin, instead of very different currencies. Doniger’s justification for this is that Hindu discourse is shaped by abstraction.

A philosophic people, so to say, we would rather rebirth than redistribute.

I find it hard to believe that the only people doing any talking were the sadhus and the rishis. She has, to be sure, undertaken a religious history, but there are ways and ways to write those that her heavily textual approach evades. The next blog post is about The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch, also a religious history, but one which treats theology like a variable in social change. MacCulloch benefits from the quantities of extant political/social/economic research in his chosen period — European early modernity is probably the most researched period in history (they know how many bastards were born in any given decade!) while any similar forays into third world history are inevitably clouded by the generations of people who romanticised, orientalised, or rejected the notion that we had histories. We simply don’t have the data that MacCulloch so masterfully corrals into his book, yet doesn’t pretending such knowledge is.. irrelevant, or secondary, only deepen the problem?

I initially read Doniger for my essay on the Brahmin Fantastic, and because I wanted some textual context for my reading of the Mahabharata, so I wouldn’t irreverently hoot at the passages like the one below without any understanding of them.

“The learned are of the opinion that death results from ignorance. Ignorance is death and so, knowledge, the absence of ignorance, is immortality (elliptical, eh?) Death does not devour people like a tiger: its shape itself is indiscernible. Besides this form of death, some imagine Yama to be death. This, however, is due to the weakness of the mind. The pursuit of Brahman or self-knowledge is immortality. The imaginary god Yama holds his sway in the region of Pitris. It is at his command that death, in the from of wrath, ignorance or covetousness, arises among men. Swayed by pride, men walk in paths that are unrighteous. None of them succeeds in attaining his true nature. Their understanding clouded, and themselves swayed by passion, they fall repeatedly into hell. They are always followed by their senses. It is thus ignorance receives the name ‘death’.

These men that desire the fruit of their work, proceed to heaven when the time comes, casting off their bodies. Hence they cannot avoid death. When the merits of work are exhausted, they fall and rebirth is inevitable. Embodied creatures, from inability to attain the knowledge of Brahman and from their connection with earthly enjoyments, are obliged to go through a round of rebirth, up and down and around.”

Vidura Neeti

I concede I also read Ms Doniger out of solidarity. If one is to comment on the West one must accept their right to comment on us, however much it has been abused in the past. Besides, I got sick of everyone insisting that by broadening the scope of the conversation to include sexual and gender discourse she was somehow defaming Indian eggheads from Bheeshma down. We need the robust infusion of the bawdy and tawdry she includes in her book, but we also need a shot of the empirical when we talk about ourselves. Up and down and around, as Vidura would say.

To conclude with Blake, because he is a nice way to end:

A Divine Image

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secresy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart its hungry gorge.

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