‘The Hindus’ by Wendy Doniger tells ‘an alternative history’ of the Hindus from c.50,000,000 BCE to 1500 BCE to the present. Considering this claim, 700 pages are rather modest. Doniger clarifies that she doesn’t believe that any one person can tell the story of Hinduism. Perhaps this is also one reason (amongst others) why she calls it ‘an alternative history’. Doniger is a Sanskritist who holds a second doctorate in Indian Studies, and she crosses disciplines with ease to tell her story.
While the book is presented in chapters as in a history book by which successive periods follow each other in chronological order, she says that the history of Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a chronological account since the major texts of Hinduism cannot be reliably dated within a century. My history books in school divided Indian history into broad periods like ancient, medieval, Mughal and colonial. She divides periods differently and calls them by names like: ‘The Three (or is Four?) Aims of Life in the Hindu Imaginary’ or ‘Escape Clauses in the Shastras: 100 BCE to 400CE’. Her style makes it also possible for the non scholarly amongst us to enjoy her tale, because she doesn’t shy away from references to films, novels, music and supermarket culture.
The ‘ithi’ in the word ‘ithihasa’ she says implies ‘that’s what he said’ and not the way I was taught ithihasa in school as history consisting mostly of dates and who conquered who. Doniger’s book is not literally about what ‘he’ said but includes the voices of women, animals, birds and those that were not considered humans at all but existed in human form- outcastes and tribals, as they seeped into the fabric of what composed the Hindus. One of the stories that Doniger uses to great effect is the one of the two women Mariamma – with the head of a Brahmin and the body of a Pariah , and Ellama – Pariah head and Brahmin body. To quote Doniger: ‘the mixing together of various streams is so basic to the history of Hinduism that the Brahmins could not stop trying, and failing to prevent it, even as their fear of the powers of the senses to invade the rational control centre made them try, also in vain, to control addiction through asceticism’.
Secondly, ‘that’s what he said’ when it comes to the Vedas has come to us, after the hymns were finally written exactly as they were recited. She acknowledges that all the defining texts of Hinduism had to finally go through the hands of a Brahmin male, but not without the filters of the others mentioned above who enter through the back door. So she follows ideas in the ‘non Sanskrit’ or ‘non Vedic’ world and how they weave their way in and out of the Sanskrit world. Doniger refers to ‘working with available light’ as making the best of sources at hand and focuses on the illumination provided by other scholars on the subject of Hinduism. One finds evidence of this in the extensive bibliography at the end of the book. And then there is the rather sticky question of what is mythology and what is history. Doniger takes the example of building the causeway to Lanka in the Ramayana (which is very real in the minds and hearts of many even today) as ‘the history of sentiment rather than events, motivations rather than movements’. She incorporates myths and presents her arguments in relation to them backed by scholarship, as any academic is expected to do. More importantly, she uses mythology to illustrate her readings of Hinduism and to bring alive her alternative history.
‘Ithihasa’ when it comes to the horse offers incredible insights. The horse is not native to India because of the climate. All evidence points to the horse as being absent in the Indus Valley Civilization (50,000 BCE to 1500 BCE), while other animals were celebrated. It became central in the Vedic period, which followed it. Doniger calls this period ‘Between the Ruins and the Text’ (also a chapter title). The history of the Indus Valley has been pieced together through found artifacts and ruins, those of the Vedic period through the (at first) recited Vedas. In this ‘in between’ period around 2000 BCE, horses either wandered in or were imported or driven into the sub continent. And…as the story goes, perhaps people with them. It is really not clear if horses were imported by the Vedic people, who were already in northern India or if people rode them in from outside. She argues that the early horse riders and the late Indus Valley inhabitants as well as others from the non-Sanskrit, non Vedic world (read Adivasis or ‘original inhabitants) most probably met and had some exchanges with each other borrowing and lending language and culture. From this mix, we can see some aspects of Hinduism as we know it today. However, the oldest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda has no connection to the Indus Valley civilization. It was written by a people with a distinctly different civilization, that of a nomadic tribe rather than the settled urban one of the Indus Valley. In their rituals, horses are very important. They made it a habit of stealing cattle, herding them (from horseback), and offering beef to Indra and eating it too, for as the author says ‘for many of the same reasons that people nowadays eat Big Macs (though in India Big Macs are now made of mutton)’.
So… back to ithihasa of ancient India as it was taught to me in school. There was an advanced civilization in Mohenjodaro and Harappa around 50,000,000 BCE. Archaeologists found a bronze statue of a dancing girl, seals like one with a bull, and a brick layered pool. This civilization was highly sophisticated when it came to urban planning. Around 2000BCE, the Aryans rode in and conquered (I mentioned that in my history school books ithihasa was mostly who conquered who) the original dark skinned inhabitants of the Indus Valley and drove them southwards. The Aryans composed the Vedas. Hinduism comes to us from the Vedas.
Time to re-visit ithihasa.