24 April 2011

Book Review: The Hindus, An Alternative History

Wendy Doniger, is an Indologist and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought. Her book was a comprehensive history of the development of Hinduism and its major religious themes.

I decided to write a book review of this book here, which is not a book focused on sexuality and gender identity. Nevertheless, her observations about sexuality and gender identity are fascinating and if you are interested in taking a graduate seminar in the history and development of Hinduism, with some focus on sexuality and gender identity, read this book.

As a Buddhist, I found some of her discussion on the rise and fall of different Hindu gods to be fascinating. I was stunned when traveling in Himal Pradesh to be told by a Shaiva that Indra was a god of the mist when in our religion, Indra is the king of the gods -- which like humans, die and are subject to the laws of rebirth and suffering. But as it turns out, Indra is the king of the gods in the traditional Vedic system but was displaced by the Vaishnavas and the Shaivas under the later developments in Hindu thinking. So, in other words, Indra really is the kind of the gods except when he's not! It doesn't really matter for a Buddhist because we don't worship Indra. Indra and the crew also pray to various Buddhas like the Green Tara just as we do.

I have written previously about the transgender sex workers of Hyderabad in my book review of With Respect to Sex and the potential for postcolonial analysis of gender identity and sexuality. A fascinating anecdote in the book of this review, Doniger writes:
The cross-dressing men of the Third Nature in the Kama-sutra may be the cultural ancestors of the Hijras of contemporary India, cross-dressing and sometimes castrated male homosexuals, often prostitutes, who worship the goddess Bahuchara Mata.* Perhaps fifty thousand strong in India today, the Hijras descend upon weddings, birth celebrations, and other occasions of fertility, dancing and singing to the beat of drums, offering their blessing or, if they are not paid, their curse, which may take the form of lifting their skirts to display the wound of their castration. Their ambivalent ability to blackmail through a combination of blessing and curse eventually struck a resonant chord with some government agency charged with tax collection. As a result, in 2006 the Municipal Corporation of Patna, the capital of Bihar, one of India's most impoverished states, hired about twenty Hijras to go from shop to shop (later from house to house), asking the owners to pay overdue municipal taxes, which apparently ran into the millions. The new tax collectors met with considerable success from their very first day on the job, often settling the outstanding arrears on the spot; in lieu of salary, they received 4 percent of the amount they collected.
* Bahuchara, meaning "Getting Around a Lot," is the same phrase that the mother of Satyakama, in the Upanishads, used to refer to her promiscuity.
I found the discussion on Tantra fascinating, even the more recent discussions, in the book. We are Tantric and it was not until I became an adult did I understand that Tantra is associated with "libertine" sexuality but after reading this book, I fully understand -- a similar understanding developed about Vatsyayana Mallanaga's Kama-sutra.

How, at almost 700 pages, the book is not for the faint of heart. If you are not interested in linguistics, religion, philosophy, history of South Asia, or have no connection to Indic religions, you may not be able to brave the entire book. If this book had come out a decade earlier, it would have saved me a lot of reading in graduate school.

The version I read was a 800 page paperback published by Penguin (Non-Classics) (November 30, 2010), ISBN-13: 978-0143116691. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at amazon.com.