Doniger does a doggie
Let me begin with a clarification of the title, which was suggested by an adult film that had gained certain notoriety back in the 1970s. "Debbie Does Dallas" was an all-time best-seller among adult movies released in 1978 and is about Debbie Benton (played by Bambi Woods) who is captain of a high school cheerleading squad that has won a place with a professional sports team in Dallas. Contrary to the title, the film is not set in Dallas nor does Debbie ‘do’ anyone in or from Dallas because the squad does not reach there. Debbie does not have enough money and her parents disapprove of the move and refuse to pay the fare to Texas. Debbie and other cheerleaders are forced to figure out ways to make extra cash on the side. One of them works in a library, another in a candle shop, and Debbie herself finds work in a clothing store owned by one Mr. Greenfield. Soon the girls realize that they can make more money by doing ‘favors’ for their bosses. One day Debbie comes in dressed as a ‘Texas Cowgirl’ cheerleader and waits for Mr. Greenfield after hours at the store. After preliminaries they engage in sex, first in the ‘missionary position,’ then ‘doggy style,’ and then with Debbie on top. Debbie has made enough money after Mr. Greenfield scores a ‘field goal’ and Debbie crowns it with a ‘touchdown.’ The film became an international sensation and spawned the sequels, remakes, and imitations including Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, which opened at the Jane Street Theatre in New York City to receive rave reviews in October 2002.
‘Doniger’ in the above blog title refers to Wendy Doniger, who is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago. The connection between ‘Debbie’ of the film and Professor Wendy Doniger (hereafter Doniger) is that they both are in the business of providing entertainment involving sex. Both employ bodies: Debbie her own; and Doniger the bodies of Hindu gods and goddesses. Ultimate goal eludes both: Debbie does not make to Dallas and Doniger fails to connect with the Hindus.
Dogs (along with horses and cows) loom large in Doniger’s latest work. The index contains a dozen or so entries under the main heading of “dogs,” for instance. The 779 pages book is officially entitled, "The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009; hereafter The Hindus). In Doniger’s ‘alternative history’(in reality it is more like a work of fiction) of India and Hinduism, “dogs” represent high caste Hindu males who have [allegedly] oppressed and repressed everybody else in India since the ancient Vedic times. In Doniger’s reckoning, in the traditional history of India (a product of Brahmin imagination as alleged by her), religious minorities and social outcastes are reduced to a status of a ‘scape-dog’ (p. 145) (these include Muslims who ruled India for most of the last millennium; I told you this is a work of fiction!). The main purpose of The Hindus, accordingly, is to provide, “a narrative account of alternative people who do not figure in her version of the ‘Brahmin-generated history’--people who are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species” [including animals](p.1). Having read The Hindus from cover to cover, I can say that Doniger lives up to her promise but at a terrible cost for Hindus and India.
Under the guise of providing an alternative history, the real agenda of The Hindus is to drive a wedge between Hindus and non-Hindus in India and elsewhere. In order to show how Hindus are so utterly unlike ‘others’ Doniger engages in denigrating, distorting, and demeaning all Hindus (both low and high cast, as well as Hindu women) defrocking sexually their gods and goddesses.
Selectively picking mythic episodes from the Purana and the Tantra texts Doniger provides titillating details of liaisons between gods and gods, between gods and goddesses, between goddesses and animals. Here, a god beheads another god; there a goddess ‘hooks up’ with an animal [a buffalo demon] and so on (see chapter 14, ‘Goddesses and Gods in the Early Puranas’ and chapter 15 ‘Sects and Sex in the Tantric Puranas and the Tantras’).
I will leave it to professional psychiatrists (like Dr. Shreekumar Vinekar) to analyze and interpret Doniger’s preoccupation with sex and pervert joy she finds in abstracting from Hindu myths sexual encounters (natural and unnatural) between gods/goddesses and humans or animals. Doniger claims that she is a ‘recovering Orientalist.’ Orientalism, she asserts, refers to a cluster of attitudes that implicated the first European scholars of India in the European colonization of India, overwhelming reliance on textual studies being one of them, pp.34-35). After three hundred pages, however, Doniger has changed her mind. Orientalism began, she claims here, not with the British but with the Orientals themselves. In support for her claim Doniger refers to Vatsyayana’s discussion in the Kamasutra of the ‘lesbian’ practice of the women of the harem who give pleasure to one another using dildos, as well as bulbs, roots, or fruits that have the form of the male organ, and statues of men. “One can imagine,” adds Doniger [with a chuckle, I suppose] “little gardens of plantain and cucumber being tenderly cultivated within the courtyard of the palace.” Since Vatsyayana calls such practices and customs ‘Oriental customs’ (apparently they were prevalent in the ‘Eastern’ part of the Gupta Empire; 5.6.2-4), goes Doniger’s logic, Orientalism began in India and not in Europe (pp. 333-334).
The fact is, Orientalism did not originate in India and is much more than what Doniger claims it to be. It stands for the body of knowledge that the European powers began to generate from the seventeenth century onwards with a view to consolidate the economic, military, and political gains they had started making in Asia and Africa. Thus, having acquired military and political control over a sizeable portion of India, administrators of the British East India Company began to cast doubt and sow divisions among the people of Asia (and Africa) concerning their cultures, religions, and societies by gaining exegetical control over their traditional systems of knowledge. The discipline of Indology, which is a modern product of Orientalism, demonstrates a clear instance of how Western scholarship appropriates to itself the power to represent Indians, to translate and explain their thoughts and acts.
Elsewhere Doniger does betray an awareness that Hindu views of animals are far more complex to capture by words like ‘sacred’ or ‘impure.’ Other people’s zoological taxonomies look bizarre only to people who view them through their own rather ethnocentric lenses (p. 659). In spite of such awareness, the sad fact is; Doniger continues to look at all Hindu taxonomies through her unique ethnocentric lens.
Here, I will deal with two specific instances where Doniger clearly abandons the role of an unbiased, academic historian. While discussing the Taj Mahal in chapter 24‘The Past in the Present’ she claims, “One advocate of Hindutva has argued, on the basis of absolutely no evidence, that the Taj Mahal, in Agra, is not a [sic] Islamic mausoleum but an ancient Shiva temple…” (p. 679). Doniger herself does not bring any clear evidence for her assertion that the Taj Mahal is an Islamic mausoleum.
To date, the Archaeological Survey of India has not carried out a systematic survey of the Taj Mahal. So, stories of the ‘Taj’ being a monument built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan in loving memory of his wife Mumtaz to immortalize her amount to just that—“stories” (and not a history). Doniger does not mention P. N. Oak by name (the end note does provide reference to his book Taj Mahal: The True Story, 1989). There is growing evidence suggesting that it still is not clear who actually built the Taj Mahal, which is seven stories tall and contains dozens of rooms (all locked up and not open to the public or to scholars), or what its purpose and function were (see my blog “P. N. Oak: the lone fighter, etymologist, and historian” at the web site, www.sulekha.com
After 686 pages, comes chapter 25 ‘Inconclusion [sic], or, The Abuse of History,’ which is only 3 1/2 pages long! It begins with a long and an entirely out of context quotation attributed to Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906-1973; the second leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) who, claims Doniger, used the justifiable Hindu pride in religious tolerance to justify intolerance (p. 687). I have seen this quotation attributed to Golwalkar in dozens of so-called “scholarly” monographs by Western and Indian academics, historians, and Indologists who conveniently create a ‘straw-man’ out of Golwalkar as an iconic Hindu fanatic.
Like others, Doniger demonizes Golwalkar and his thought as “intolerant” on the basis of just one paragraph from a small pamphlet We, Our Nationhood Defined (p 48-49). This is unhistorical, besides being incompetent and biased scholarship considering the fact that Golwalkar did not write this book. He only translated it. It was written by Balarao Savarkar, the younger brother of Vinayak D. Savarkar. It does not mean that Golwalkar, as the translator, necessarily endorsed or espoused all the ideas presented by Balarao Savarkar. Furthermore, Golwalkar was active in India’s public life thirty-five years after the pamphlet came out and his collected works run to thousands of printed pages collected in twelve volumes. One would expect a more nuanced assessment of Golwalkar from ‘one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world’ as claimed in the blurb. Those interested in an ‘alternative’ perspective on Golwalkar may consult my Reawakening to a secular Hindu nation: M. S. Golwalkar’s vision of a dharmasapeksa Hindurastra (Charleston, SC: Book Surge Publications, 2008).
In sum, Orientalism remains alive and kicking in The Hindus with Doniger adding a sexual dimension to the Orientalist’s run of the mill textual one in her studies of India and Hinduism. Conceived in Doniger’s ‘missionary’ zeal, The Hindus is also a clear instance of how exegetical Orientalism can take away from a nationalist and patriot like Golwalkar his ability and right to speak for himself. Regrettably, those who will rely on The Hindus to learn about Hindus through Doniger’s history of India will do so at their own peril.
*Shrinivas Tilak holds a PhD in history of religions from the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal and has taught India and Hinduism related courses at several Canadian universities. He is author of five books including Understanding karma in light of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophical anthropology and hermeneutics (Charleston, SC: BookSurge 2007).