To the Editors:
Reading Jasper Griffin’s review of Wendy Doniger’s books [NYR, November 4, 1999] with a growing sense of incredulity, I lost even the lingering bits of faith in the reviewer’s scholarly objectivity when I encountered at the end his gratuitous reference to the Hindu caste system as “perhaps the greatest single evil in the modern world.” I do not wish to be Hinduism’s defender; but I find it astonishing, nevertheless, that a scholar can, in the same neocolonial breath, not only ignore the complexities of the caste system but also forget the even more horrific evils of the modern world. The systems of slavery that built the New World and the Holocaust are perhaps, in Griffin’s view, merely sacred rites of passage for the West? Oppressive and iniquitous as the caste system is, it was never genocidal. And yes, contrary to Griffin’s blithe assertion, Hindu mythologies in their polyvalent plurality did produce in several recensions (and even more significantly, in their performances), narratives that questioned stereotypes and challenged orthodoxies of dominance. It was such against-the-grain readings of sacred myths that shaped the egalitarian ideologies of protestant movements within Hinduism. But then, perhaps, to a scholar who believes that the West still has something to teach the East, these nuances can only be invisible in the effulgence of the European Enlightenment.
Falls Church, Virginia
Jasper Griffin replies:
It is really a little too easy just to brush off as “neocolonial” any criticism of the caste system. By “the modern world” I mean the modern world; “the systems of slavery that built the New World” are now some centuries in the past, and the Holocaust was more than fifty years ago. The oppression and murder of low-caste Indians by higher-caste ones is, by contrast, going on very commonly in the world in which we actually live. I suggest your correspondent read some Indian newspapers.
His last sentence is especially revealing: “a scholar who believes that the West still has something to teach the East”—as if that were self-evidently absurd. It is true that we often pretend to believe, when we are writing for publication, that all moral teaching must go from the virtuous East to the wicked West. It can thus seem outrageously unorthodox to suggest that it might sometimes go the other way; and your correspondent is duly outraged. But he might find it interesting to ask the low-caste peasants in many Indian villages, who may be shot if they dare to draw water from the well reserved for Brahmins, how they feel about the assertion that the East is always right.
January 20, 2000