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About the Author

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, where she is also a professor of South Asian languages and civilizations. Her translations for Penguin Classics include The Rig Veda, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



The image of the man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit, will serve as a metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.

Since there are so many books about Hinduism, the author of yet another one has a duty to answer the potential reader’s Passover question: Why shouldn’t I pass over this book, or, Why is this book different from all other books? This book is not a brief survey (you noticed that already; I had intended it to be, but it got the bit between its teeth and ran away from me), nor, on the other hand, is it a reference book that covers all the facts and dates about Hinduism or a book about Hinduism as it is lived today. Several books of each of those sorts exist, some of them quite good, which you might read alongside this one.1 
The Hindus: An Alternative History differs from those books in several ways.

First, it highlights a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit (the literary language of ancient India) and represented in most surveys in English. It tells a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people—people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women). Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism. My hope is not to reverse or misrepresent the hierarchies, which remain stubbornly hierarchical, or to deny that Sanskrit texts were almost always subject to a final filter in the hands of the male Brahmins (the highest of the four social classes, the class from which priests were drawn) who usually composed and preserved them. But I hope to bring in more actors, and more stories, upon the stage, to show the presence of brilliant and creative thinkers entirely off the track beaten by Brahmin Sanskritists and of diverse voices that slipped through the filter, and, indeed, to show that the filter itself was quite diverse, for there were many different sorts of Brahmins; some whispered into the ears of kings, but others were dirt poor and begged for their food every day.

Moreover, the privileged male who recorded the text always had access to oral texts as well as to the Sanskrit that was his professional language. Most people who knew Sanskrit must have been bilingual; the etymology of “Sanskrit” (“perfected, artificial”) is based upon an implicit comparison with “Prakrit” (“primordial, natural”), the language actually spoken. This gives me a double agenda: first to point out the places where the Sanskrit sources themselves include vernacular, female, and lower-class voices and then to include, wherever possible, non-Sanskrit sources. The (Sanskrit) medium is not always the message; a it’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the 
Gita. I will concentrate on those moments within the tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon, moments that forged bridges between factions, the times of the “mixing of classes” (varna-samkara) that the Brahmins always tried—inevitably in vain—to prevent.

Second, in addition to focusing on a special group of actors, I have concentrated on a few important actions, several of which are also important to us today: nonviolence toward humans (particularly religious tolerance) and toward animals (particularly vegetarianism and objections to animal sacrifice) and the tensions between the householder life and renunciation, and between addiction and the control of sensuality. More specific images too (such as the transposition of heads onto bodies or the flooding of cities) thread their way through the entire historical fabric of the book. I have traced these themes through the chapters and across the centuries to provide some continuity in the midst of all the flux,2 even at the expense of what some might regard as more basic matters.

Third, this book attempts to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (
pitha). I have organized the topics historically in order to show not only how each idea is a reaction to ideas that came before (as any good old-fashioned philological approach would do) but also, wherever possible, how those ideas were inspired or configured by the events of the times, how Hinduism, always context sensitive,3 responds to what is happening, at roughly the same moment, not only on the political and economic scene but within Buddhism or Islam in India or among people from other cultures entering India. For Hinduism, positioning kings as gods and gods as kings, seldom drew a sharp line between secular and religious power. In recent years a number of historians of religions, particularly of South Asian religions, have contextualized particular moments in the religious history of the subcontinent.4 This book attempts to extend that particularizing project to the whole sweep of Indian history, from the beginning (and I do mean the beginning, c. 50,000,000 BCE) to the present. This allows us to see how certain ongoing ideas evolve, which is harder to do with a focus on a particular event or text at a particular moment.

This will not serve as a conventional history (my training is as a philologist, not a historian) but as a book about the evolution of several important themes in the lives of Hindus caught up in the flow of historical change. It tells the story of the Hindus primarily through a string of narratives. The word for “history” in Sanskrit, 
itihasa, could be translated as “That’s what happened,” giving the impression of an only slightly more modest equivalent of von Ranke’s phrase for positivist history: “Wie es [eigentlichgewesen ist” (“The way it [really] happened”). But the iti in the word is most often used as the Sanskrit equivalent of “end quote,” as in “Let’s go [iti],” he said. Itihasa thus implies not so much what happened as what people said happened (“That’s what he said happened”)—narratives, inevitably subjective narratives. And so this is a history not of what the British used to call maps and chaps (geography and biography) but of the stories in hi-story. It’s a kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history, a quilt like those storytelling cloths that Indian narrators use as mnemonic devices to help them and the audience keep track of the plot. The narrator assembles the story from the quilt pieces much as the French rag-and-bones man, the bricoleur, makes new objects out of the broken-off pieces of old objects (bricolage).5

Like any work of scholarship, this book rests on the shoulders of many pygmies as well as giants. I have kept most of the scholarly controversies out of the text, after laying out the rules of the game in these first two chapters of methodological introduction and in the pre-Vedic period (chapters 2 through 4), which might stand as paradigms for what might have been done with all the other chapters, as well as a few other places where the arguments were so loony that I could not resist the temptation to satirize them. Many a “fact” turns out, on closer inspection, to be an argument. There is another story to be told here: how we know what we know, what we used to believe, why we believe what we believe now, what scholars brought up certain questions or gave us the information we now have, what scholars now challenge that information, and what political factors influenced them. Those arguments tell a story that is interesting in itself but to which I merely allude from time to time. I also write in the shadow of a broad scholarship of theories about religion and history, and I will keep that too out of the text. I have tried to avoid setting my opinions against those with whom I disagree or using them as fall guys, beginning an argument by citing the imagined opponent. I have, rather, simply presented each subject in what I believe to be the best scholarly construction, in order to concentrate on the arguments about it within the Hindu texts themselves.

Many crucial questions remain unanswered, and I hope that this book will inspire some readers to go back to the sources and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with me. The relevant materials can be found in the bibliography as well as in the notes for each chapter, which will also provide browsing material for those readers (I confess that I am one of them) who go straight to the back and look at the notes and bibliography first, reading the book like Hebrew, from right to left, to see where the author has been grazing, like dogs sniffing one another’s backsides to see what they have eaten lately.b


Sanskrit texts from the earliest period assimilated folk texts that were largely oral and composed in languages other than Sanskrit, vernacular languages. But even in the Vedic age, Sanskrit was not what has been called a kitchen language, c not the language in which you said, “Pass the butter.”6 (Actually, Brahminsprobably did say, “Pass the butter,” in Sanskrit when they put butter as an oblation into the fire in the course of the sacrifice, but those same Brahmins would have to have known how to say it in another language as well, in the kitchen.) At the very least, those male Sanskritists had to be bilingual in order to talk to their wives and servants and children.d It was through those interactions that oral traditions got their foot in the Sanskrit door. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s 
Pygmalion, is said to be the author of Spoken Sanskrit, and many priests and scholars can speak Sanskrit, but no one ever spoke only pure Sanskrit. Sanskrit and oral traditions flow back and forth, producing a constant infusion of lower-class words and ideas into the Brahmin world, and vice versa.

It must have been the case that the natural language, Prakrit, and the vernaculars came first, while Sanskrit, the refined, secondary revision, the artificial language, came later. But South Asianists often seem to assume that it is the other way around, that the dialects are “derived from Sanskrit,” because Sanskrit won the race to the archives and was the first to be written down and preserved, and we only encounter vernaculars much later. 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 unavailability, which made it the power of an elite group.7 Walt Kelly’s Pogo used to use the word “Sam-skrimps” to describe highfalutin double-talk or manipulative twaddle. Many Euro-Americans mispronounce it “Sanscript,” implying that it is a language without (
sans) an (intelligible) script, or “Sand-script,” with overtones of ruined cities in the desert or a lost language written in sand.

The sociologist M. N. Srinivas, in 1952, coined the useful term “Sanskritization” to describe the way that Vedic social values, Vedic ritual forms, and Sanskrit learning seep into local popular traditions of ritual and ideology (in part through people who hope to be upwardly mobile, to rise by imitating the manners and habits, particularly food taboos, of Brahmins, and in particular avoiding violence to animals).8 Indian society, in this view, is a permanent floating game of snakes and ladders (or, perhaps, snakes and ropes, recalling that Vedantic philosophers mistake snakes for ropes and that you can climb up on ropes in the Indian rope trick), which you enter in a state of impurity, gradually advancing over the generations toward the goal of Brahminical purity, trying to avoid the many pitfalls along the way.9 Tribal groups (Bhils, Gonds, etc.) might undergo Sanskritization in order to claim to be a caste, and therefore, Hindu.10

But the opposite of Sanskritization, the process by which the Sanskritic tradition simultaneously absorbs and transforms those same popular traditions, is equally important, and that process might be called oralization, or popularization, or even, perhaps, Deshification (from the “local” or 
deshi traditions) or Laukification, from what Sanskrit calls laukika (“of the people” [loka]). Let’s settle on Deshification. The two processes of Sanskritization and Deshification beget each other. Similarly, through a kind of identificatio brahmanica,11 local gods take on the names of gods in Sanskrit texts: Murukan becomes Skanda, a kind of Sanskritization, while at the same time there is an identificatio deshika, by which Sanskrit gods take on the characteristics of local gods, and to the people who worship Murukan, it is Murukan who is absorbing Skanda, not the reverse. “Cross-fertilization” might be a good, equalizing term for the combination of the two processes.

“Written” does not necessarily mean “written in Sanskrit,” nor are oral texts always in the vernacular (the 
Rig Veda, after all, was preserved orally in Sanskrit for many centuries before it was consigned to writing). We cannot equate vernacular with oral, for people both write and speak both Sanskrit and the vernacular languages of India, though Sanskrit is written more often than spoken. The distinction between Sanskrit and the vernacular literatures is basically geographical: Though there are regional Sanskrits, the vernaculars, unlike Sanskrit, are defined and named by their place of origin (Bangla from Bengal, Oriya from Orissa, and so forth), while the script in which Sanskrit is most often written allegedly has no particular earthly place of origin (it is called “the [script of the] city of the gods [deva-nagari]”). Once people departed from the royal road of Sanskrit literary texts, there were thousands of vernacular paths that they could take, often still keeping one foot on the high road of Sanskrit.

The constant, gradual, unofficial mutual exchange between Sanskrit and the vernacular languages, the cross-fertilization, underwent a dramatic transformation toward the middle of the second millennium: Local languages were now promoted officially, politically, and artistically,12 replacing the previously fashionable cosmopolitan and translocal language, Sanskrit. Instead of nourishing and supplementing Sanskrit, the vernacular languages as literary languages began to compete with Sanskrit as the language of literary production. This process has been called, in imitation of Srinivas’s “Sanskritization” (and in contrast with both Deshification and the more mutually nourishing, two-way process of cross-fertilization) vernacularization, “the historical process of choosing to create a written literature, along with its complement, a political discourse, in local languages according to models supplied by a superordinate, usually cosmopolitan, literary culture,”13 or “a process of change by which the universalistic orders, formations, and practices of the preceding millennium were supplemented and gradually replaced by localized forms.”14

The great divide is between written and nonwritten, not between Sanskrit and the vernaculars, particularly as the Sanskrit corpus comes to be Deshified and the vernaculars eventually became Sanskritized themselves, imitating Sanskrit values and conventions, sharing many of the habits of the Sanskrit Brahmin imaginary, such as grammars and lexicons.15 The bad news is that some of the vernacular literatures are marred by the misogynist and class-bound mental habits of Brahmins, while the good news is that even some Sanskrit texts, and certainly many vernacular texts, often break out of those strictures and incorporate the more open-minded attitudes of the oral vernaculars.

Many ideas, and in particular many narratives, seem to enter Sanskrit literature either from parts of the Sanskrit canon that have fallen away or from non-Sanskrit sources (two entirely nonfalsifiable speculations). It’s an old joke among linguists that a language is a dialect with an army,e and this is sometimes used to explain the dominance of Sanskrit texts, since as usual, the victors wrote the history, and in ancient India, they usually wrote it in Sanskrit. (The earliest inscriptions were in Prakrit, not Sanskrit, but from about 150 CE, Sanskrit dominated this field too.) Sanskrit is perched on top of the vernacular literatures like a mahout on an elephant, like Krishna riding on the composite women that form the horse on the jacket of this book.


Such a luxurious jungle of cultural phenomena, truly an embarrassment of riches, necessitates a drastic selectivity. I have therefore provided not detailed histories of specific moments but one or two significant episodes to represent the broader historical periods in question.16 The result is not a seamless narrative that covers the waterfront but a pointillist collage, a kaleidoscope, made of small, often discontinuous fragments. Synecdoche—letting one or two moments in history and one or two narratives stand for many—allows us to see alternity in a grain of sand,17 taking a small piece of human history and using it to suggest the full range of enduring human concerns. These small fragments alternate with a few exemplary narratives quoted in considerable detail, where Hindus speak in their own words (in translationf).

I have tried to balance my translations of the classic, much-translated texts with citations of more obscure, previously unnoticed texts, using as my framework the usual suspects that scholars have rounded up over and over, the basic curry and rice episodes of Hinduism, but moving away quickly, in each chapter, to a handful of lesser-known episodes, things usually left out of survey books on Hinduism. These are not the great imperial moments but episodes that give us an inkling of what religious life was like for some people, including ordinary people, in India long ago. I have also included a few episodes of interaction (both friendly and hostile) between Hindus and non-Hindus in India, such as Buddhists, Jainas, Sikhs, and Muslims, though without paying direct attention to those other religions in their own right. Beginning with a minimal backbone or infrastructure of basic historical events and concepts that many people would agree upon (data never value free but still valuable), we can then move from this point outward to other points, and from social history to literary texts, to search for narratives of and about alternative people. That selectivity makes this book alternative in another sense, in that it leaves wide open a great deal of space for others to select from in writing their histories, alternative to mine. Someone else would make different choices and write a very different book. This is 
a history, not the history, of the Hindus.


The central actors and their actions are threads around which the great narratives of Hinduism coalesce like crystals in a supersaturated solution. The actors and actions connect in various ways: Sanskrit texts usually regard women and hunted animals as primary objects of addiction, and the senses that cause addiction are likened to horses; animals often represent both women and the lower classes; the tension between sexuality and renunciation results in an ambivalence toward women as mothers and seductresses; and violence is first addressed largely in the form of violence against animals. Violence and tolerance also interact in attitudes not only to other religions but between the upper and lower castes, between men and women, and between humans and animals. I will highlight in each period those moments when intrareligious (including intercaste) or interreligious interactions took place, marked by either tolerance or violence, the deciding factor between the two options often being historical circumstances. Each chapter deals with several themes, but not every chapter has instances of every theme or treats the same theme in the same way (chapter 12 for instance, is about women more than about goddesses, while chapter 14 is about goddesses more than about women), and indeed I have often noted the activities of women in other contexts, without explicitly highlighting their gender. But wherever the evidence allows, I will organize each chapter around these central themes.


In the Introduction (chapter 1), I spell out the assumptions behind my attention to history and to the particular actors in this story (women, lower classes and castes, and animals). Here let me just say a few words about the central action: (non)violence.

The term “nonviolence” (
ahimsa) originally applied not to the relationship between humans but to the relationship between humans and animals. Ahimsa means “the absence of the desire to injure or kill,” a disinclination to do harm, rather than an active desire to be gentle; it is a double negative, perhaps best translated by the negative “nonviolence,” which suggests both mental and physical concern for others. The roots of ahimsa may lie in Vedic ritual, in animal sacrifice, in the argument that the priest does not actually injure the animal but merely “pacifies him”; the primary meaning of ahimsa is thus to do injury without doing injury, a casuist argument from its very inception. In the Rig Veda’ (the earliest Sanskrit text, from c. 1200 BCE), the word ahimsa refers primarily to the prevention of injury or violence to the sacrificer and his offspring, as well as his cattle (10.22.13).18 The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the verb on which ahimsa is based, han, is ambiguous, meaning both “to strike or beat” and “to kill.” Ahimsa, therefore, when applied to cows, to take a case at random, might mean refraining either from beating them or killing them—quite a difference. In any case, ahimsa represents not a political doctrine or even a social theory, but the emotion of the horror of killing (or hurting) a living creature, an emotion that we will see attested from the earliest texts.g

Arguments about whether or not to kill, sacrifice, and/or eat animals were often at the heart of interreligious violence, sometimes the grounds on which human beings attacked other human beings (usually with words, though occasionally with blows).h Arjuna, the heroic warrior of the 
Mahabharata, the great ancient Sanskrit poem about a tragic war, excuses the violence of war by saying, “Creatures live on creatures, the stronger on the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, just as the cat eats the mongoose; the dog devours the cat, your majesty, and wild beasts eat the dog. Even ascetics [tapasas] cannot stay alive without killing” [12.15.16-24]. The text here justifies human violence by the violence that is rampant in the animal world. Yet the most common sense of ahimsa refers to humans’ decision to rise above animal violence. Vegetarianism, both as an ideal and as a social fact in India, challenges Arjuna’s belief that animals must inevitably feed on one another and attempts to break the chain of alimentary violence simply by affirming that it is not, in fact, necessary to kill in order to eat.

Nonviolence became a cultural ideal for Hindus precisely because it holds out the last hope of a cure, all the more desirable since unattainable, for a civilization that has, like most, always suffered from chronic and terminal violence. Non-violence is an ideal propped up against the cultural reality of violence. Classical Hindu India was violent in ways both shared with all cultures and unique to its particular time and place, in its politics (war being the raison d’être of every king); in its religious practices (animal sacrifice, ascetic self-torture, fire walking, swinging from hooks in the flesh of the back, and so forth); in its criminal law (impaling on stakes and the amputation of limbs being prescribed punishments for relatively minor offenses); in its hells (cunningly and sadistically contrived to make the punishment fit the crime); and, perhaps at the very heart of it all, in its climate, with its unendurable heat and unpredictable monsoons. Hindu sages dreamed of nonviolence as people who live all their lives in the desert dream of oases.

It is against this background that we must view the doctrine of nonviolence. The history of Hinduism, as we shall see, abounds both in periods of creative assimilation and interaction and in outbursts of violent intolerance. Sometimes it is possible to see how historical circumstances have tipped the scales in one direction or the other. Sometimes it is not. In their ambivalent attitude to violence, the Hindus are no different from the rest of us, but they are perhaps unique in the intensity of their ongoing debate about it.


I have organized several of these tensions into dualities, for dualism is an (if not the) Indian way of thinking, as the folklorist A. K. Ramanujan pointed out, speaking of his father: “I (and my generation) was [sic] troubled by his holding together in one brain both astronomy and astrology. I looked for consistency in him, a consistency he didn’t seem to care about, or even to think about. . . . ‘Don’t you know, [he said,] the brain has two lobes?”19 But some of the most interesting developments take place in the combinations of the two cultural lobes, whether we define them as Brahmin and non-Brahmin, written and oral, or male and female. One medieval Hindu philosophical text defined a great teacher as someone with the ability to grasp both sides of an argument.20 It is, I think, no accident that India is the land that developed the technique of interweaving two colors of silk threads so that the fabric is what they call peacock’s neck, blue if you hold it one way, green another (or sometimes pink or yellow or purple), and, if you hold it right, both at once.

Another metaphor for this sort of double vision is the dark shape visible on the moon: many Americans and Europeans (for convenience, let us call them Euro-Americans) see the face of a man in the moon (whom some Jewish traditions identify as Cain, cursed to wander), and other cultures see a woman, a moose, a buffalo, a frog, and so forth. But most Hindus (as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Aztecs) see a hare.i (I am calling it a rabbit to avoid the unfortunateEnglish homonym “hare/hair,” another bit of double vision, though calling it a rabbit lands me in the middle of a rock group called the Rabbit in the Moon). The man’s right eye can be read as the rabbit’s ears, his left eye the rabbit’s chest, and his mouth the rabbit’s tail. (There was a time, in the 1930s, when some people in India saw the image of Gandhi in the moon.21) The Buddhists tell how the moon came to have the mark of a rabbit:


The future Buddha was once born as a rabbit, who vowed that he would give his own flesh to any beggar who came to him, in order to protect the beggar from having to break the moral law by taking animal life. To test him, Indra, the Hindu king of the gods, took the form of a Brahmin and came to him; the rabbit offered to throw himself into a fire and roast himself so that the Brahmin could eat him. Indra conjured up a magical fire; when the rabbit—who first shook himself three times so that any insects that might be on his body would escape death—threw himself into the fire, it turned icy cold. Indra then revealed his identity as Indra, and so that everyone would know of the rabbit’s virtue, he painted the sign of a rabbit on the orb of the moon.22

The convoluted logic of the rabbit’s act of self-violence, in his determination to protect anyone 
else from committing an act of violence against any other animal, is a theme that we will often encounter. The rabbit in the moon is one of so many ideas that Hinduism and Buddhism share.

As an approach to the history of Hinduism, seeing both their rabbit and our man in the moon means maintaining an awareness both of what the tradition says (the insider’s view) and of what a very different viewpoint helps us to see (the outsider’s view). Hindus may approach their scriptures as a part of their piety or as scholars who study Hinduism as they would study any other human phenomenon, or both simultaneously.j There are certainly things that only a Hindu can know about Hinduism, both factual details of local and private practices and texts and the experiential quality of these and other, better-known religious phenomena. This is what inspires interreligious dialogue, an often interesting and productive conversation between individuals who belong to different religions.k But there are also advantages in a more academic approach, such as a religious studies approach, to which the religion of the scholar in question is irrelevant. I would not go so far as some who would insist that a Hindu is 
not the person to ask about Hinduism, as Harvard professor Roman Jakobson notoriously objected to Nabokov’s bid for chairmanship of the Russian literature department: “I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of zoology?” Nor would I go to the other extreme, to insist that a Hindu is the only person to ask about Hinduism. For no single Hindu or, for that matter, non-Hindu can know all of the Hinduisms, let alone represent them. So too there are many different ways of being an academic: Some are careful with their research, others sloppy; some make broad generalizations, while others concentrate on small details.

Nowadays most non-Hindu scholars of Hinduism strike the familiar religious studies yoga posture of leaning over backward, in their attempt to avoid offense to the people they write about. But any academic approach to Hinduism, viewing the subject through the eyes of writers from Marx and Freud to Foucault and Edward Said, provides a kind of telescope, the viewfinder of context, to supplement the microscope of the insider’s view, which cannot supply the same sort of context.23 Always there is bias, and the hope is that the biases of Hindus and non-Hindus will cancel one another out in a well-designed academic study of any aspect of Hinduism. The ancient Persians (according to the Greek historian Herodotus, c. 430 BCE) would debate every important question first drunk, then (on the next day) sober or, as the case may be, first sober, then drunk (1.133). So too, in our scholarly approach, we need to consider the history of Hinduism first from a Hindu viewpoint, then from an academic one. Different sorts of valuable insights may come to individuals both inside and outside the tradition and need not threaten one another. To return to those elephants, you don’t have to be an elephant to study zoology, but zoologists do not injure elephants by writing about them. To change the metaphor and apply it more specifically to Hindu texts, a story is a flame that burns no less brightly if strangers light their candles from it.

To return to my central metaphor, once you’ve seen the rabbit (or hare) in the moon, it’s hard to see the man anymore, but the double vision is what we should strive for. This means that when we consider, for instance, the burning of living women on the pyres of their dead husbands (which we call suttee, to distinguish it from the woman who commits the act, a woman whom the Hindus call a sati), we must try to see their rabbit, to see the reasons why some Hindus thought (and some continue to think) that it is a good idea for some women to burn themselves to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres, while other Hindus strongly disagree. On the other hand, we cannot, and need not, stop seeing our American man (or, perhaps, woman) in the moon: the reasons why many Americans think that suttee is not a good idea at all. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that the image of a duck-rabbit (also, actually, a duck-hare) was either a rather smug rabbit or a rather droopy duck24 but could not be both at once.l But this is precisely the goal that a non-Hindu should have in studying Hinduism: to see in the moon both our man and their rabbit.


Hindus nowadays are diverse in their attitude to their own diversity, which inspires pride in some, anxiety in others. In particular, it provokes anxiety in those Hindus who are sometimes called Hindu nationalists, or the Hindu right, or right-wing Hindus, or the Hindutva (“Hinduness”) faction, or, more approximately, Hindu fundamentalists; they are against Muslims, Christians, and the Wrong Sort of Hindus. Their most powerful political organ is the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), with its militant branch, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), but they are also involved in groups such as Hindu Human Rights, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad). I will generally refer to them as the Hindutva faction or the Hindu right. This book is also alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they tell.

There’s a personal story that I should tell about my relationship with this group of Hindus here at the start, in the interest of full disclosure. In the middle of a lecture that I gave in London on November 12, 2003, chaired by William Dalrymple, a man threw an egg at me.25 (He missed his aim, in every way.) A message that a member of the two-hundred-strong audience posted the next day on a mailing list Web site referred to a passage I had cited from Valmiki’s 
Ramayana in which Sita, the wife of Rama, accuses her brother-in-law, Lakshmana, of wanting her for himself. The Web message stated:

I was struck by the sexual thrust of her paper on one of our most sacred epics. Who lusted/laid whom, it was not only Ravan who desired Sita but her brother-in-law Lakshman also. Then many other pairings, some I had never heard of, from our other shastras were thrown in to weave a titillating sexual tapestry. What would these clever, “learned” western people be doing for a living if they did not have our shastras and traditions to nitpick and distort?26

After a bit more of this, the writerm added:

Her friends and admirers certainly made their applause heard, Muslims among them. In the foyer before the lecture I shook hands and asked a Muslim if he had attended the other lectures in the series and if he was ready for conversion. He said that someone (did he name Vivekananda in the hubbub?) at a similar sort of function had taken off his clothes and asked the audience if they could tell if he was a Hindu or a Muslim.

The deeper political agenda of the author of the posting was betrayed by that second set of remarks, particularly by the gratuitous reference to Muslim conversion, and I am grateful to the unnamed Muslim in this vignette for so aptly invoking the wise words of Vivekananda (or, as the case may more probably be, Kabir). My defense now, for this book, remains what it was in the news coverage then, about the lecture (and the egg):

The Sanskrit texts [cited in my lecture] were written at a time of glorious sexual openness and insight, and I have often focused on precisely those parts of the texts. . . .The irony is that I have praised these texts and translated them in such a way that many people outside the Hindu tradition—people who would otherwise go on thinking that Hinduism is nothing but a caste system that mistreats Untouchables—have come to learn about it and to admire the beauty, complexity and wisdom of the Hindu texts.27

And, I should have added, the diversity of the Hindu texts. To the accusation that I cited a part of the Hindu textual tradition that one Hindu “had never heard of,” my reply is: Yes!, and it’s my intention to go on doing just that. The parts of his own tradition that he objected to are embraced by many other Hindus and are, in any case, historically part of the record. One reason why this book is so long is that I wanted to show how very much there is of all that the egg faction would deny. And so I intend to go on celebrating the diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus that I have loved for about fifty years now and still counting.

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  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 800 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 014311669X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0143116691
  • Reading age ‏ : ‎ 18 years and up
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