Aside the Chariot: ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ by Wendy Doniger

Diwas review

Diwas Kc in Himal [h/t: Chapati Mystery]:

Two years after the Indian state channel Doordarshan began daily broadcasting, when only Delhi-ites were lucky enough to get their first taste of television, a question was asked during a children’s quiz show: “Who was the mother of Ram?” The participating children, who had earlier effortlessly handled all the stumpers on Greek mythology, were now dumbfounded. Such was Kaushalya’s status in 1967. This rather inconsequential moment in India’s secular era would have simply passed by had one chance viewer not felt so deeply humiliated by the way “the glorious heritage of India” had once again been trumped. The viewer, Anant Pai, soon left his career with the Times of India, which brought American superheroes like Phantom and Mandrake to Indian readers through Indrajal Comics, and launched his own ­Amar Chitra Katha, through which he issued monthly and fortnightly comic books based on episodes from Hindu epics and puranas. Uncle Pai, as he is better known, thought of himself as an educator, and he must consider it an enormous feat that, after a sensational reception of his comics, golden boys and girls on Bournvita Quiz Contest no longer miss questions on Hindu legends.

In the following decades, Uncle Pai’s comics sold by the millions, which perhaps not astonishingly coincided with the resurgence of ‘Hindu values’ in Indian politics. Assembling the narratives of dazzling characters like Ram, Krishna and Hanuman from stories originating from different ends of India – dotingly ironing out the contradictions, and while at it ridding the ‘unpleasant’ bits – Uncle Pai had one eye on the Hindu past and the other on the post-Independence project of national integration. This double vision ofAmar Chitra Katha would prove to be remarkably self-legitimising, becoming imperative to subsequent raconteurs of Hindu legends. Uncle Pai, as it turned out, was only one of the many in modern India who was hoping to simplify the bewilderingly and boisterously diverse past for an emerging country. Following his success, in the late 1980s the triumphant creators of the Ramayana and Mahabharata serials on the by-then-pervasive Doordarshan heralded what can veritably be called a golden age of Hinduism – an uncanny kind of unification guided by the light of television screens, where millions of Hindus everywhere, of hitherto disparate traditions, could for the first time access, claim and share a uniform set of stories.

This prologue is necessary to understand what the scholar Wendy Doniger, in her new work, means by ‘alternative’. Alternative to what? Doniger has in mind the overbearingly malicious and fanatical turn of contemporary Hinduism that has much beleaguered her; but even more so, her adversary here is the troubling standardisation of the general Hindu outlook.

More here.