A People and Their Karma

Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:

ED-AJ271_book04_DV_20090401143836When I first picked up “The Hindus” — a tome seemingly rich with scholarship and, at 780 hardbound pages, as hefty as the legendary demon Kumbhakarna — I was struck most of all by the author's name on its cover: Wendy Doniger. A mist of apprehension spritzed my Hindu soul. Could this lady (a professor at the University of Chicago) be the same Wendy Doniger who wrote last year — in one of the more batty commentaries in an election season replete with unhinged scrivenings — that Sarah Palin's “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman”? If so, could this author really be trusted with a history of my people, the Hindus?

I should report that it is the same Wendy Doniger. But in the book in question, Ms. Doniger has eschewed the pamphleteering arts — perhaps because there is no trace of the Palin tribe in any Sanskrit yarn. She has, instead, concentrated her prodigious learning on making modern sense of the texts and tales of Hindu society, as well as of the rituals and symbols of the Hindu people.

Let us be clear: Ms. Doniger's book is not a history of Hinduism, still less an attempt to render the religion comprehensible to all. It is not a work of theology either but a loosely chronological cultural history of “the Hindus.” She begins, naturally, with an examination of their origins in the Indus Valley (now, ironically, in Pakistan) and is particularly illuminating on the relationship between humans, animals and gods in the “Rig Veda,” the most ancient Hindu sacred text, from 1,500 B.C. In keeping with her promise to deliver an “alternative history,” she pays as much attention to the role in ancient Hindu texts accorded to women, pariahs, ogres and the like — the beings on the margin, as it were — as she does to Brahmin and Kshatriya (warrior) males, the more conventional power-players in the Hindu tableau vivant.

More here.