Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hinduism: is it only sex (and death)?

A critique of Doniger which steers away from the Hindutva-secular fight and asks some pertinent questions, one of which is: does the distinguished professor know (or care) about what is special (or unique) about Hinduism?
Such a shared core may well be close to, among other ideas, the Upanishadic monism that crystallized in the seventh century CE into the non-dualistic Vedanta of Shankara who established it both by interpreting the classical texts and by refuting the competing philosophical schools of the day. Early evidence of an incipient monism is mentioned, for example, by Mohanty (2007, p. 24):  While the Vedas contain a myriad of different themes, ranging from hymns for deities and rules of fire sacrifices to music and magic, there is no doubt that one finds in them an exemplary spirit of inquiry into "the one being" that underlies the diversity of empirical phenomena, and into the origin of all things.  

If this core truly pervades popular belief today then it cannot be easily explained as a late nineteenth and twentieth century product of colonialism as many on the left try to do. This is not to deny the presence of other orthodox and heterodox traditions in this core, only to say that such a monism's mass appeal must surely have preceded colonial times. Doniger and her supporters never acknowledge this wider humanity in their arguments and so end up attacking a straw man. 

For instance, Vamsee Juluri's essay articulates an attitude that may be widely shared by modern practicing Hindus. He clearly differentiates it from militant Hindutva by making plain the diverse and plural heritage of Hindu thought. But he simultaneously argues against Doniger by saying her interpretations flagrantly contradict the lived experience of devout Hindus. This dialectical argument raises many difficulties for both sides, and sets up a tension between Hinduism seen as an intellectual object and as a sacred practice. 

Second, however, it may be asked, shouldn't the lived experience of religious symbols and myths be part of what is explained by inquiry? That is, shouldn't the external, intellectual stance account for the internal, experiential facts? For example, if one holds that the Shiva lingam represents Shiva's erect penis, how does this square with the interpretive community's view (e.g. possibly something abstract like Shiva's sexual and creative power or just Shiva himself)? In a parallel situation, is it right to describe the Holy Communion in Christianity as a cannibalistic rite? Certainly there is a connection between a penis and a Shiva lingam as there is between the body and blood of Christ and the ritual bread and wine, but do these connections involve the literal connotations of "penis" and "cannibalism"? 

Doniger's book is not about revelatory insights into the Hindus but generally about completely worldly things like sex, death, and material pursuits. While Eros and Thanatos are undoubtedly powerful forces in human lives and while material pursuits are indispensable to survival, Doniger succeeds only in clarifying that the Hindus, like other humans, were and are part of the animal kingdom.  

Much of what she says is probably true—the Brahmins did eat beef early on, for example—and the Hindus who have been offended by such facts ought to recognize that religious values are not eternal but emerge through history. But, for her part, Doniger fails to make sufficiently salient how unique and humane the impulse of vegetarianism was as a response to the barbaric conditions of material life in all early human civilizations. She passes up such opportunities over and over again.

For the aims she chose, her cultural history needed to have been more of an intellectual history. She never explores what the thinkers of Indian civilization did—whether Brahmins or non-Brahmins, men or women—when they confronted conceptual problems like the origins of the world and how we might come to know it. No logic of inquiry or argument is described as it would have to be if one wanted to "show the presence of brilliant and creative thinkers entirely off the track." 

Indeed, there is hardly any speculation about the metaphysical instincts of the Hindus at all. Her materialism, while right in spirit, is summoned too soon and all one gets is the subterfuges and stratagems of the ancients. No doubt these existed as they are an inevitable part of human nature and no doubt they played some role in the worldviews of the Hindus, but do they constitute what is special and unique about Indian civilization, or any civilization for that matter?