Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A good account of Hindu history, but with some flaws

Rajesh Singh

For all those readers who are interested in a refreshingly different account of the Hindus, Wendy Doniger's Hindus: An Alternative History will offer a good read. When I recently referred to the book in one of my articles (on the Saraswati river)that appeared in The Pioneer newspaper a reader took umbrage at it and castigated me for the positive comments. According to him, the book did not do justice to the Hindu history.

Doniger is a scholar in Sanskrit and Indian Studies and the author of many books on the subject. This book is an exhaustive account of the Hindu history encompassing the Vedic period, the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation, the Upanishads, the Bhakti phenomenon and its survival during the Mughal era. It talks of the Sati practise and the Sufi influence. I did not find anything offensive in her writing. Her love and respect for the subject is manifest in the chapters crafted in the 700 plus pages.

One thing that struck me was was her refusal to go by convention. For instance, Doniger lays down the various theories of the Aryan presence in India. She does not toe the line taken by many Westerner historians and their several Indian counterparts that the Aryans invaded India and caused the destruction of the Indus civilisation. In fact, she is dismissive of the invasion theory, saying there is little evidence in the archaeological excavations to justify that line of thought. In fact, she says, "No one understands how the Indus Valley Civilisation came to an end..." and then, she makes a pertinent observation, "A great civilisation was lost to memory. But was it in fact lost?"

Perhaps she means to say that the present day civilisation that we have is a continuation of that 'lost' civilisation. In other words, we as people of this country are a continuation of that civilisation, and must, therefore, understand, appreciate and revere it.

She does not ridicule the beliefs of ancient Hindus when she discusses their preoccupation with animal figures and women. There is none of the condescending tone that is often seen in Western authors who write on ancient India.

Of course there are some glitches. Doniger does not for instance offer any insight into the now dried river Saraswati. In fact, she does colossal injustice to a river that is now widely known to have sustained the Indus civilisation as much as the river Indus did. So much so that latter day historians have begun referring to the ancient period as the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. More than 2000 of the 3000 excavated sites of that time have been found along the course that once formed the Saraswati river. It is thus amazing that Doniger ignored this very important factor.

She steadfastly refers to the Rig Veda as having been written sometime in 1500 BC. This has been the period that most historians have maintained, beginning with Max Mueller, who dated it even at a more recent 1200 BC. These dates have been strongly contested by several modern-day historians for one very strong reason: they do not match with the flow of the Saraswati which has been mentioned in the Rig Veda more than fifty times, on several occasions in great detail as a mighty river flowing from the mountains to the sea and providing noruishment to the people. But from all known accounts, the river dried up sometime in 1900 BC. That means the Rig Veda was written well after the river had dried up four hundred years ago. How then does the ancient text elaborate with such detail the role of the river, in effect giving a running commentary of the might and glory of the Saraswati? The Rig Veda is clearly writing of a river that existed in its full flow, not a dried up river. Clearly, the date of the Rig Veda composition needs to be revised. Unfortunately, Doniger does not venture on that enchanting task.