When the Romans (after converting to Christianity) and the Muslims conquered a big piece of the world, they needed religion to do it. But Hinduism could remain diverse because Indian rulers felt no need to build an empire beyond the sub-continent, says one of the world’s foremost scholars of Hinduism, Wendy Doniger, in her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Seen in this light, the Hindutva project is a belated political enterprise aimed at homogenising the diversity of Hindu religious expressions and present a unitary front against Islam and Christianity, although that goes against the very essence of Hinduism, she tells DNA in an exclusive interview.
What prompted you to write The Hindus: An Alternative History? Did it originate as a series of class lectures?
In a way, all of my books originate as class lectures; I find myself teaching a subject I’m interested in, and discover that none of the available books on the subject tell the students what I want them to know. For The Hindus, that feeling was intensified by the growing realisation that the things that were being said about Hinduism on the internet, particularly but not only by the Hindutva faction, needed to be counteracted by a view of Hindu history documented by reliable sources.
In what way is this book an ‘alternative history’?
It’s alternative to the internet/Hindutva version of Hindu history, but also to the standard, Orientalist, British version (all about Brahmins and Sanskrit), and it’s about alternative people — women and people of the lower castes.
Never powered an empire
Your book makes the point that ‘Hinduism’ has never been as ‘organised’ or ‘homogenous’ as the Semitic religions, such as Islam or Christianity. Why do you think this ‘homogenisation’ didn’t happen in the evolution of Hinduism?
I think Hinduism has developed in a world where there has always been intense, creative religious inquiry, which necessarily gives rise to a number of different myths and rituals. Hindus of any faction grew up in close interaction with Hindus of many other beliefs and practices. I think Hindus have also had from the time of the Rig Veda a conviction that there are always many answers to any question. And, finally, I think that those branches of Hinduism that do become rigid generally do so in the realm of praxis — you must not eat this or marry this person — rather than dogma — you must not believe this.
But what is it about Islam and Christianity that is different from Hinduism, which contributed to their homogenisation at an earlier date? Did politics contribute to it? If so, why didn’t political forces have the same effect on Hinduism?
The difference lies in their histories. The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and the Romans then conquered a big piece of the world, and the Muslims also conquered a big piece of the world, but Indian rulers did not invade countries outside of the subcontinent. And while the forces that conquered the world used religion to do it, and made their religions into dogmas that could be governed from the imperialist center, with a centralised, standardised ideology, India in general, and Hinduism in particular, could afford to go on being diverse, since they didn’t need a political/religious creed to power the machines of empire.
How do you read the Hindutva project? Is it a belated attempt to ‘organise’ the diversity of Hindu religious expressions into a unitary faith modelled on the Semitic religions?
I think the attempt to make Hinduism a unitary religion like the Semitic religions began first with the British, who wanted to have just one thing to control, and then was picked up by the Hindu nationalists of the 19th century, who wanted to present a united front to the Christian missionaries. The Hindutva project inherits both of these traditions, as well as the desire to present a unitary front against Islam as well as Christianity.
Many believe that the Hindutva project to revive a homogenous Hinduism is born of an “inferiority complex” among the semi-westernised, middle- and upper-middle class Hindu nationalists, in relation to their colonial rulers.
British missionaries persuaded some of the upper caste Hindus of the 19th century that (Christianity’s) monotheism was superior to (Hinduism’s) polytheism, which is a kind of inferiority complex, I guess. This led to a tendency (still in evidence today in Hindutva rhetoric) among Hindus to insist that Hinduism is, in fact, monotheistic.
Coversions and Hinduism
Conversions (forced or otherwise) is a big issue in India today. Speaking for myself, as a Hindu, the idea of anyone ‘converting’ to Hinduism makes no sense to me. Can you throw some light on the historical background of conversions vis-à-vis Hindusim?
Christian attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity, as well as much less prevalent earlier Musim attempts to convert Hindus to Islam, led to a counter-movement of this sort in Hinduism. But most Hindus, the Hindus of the Vedic, Puranic, and village traditions, have never cared to convert anyone; you were born a Hindu or you weren’t, and that was that. I agree with you that for most Hindus, conversion makes no sense. Hinduism therefore, by and large, is not a proselytising religion as Buddhism, for instance, always was. However, some bhakti traditions and some Vedantic traditions became monotheistic and did try to convert people — primarily other Hindus — to their sort of Hinduism. But this is not at all the same thing as trying to convert Muslims or Christians to Hinduism (or back to Hinduism, as it is often claimed), as the contemporary Hindutva people do.
On Sita, you write, “she [Sita] is, like Shurpanaka, a highly sexual woman, a quality that may explain not only why Ravana desires her but also why he is able to carry her off.” Are you suggesting that she collaborated in her own kidnapping?
No, no, certainly Sita did not collaborate in her own kidnapping! But there was a belief, often expressed in the Puranas and parts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, that a virtuous woman had a kind of aura that protected her from being touched by any man other than her husband; this actually worked, in part, to keep Ravana from forcing Sita into his bed when she was captive in Sri Lanka (though the Ramayana also goes out of its way to offer another explanation: Ravana had raped an apsara whose husband cursed Ravana that his head would split apart if he ever took another woman against her will. This seems to imply that Sita would not have been protected merely by her moral armour, and the author had to offer another explanation for the otherwise surprising fact that Ravana never did assault her, as he might have done). Moreover, Sita’s desire for the golden deer caused her to violate her husband’s command to remain within the protected area he had established for her. So I am saying that Sita was not an ascetic, was not totally in control of her emotions, and that was why Ravana could fool her.
Are you aware that some Hindu academics in America have accused you of being a “Hinduphobe” and charged you with “out-of-context eroticising of Indian culture”?
I sure do know that people keep quoting that remark about the Gita that was made up by some reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer years and years ago and that I never said. Oh, do please try to set that record straight! There is nothing that I have ever said or written to suggest that I fear Hinduism, which is what Hinduphobe would mean, nor that I hate it, as I have been accused of doing. In answer to the accusation that I have eroticised Hinduism, I should point out that only a few of my 30-odd books deal with sex or eroticism at all; all the others deal with karma, evil, dreams, history, the laws of Manu, and a host of other things. It is my critics who are sex-obsessed, who pounce upon those aspects of my work that do treat erotic topics and ignore all the rest.
Tantra: Orientalist's wet dream
You write that the Tantra tradition of Hinduism has undergone great distortions and become an “Orientalist’s wet dream.” Can you explain?
Well, one of the meanings of Orientalism is a view of the ‘Orient’ that is titillating and salacious, that assumes that ‘Orientals’ are all over-sexed, and so forth; views that I regard as stupid and politically driven, and that show a total lack of understanding of Hindu views of sexuality and eroticism. A wet dream is a sexual fantasy that excites the dreamer. So I think that the sort of Westerners who still hold Orientalist views of India find Tantra titillating in that way. I tried to show that the Tantric tradition in India is anything but titillating, that it has nothing at all to do with sexual excitement but is rather about sexual control and the creation of religious power.
Does New Age ‘Tantric Sex’ bear any relationship to what Tantra was supposed to be originally?
We don’t know what Tantra was supposed to be ‘originally’, but we do know what is said by the earliest Tantric texts that we have, and those texts bear no relationship at all to the doctrines of New Age ‘Tantric Sex.’