September 28, 2020
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L'affaire Doniger

A Clash Of Discourses 

Wendy Doniger's supporters and detractors have set up the discussion so far as a clash between Hindutva and a secular viewpoints. The book's ideas and approach have been all but lost. 

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A Clash Of Discourses 
A Clash Of Discourses

The Doniger affair is one more example of the troubled state of free speech rights in India. It is unfortunate that Penguin has chosen to withdraw her book The Hindus: An Alternative History [1] in response to a criminal suit filed against it. This has been criticized by many. My concern is at a different level. The problem with the discussion that has taken place is that it has been framed by both her supporters and detractors as a clash between Hindutva and a secular viewpoint. This perhaps suits both parties but forecloses a more nuanced understanding of the issues. It suits Hindutvavadis because they have pulled off a bloodless coup and it suits secularists because it provides one more occasion for spotlighting the dangers of Hindutva. In all this, the book's ideas and approach have been all but lost. Needless to say, it is a book of wide scope and learning and should be discussed in an intellectual context and not in a crudely political setting. 

Arguably, the Hindutva position is untenable. It espouses a narrow, even militant nationalist perspective that constricts Indian traditions and is rightly viewed with alarm by many. But the difficulty with this summary dismissal is that it may, in turn, be too narrow a view of the phenomenon. This is because its less dramatic and everyday underside imperceptibly morphs into and merges with the beliefs of many millions of Hindus, possibly even the majority of Hindus. There is a certain fuzziness in the phenomenon that allows ordinary Hindus to identify with its soft core.

Such a shared core may well be close to, among other ideas, the Upanishadic monism that crystallized in the seventh century CE into the non-dualistic Vedanta of Shankara who established it both by interpreting the classical texts and by refuting the competing philosophical schools of the day. Early evidence of an incipient monism is mentioned, for example, by Mohanty (2007, p. 24):  [2]

While the Vedas contain a myriad of different themes, ranging from hymns for deities and rules of fire sacrifices to music and magic, there is no doubt that one finds in them an exemplary spirit of inquiry into "the one being" that underlies the diversity of empirical phenomena, and into the origin of all things. 

If this core truly pervades popular belief today then it cannot be easily explained as a late nineteenth and twentieth century product of colonialism as many on the left try to do. This is not to deny the presence of other orthodox and heterodox traditions in this core, only to say that such a monism's mass appeal must surely have preceded colonial times. Doniger and her supporters never acknowledge this wider humanity in their arguments and so end up attacking a straw man. 

For instance, Vamsee Juluri's essay articulates an attitude that may be widely shared by modern practicing Hindus. He clearly differentiates it from militant Hindutva by making plain the diverse and plural heritage of Hindu thought. But he simultaneously argues against Doniger by saying her interpretations flagrantly contradict the lived experience of devout Hindus. This dialectical argument raises many difficulties for both sides, and sets up a tension between Hinduism seen as an intellectual object and as a sacred practice. 

First, from a secular standpoint, such lived experience, whether embodied performatively or cognitively, is always accompanied by implicit or explicit beliefs, and it may be said that countless believers appear to make a simple mistake. Believing in something does not imply it exists. For example, believing it is raining does not imply it is raining. In the same way, believing in a god, however devotedly, does not imply that the god exists. Of course, a belief in god may help the believer in many ways, for instance, in alleviating suffering. (Western atheists such as Dawkins are so intent on proving that god does not exist that they seem to overlook how false beliefs of many kinds simply help a person with the difficult task of living.) In any case, such beliefs per se cannot be a defence against Doniger. If atheism is right, as I suspect it is, the religious view is in error. In other words, intellectual inquiry can yield more correct insights than devout belief—into whatever religion.

Second, however, it may be asked, shouldn't the lived experience of religious symbols and myths be part of what is explained by inquiry? That is, shouldn't the external, intellectual stance account for the internal, experiential facts? For example, if one holds that the Shiva lingam represents Shiva's erect penis, how does this square with the interpretive community's view (e.g. possibly something abstract like Shiva's sexual and creative power or just Shiva himself)? In a parallel situation, is it right to describe the Holy Communion in Christianity as a cannibalistic rite? Certainly there is a connection between a penis and a Shiva lingam as there is between the body and blood of Christ and the ritual bread and wine, but do these connections involve the literal connotations of "penis" and "cannibalism"?

In surface meaning, the interpretive community's interpretation is always a crucial part of what has to be explained. But there can also be hidden meanings that no one is aware of and that need to be unearthed. But even where this occurs, when the deep meaning is revealed, it has to make sense to a member as something that gives him deeper insight into his practice. It may not be something he readily accepts, as a hidden meaning may throw up disturbing aspects of his beliefs, but it must nevertheless ring true. There must be something like an "aha" experience. Such an empirical reaction provides the necessary validation for an interpretive theory. It wasn't enough simply to argue for the Higgs boson in the context of a theory, its existence had to be established experimentally. With interpretation, too, one has to marshal evidence even if it is often not as conclusive as one may want. If this is right, then an interpretation of the Shiva lingam as Shiva's erect penis as such is likely flawed because the religious idea is presumably not to worship his phallus as such but to worship him and his sexual and creative power. 

Doniger's book is not about revelatory insights into the Hindus but generally about completely worldly things like sex, death, and material pursuits. While Eros and Thanatos are undoubtedly powerful forces in human lives and while material pursuits are indispensable to survival, Doniger succeeds only in clarifying that the Hindus, like other humans, were and are part of the animal kingdom. Much of what she says is probably true—the Brahmins did eat beef early on, for example—and the Hindus who have been offended by such facts ought to recognize that religious values are not eternal but emerge through history. But, for her part, Doniger fails to make sufficiently salient how unique and humane the impulse of vegetarianism was as a response to the barbaric conditions of material life in all early human civilizations. She passes up such opportunities over and over again.

At the start, Doniger (2009, p. 1) writes: [1]

Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism. My hope is not to reverse or misrepresent the hierarchies, which remain stubbornly hierarchical, or to deny that Sanskrit texts were almost always subject to a final filter in the hands of the male Brahmins (the highest of the four social classes, the class from which priests were drawn) who usually composed and preserved them. But I hope to bring in more actors, and more stories, upon the stage, to show the presence of brilliant and creative thinkers entirely off the track beaten by Brahmin Sanskritists and of diverse voices that slipped through the filter, and, indeed, to show that the filter itself was quite diverse, for there were many different sorts of Brahmins; some whispered into the ears of kings, but others were dirt poor and begged for their food every day. 

In the first 200 or so pages at least, there is little evidence of this brilliance and creativity on or off the beaten track. Her goals are laudable and it would be fascinating and valuable to have such an alternative history. But she misses her mark because she tries to explain the life of the Hindus almost exclusively in terms of their everyday needs. For the aims she chose, her cultural history needed to have been more of an intellectual history. She never explores what the thinkers of Indian civilization did—whether Brahmins or non-Brahmins, men or women—when they confronted conceptual problems like the origins of the world and how we might come to know it. No logic of inquiry or argument is described as it would have to be if one wanted to "show the presence of brilliant and creative thinkers entirely off the track."  Indeed, there is hardly any speculation about the metaphysical instincts of the Hindus at all. Her materialism, while right in spirit, is summoned too soon and all one gets is the subterfuges and stratagems of the ancients. No doubt these existed as they are an inevitable part of human nature and no doubt they played some role in the worldviews of the Hindus, but do they constitute what is special and unique about Indian civilization, or any civilization for that matter?

If one chose to write a history of classical Greece from the point of view of its slaves or women with the goal of describing its brilliance and creativity, it might uncover much that is valuable but it might miss what is unique to Greek civilization. In the same way, Doniger and many Indian secularists also often miss what is distinctive about Hinduism because they seem to see it largely as an oppressive force. This perspective is a peculiar product of colonization. A Westerner admires the high points of Western civilization while simultaneously being critical of it. But many students of India seem to find this hard to do. It is possible this is because they may be concerned with contemporary political contexts as their almost exclusive frame of reference.

I am not saying that all history should be about the brilliance and creativity of its subjects. But this is Doniger's avowed aim. Unfortunately, while it is full of interesting and informative details and interpretations, it ends up being an alternative history not in the sense of a subaltern history or a history of nonviolent attitudes towards humans and animals but in the bathetic sense of being a history of the mundane aspects of Indian civilization that are common to all civilizations if one ignores the particular variations that arose in India. There is nothing wrong with such an attempt as such and it is equally unfortunate that many Hindus have reacted to her writings with suspicion and outrage. India never went through a scientific revolution and an Enlightenment of the kind the West did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So the kind of radical separation between intellectual inquiry and religious belief that took place there never transpired in India in a large-scale way. So many intelligent Hindus feel affronted by such writing often forgetting that hers is an alternative history, and many secularists, who do know better, choose only to chide them for not acknowledging the heterogeneity of Indian thought. Sadly, both sides seem mistaken.

I have tried in the foregoing to bring out a clash among four discourses, all governed by different rules, not only that of Hindutva and a limited secularism but also that of everyday Hinduism and a more nuanced secularism. My own view is clearly on the side of the last, that is, a nuanced secularism. Despite my criticisms, because it is temporally so comprehensive, there is much to learn from Doniger's book, and I would recommend it to everyone, especially practicing Hindus.

Prashant Parikh does research in philosophy, linguistics, and artificial intelligence and is also involved in business and art. He is the author of  The Use of Language (CSLI Publications, Stanford University, 2001) and Language and Equilibrium (MIT Press, 2010). He lives in New York.


1. Wendy Doniger. The Hindus: An Alternative History. The Penguin Press, London, 2009.  

2. J.N. Mohanty. A history of Indian philosophy. In Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe, editors, A Companion to World Philosophies, pages 24-48. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2007.

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