The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger raised great expectations of a new refreshing approach. We had tired of the stereotypical British approach followed by a spate of communist interpretations beginning with Prof Mohammed Habib. With the demise of communism in Europe, secular fundamentalism has become rather fashionable, the latest being Ramchandra Guha’s efforts. Regrettably, Doniger has fallen into the same groove, copying liberally from Romila Thapar, DN Jha et al.
In some ways Doniger has gone much beyond these secular fundamentalists. On the Ramayan she says, “One night while Sita and Rama were lying together, Sita discussed Lakshman very affectionately. She said, ‘There he is sleeping alone. What is it that keeps him away from a woman? Why doesn’t he want to marry?’ This roused suspicion in Rama’s mind. Sita slept soundly, but Rama kept awake the whole night imagining things. Early next morning he sent for Lakshman from his lonely palace and asked him suddenly, ‘Do you love Sita?’ Lakshman was taken aback.”
The author clearly wants to denigrate Hindus, else why would she pick on Ram, Sita and Lakshman. Could she think of nothing better to interpret in the Ramayan which Hindus view as a sacred book and not merely an epic. Why distort the beautiful story of Raja Dashrath’s family into such rot? Clearly, Doniger has no consideration for other people’s sentiments.
When she comes to the Mahabharata, she simply quotes from an irreverent novel by Shashi Tharoor. “Shashi Tharoor retold the Mahabharata as The Great Indian Novel, in which the self-sacrificing Bhishma (the son of Ganga, in the Sanskrit text) becomes Ganga-ji, a thinly veiled form of Gandhi, while Dhritarashtra is Nehru, with his daughter Duryodhani (Indira Gandhi), Karna goes over to the Muslim side and becomes Jinnah (where the original Karna sliced his armour off his body, this Karna seizes a knife and circumcises himself) and is eventually exposed as a chauffeur, the ‘humble modern successor to the noble profession of charioteering.’ As Tharoor remarks, ‘It is only a story. But you learn something about a man from the kind of stories people make up about him’.”
Continuing with the great epic, the book then picks on Draupadi: “Now, even with five husbands didn’t Draupadi have to worry about Karna Maharaj’s intentions? Dalit women are equally dubious about Satyavati and Kunti: ‘One agreed to the whims of a rishi in order to remove the bad odour from her body, the other obeyed a mantra! What wonderful gods! What wonderful rishis!’ And a popular song among lower-class women in nineteenth-century Calcutta imagined the objections that Ambalika might have expressed when her mother-in-law, Satyavati, insisted that she let Vyasa impregnate her.” These references are not taken from the epics but are based on folklore attributed to Dalit and Adivasi women who were presumed to resent upper castes. Why should such stray observations be quoted in a book which claims to be an alternative history?
In the chapter ‘Fusion and Rivalry’ under the Delhi Sultanate, the author observes that Buddhism was driven out of India by a combination of lack of support, persecution, and the destruction of religious monuments and monasteries by Hindus as well as Muslims. Hindus have not been known to be iconoclasts. They are themselves idol worshippers. Secondly, Lord Buddha is accepted as the 10th avatar of Lord Vishnu. Therefore, destroying any of his monuments cannot arise. Vincent Smith, the distinguished British historian, wrote “In or about 1197, several years after the fall of Delhi, this officer (Mohd Bakhtiyar Khalji) secured the control of Bihar by a raid of almost incredible audacity, seizing the fort of the town of Bihar with a party of only two hundred horsemen. The Buddhist monasteries, which still flourished under the patronage of Pala kings, were destroyed, and the monks killed or dispersed. The Mohammadan onslaught extinguished the life of Buddhism in its old home and last refuge. After this time the indication of the existence of that religion anywhere in India are very slight.”
Clearly, Doniger is not an objective scholar but someone with a pro-Muslim agenda. To quote her, “Hinduism under Islam was alive and well and living in India. The same sultans who, with what Hindus would regard as the left hand, collected the jizya and destroyed Hindu temples also, with the right hand, often married Rajput princesses, patronised Hindu artists and Sanskrit scholars, and employed Hindus in the highest offices of state.” How on earth can anyone with a sense of fairplay excuse jizya and the destruction of Hindu temples so casually?
Coming to Somnath Doniger writes, “Mahmud of Ghazni, an observant Sunni, took a great deal of gold, silver, and precious stones from the images of the Mathura temple in 1004 and then burned it to the ground. In 1026 he attacked the temple of Somnatha (Somnath), which held a famous Shiva linga; this much, at least, seems to be historical fact.” She goes on to say that “Putting the stones on the ground to be trodden on by people of another religion was unequivocally adding insult to injury. It was the order of the day to destroy other people’s religious monuments and steal their treasures; the Muslims had no monopoly on that.” Muhammad Nazim, the Cambridge scholar in his book on Mahmud of Ghazni says, “The destruction of the temple of Somnath was looked upon as the crowning glory of Islam over idolatry, and Sultan Mahmud as the champion of the Faith, received the applause of all the Muslim world. Poets vied with each other in extolling the real or supposed virtues of the idol-breaker, and the prose-writers of later generations paid their tribute of praise to him by making him the hero of numerous ingenious stories.” That Mahmud’s was primarily a religious mission and incidentally a looting one, is clear.
Coming to the great Hindu empire Vijayanagar, the author holds an incredible view: “Vijaynagar yields much evidence of Hindu-Muslim synthesis rather than antagonism.” She adds, “In 1565, at the battle of Talikota, a confederation of Muslim sultans routed the forces of Vijaynagar and the Nayakas. The usual sacking and slaughter, treasure hunting and pillage of building materials ensued, but without bigotry; the temples were the least damaged of the buildings and were often left intact.”
Well-known ICS officer Robert Sewell, in his book A Forgotten Empire, published in 1900, had the following comment: “For a space of five months Vijaynagar knew no rest. The enemy had come to destroy, and they carried out their object relentlessly. They slaughtered the people without mercy; broke down the temples and palaces; and wreaked such savage vengeance on the abode of the kings, that, with the exception of a few great stone-built temples and walls, nothing now remains but a heap of ruins to mark the spot where once the stately buildings stood.” He goes on, “With fire and sword, with crowbars and axes, they carried on day after day their work of destruction. Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the full plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.”
In her chapter ‘Dialogue and Tolerance under the Mughals’, Doniger says about Aurangzeb: “He financed the maintenance of several other Hindu temples and matts, and he even made land grants to some.” FS Growse, the District Magistrate in his gazetteer published in 1882, has observed the following: “Aurangzeb had descended in person on Mathura. The temple specially marked out for destruction was one built so recently as the reign of Jahangir at a cost of thirty-three lakhs, by Bir Sinh Dev Bundela of Urcha. Beyond all doubt this was the last of the famous shrines of Kesava Deva.”
While discussing jizya, the oppressive poll tax levied by Muslim rulers on their Hindu subjects, the author writes: “The Delhi sultans levied the jizya, graduated according to income, with exemptions for people at both ends of the social spectrum, the poorest and (until Feroz Shah changed the rule) the purest, the Brahmins. There is also evidence of the existence of a Turkish (Turuska) tax, which may have been a poll tax on Muslims in India, a Hindu equivalent of the Muslim jizya.” A Hindu jizya is indeed an innovation by the American Doniger! The truth is jizya was imposed in 712 AD with the advent of Mohd bin-Qasim. A leading scholar on Mughal history, Prof Sri Ram Sharma wrote that jizya “implied a declaration that the Muslim rulers of India were still her conquerors, holding the inhabitants down by sheer force. It proclaimed the superiority of Islam over Hinduism in too brazen a fashion. Every other aspect of the religious policy of Muslim emperors of India was founded upon the imposition of this tax. Thus its abolition in 1564 was a turning point in the history of the Muslim rule in India. As long as the Jizya was levied, the Muslims were the only true citizens in the Muslim state. Hindus were subjects who acquired certain rights as a result of their undertaking to pay the Jizya to their conquerors.”
All in all, An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger is a comprehensive attempt to denigrate the Hindu ethos, be it her spontaneous effort or a sponsored attempt by Hindu-bashers.