The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger fills a significant gap: It is a scholarly but mostly accessible book that recounts millennia of South Asian history, as much as possible, through the eyes of non-elites. The book has garnered both praise and sharp criticism, as Doniger’s work often does, and has spawned a feisty but confusing New York Times review by Pankaj Mishra.
Doniger (bio) is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. To match her hefty title, Doniger’s curriculum vitae weighs in at 39 pages. For better or for worse, she is one of the most influential American scholars of Indian religion.
Blogging for The Washington Post, Doniger explains her purpose in writing the book:
My narrative is alternative both to the histories promulgated by some contemporary Hindus on the political right in India and to those presented in most surveys in English—imperialist histories, all about the kings, ignoring ordinary people. But the texts tell us not just who was the ruler but who got enough to eat and who did not.
The reviews that appeared recently in The Washington Post and The New York Times could not be more different. The former is simple and unsurprising while the latter is convoluted and apparently looking to pick a fight.
Michael Dirda’s review in the WP summarizes the book and argues that it is “probably too scholarly and specialized for readers looking simply for an introduction to Indian philosophy and religion” but still recommends it for people who already know the basics.
In contrast to Dirda’s by-the-book review, Pankaj Mishra wrote a more interpretive piece in the NYT that was destined to be misinterpreted. The first three grafs invoke a hodgepodge of references: the novelist E.M. Forster, the colonial preference for the supposed clarity of Islam over the supposed muddle of Hinduism, and the claim that “the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call ‘Hinduism.’”
When Mishra gets to the fourth graf and actually begins reviewing the book, his points are lucid and any reader who was not repelled by the strangeness of the first three grafs would find a lot to mull over.
Mishra has made enemies because of his criticism of the Hindu Right (as in his 2007 New York Review of Books piece on Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Within) and because of his reporting on Kashmir. However, there is nothing factual in his review that is wrong from the perspective of many American and Indian academics. His problem is one of tone and of trying to fit too much background into a book review.
To summarize what I think his goal was, he tries to show that Hinduism was not—and in many ways still is not—a uniform belief system but rather allows for a multiplicity of views and experiences, which is precisely the central claim of Doniger’s book. Furthermore, he refers to the idea that the modern conception of Hinduism crystallized during the nineteenth century through a dialogue between Hindu political movements and colonial scholarship. For some that claim will be difficult to swallow, but it is the scholarly consensus in the West and among many in academics in India. However, Mishra is inviting controversy and being unclear when he declares that the British “invented” Hinduism. If I were the NYT’s Books editor, I would have cut Mishra’s first three grafs.
Separately, it's worth reading this detailed and straightforward review (that some people see as a good alternative to Mishra’s NYT review) by V.V. Raman, Emeritus Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.