Friday, February 21, 2014

A Banned Book

In India, at the request of backward-looking religious groups, copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger have been pulped. This widely commented action inspired me (and I gather many others) to buy the book. It's a difficult reading choice, but I've read around half the chapters; that is, around 400 of the 780 pages, skipping the middle of the book. This might be all I can manage.

Food in Hindu practice:

As I always do when I read, I've paid attention when the topic of food was mentioned. Obviously, I expected to learn about the history of vegetarianism in the Hindu religion and about the views of cows held by various Hindu groups. No disappointment here, though the case is clear that not all Hindu tradition is a vegetarian tradition, nor even a cow-avoiding tradition. Early animal sacrifice was a part of Hindu practice, replaced in a historical process with balls of rice in place of a sacrificial animal. (p. 244)

In recent times: "The Brahmin priest often sacrifices a goat made of dough and papier-mache... . In Kerala, Nambuduri Brahmins use rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Often the rice cakes that are used in place of the goat are wrapped in leaves, tied to little leashes, and carefully 'suffocated' before they are offered." But sometimes, the vegetarian god lives inside a shrine, while a carnivorous goddess accepts meat sacrifice on the outside. (p. 655-656)

In the Indus valley, very early, beginning around 2300 BCE, inhabitants left traces of their agricultural and culinary activity: "Typical signs include seeds, fruits, sprouts, grain plants, pulses, trees, farm instruments (hoes, primitive plows, mortars and pestles, rakes, harvesting instruments, etc.), seasonal/celestial or astral signs, and even at times anthropomorphized plowed fields. The images... tell us that the winter Indus crop was barley and wheat; the spring crop, peas and lentils; and the summer and the monsoon crops, millets, melons, dates, and fiber plants. They also probably grew rice. ... They ate meat and fish." (p. 70)

Early Hindu gods, like many parallel deities elsewhere, expected to be fed as a part of ritual. "The Vedic gods," writes Doniger, "were light eaters; they consumed only a polite taste of the butter, or the animal offerings, or the expressed juice of the soma plant, and the humans got to eat the leftovers. What was fed to the fire was fed to the gods; in later mythology, when Agni, the god of fire, was impregnated by swallowing semen instead of butter, all the gods became pregnant." (p. 109)

Dogs were especially hated by Hindus, a topic that recurs throughout the book. Doniger constantly presents little stories from Hindu myths to illustrate various points. Here's a story I liked: "A group of dogs asked a Vedic priest, 'Please, sir, we'd like to find some food by singing for our supper. We are really hungry.' He asked them to return the next morning and so the dogs filed in, sliding in slyly as priests slide in slyly in a file, each holding on to the one in front of him. They sat down together and began to hum. then they sang, 'Om! Let's eat! Om! Let's drink. Om! My the gods bring food! Lord of food, bring food! Bring it! Bring it! Om!" Doniger's interpretation: "The author of this text may be poking fun at Brahmins or pleading for more sympathy for dogs (and therefore for the lower castes), or both or none of the above." (p. 189)

Some things I learned: 

Everything about the history of Hinduism is political. This is probably true of most other religions too, but not relevant here. I think a particularly political aspect of the book is the finding that throughout Indian history, "Non-violence is an ideal propped up against the cultural reality of violence." (p. 10)

Hinduism attained the definition of a religion in the modern sense in modern times, not so much in ancient times when Europeans had already formed what we still call religions, including a sense of identity and moral values based in them. The reasons are complicated -- not just because lots of the sects, beliefs, customs, social factors, and stories/myths were separated into different regional and class-oriented packages. This is so complicated I can't possible summarize it.

The simultaneous development of classes and castes in India also explains a lot about the development of Hinduism. How caste and class are embedded in Hindu myths, tales, and religious thought is important. As many religions do, Hinduism contains a sense that the present is the only time, that truths are permanent and did not emerge in the past, and will not change in the future.

The author's historic approach includes evidence from religious and historic texts, from archaeology including stone inscriptions, from oral and later-written-down-oral traditions, and from reports by travelers from other cultures. The book is organized historically, with each era viewed through whatever such evidence exists. This is challenging for a novice like me: I don't know any of the background that would make it easier to read.

And about those many texts: "There is no Hindu canon. The books that Euro-Americans privileged (such as the Bhagavad Gita) were not always so highly regarded by 'all Hindus.'" (p. 25) Thus even the identification and attributed importance of the main religious texts of Hinduism is political, as the texts came to seem more important because of the views of the British in India and also foreigners reinterpreting the religion for many purposes. Again, a  historically complex subject.

Things I still would like to know:

In Judaism and Christianity, an important part of the religion is a personal relationship with God. Maybe I'm not reading right, but after all those chapters, I don't feel I have any grasp of how Hindus, modern or historical, relate to their gods. There are occasional references to the topic of religious practice, but I don't feel that I have any real mental image of how a contemporary Hindu family or one in the past would have expressed their religious feelings, whether they engaged in prayer or regular attendance at a worship service, whether they attended temple festivals together, how they educated their children in their religion, and how their ethical and moral lives were related to religion, if at all. I was interested in Doniger's suggestions about how Bollywood films have changed Hinduism, but I need more background.

I have read other accounts of life in Indian families that related to food preparation and food taboos in Hindu kitchens, from which I got more information. I feel I know little about their actual beliefs. This indeed makes it hard to understand the political Hinduism that has led to the book being banned. Maybe this line of questioning just marks my incompetence to understand the point of the book. I don't think the chapters I skipped had more such details. I guess I flunk the quiz.

My reaction to banning the book:

I see why the book offends some Hindus, though I am completely opposed to banning or pulping books under any circumstances, even if they offend me. The book's dry academic style punctuated with flip American and English cultural references might make the book more readable for some, but I found that it also hinted at a lack of respect for the topics. Further, there's a type of relativism expressed in the book, seemingly a type of postmodernism, that would surely annoy a believer. The discussion of women, sexuality, and other controversial topics was the most cited reason that the faithful hated the book, but I think there's more to it than that.

For example:

  • "Hindus continue to drive, like King Vrisha in the Brahmana story, with one foot on the accelerator of eroticism and one foot on the brake of renunciation." (p. 196)
  • "When Rama's brother Bharata is given the throne that should have been Rama's, each of the brothers, like Alphonse and Gaston in the old story, modestly and generously tries to give the kingdom to the other." (p. 302)
  • "We have to be careful how we use history and myth to understand one another. ... I would define a myth as a story that a group of people believe for a long time despite massive evidence that it is not actually true; the spirit of myth is the spirit of Oz: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." (p.   23)
  • "You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that the have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well  together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee [women immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres], and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes, and that they have fought for their equality." (p. 688)
  • "So we say that Sanskrit is older, and the vernaculars younger. But Sanskrit, the language of power, emerged in India from a minority, and at first its power came precisely from its nonintelligibility and unavailablilty, which made it the power of an elite group. Walt Kelly's Pogo used to use the word 'Sam-skrimps' to describe highfalutin double-talk or manipulative twaddle. Many Euro-Americans mispronounce it 'Samscript,' ... " (p. 5)

The British Empire and how it imposed colonialism on India, the American adoption of Hindu thought in some form or another in several eras, and various other Western reactions and definitions are rather central to Doniger's account of Hinduism. Why is Rudyard Kipling so important in the view of the author? Because his presentation of Hindu thought was so influential with Westerners that it also affected Hindu self-definition. But obviously to a practicing Hindu who doesn't want Western thought involved in his private religion I would think the focus on  how the West affected Hindu thought and definition has potential for offense. Only guessing.

UPDATE: More on free speech and its benefits here.

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