What Was Wendy Doniger Really Trying To Say?

What Was Wendy Doniger Really Trying To Say?

by R Jagannathan - Dec 2, 2015 08:56 PM +05:30 IST
What Was Wendy Doniger Really Trying To Say?

Doniger may be right to flag Hindutva as antithetical to older ideas of diverse Hinduism, but she is surely mistaken in assuming that religions will not – or should not – change in response to challenges.

Wendy Doniger, author of a controversial book on Hinduism (The Hindus: An alternative history), made some interesting observations at the Times Lit Fest yesterday (1 December) in Delhi – some relevant, some not. She spoke on beef-eating, book bans, Hindutva versus “real” Hinduism, and the prospect of Hindus developing a “good” leadership.

Let us first dismiss her cursory observations first. “If you dislike the book, you kill the author – this is unprecedented in India,” Doniger said. For an author who had the mortification of seeing her book pulped some time back under pressure from a Hindu activist, her suppressed anger is understandable, but it is not clear which author got killed for writing a book. Unless the reference is to the murders of three rationalists, two when the UPA was in power.

India, The Times of India quoted her as saying, was beginning to be ruled by an escalating “Hindu leadership” – a development that needed to be opposed. “When I last looked, India was a democracy, not ruled by religion.” The past tense reference to Indian democracy is clearly unrelated to ground reality. India continues to be a democracy, as the raucous debates in parliament show, and when she next looks at India, it is sure to remain a cacophonic democracy. It is her prejudice speaking here.

Then we had her inevitable comments on beef-eating and Hindutva. As is now mandatory in any “secular” debate, it has become important to emphasise that Vedic Indians ate beef. We need not dispute this even if some orthodox Hindus deny this was true. But when Doniger says that Hindu anti-beef activism “since the 19th century” was related to “the anti-Muslim campaign” since “Muslims ate beef,” it is difficult to agree. In fact, BR Ambedkar suggested after an extensive study of Hindu texts that beef-eating was what might have made Dalits untouchable to caste Hindus. So the Hindu problem with beef predates any anti-Muslim targeting.

Doniger also spoke of Hindutva’s need to eliminate diversity and unify around single narratives. She said:

“Hinduism has a thousand spirits, but Hindutva picks just one – a sanitised, anti-erotic thread and makes it the definitive representation, which it isn’t, just as the Bhagavad Gita is one among several Hindu texts.”

She is surely half-right on this, as Hindutva votaries have often used the Bhagavad Gita as an over-arching Hindu text vital to manufacturing a synthetic unity like some of the Abrahamic religions. However, at no stage has any militant Hindu even remotely suggested that Hinduism has only one book, or that there is only one Hindu way of life – and a non-erotic one at that. Hindutva morality may have edged towards Victorian prudishness over the last two centuries, but this is far from being a defining feature of Hindutva, despite recent attempts to harass women in pubs or assaulting couples canoodling in public. Conservative elements in all religions are insecure about the growing assertiveness of women in social and personal life – and this is not exclusive to Hindutva.

The most interesting point Doniger made was about Hindu leadership – and why it was unimportant to have one. The TOI quoted her as saying:

“Hinduism, unlike other leading monotheistic religions, has no leader, like the Pope or Imam. There are several Hindu leaders, but no one individual can say you can or cannot do this. The trick is then to make sure a Hindu leadership does not evolve.” (Italics mine)

It is not clear what meaning Doniger intended to give this observation, but it is something worth debating. While Hindu pluralism fundamentally militates against the idea of one Pope or a single religious authority, what did she mean when she said that one has to “make sure a Hindu leadership does not evolve.” Is it something that can be legislated or prevented from happening?

The principle of diversity is unexceptionable, but diversity does not mean leadership must always be divisive. Looked at from a colonial perspective, diversity was needed to ensure divisiveness and disunity so that a small cabal of foreigners could rule over millions and keep them in poverty. Did Doniger make a Freudian slip in suggesting that a Hindu leadership should be prevented from being created? It would suit western academics if no such leadership emerged, for then Indians would forever depend on them to explain Hinduism to Hindus.

The fact is Hindus have been grappling with the idea of diversity and its consequences for the last few centuries, and many thinkers – from Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, to Aurobindo Ghosh to Swami Vivekananda to Veer Savarkar – have been directly or indirectly seeking answers to the paradox of wanting both unity and diversity. Hindu philosophers have sought a more muscular form of Hinduism without losing its syncretism and absorptive capacities, something that gives Hinduism a structure without damaging diversity. It is still a work in progress.

The fundamental divergence at the heart of Abrahamic and Indic religions is the differing attitudes to power and its consequences. While Islam does not even bother to separate the spiritual from the temporal, Christianity does, but both cultures see the acquisition of temporal power as vital to spiritual and material progress. Violence and the achievement of ideological unity is seen as vital to power, and power is vital to the achievement of universalism, equality and social justice.

Indic thinkers, on the other hand, saw power as a transitory phenomenon, and hence privileged conquest of one’s own self over conquest of others. We sought diversity as an end in itself, passivity over violence. The consequences were caste separation and structural oppression, but far less social violence. We achieved a fair of amount of unity only within castes, not between them or in society as a whole.

Unity and strength have thus been a regular theme in Hindu philosophical thinking since the 19th century.

The correlation between power, universal identity and social justice is strong. When a state seeks to build its power to rule over others, it automatically tends to reduce diversity in the population in order to achieve ideological unity and common purpose. Legitimacy for a powerful state comes from delivering some level of justice to people, and often this means levelling diversities and difference. Constantine the Great reduced varying versions of the Bible to one single accepted text for this purpose. Varying versions of the Koran were unified fairly quickly after the prophet’s death. Indic religions alone did not see unification in the past, and thus escaped the mindless violence that plagued – and continue to plague – the Abrahamic religions.

But the other side of the coin of less violence is probably less unity of purpose. It is difficult to define “us” when there is no “them” to fight. Hindutva may not be the right answer to the question of achieving unity, but it is one more such attempt.

Faced with the challenge of Islam in the north-west, a new religion was forged with elements of Indic thought fused with monotheistic ideas. We call it Sikhism today.

Doniger may be right to flag Hindutva as antithetical to older ideas of diverse Hinduism, but she is surely mistaken in assuming that religions will not – or should not – change in response to challenges. It is unlikely that Indic religions, including Hinduism, will choose to remain confined within a box when faced with challenges. It will break free, but we do not know how, and with what consequences.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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