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The Hindus: An Alternative History


An engrossing and definitive narrative account of history and myth that offers a new way of understanding one of the world's oldest major religions, The Hindus elucidates the relationship between recorded history and imaginary worlds. Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a strictly chronological account: many of its central texts cannot be reliably dated even within a century; its central tenets karma, dharma, to name just two arise at particular moments in Indian history and differ in each era, between genders, and caste to caste; and what is shared among Hindus is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another. Yet the greatness of Hinduism - its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness - lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that continue to inspire debate today. Wendy Doniger is one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world. With her inimitable insight and expertise Doniger illuminates those moments within the tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon. Without reversing or misrepresenting the historical hierarchies, she reveals how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of and compassion toward women and lower castes; how they debate tensions surrounding religion, violence, and tolerance; and how animals are the key to important shifts in attitudes toward different social classes. The Hindus brings a fascinating multiplicity of actors and stories to the stage to show how brilliant and creative thinkers - many of them far removed from Brahmin authors of Sanskrit texts - have kept Hinduism alive in ways that other scholars have not fully explored. In this unique and authoritative account, debates about Hindu traditions become platforms from which to consider the ironies, and overlooked epiphanies, of history. Hide synopsis

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Reviews of The Hindus: An Alternative History

Overall customer rating: 1.500

Ignoramus parading as a professor

by on Feb 3, 2011

I was appalled at the author's lack of real insight into Hindu culture and India's major religion, viz., Hinduism. Being a professor at a School of Divinity, it is understandable that Doniger writes with a jaundiced view about Hindus. It is a shame that Doniger wants to emerge as a leading scholar on Hinduism when she is still blinded by her eurocentric fixations when discussing a non-Abrahamic faith such as Hinduism. I am sorry I wasted my money on this worthless trash.


Quite a Dull Book

by JohnL on Jul 15, 2010

It would be an understatement to say that writing a history of Hinduism is large task and Wendy Doniger?s work, sadly, doesn?t really rise to the challenge. What we get in this work is a series of chapters on different periods of Hinduism, exemplified mostly by the texts in Sanskrit, or other languages, that define those periods. Dongier?s method is mainly literary critical, so we get a lot of talk of transgressive texts embodying the voices of women, lower caste Hindus, non-Hindus, foreigners &c &c (all in the rather 1980s literary critical style), but there are two problems with this approach. The first is that Dongier rarely demonstrates the transgressive things happening in the texts she analyses happening outside the texts, in history (this is probably mostly because for much of Indian history up until around 1200 CE there is very little documentary historical material to work with). Secondly Dongier paraphrases all her texts?poetry, religious myth, philosophy, prose narrative and other forms?in prose. This has the result that they all sound the same and there is little of a distinctive feel to any of them. Doniger?s main interest, it would seem, is in earlier periods, the texts for which are the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana &c &c. And certainly the first 200 pages of this long work are the most interesting. As she approaches closer to the present her treatment gets more and more sketchy. As we near the present the material presented is very eclectic and has little continuity to it, for example the chapter ?Hinduism in America? reads like a lot of card-index entries typed out in no particular order. Another chapter simply has potted biographies of the Mughal Emperors. And in other later chapters we get all the topics that been have been done to death by everyone: suttee, Kipling, caste in modern times, Ghandi &c &c. Doniger also doesn?t really address the question of whether the concept of ?Hinduism? is a useful one. Hinduism has had such a long history and has been so hospitable to so many apparently divergent sets of beliefs that the equivalent in the west would be if Christianity still called itself Judaism, and also included in itself atheism, spiritualism, and Sufism, and allowed people to worship either Jehovah or Woden or the Virgin Mary as the supreme deity. And yet clearly people in India and elsewhere still use a concept ?Hinduism?, and why there is felt to be a unity across the various Hindu beliefs and practices is a question that Doniger doesn?t answer. I would recommend that people read the first half of this book, but also go to other, more specialised accounts for most of the topics covered in this work, especially more recent developments in Hinduism.

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