Quite a Dull Book
by JohnL on July 15, 2010It 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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