The Hindus

Wendy Doniger titles her ambitious expedition through millennia of Hindu history The Hindus, not Hinduism. Doniger approaches the central religious traditions of India as diverse in nature and as changing over the centuries, rather than as a unified, clearly defined set of doctrines and rituals. She is particularly interested in what she sees as the underemphasized and undervalued parts of Hindu life, such as the lower castes, women, and animals. In the later parts of the book, she attempts an examination of historical relations between Hindus and Muslims that sets aside the slogans of modern political tensions.

Doniger’s style throughout the book is ironic and irreverent, with frequent references to modern high and low culture. The Hindus may offend some Hindus (and Muslims) and will probably provoke disagreements on a number of points by professional scholars. It is also a fascinating and provocative reinterpretation of Hindu history for those who know something about the subject and an enjoyable introduction to the topic for those who do not.

Doniger is clear about the interpretive nature of her work. She does not pretend to convey a set of facts. Rather, from the beginning of her text, she explains that she is offering a narrative that shapes the facts in an attempt to understand them. Moreover, the facts at her disposal do not encompass the whole of Hindu history. She opens the first chapter with a Sufi anecdote about a Sufi who is looking for a lost key outside his house. When asked where he dropped it, he says it happened inside the house. He is looking outside, the punchline follows, because the light is better there. Doniger explains that she will often look for her historical evidence in the lightthat is, in what information has been preserved through the centuries. However, the body of available information is not necessarily where the key to the past actually lies.

India and the Hindu religion are so intricately intertwined that a history of one is necessarily a history of the other. Doniger begins looking at India by recounting its geological formation and the myths of its geological formation. Her account of civilizations in the Indus Valley goes all the way back to the Stone Age cultures of 50,000 b.c.e. and to the cave paintings of 30,000 b.c.e. The first urban societies began to appear about 2500 b.c.e., in the form of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was apparently in contact both with the ancient Near East and with Egypt. It is difficult to connect this early urban civilization with the Hindu society of later centuries, and Doniger may be too speculative in attempting to make links. Still, she points out that one can find some striking resemblances between the Indus Valley Civilization and those societies identified as Hindu. Some of the common artistic images, such as the motif of the fig leaf or the bull, appear quite similar in the two historical periods.

These earliest Indians may or may not have provided a foundation for the people of the Vedas, the first holy books of what came to be called Hinduism. The oldest of these books, the Rig Veda was composed by nomads in the Punjab region by 1500 b.c.e., and three additional Vedas were produced in the following centuries. Centered on ritual and especially on sacrifice, the Vedic religion did not yet include a belief in reincarnation when the Rig Veda was composed. The caste system had also not yet set in, although its origins may lie in the relations between invaders and non-Vedic people, including the pre-Vedic inhabitants of the region.

In dealing with the gradual emergence of caste, Doniger distinguishes throughout the book between the four main social divisions (varna, in Sanskrit) that are familiar to most people with a passing knowledge of India and the complicated array of inherited occupational categories referred to as jati. She reserves the term “caste” for the latter and refers to the former as “classes.” The terms are potentially confusing, given the modern sociological concept of class as social distinction based on mobility, but she does make clear how she is using these words.

In contrast to the heavily textual official Hinduism of later times, the Vedas were at first carried in memory. The nomads who memorized these long testaments were horse riders, and the image of horses occurs repeatedly in Doniger’s narrative. The themes of intoxication and addiction, in Doniger’s telling, were among the earliest concerns of the Vedas, and these themes appear in different forms throughout later Hinduism. The most...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)