Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History was recently withdrawn from the market, triggering extensive debate on the freedom of expression. This review of the book was published in the December 2009 edition of The Caravan.
The Chandogya Upanishad recounts the creation of the world: it all began with a cosmic egg, the text claims, that cracked in two. One half of this broken eggshell formed the sky and the other part the earth. From the eggwhite came clouds and from the yolk, mist. The veins in the egg turned into rivers and the fluid of the egg became the ocean. In the Satapatha Brahmana, the creator, Prajapati, hatches from a golden egg. Eggs abound in creation myths across cultures—from the Greek Orphic myths to the Finnish Kalevala. Perhaps it is fitting that the story of how The Hindus: An Alternative History came into being also begins with an egg—an English egg thrown at an American academic during a lecture in London in November 2003.
Wendy Doniger, the author of The Hindus, is possibly the most reputed academic in the field of Hindu studies today. In 2003, she was giving a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies, moderated by William Dalrymple, when, in response to her comments on the repressed sexuality of characters in the Ramayana, an audience member threw an egg at her.
An earlier essay by Doniger, ‘Shadows of the Ramayana’, seems to summarise the contentious points of her lecture. The essay is brilliant and incisive, more literary criticism than anything else. In her analysis, Doniger points out how characters like Surpanakaa and Sita serve as foils to each other, and how the relationship between Valin and Surgriva articulates the tensions and potential threats that underlie Ram’s relationship with his brothers. She goes on to claim that “the text suggests that Rama might fear his brother Lakshmana might become another sort of double, that he could replace Rama in bed with Sita.” For devout Hindus, who consider Ram a god and the Ramayana a sacred text only to be worshipped, such readings are, no doubt, antagonizing. After her 2003 lecture, Doniger was attacked in the press and on the Internet for being titillating and obsessed with sex. Dalrymple, writing later about the incident, noted that the eggthrowing faction not only criticised Doniger's work but also questioned her right, as a non-Hindu, to write about Hinduism.
It’s this incident, Doniger claims in the preface to The Hindus, that spurred her to write this book, which offers the reader an alternative to the conventional and most widely-read narratives of Hinduism.