Wendy Doniger's compendious account of religious traditions that constitute an "ism" only in the broadest possible sense begins with an account of being egg-pelted by one such hardliner who objected to her suggestion that some Sanskrit texts are interested in divine female sexuality. It is towards countering the contemporary straitjacketing of Hindu beliefs that she offers this Alternative History.
Beginning with the pre-Hindu Indus Valley civilisation and ending in the contemporary era when Hindu nationalists destroy an Islamic site as an act of reclaiming India for "indigenous" Hindus, Doniger's narrative spans centuries without claiming comprehensive coverage. It is conceived as a "pointillist collage, a kaleidoscope, made of small, discontinuous fragments" or, in an appropriate motif, a banyan tree with multiple roots and branches.
Though not an affiliate of the "subaltern studies" school of south Asian history, Doniger shares with it the principle that larger stories can be gleaned from studying fragments. In addition to recovering neglected works, attention to whispers and asides in the canon enables her to reconstruct voices (particularly of women and Dalits, formerly "untouchables") and insurgent traditions (like the Hindu-Islamic syncretism of Kabir) that have been subordinated by the Brahmin patriarchy.
With a readability that does not undermine its scholarliness, The Hindus marshalls significant historical and textual detail to establish the undeniable multiplicity not only of Hindu beliefs, but also of religious texts. This is emphatically not a religion of any single book, notwithstanding recent attempts to canonise works such as the Bhagavad Gita. Indeed, the very idea that Hindus needed to be identified as a specific religion tied to a book derives from British colonial rule, when the hideously misogynist and hierarchical The Laws of Manu was randomly privileged as "Hindu personal law". It was when British administrators "began to define communities by their religion" that Indians began "ignoring the diversity of their own thoughts and asking themselves which of the boxes they belonged in", a practice ironically continued by Hindu hardliners who see themselves as anti-colonial in doing so.
Doniger demonstrates a magisterial knowledge of textual traditions, which include the four Vedas, the Upanishads, Brahmanas, Puranas, Aranyakas, Shastras and, of course, the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Arguing that the written and the oral interact constantly, as do the canonical and the popular, Doniger shows how Hinduism has always been porous, transforming itself in response to pressure from other religions and rebellions from within. The Ramayana elicited many retellings before being set down in the oldest surviving written version, by Valmiki; this, in turn, was reworked into new compositions incorporating changing historical circumstances. So too with the significantly longer Mahabharata.
Whether or not one agrees that the Hindu epics are "a hundred times more interesting than Biblical and Homeric texts", Doniger convincingly elaborates the complexity and range of the philosophical, moral and social dilemmas explored by them. Though they have been used to consolidate Brahmin and Kshatriya (aristocratic) male privilege, these texts also manifest questions and anxieties about, for instance, the treatment of women and lower castes.
A case in point is the story of Eklavya, the Mahabharata's accomplished low-caste archer whose teacher makes him cut off his right thumb to ensure that he cannot challenge his aristocratic rival. The story emphasises the need for social order by keeping the uppity low-caste in his place, yet the unmistakable sympathy of Eklavya's portrayal indicates conflict, that the text "does not like the way things must be". Eklavya becomes an icon for some disenfranchised groups, and later versions of his story "explicitly call out for justice". Similarly, the history of Hinduism suggests a creative tension between asceticism and sensuality, and yields a range of female prototypes from earthy deities and single mothers to polyandrous queens and naked poet-ascetics who spurn domesticity.
While hardliners accuse Doniger of reducing Hindu gods to "fictions", The Hindus actually shows how the interpretive diversity of the Hindu tradition is its strength. Its texts provide examples of wrestling with difficulty and dilemmas over crude certainties.
Doniger slightly weakens her argument by participating in the obligatory intellectual ritual of declaring that hers is just one version among many. But as she demonstrates, the deliberate falsification of history by Hindu chauvinists makes it imperative to underscore the accuracy of some accounts as opposed to others. This may not be the only good history of the Hindus, but it certainly makes for a more authoritative and respectful starting point for thinking about the subject than the self-serving baying of fundamentalists.
Review by Priyamvada Gopal is the author of Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence.