Wendy Doniger is an American indologist who has been writing for over forty-four years. In her introduction to On Hindusim she says that she always wrote easily and joyously. But her prime audience was an American audience, primarily for her students so she was “totally blinded by the passionate Hindu response to my book The Hindu: An Alternative History“. It simply had not occurred to her that Hindus would read it. “I had figured, the Hindus already knew all about their own religion, or at least knew as much as they wanted to know, or in any any case didn’t want to learn anything more from an American woman ( I was right about that last point, but in some ways I had not foreseen).” But with this book published by Aleph, she has “designed a book specifically for an Indian audience.”
The 63 essays collected in this book have been arranged not chronologically but logically. There are seven sections that deal with the nature of Hinduism, explore the concepts of divinity, consider Hindu attitudes to gender, beginning with Manu’s attitude to women in general, desire and the control of desire in Hinduism, the question of reality and illusion, the impermanent and the eternal in the two great Sanskrit epics and finally four short pieces of autobiography, including an essay on her clash with her Hindu critics (“You Can’t Make an Omelette”). She has revised and reworked some of the essays to make them far more accessible and easy to read.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the essays in the section on “Women and Other Genders”. Wendy Doniger’s lucid style makes complicated stories so easy to understand, her academic analysis is sharp and a pleasure but she wears it so lightly that it is not a chore to read these essays. Her autobiographical essays too are just a right mix of the personal and a perspective on her deep engagement with Hinduism and how it has had an impact on her life — personal and professional.
This is a good volume to have, but at a bulky 700 pages of text and a hardback, it is not a book that can be easily picked up. You need to find the time to read it properly, by sitting at a desk. It works as a reference volume but its content is also available to the lay reader. Maybe Aleph could have considered publishing it in two volumes, preferably the notes, the extensive bibliography as the second volume, and presenting the set in a slip case. It would have been easier to read all though a little expensive to produce. ( I would not be surprised to hear if readers do with this volume what they did with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy when it was first published. It was considered to be too bulky so ripping it apart in to three volumes was not unheard of!)
Wendy Doniger On Hinduism (Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp 680. Rs. 995)