Jewish Studies & The Hindus (Reading Wendy Doniger)


I followed the news last year when Penguin in India was forced by religious conservatives in that country to pulp their copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. I bought the book because it looked interesting.  And truth be told, I know next to nothing about India, its history or religious cultures. Like many educated Americans, I’m working with bits and scraps of only the most vaguely formed notions regarding Hindu gods, philosophy, texts, and iconographic images, all held together as if in some timeless ether. I’m embarrassed to say that I had no historical and contextual structure previously with which to come to even a basic sense of it all. This is especially embarrassing to me because I have distinguished senior colleagues in my department who are experts in the religions of India, and they bring to the department excellent graduate students.

For Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy, India seems particularly important. About this Alan Brill has more expert things to say, but I’ll throw my two cents in here.

On the one hand, Hinduism(s) would represent “the other” to the Jewish form of monotheism in such ways as to call up short modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy, if not Judaism itself. These have to do with the combination of metaphysical breadth and human worldliness in the Indian traditions. Beyond the obvious surface differences, what I see as the most fundamental difference is the question of scale, the very, very small compared to the very, very big. Religious thought and philosophy, it would seem, require the physical capaciousness that Judaism and Jewish philosophy might seem to lack. The real difference would be that there is simply more of “it” in India. Hinduism has more “things,” i.e. more philosophical strains, more texts, much more art, and more divinity. The ideas are bigger, more violent, more colorful. Most likely, it comes down to more people.

On the other hand, there are similarities between Judaism and Hinduism that intrigue religious studies comparativists. For good and for ill, these might be said to relate to system, ritual, temples, law, place, politics, community and culture. Perhaps any possible connection one might want to draw would be based on the emphasis placed on physicality in both Judaism and Hinduism. Perhaps more interestingly, one could stretch the comparison by flipping the way these two traditions are ordinarily understood in order to point to systems of Hindu theism, and Jewish iconicity. This would be a project well beyond my capacity or competence. The upshot would be to say that they are different, but not all that different. Tongue in cheek, I’d start off suggesting, actually quite seriously, that the Hinduism of domestic householders might be looked at as very large and sturdy version of Judaism.

About Doniger’s book, all I can say is that I think it’s stupendous, mainly for the light and expert hand with which it places into context the intersections of history, text, ritual practice, ideas, and ideology. Instead of to one thing, particularly one thing that would stand by way as a simple and simplistic contrast to western religion, especially Judaism, the reader is introduced into a whirl of diverse, conflicting, and intersecting variations. The religion of “the Hindus” is too big a thing to peg under this or that single category. Again, if this is true of all religious traditions, it is especially and all the more so true of what we have come to call Hinduism.

To this, however, I’ll add one caveat and a counter-caveat. Politically engaged in the politics of modern Hindu nationalism, Doniger has nary a kind word to say about the Brahmin class that has so dominated the religious cultures of India. That’s the alternative part of the history promised by the author in the book’s subtitle, and it is what got her into such trouble with Hindu community critics. As a historical class, the Brahmins are presented with what might indeed be too broad a brush. They appear as sacrificial legalists terrified by flow and flux represented in particular by the underside of the caste and gender systems. In Doniger’s defense, the counter-caveat would be to say that once one recognizes this prejudice and adjust one’s own reading of the text around the author’s own polemical position, if that is one’s intention to do so. The Brahmins, they have been around for some two thousand and more years. They can take the hit. They’re not going anywhere.

This very rough sketch culled from my notes helped me order in some crude historical context all the ideas and texts, some of which have long interested Western readers and visitors, and some of which interest me in my own work in the smaller place of Jewish philosophy and thought –ideas and texts about the Gods of India and ritual practice such as puja and darshan, ideas about and markers of space and place, philosophical arguments about monism and dualism, the tension between worldliness and otherworldliness, political and religious authority, the tension between elite and domestic religion, mysticism and non-mysticism, art and architecture, ideas and texts about violence, renunciation, dharma, karma, vegetarianism, caste). Throughout, Doniger pays attention to the disjuncture between texts and practice, always with her eye on the vernacular and bawdy. What grabs my attention is the way all these things in India get thrown onto such a larger screen.

Uninformed as it is re: India, my only serious reservation about The Hindus is rhetorical-conceptual. This relates to Doniger’s discussion of the contemporary scene, where I was caught up short by the brief discussion of the internet, modern-contemporary mass media, and the impact of market forces in disseminating Hindu religious and artistic traditions today (pp.668ff, 685f). Practically snobbish, after immersing the reader into the hurly-burly of Hindu cultures, after pushing back on contemporary nationalists, Doniger now starts to worry about authenticity, really for the first time and only now at the very end of the book as we enter the modern period. I didn’t see it coming. Its anxiety forms around women. You can see it where Doniger writes about a local women’s art tradition as it enters into international markets, with the author worried about “artistic integrity” based on the criterion of a philosophical idea (“impermanence”).

Relatedly, does the rather strange polemical shot that rightwing Hindu nationalist “orthodoxy” is really “Christian” hide that very same anxiety about cultural authenticity as expressed by a scholar who distinguished herself as a Sanskritist (p.689)? Why isn’t the idea of a truly tolerant individual pluralism (ibid.) not a liberal import? Is it no less an import than the horses brought into India from abroad which so exercise and animate Doniger’s own capacious imagination? Necessary for imperial expansion and rule going back to the nomadic Vedic and classical dynastic periods, a graceful humanized equine form graces the cover of the book. Horses are introduced early on and appear throughout the book. Ill-adapted to the climate, they are brought in, first from the North and then from Arabia. They get the last word at the end of the book where the reader is returned to the very beautiful front cover, a blue Krishna riding his consorts.

While I have always been suspicious about comparativist approaches to the field, I think there’s an interest in maintaining open, corrigible lines of connection within the larger study of religion. For the academic study of Judaism, this seems particularly necessary as a way to bring its object to bear vis-a-vis a larger sense of the world that allows one to look beyond more familiar intellectual contexts or the narrow place of Judaism in the Greco-Roman, Islamic, and western worlds. For Jewish Studies, India is a bracing tonic. With no shame whatsoever, I cop to a kind of informed intellectual tourism.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Jewish Studies & The Hindus (Reading Wendy Doniger)

  1. dmf says:

    the anthropological angle on both that I’d like to see more contemporary work on is the old ideas around purity/cleanliness/contagion customs/laws.

  2. Michael Fagenblat says:

    Great post, thanks. I love India. I’ve been there 6 or 7 times, mostly when I was a student. But I know it as a tourist not a scholar. One of the memorable, and delectable, things for me was encountering people who asked after my religion. I was probably wearing a kippah at this point, though not necessarily. It happened often. When I’d reply “Jewish,” they’d look at me blankly, with a “What’s that?” kinda stare. I’d have to say things like “it’s sort of like Christian” or “it’s sort of like Muslim” or “Jesus was Jewish before Christianity”. For me, meeting this “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” was always a very great delight and relief.

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