“The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger: A Twisted Tale
Deepika Andlay

Writing this review, makes me feel how David might have felt facing Goliath. How can one, a layman, have the gumption to take on a world renowned scholar, an accepted expert of her field? But then, perhaps like David, I know I am right, so here goes (by the way I am also tickled by the interesting reversal of appropriation of religious narratives here).

Banning a book is great for business, for there is always a perverse thrill in indulging in proscribed activities. This was probably the deciding factor for my book club when it came to selecting Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History which was just off the banned list of books. We just could not understand what could be so objectionable in a book on Hinduism.

At first, the book seemed fabulous, confirming what we have always known about Hinduism: the manner in which it incorporated any new threat into the fold and the way it allowed each person to choose their own path to salvation. Of course, every step of the way, Donniger did not shy away from showing how casteism and the patriarchy marginalised so many voices, which we all agreed was a huge failing of Hinduism. Thus, for the first year of our readings of Doniger we wondered why there was such a hullabaloo about her book.

Then we reached Chapter fifteen of the book where Doniger states that the "Orissan temples…may have escaped because they were too remote to attract Muslim attention" (Doniger, The Hindus 443) which made me pause, for I vividly remember the cut off arms and defaced visages of the statues at the sun temple at Konarak. How then did Doniger contend that these temples evaded any destruction?

In Chapter sixteen, Doniger makes even more sweeping generalisations displaying a superficial and cavalier handling of history ignoring the complexities that make India. She contends that with the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire India finally had "two moments when there are serious contenders for a centre" (Doniger, The Hindus 446). Evidently, this renowned Indologist is oblivious to the fact that at both such moments there were various strongholds in the subcontinent such as the Sultanates of Jaunpur and Malwa, the Ahom Kingdom, the Hoysalas and most notably of course the Vijayanagara Empire. It was here that I began to realise that Doniger does not have a nuanced understanding of Indian history and instead adheres to the myopic Delhi-centric view that has plagued historians of yore. Guilty of the same, she claims that the Turks introduced polo into India (Doniger, The Hindus 453), when the Manipuris had already been playing the game for centuries before. She then goes on to claim that "Throughout India, Hindu dynasties responded to the entrance of Islam not only by building forts and massing horsemen but by asserting their power through extravagant architecture, most spectacularly at Hampi, Halebid and Badami" (Doniger, The Hindus 468). This assertion is a gross oversimplification of the complexities of royal architectural projects in India. Furthermore, I would like to know what Muslim threat were the Chalukyas of the 5th-8th centuries responding to?

Doniger's Orientalist perspective comes into sharp focus when talking about Indian architecture. She writes: "The mosque, whose serene calligraphic and geometric decoration contrasts with the perpetual motion of the figures depicted on the temple, makes a stand against what the early Muslim architects regarded as the chaos of India, creating enforced vacuums that India cannot rush into with all its animals and peoples and colours, and at the same time, providing a flattering frame to offset that very chaos" (Doniger, The Hindus 469). Firstly, has Doniger not seen the seen some of the most curvilinear, floral designs on these mosques which are themselves so full of motion. Secondly, most of the craftsmen of these mosques were Indian and the so-called chaos of India was the norm for them. Then again, this Indian chaos that Doniger sees as a profusion of animals, peoples and colours while foreign to Europeans and Americans, to Muslims of Central Asia and the Middle East would not have been so out of place.

Chapter nineteen is where I found the ultimate proof of Doniger's shoddy scholarship. She begins by glossing over Humayun's blinding of his brother by casting aspersions on the former's spirituality (Doniger, The Hindus 531), not acknowledging the fact that Humayun resorted to this act only after a series of betrayals; blinding his brother was the action of a monarch! She then states that Akbar after leaving Fatehpur Sikri moved his capital to Delhi (Doniger, The Hin-dus 532)—when in fact he actually moved to Lahore. The final nail in the coffin was on page 536 where Doniger (The Hindus) writes that when Shah Jahan "built the great Jami masjid, the Friday mosque, in Delhi he included a rather miscellaneous arcade made of disparate columns from twentyseven demolished Hindu temples. Despite the alleged iconic nature of Islam, the pillars are still graced with figures, some of Hindu gods, a few of them still with their heads on." Having visited the Jama Masjid many a time, I knew for sure that there were no such pillars in the Jama Masjid. So what was Doniger referring to? Could it be the Qutub Mosque at Mehrauli? I then carefully reread Doniger's text and noted an endnote number. I quickly referred to the endnote number 44 and saw that she was referencing page 87 of Partha Mitter's Indian Art. I immediately checked out the said page (very easily done since I had his book at home) to find that yes Mitter does state that columns from twenty-seven demolished Hindu temples were used in the mosque—the Jami Masjid of Qutub ud Din Aibak: the Quwwat ul-Islam mosque at the Qutub complex, not Shah Jahan's Jama Masjid! This is an error that no Indologist would make-so how does Doniger get away with it all?

After this chapter, my friends and I found ourselves losing interest in the book and having to force ourselves to trudge through it. The smarter ones of the group just chucked the book out all together. As a group, we now realised that we could not trust anything Doniger had to say, even about Ancient India.

The question that then began to plague me was how Doniger, a famed writer, could have made such grave errors. This is when I chanced upon the lecture she delivered for the Charles Homer Haskins Prize in 2015 where she provided a brief of her various learning experiences (link to the video recording mentioned in the works cited below). Life at university for Doniger was quite an unstructured affair with minimal supervision. She began as a student of Sanskrit at Radcliffe, followed by graduate studies at Harvard where she had no qualifying exams for her Phd. Her year in India was spent travelling around the country instead of studying Sanskrit. Given her huge mix-up regarding the Jama Masjid in Delhi referred to above, I do wonder about the nature of her travel. Her Oxford Dphil was virtually unsupervised, as she would only meet up with her supervisor once a year, which I heard straight from the horse's mouth (if you have read Doniger's book, you will understand what an apt metaphor this is). I guess Doniger's academic laxity at university has resulted in this slipshod approach to scholarship as evident in her not paying careful heed to sources and misquoting from them, in her making broad sweeping generalisations and in being caught in a time warp when it comes to looking at Indian arts. It probably also explains why when she discusses Hinduism during the Raj her primary reference is Kipling!!!

While writing this critique I stumbled upon Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism studies in America which had many criticisms of Doniger. Chapter seven of the book was particularly revealing as it showed that Doniger's knowledge and understanding of Sanskrit are flawed resulting in incorrect translations-and this was pointed out in detail from findings by Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University.

Mistranslations, misquotes, misunderstandings…clearly The Hindus: An Alternative History is a rather questionable book, which at best misinforms and at worst is calculated to mislead. What is really sad is that most people would consider this volume the definitive work on Hinduism, when it is anything but. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that Doniger is considered an authority on Hinduism and is not just a member of the influential American Academy of Religion but has also served as its president. It is indeed disturbing to think that such warped perspectives can and probably are shaping world views on Hinduism, views that need to be dispelled by pointing out the shaky foundations they rest on.

Works Cited

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