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A Passion for Hindu Myths

British Library, London/HIP/Art Resource
The Hindu god Vishnu lying upon the cosmic waters with his consort Lakshmi, supported by the folds of the serpent Ananta Shesha, with a lotus sprouting from his navel bearing the tiny god Brahma; illustration of the tenth-century Bhagavata Purana, 1863

Sometime in the second or third decade of the eleventh century, the astronomer, geographer, and historian Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni went to India. He was not a casual visitor. He came along with the army of his patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (in present-day Afghanistan), who seems to have kept close watch over his learned protégé, the greatest luminary of his court. Sultan Mahmud raided northern India nearly every year during those decades and, following the standard practice of his times, left much devastation in his wake. Among other things, he is remembered for having, in 1026, plundered (but not destroyed) the great Hindu temple of Somanatha, on the Gujarat coast. As Wendy Doniger points out in The Hindus, the story of this violent act was endlessly recycled and embellished, from contrary perspectives, in medieval Muslim and Hindu sources and lives on in communal polemics between Hindus and Muslims in Indian politics today.

As is usually the case, Mahmud’s other military ventures and political excesses were largely forgotten. But it was by bringing al-Biruni with him that the sultan made his most lasting mark. The great polymath must have stayed on in northern India for some years. He took the trouble to learn Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu scriptures and of Indian science; he has left us a remarkably rich and precise Arabic translation of one of the great classics of Hindu thought, the Yogasutra of Patanjali, together with materials taken from commentaries that were still extant in al-Biruni’s time.1 But his true masterpiece was an encyclopedic anthropology of India, written in Arabic, that bears the title Kitab fi tahqiq ma li’l-hind, or “A Scientific Discourse on Indian Thought”—without question one of the best books ever written about the subcontinent, eminently worth reading by visitors today. There are those who claim, with some justice, that al-Biruni was the world’s first serious field anthropologist.

Al-Biruni gave a detailed and generally sympathetic picture of Indian civilization. He knew about the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of Hinduism (which we now date to the end of the second millennium BC), and the mystical speculations of the Upanishads, which were composed over a long span from roughly the eighth century BC on. He studied with learned Brahmins, mastered the major arts and sciences, and noticed the existence of a revered prophet called “Buddha.” He knew about Hindu theories of reincarnation and about altered states of consciousness that tend, in his understanding, toward a kind of abstract monism (Advaita, “nondualism,” in the Sanskrit lexicon).

On one important matter, however, he was definitely out of tune with the ways of his Hindu teachers and hosts. Trained in the rigorous tradition of Islamic historiography, al-Biruni complains that “unfortunately, the Hindus do not pay much attention to the historical order of things, they are very careless in relating the chronological succession of kings, and when they are pressed for information are at a loss, not knowing what to say, they invariably take to tale-telling.”2 We know that al-Biruni read Sanskrit puranas —immense compendia of mythic narratives, dynastic traditions, metaphysical speculations, and erudite materials taken from various classical disciplines. It is not hard to imagine him throwing up his hands in despair at what must surely have seemed to him an endlessly proliferating, tropical jungle of undigested information about the past.

His judgment has been echoed by other visitors for roughly a thousand years. Here, for example, is Sir Aurel Stein, the famous nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century explorer of Chinese Turkestan, but also a major historian of Kashmir and translator of the twelfth-century Kashmir chronicle TheOcean of Kings: “The Indian mind has never learned to divide mythology and legendary tradition from true history.”3 It’s fair to say that all the colonial historians of India, and all too many of their successors, have subscribed to this view. Many of them, like Stein himself, were also only too happy to make sweeping generalizations about the amorphous entity they called the “Indian mind.”

If you take this view seriously, then India has no carefully recorded past of its own, no historical self-understanding worthy of so ancient a civilization. But al-Biruni and his successors were wrong. It’s true that pre-modern Hindu historiography often looks quite different from the kinds of history, whether Islamic or Chinese or European, with which many of us are familiar. It’s also true that the major historical works produced in various Indian languages—Sanskrit, Persian, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, to name but a few—in the last centuries before the Europeans established their control are full of colorful tales. As a result, modern historians of the subcontinent have often ignored these works; or, if they consult them at all, they apply a primitive probabilistic method meant to sift fact from fiction.

Here is one example: Ashoka, who ruled in the third century BC and is probably the best known of all of India’s kings, is said in the Buddhist sources to have had a son named Kunala, who had beautiful eyes, so beautiful that his stepmother, Queen Tishyarakshita, fell in love with him and tried to seduce him. He rejected her advances, so, like Potiphar’s wife, she was determined to have her revenge. Taking advantage of the king’s illness, she ruled for one week in his name; and in that week she managed to have Kunala blinded, his splendid eyes torn out by reluctant but dutiful officers of the regime in the great city of Takshasila or Taxila, in Kashmir, where the prince had been sent to put down an uprising. Kunala became a wandering singer whose melancholy songs carried the Buddhist message of renunciation:

If you know the suffering that comes with living,
if you have bad thoughts—
yet still you hunger for happiness—
you might begin by putting aside
as quickly as you can
whatever your senses have to say.

Eventually the blind singer-beggar arrived back home at his father’s palace in Pataliputra, in the eastern Gangetic plain; and Ashoka, hearing the voice, affected by the force of its message, recognized his son and reinstated him in the court.

Such moments of painful recognition of a lost son, often a traumatized artist, by an errant father turn up elsewhere in the Indian sources, perhaps most notably in the great Ramayana epic, whose hero, Rama, recognizes the twin sons he has never seen when they appear at a royal ritual and recite to their father the story of his life—that is, the text of the Ramayana itself. We might even identify this scene as a patterned, profoundly expressive theme or mythic motif, something that can teach us something about the way some ancient Indians thought about fathers and sons and about what makes a person into a poet or singer.

But what can a modern historian do with the Ashoka story? Almost everyone seems to agree that Ashoka more or less converted to Buddhism (at that time, still a very young religion), though not because of listening to Kunala’s haunting verses. It’s quite possible that Ashoka gave early Buddhism a powerful push by patronizing the Buddhist monastic establishment, the Sangha, and perhaps by sending out emissaries to propagate the Buddhist message in distant lands. In any case, that’s the standard story that crops up in all the modern histories.

I’m a little skeptical; Ashoka looks to me like any other precariously perched Indian king trying to shore up his political base by patronizing whoever was there to be patronized—Buddhists, Brahmins, and probably other peripatetic dreamers and religious virtuosi. For much of Indian history, it was the only sensible thing for a king to do. As for Kunala and the vicious queen, professional historians, seeking a grain of what might pass for empirical fact, will tell us that there were probably “minor revolts” in various parts of Ashoka’s kingdom toward the end of his reign, and that the aging king might well have fallen under the spell of his brash new queen during a period of court intrigues. One skeptical historian concluded that the Kunala story is “the result of monkish imagination.”5

Arguments like this clearly won’t take us very far. They don’t begin to recognize the expressive force of the narrative sources, and in my view they miss the true historical potential these sources hold. One always pays a price for too narrow a notion of what constitutes “fact.” If we read the Kunala story with the sensitivity that Doniger so often demonstrates, then we might conclude, first, that even the greatest of Indian kings was strikingly lacking in effective power, unable to prevent catastrophe in his own family or to control his own officers in distant Takshasila, and secondly, that Buddhist monks claimed from very early on a critical part in the very core of political life as kingmakers and carriers of primary values. Buddhism is not, and never was, an “apolitical” religion.

Generally, modern historians tend to stick to the terra firma of inscriptions, coins, the accounts of foreign travelers, and other precisely datable sources. There are obvious advantages to such a method, and we can certainly learn critically important things from such evidence; but one unfortunate byproduct of these choices is that modern histories of India, heavily empiricist in the narrowest sense and loaded down with unwieldy records of temple donors and royal land grants, tend to be boring.

No one would say such a thing about Wendy Doniger’s new book. Experts on India and professional historians of South Asia will, no doubt, find something to disagree with on every page; but they will also, I think, be charmed by Doniger’s scintillating and irreverent prose (perhaps against their better judgment) and by the unexpected, strangely delightful connections she makes. Her book is no ordinary trek through inscriptions and chronicles. It is more like a psychedelic pilgrimage to sites, ritual moments, and beloved texts scattered over three millennia. Make no mistake: it’s a bumpy ride, with a provocative and erudite guide who scorns the usual rules of the historical guild. That is not to say that this improbable history lacks method. There is a sense in which Doniger is close to the indigenous South Asian, “puranic” model of writing history, of the type that put off al-Biruni.

Take the notion of myth, for example. Even Doniger occasionally uses the word in the pejorative sense. After telling us that Mahmud of Ghazni, with whom we began, attacked the Somanatha temple in 1026, she continues:

Then comes the mythmaking. According to some versions of the story but not others, he stripped the great gilded linga [the icon of the god Siva] of its gold and hacked it to bits with his sword, sending the bits back to Ghazni, where they were incorporated into the steps of the new Jami Masjid (“Friday Mosque”).6

Here we have the standard opposition between “myth” and “fact.” But what happens if we allow a strong notion of factuality to incorporate, perhaps not without tension, an equally strong notion of mythic patterns that have an effect within a particular time and history? We can then better understand why, for example, as Doniger writes:

Freer Galleryof Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Rama defeating the ogre Khara in a scene from the Hindu epic Ramayana; miniature commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, 1582

British historiographers made much use of it [Mahmud’s attack on the Somanatha temple] for their own purposes (such as the claim that they had rescued the Hindus from oppression by Muslims).

This is what we find throughout the pages of Doniger’s monumental book. She didn’t invent the method. David Grene has described the historical imagination of Herodotus—the founder of the discipline in the West—as encompassing “a threefold relation to reality: reality as ordinarily perceived, reality as coming to a special meaningful pattern in myth, and reality as expressed in the original creation of a tragic writer.”7 It’s the second of these that is relevant to Doniger, who is surely no Thucydides but is, in my view, a loyal follower of Herodotus, in more ways than one. Grene also says about Herodotus that “his History is that of a storyteller who is never quite out of the frame of the narrative and never quite within it.”

What kinds of meaningful mythic patterns does Doniger find in India’s long history? One of them is stated clearly in the book’s subtitle. It is an “alternative history” of the Hindus, after the model of alternative medicine or alternative politics. What this means is that the standard, orthodox, conventional, and usually hierarchical ways of telling the story are overturned. We get a history of India as seen largely through the eyes of people on the margins of life—first of all, women, low castes, tribals, and Dalits (who used to be called Untouchables); but then Doniger also deals with all kinds of twilight-zone holy men, wonder-workers, alchemists, poets, mystical mavericks of one kind or another, unorthodox Brahmins and social reformers, colonial traders and administrators gone native, subversive scholars (including the early Western Orientalists), Tantric ritualists with their kinky sexual ceremonies, and finally animals, especially horses (also some dogs, monkeys, bears, and cows), which work their way into all major texts from the Vedic period on.

Throughout her largely chronological account, these are the voices that Doniger listens for, detecting their mostly dissident tones and isolating their more creative gestures, especially those that generated significant social protest or religious change. In Doniger’s India, the religious establishment and its professed ideals—which she sometimes refers to by somewhat dubious terms like “the hegemony of the Brahmins” or “Brahmin exclusivity” or simply “the Brahmins”—look like a paper-thin superstructure. Real life, the stuff of mythic history, happens continuously below.

In itself, this notion may appear unexceptional; we’re used to thinking that innovation springs from the margins even in much more top-heavy societies than Hindu India. But mythography comes in varying strengths and textures. Take Doniger’s account of the Adivasis, early-twentieth-century tribals, in southern Gujarat on the western coast. They were famous both for selling and for consuming the country liquor known as toddy (tadi, the fermented sap of the palm tree) and the stronger daru (from the flowers of the mahua tree). Severely oppressed by higher-status liquor salesmen and emerging small-scale capitalists in the colonial towns, and with Adivasi women raped and forced into prostitution by liquor dealers, the Adivasis began receiving direct verbal communications from the goddess Sitala, who advised them “to drink tea instead of liquor.”

They followed the goddess’s advice—which sometimes emerged from her incarnation as an old buffalo cow, speaking through possessed women who, Doniger writes, “held the men to the mark and goaded them on”—and, in the space of a few years, produced a minor social revolution in southern Gujarat. Reformed, sober, and galvanized into collective action, the Adivasis climbed rapidly to a higher rung on the social ladder (this is a good example of the upward mobility that traditional caste-oriented society regularly allowed) and largely freed themselves from the grip of the urban middlemen and racketeers. At some point a “deified form of Gandhi” replaced the goddess, and the Adivasis joined the struggle to free India from British rule. Doniger rightly concludes: “The myth…made history possible.”

One result of Doniger’s taking myths seriously is that she exposes many of the old romantic clichés about Indian history as meaningless. Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest—Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British—who slowly grew soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus. Some of these virile outsiders, such as Kipling and a few Persian poets at Muslim courts in the subcontinent, liked to tell their own story more or less along these lines. But Doniger offers a more convincing approach, inflected differently at different times and places and embodied in recurring equine images.

First, there is the home-grown, indigenous Hindu stallion, an emblem of irresistible power right from the beginning of Vedic civilization in the second millennium BC but also a sign of esoteric wisdom and insight: thus the horse-headed gods called the Ashvins learn the secret of an ancient sacrificial ritual—how to replace the victim’s head after it has been cut off—literally from the horse’s mouth (to be precise, from a sage, Dadhyanc, who temporarily exchanged his human head for an equine one). Occasionally, we find a certain tension between these two themes of royal power and metaphysical insight, as when the young prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, on his way to enlightenment in the forest, has to say goodbye to his beloved horse Kanthaka—a favorite scene in Buddhist iconography. But, as Doniger writes, the medieval literature is full of untamed, self-possessed, sexually adventurous Hindu mares that tend to triumph over imported, usually befuddled stallions.

Thus India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples and cultures pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or melting down of a hard, preexisting monolithic culture; it is, rather, an active process of selection and pragmatic recycling, with the female principle—mare, queen, dancing girl, or goddess—driving the rather helpless (often foreign) male. The Tantric schools of medieval India elaborated a whole metaphysics and a complex ritual praxis out of this simple model. As Ashis Nandy has shown,8 Gandhi, with his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, used it to marvelous effect against his British opponents.

Clearly, Doniger’s is a different kind of history than we are used to, a kind in which fresh perspectives can easily arise. One can always read Gandhi, in his iconic loincloth and spectacles, as a kind of utopian romantic, as in Richard Attenborough’s famous film—or, by contrast, as a wily politician and hard-headed manipulator of traditional Hindu images of power, as much modern folklore about Gandhi would suggest. But suppose, following Doniger’s account, we try to understand him as embodying a modernist, spruced-up version of the medieval Tantric ritualist and magician, mesmerized by the possibility of enhancing his own inner strength, and thus his effect on the world, by classic methods such as frequent fasting and abstinence, severe chastity tests (sleeping beside nubile young women), and Yogic meditation.

We might even contemplate the possibility that such practices, translated into the modern historical situation of India, “really” worked. I, for one, wouldn’t exclude this explanation. As Doniger says in what she calls her “Inconclusion”: “India is a country where not only the future but even the past is unpredictable.” Actually, I think this sense of the past is true of any history worthy of the name. It’s particularly true when you begin to unravel the enduring, self-transforming patterns a culture has imprinted on time, including our own.

For an alternative history, the traditional chronological scheme of The Hindus is surprising, beginning as it does with prehistory generally and quickly moving into the great prehistoric civilization of the third millennium BC in the Indus Valley (in today’s Pakistan), followed by the arrival of the Sanskrit-speaking Vedic people toward the end of the second millennium BC. Then Doniger presents the standard sequence: the Upanishadic crisis (mid-first millennium BC), when the old Vedic system broke down under the pressure of new ascetic and speculative practices and radical visions of personal salvation; the birth of Buddhism and Jainism and other heterodox religions; the crystalization of a Brahminical synthesis in the great epics and erudite literature; the high classical period in the north usually linked to the Gupta dynasty (fourth–fifth centuries AD); the emergence of devotional cults and sects in South India and of Tantric practices throughout the subcontinent; the arrival of Muslims from Central Asia and Afghanistan and the formation of the major Muslim states centered in Delhi (the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire), and finally the modern period of colonial rule and independence.

Sometimes the chronology takes an unpredictable and rather refreshing loop, as when Gupta classicism—the restrained artistic masterpieces of the fifth century AD and the inflated imperial claims of the royal patrons who commissioned them, both of which Doniger seems mostly to dislike—is discussed only after a long prelude on medieval South India. These loops often include short passages that look more like conventional history, replete with names of kings and dynastic transitions and respectable datings; such dreary passages within the intense colors that enliven the chapters as a whole seem almost parodic, as if Doniger were throwing the occasional bone to her staid colleagues (or to the publisher). If you want a sense of Indian history in a more-or-less conventional sequence, you can no doubt get it from this book, with some effort; but it’s not the main message by any means.

Doniger formulates that message at different points, and she demonstrates it continuously by the sources she cites and the dramatic, not to say lurid, stories she loves to tell. It comes through most eloquently and boldly at the end: “Surely history is one of the most important things for us to imagine and to realize that we are imagining.” This doesn’t mean that there are no external constraints on our imagining—quite the contrary, I understand the Doniger principle as incorporating a commitment to factuality and as assuming a clear-cut distinction between fiction and fact, a distinction that is made in all indigenous South Asian historiographies as well—but her approach does mean that you have to make room for the truly effectual, pragmatic, often transformative role of myth in any historical situation and in any vision of historical patterns. Isaac Babel said it well: “A well-devised story needn’t try to be like real life. Real life is only too eager to resemble a well-devised story.”9 Doniger has put this idea to the test, and the result, sometimes baffling, usually entertaining, occasionally infuriating, often uncannily insightful, is “mythic” in the most positive sense of the word.

This was how I first knew her, in London in 1972. As a first-year student of Tamil at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I was required to take an introductory course on Indian history—taught by a young Sanskritist, Wendy Doniger (then O’Flaherty). She taught the way she has written this book, with passionate abandon and a great love for everything Indian. But coming from Jerusalem and the severely positivist philological obsessions of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University, I was at first mostly irritated by Wendy’s seemingly cavalier style and somewhat elastic notions of “truth.”

One day matters came to a head. Wendy recounted, apropos of something or other, the well-known story about the Arab conqueror of Egypt, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who was supposed to have ordered the burning of the great library at Alexandria on the grounds that all the books that agreed with the Koran were superfluous and all the others were heretical. ‘Amr lived in the seventh century AD; the Alexandria library was destroyed in the late third century, under the Roman emperor Aurelian. So when I heard the story from Wendy’s lips, without thinking, I cried out in protest from my seat in the back row, not realizing that I was about to bestow on her the highest compliment she could imagine: “That,” I shouted, “is a myth!”

  1. 1

    See Shlomo Pines and Tuvia Gelblum, “Al-Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patanjali’s Yogasutra: A Translation of His First Chapter and a Comparison with Related Sanskrit Texts,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1966), pp. 302–325.

  2. 2

    Alberuni’s India, translated by E.C. Sachau (London: Truebner, 1888), Vol. 2, pp. 10–11.

  3. 3

    M.A. Stein, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini: A Chronicle of the Kings of Kasmir (Westminster, 1900), Vol. 1, p. 29.

  4. 4

    The Asokavadana, edited by Sujitkumar Mukhopadhyaya (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1963); Kunalopakhyana, p. 117. See John Strong, The Legend of King Asoka: A Study and Translation of the Asokavadana (Princeton University Press, 1983).

  5. 5

    Romila Thapar, As´oka and the Decline of the Mauryas (Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 53. The Thapar biography is by far the best study we have of Ashoka and his time.

  6. 6

    This version actually owes much to the impeccable al-Biruni.

  7. 7

    Herodotus, The History, translated by David Grene (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 12.

  8. 8

    Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

  9. 9

    Isaac Babel, “My First Fee,” in The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, edited by Clarence Brown (Penguin, 1993), p. 226.

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