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on June 7, 2014
First up, the context. I was born a Hindu in India and have lived in India for much of my life. I was a practicing Hindu at some point of time and now am a practicing Atheist. Having gotten that out of the way, let me head to the elephant in the room. This book is in no way derogatory to the Hindu faith or to Hindus. If anything it reflects the author's love for the subject, as well as the religion.

This is not a book about contemporary practices of Hinduism in India, but a scholarly review of literature on Hindusim. The authors delves into quite a bit of literature, ranging from the Risque Kamasutra to the orthodox Manu Shastras, as well as the more popular Ramayana and Mahabharata. This book is highly academic and is in no means a light read. However, it is thoroughly entertaining and I for one came out of the reading richer, both in knowledge and in anecdotes. Of course, the book is not perfect, and I'd have rated this 3.5 stars, had Amazon allowed me to. The authorship of the essays are inconsistent, possibly owing to the fact that they were written at different times. Many of the essays are well written and have a neat start-middle-and-end; but some of them seem to have been hastily completed. There is an interesting essay at the end on the Ramayana and shadows, which was not only excellent in narration, but also content; however, this one ends abruptly, as if the author was late to a deadline. Some other essays were a bit long in the tooth or on "boring" topics (for me at least) -- as is generally the case with books of this size. There are places where the author comes across as judgmental and a bit "catty" -- the book would have been better without these minor annoyances. Overall though, the essays are well-written and are essential reading for those interested in understanding Hindu literature (not Hindu culture, for culture and literature are not the same).

As an afterword. Some years ago, I chose not to read the author's "The Hindus: An Alternative History" based on the reviews of some nut-jobs on Amazon. I am generally skeptical of Western writers interpreting Eastern philosophy and these reviews convinced me that I was right. However, when the recent controversy of this book being recalled in India by the published broke out, I decided that I had to read the book and make the judgement myself. After having gone through this tome, I am confident that William Dalrymple (another excellent Western author on India) was right when he called Wendy Doniger a scholar on Hinduism -- she is exactly that. Please neglect the negative reviews that attack the author and go read the book and decide for yourself.
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on April 10, 2014
Hmmm... all these folks who seek to discredit the brilliant scholar are unknown names with many axes to grind. I am reading this great volume after a trip through Northern Indian and it is so gripping that I can hardly put it down. Well-referenced, these are condensed essays that come after 40 years of her considerable contemplation of the material. She explains that in the introduction. If you want to know how she reacted to her book being censored by a few fanatics in India, read her response in the editorial pages of the New York Times, which saw fit to publish it. This is a five-star book in every way.
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on June 11, 2014
Wendy Donigers sincerity, scholarship and, indeed, even her faith shines through. Hardly an unputdownable book. But then without trudging through the highs, lows, bogs and whirlpools of this religion it is not possible to define its boundaries (if any) and core values I suppose. An Indian Hindu may find some passages `cheeky` or downright blashphemy (Doniger also incidentally breaks the `we are supremely tolerant `image). I am not exactly a practising Hindu. On the other hand I realise that I am a product of this ancient culture and I like to explore, with an open mind, beyond the comforting myths, rituals and shibboleths of daily Hinduism. I find the book very informative and revealing. In the chapter on Yoga, Doniger illustrates how a patchwork quilt of indigenous and european concepts about physical fitness were forged by the fervor of 19th century Nationalism into a purely Indian discipline whose origins were projected back to the vedic age. Fascinating. All religions and cultures have an all round superiority complex. In India, this is particularly compounded by the very unique ahistoric nature of Hinduism - the complete neglect of objective recording of dates and the obsessive `mythification` of even clearly historic events. For Hinduism to survive in a vibrant form into the future we have to confront the religion as it is -Like Arjun, behold the Vishwaroop form in all its complexity. An bowlderised, simplified Amar Chitra Katha version of Hindusim is being forced on us overtly and covertly. This assault on free thinking not only undermines the foundations of our Indian society, it also, ironically, does a great disservice to Hindusim itself. The deeply rooted pluralism in the Hindu ethos is, according to Doniger, is a feature that is its greatest virtue and differntiator. I have always felt, borrowing an idea from evolutionary biology, that its mind boggling variety and variation have been the keys to its survival despite the absence of a central authority and despite the loss of state sponsorship over the last five centuries. A great book to have on your Kindle or book shelf. One that you end up reading in stages. Education, perhaps some entertainment and a social reality check all rolled into one. One star less for the fact that I cant remember everything I have read !
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on January 25, 2016
EDIT: all page references in this review are to the Hardbound version (ISBN 9780199360079)

This is a long review of a long book. The review quotes the book relatively more than most reviews would. If your intent is to get my take on it and skip the details, scroll down to the bottom for the Cliff Notes version.

It was a very difficult task to write a review of On Hinduism. The first challenge is that it is not really a book – it is a collection of 43 essays from among 140 essays the author has published on Hinduism. These 43 have been selected and arranged in five broad themes. So the flow of the book, if there is one, is what the author intended to achieve. While extensively cross referenced, sometimes the essays simply stand out, unconnected with anything else in the rest of the book.

The second challenge is that this book is inherently conflicted. As explained in the Introduction (pp xi): “I had written all my other books for an American audience, primarily for my students. This was one reason why I was totally blindsided by the passionate Hindu response to my book The Hindus: An Alternative History: it hadn't occurred to me that Hindus would read it. <snip>I was therefore pleasantly surprised, at first that Hindus read The Hindus, but appalled that some of them read it so confrontationally... But now, for the first time, I designed a book specifically for an Indian audience”. So, the essays have been edited to remove terms that an Indian audience would be puzzled by (pop culture references), but they allude often to Western mythologies (primarily Greco-Roman) and many times, explicitly to Freud ( e.g. Shadows of the Ramayana: pp 530, Sacrifice and substitution pp 209 etc.) As I read through it, I often had to assume that a primarily Indian audience would just 'get' a concept being discussed in the text. As I will explain later, this was not always easy.

The third challenge is that the essays make extensive references to often very obscure texts, translations and writings. Even the easier ones, such as the laws of Manu, often make references to sanskrit verses that do not match the original text. For example, in Why should a Brahmin... deconstructing the Laws of Manu, the essay references 4.147-9; 9.3 of Manu (pp 260). Trouble is, the references translated on this page are actually to 5.147-9, not 4. Annoying, but keeps the reviewer on his toes. This is not an isolated occurrence either. There are enough of these that as I read the book, I was constantly checking – the essay on Ramayana refers to an entirely different chapter of the Valmiki Ramayana than the reference given in the book (pp: 525 – R 2.71.13 should be 2.77.13)

The last challenge is one of Sanskrit. The author makes it clear that unless otherwise stated all are her own translations (pp xi, footnote) including from her own translations of the Rig Veda. But in the very first essay, the quote of the Rig Veda [1.164.46] gets it wrong: it should be 'ekam sad viprA bahudhA vadanti', not 'bahu vadanti'. The difference is subtle but the change in meaning is profound. I encountered more of this where the essay summarizes a certain set of verses but a literal reading of the text might be equally supportive of a different summary. (Examples further down).

As a result of the challenges, I ended up reading the book several times – the first time to notice some broad patterns, the second to give more form to these patterns and the remaining to isolate examples and build discussions around them.

The essays are at their analytical best when dealing with (relatively) neutral subjects such as “Are Hindus Polytheistic” or “Saguna and Nirguna images of the deity”. Since they are addressed to an Indian audience, the idea is a sense of 'look how cool your religion is'. This is somewhat supported by the author's public statements. (See this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1ioaY5OY_g – advance to about 1:01.43). But some of the essays get extremely esoteric and inside baseball-ish, directly contradicting idea that the target audience for this was Indians. The following is from Sacrifice and Substitution – pp 209:

“In this view, sacrifice is defined not in relation to other forms of self-death, but rather in relation to other forms of murder (homicide as well as deicide); and in either case it is by virtue of the substitute that sacrifice is set apart from – i.e., made 'sacred' in relation to – these other, 'profane' killings. Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, speaks of a 'double substitution' in the ritual. Following Freud, Girard places substitution at the very center of sacrifice and sees violence (repressed and expressed) as the key to the ritual”

With all the above caveats and challenges, I am picking on two essays to summarize my review – these are my (somewhat) arbitrary choices, ones that I felt would best illustrate my observations in the review.

“Death and rebirth in Hinduism”

Few topics are central to Hinduism as the notion of birth, death and re-birth. But the first sentence of the essay is this:

“There are many different approaches to death and rebirth in the Hindu tradition, offering many different non-solutions to the insoluble problem, many different ways the square peg of the fact of death cannot be fitted into the round hole of human rationality”(pp 87)

One wonders why 'the fact of death' and 'rationality' are at odds with each other. The human body is made up of perishable substances which perish and we die. This is as rational as rational gets. But perhaps there is a more subtle meaning here.

The Vedic quote that we begin with is “Deliver me from death, not from immortality”. Expanding on this, Ms Doniger writes:

“By 'immortality' the ancient sages meant not a literal eternity of life but rather a full lifespan, reckoned as a hundred years”

The referenced Vedic quote in its original is “mrtyOr mukshIya mAmrtAt”. This is traditionally translated as “deliver me (mukshIya) from death (mrtyOr) by giving me (mA) (divine) nectar (amrtAt) “ The ancient sages did not merely mean a long life (considered a lower or obvious meaning). They also clearly meant 'deliver me from death (and birth) for ever, from the cycle of Samsara'. The text glosses over this rather central thrust of the verse which is repeated elsewhere as “asatOmA sat gamaya.... mrtyOr mAmrtam gamaya”. There is no square peg and round hole, yet.

Having described the Rig Veda approach to death, Ms Doniger previews the Upanishads with the words “But these are at best but the early, murky stirrings of a doctrine of rebirth that will become clear only in the Brahmanas and Upanishads” She then describes the Brahmanas as “The fear of death and the obsessive search for rituals that can overcome it is the central concern of the Brahmanas” (pp 89).

This is a very poor reading of the Brahmanas. In most contexts, “overcoming death” simply means the elimination of the cycle of birth and death. This is a widely accepted reading of "mrtyOr mukshI" which introduces the concept of moksa in the Rig Veda.

Further describing the Upanishads, Ms Doniger writes “The Upanishads reverse the Rig Vedic equation of death with chaos, life with order and state instead that life (sex, birth,one damn thing after another) is chaos, a dream, or rather a nightmare while death (or final release from life, moksha) is order, a dreamless sleep, or an awakening (pp 90)”

This is quite terrible. It is perhaps telling (to go all Freudian) that the first thing she states as 'life' is sex, even before birth. Then there is the notion of equating death with moksha, albeit loosely. This finds no support anywhere in the canonical works (Vedas or Upanishads). For a book that has over a hundred references for some essays, she offers no evidence that anyone, anywhere equates death with moksha or that death (mrtyu) is 'dreamless sleep' (susupti).

The essay recounts a conversation from the Chandogya Upanishad and starts with “A king asks a young man named Gautama (no relation to Buddha) if he knows....” (pp 90). [This is just wrong. Gautama is the father; the young man's name is Svetaketu. (svetaketurhAruNEyah – 'Svetaketu, grandson of Aruna...' CU 5.3.1). Gautama appears in the text only after his son confronts him with “how come you told me I was educated and yet I did not know the answers?” Gautama says “obviously, I did not know the answers either” (CU 5.3.5-6). ]

As part of the conversation, two successive questions are (Id)
“Do you know about the separation of the two paths, the path of the Gods and the path of the fathers?”
“No”
“Do you know how the world (of heaven) over there does not get filled up?”
“No”

But the text makes no reference to heaven. It merely says “vettha yathA sau lOkO na sampUryat” meaning “why that world is never filled”. Sri Sankara, makes it clear in his commentary that the reference is to "pitrlOka" (land of the fathers, more generally, ancestors) since that is where people come back from.

The mistranslations continue: in the next question, Ms Doniger translates 'puruSavacas' (literally) as “human voice”. The correct translation is “known as Man” (or “said to be Man”) (Monier Williams). This is central to the story since the rest of the explanation is all about why water, the fifth obalation (pancamyAhutAvApah) is described as the nature of Man (puruSavacasO bhavanti).

The essay continues:

“The Socratic routine goes on for some time until, eventually, the king tells the boy the answers”

This is wrong as well. First off, the king does not tell the boy, the king tells the father, Gautama. Next, there is no further Socratic routine after the question on water. The father (Sage Gautama) pays his respect to the king, the king offers him a boon and Gautama declines saying “Let such things that belong to the world of men stay with you. Speak to me the same speech you spoke to my boy” (yAmEva kumArasyAnte vAcam). The king apologizes because he is caught in a bind – he has promised a boon and the ask is for knowledge that is heretofore restricted to kshatriyas but now is forced to divulge to a Brahmana. And then he launches into the explanation.

Ms Doniger explains what happens to people who die with various karma to their accounts (pp 91)

“But those whose behavior here is stinking will, in general, find a stinking womb, the womb of a dog or the womb of a hog or the womb of an Untouchable”

The word 'Untouchable' is not found in the text. The word in use is a 'caNDAla' – who is an outcast. In fact, there is no word for Untouchable in sanskrit.

Describing karma, Ms Doniger avers “This transfer (of karma between persons) may take place intentionally or unintentionally: the dharma texts say that if someone lets a guest depart unfed, the guest will take away the host's good karma and leave behind his own bad karma” and refers to Manu 3.100 and 4.201. This was intriguing since one of the fundamental tenets of karma is its very root: "karta; kArayati; kartum iti karma". He who performs the action gets the fruit of that action. You cannot eat and satisfy your neighbor's hunger.

Going to the text, verse 3:100:

“sarvam sukrtam AdaTe brAhmaNO anarchitO vasan”
“All merits are withdrawn from (Adatta or Atta) he who fails to honor(anarchitO) a Brahmana who stays with him (vasan)”

This is completely consistent with the idea that the karta (the person who fails to honor the Brahmana) reaps the karma of the benefits being withdrawn from him. Nowhere does the text say that the Brahmana 'takes away' the benefits.

At this point, it is clear that Ms Doniger's translations are weak at best, and self-serving at worst. Mixing up father and son (Gautama and Svetaketu), translating caNDAla into 'untouchable', creating a 'take away' where none exists are all part of a pattern of mistranslations that repeats all over the book.

By her own admission, “Real Sanskritists, on two continents, have been known to turn and leave a room when I entered it (Introduction pp ix)”.

It is easy to see why.

“Shadows of the Ramayana” (pp 523 - 536)

The premise of the essay is that all the major characters in the Ramayana have 'doubles'; shadows that indulge in behaviors that the main characters cannot engage in. to quote,

“These illusory characters are, ironically, more flesh and blood, as we would say, more complex and nuanced than the human characters that they mirror; or rather added to those original characters they provide the nuances of ambiguity and ambivalence that constitute the depth and substance of the total character composed of the original plus the shadow” (pp 524)

Shorter premise: the characters are too perfect, so Superman must have a hidden (evil) twin somewhere.

First up: Manthara, the hunchback for Kaikeyi. Ms Doniger states this is validated by the fact that “kaikeyi herself is absolved of all her evil by having it displaced on to the old hunchback Manthara, a servant who corrupts Kaikeyi and forces her, against Kaikeyi's better judgment to act as she does. Shatrugna puns on Manthara's name saying that it was she who churned up (manth) for them the ocean of grief in which Kaikeyi was a sea serpent (R 2.71.13)”

It is not 2.71.13 but 2.77.13, but let's stop counting the missed references.

This thesis does not stand up to scrutiny. When Bharata returns to Ayodhya, finds his brother exiled and his father dead, he does not look for shadows to blame instead of his mother Kaikeyi. He lights into her using language that a virtuous son should never use: accuses her of having come to destroy the Ikshvaku race (kulasya tvam abhAvAya 2.73.4), calls her a malevolent woman (pApadarshini 2.73.5) calls her a sinner (pApe 2.73.11). Bharata is beside himself with sorrow that his brothers and sister-in-law have been exiled on his account and puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of his mother, Kaikeyi.

As the crown-prince, he even orders her out of the kingdom (rAjyAt bhramSasva kaikeyi nrsimhE dustacAriNI 2.74.2) and curses her to lament his death (mA mrtam rudatI bhava 2.74.2). The broader point is, for the one verse Ms Doniger cites as evidence for the shadow theory, there are two dozen verses that say that Bharata and Shatrugna, Kaikeyi's sons, held her squarely responsible.

Ms Doniger continues: “On the other hand, when Shatrugna drags Manthra around he yells curses at Kaikeyi. In this text even the shadows have shadows”

This makes no sense. Manthra is Kaikeyi's shadow and Kaikeyi is Manthra's. But they get yelled at independently anyway – Manthra is almost killed and Kaikeyi is roundly abused. Anyway, it is all proof that they are each other's shadows. Q.E.D.

Next up – Rama and Lakshmana.

“Turning now to human doubles, we have seen that all four brothers are fragments of a single person, incarnations of Vishnu”.

We have seen no such thing. In any case, we cannot see any such thing because, according to legend, Lakshmana is an avatara of Adhi Sesha, the celestial snake that is the guardian of Vishnu in Vaikunta. As Adi Sesha, Lakshmana takes his duties very seriously – he is the protector of the Lord. He even makes a guest appearance in Vamana Avatara: he starts hissing in anger as he mistakes the cheering crowd as having hostile intentions on his Lord.

When Lakshmana chafes at the injustice that is being visited on Rama, it is Rama who calms him down: Dharma is the highest Truth and the highest dharma is a father's word (2.21.40) so stop being a Kshatriya (seeking vengeance) and follow my lead (2.21.43)

Ms Doniger continues:

“On the other hand, the text suggests that Rama – the human avatar who often forgets he is God – might fear that his brother Lakshmana could become another sort of double, that he could replace Rama as protector and spouse. A man's fear of being cuckolded by his younger brother is endemic to South Asia culture; the niyoga or levirate that allows a widow to conceive a child by her dead husband's brother makes the lawmaker Manu very nervous (Manu 9.60)”. [it is 9.59, not 9.60]

This is jaw-droppingly bad scholarship.

There is no text anywhere in Ramayana that even remotely suggests that Rama feared being 'cuckolded'. In any case, he tries very hard to actually leave Sita and Lakshmana behind as he goes to the forest. (2.28 – 2.31; four chapters) While in the forest he goes after Maricha the demon in the form of a golden deer specifically leaving Lakshmana in charge of Sita's safety.

The reference to Manu is also foolish since Manu is talking about consensual (appointed) relationship for the express purpose of having a child. In the previous verse 9.58, Manu warns that the only time the younger brother may even approach his widowed sister-in-law is when following a misfortune (death of older brother).

The essay continues to push this theme, calling the Kamasutra to aid which 'warns that a woman who marries the oldest of several brothers is likely to commit adultery with one of them (pp 525)'. So, Ms Doniger concludes, 'It is not surprising to find this theme reflected in this cultures best-known and loved epic (Ibid)'. Never mind that Valmiki lived several centuries before Vatsyayana. Ms Doniger is determined to see a theme where there is clearly none. There is no 'there' there.

The bad scholarship continues to get worse as Ms Doniger pushes her theme further: “The tension between the two brothers is a significant motivation for the plot”. What is the tension? The author posits that when Rama leaves after Mareecha, this tension becomes manifest. When Mareecha fakes his distress pretending Rama is in mortal danger, Sita is distraught. She asks Lakshmana to rush to his brother's rescue. Lakshmana, who has been placed on guard (so much for the fear of being cuckolded!) is reluctant to leave, suspecting a trick. Sita then accuses Lakshmana of wanting her for himself. Lakshmana is hurt and in obedience to Sita, leaves. Sita is captured by Ravana.

But in all this, there is no evidence of tension between the brothers. When Lakshmana meets up with Rama, it is Rama who is upset that Lakshmana is not by Sita's side. When Lakshmana reports Sita's harsh words and says 'I came away in anger' (krODAt rakta lOcanAh prasphuramANa Osta 3.59.20) “with reddened eyes and trembling lips”, Rama chides him, saying “you have done wrong O gentle one (saumya) “. The lesson here is that a noble person will not let the angry words of another delude him into abandoning dharma. If they do, then bad things will result.

The whole theory of tension between the brothers, especially centered in a fear of being cuckolded is laughable and finds no support anywhere.

Ms Doniger doubles down and posits a shadow between Rama and Bharata with Vali and Sugreeva. She comes up with another theory that Rama is somehow unconsciously resentful of Bharata for usurping his throne and therefore kills Vali who has usurped Sugriva's throne. “Rama is driven to this unethical act because of the rage and resentment he should feel toward his brother and father, but does not, is expressed for him by his monkey double – the deposed monkey king Sugriva – and vented by Rama on that double's enemy, Valin(sic) who doubles for Rama's brother and father (pp 529)”.

I actually laughed out loud when I read this.

Valmiki spends thirty entire chapters describing Bharata's desperate attempts to find Rama and return the throne to him (2.82 – 2.112). The next three chapters describe how, having failed to persuade Rama to return, Bharata goes back with his brother's sandals on his head. Bharata reports the encounter to Sage Bharadvaja who asks him if he was able to persuade Rama: “(ayOdhyAm eva gaCami grhItvA pAdukeshubE 2-113-14) “Carrying the auspicious sandals (of my brother), I am returning to Ayodhya”.

In another chapter (2-115), Valmiki describes how Bharata, reluctant to sit on the throne, decamps to a village and asks the ministers to hold the state canopy over the sandals because “the wooden sandals of my noble brother, who is my Guru, have established dharma over this kingdom” (abhyAm rAjyE sTiTau Darmah pAdukAByAmgurOr mama 2-114-96). Some usurper!

Does Rama feel resentment toward his brother as he kills Vali? Again the text explicitly tells us otherwise. Explaining himself to the dying Vali, Rama points out that Bharata's dominion covers the Kishkinda forest and he, Rama is bound by duty to enforce the law (mete out punishment) (4.18.24-25) calling Bharata 'he who is ruling sensibly and adhering to Dharma' (prAgnya DarmENa pAlayan BaraTa (4.18-24)). Rama even goes as far to declare that he is merely carrying out his brother's orders (4.18.25) (BaraTa AdESAm viDim krtvA).

Ms Doniger herself acknowledges that she is stretching this parallel way beyond credibility: “If we try to hang on to this parallel, it is a pretty messy parallel (pp 528)”, but puts it out there anyway!

Why does she do this? We will let her explain:

“But it does not mirror that life exactly; it is a mythological transformation, taking the pieces and rearranging them to make a slightly different pattern, as the framework does, according to Freud. Freud (in The Interpretation of Dreams) and Ernest Jones after him (in On the Nightmare) wrote about the ways in which animals often replace, in dreams, people towards whom the dreamer has a strong, dangerous, inadmissible and therefore repressed emotions (emphasis mine)” Continuing directly, she brings it home for us:

“Thus Rama's cultural role as the perfect son and brother prevents him from expressing his resentment of his brother and father, and so the monkeys do it for him. In the magical world of the monkey forest, Rama's unconscious mind is set free to take the revenge that the conscious mind does not allow him in the world of humans”

That passage encapsulates the entire essay: Ms Doniger cannot believe Rama is a perfect human being. Freud says there is no such thing, therefore, his actions (and of Lakshmana and Sita and Bharata and Ravana and Kumbhakarna) should be 'properly' interpreted through a Freudian lens.

On that note, it is time to wind up the review (Cliff notes version starts here)

The collection of essays over the years offers more insight into Ms Doniger's evolution as an Indologist than as an authentic description of Hinduism. It is easy to see, based on just the examples above, that some of the more interesting interpretations of Hindu epics and concepts are more fanciful than factual. It is also clear that there is a Freudian undercurrent in all the analysis and interpretations. There is nothing covert about this influence, the author acknowledges it openly.

Of the 43 essays, 10 are explicitly about sex. Another 12 are somewhat about sex – the topics are benign but the interpretations are sexual. Nineteen essays cover perceived oppressors (always Brahmins) and the oppressed (animals, women, dalits). Eight are on other topics (polytheism, Nirguna Ramayana etc). (The numbers add up to more than 43 because some essays are in multiple categories). The thrust is quite clear.

It is also evident that Ms Doniger's sanskrit skills are quite weak. In her public speeches, it is obvious that she has not mastered the diction or learned to pronounce words properly. The book offers plenty of evidence that her ability to translate is also suspect. Ms Doniger appears to have completed some courses in Sanskrit at Harvard where she has been taught sanskrit from a text book and the ability to find other translations. The essays rely way too much on secondary sources.

In the Introduction, she states that she spent a year in India. It appears to have been a lost opportunity. For someone who is so keen on India, she could have sought out the greats who were alive at that time – the Shankaracharyas, the residents of Ramanashram or the monastic order of Ramakrishna. Ms Doniger does not seem to have reached out to western authors like Paul Brunton who could have given her great insights.

Instead she seems to have visited Konark, Khajuraho and such parts (as Seinfeld would say.. not that there is...). But all the available evidence points to a focus on the fringes of Hindu practice (the legend of cImantini? Really?). Ms Doniger's 'On Hinduism' is exactly what it says: Ms Doniger on hinduism; not actual Hindus or Hindu texts on Hinduism.

With the overemphasis on Freud, the mistranslations, the literal analysis of mythology in a Freudian framework, the book fails at both her stated goals: it neither illustrates Hinduism for a western audience, nor does it illuminate Hinduism for a Hindu audience.

It most closely resembles another myth from India: the svarga created for King Trisankhu by Sage Viswamitra. Illusory projections from a bright mind that has no basis in reality that ends up pissing off more people than it pleases.

One last word on the reviewers who have turned in glowing reviews: they seem to have been taken in by the quantity assuming the quality had to be there. Or, not knowing sanskrit themselves they have been bedazzled by her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of original sanskrit texts. The examples I have cited are but some of the more egregious ones. The essays have lots more of the same kinds of mistranslations and unsupportable assertions and an inordinate focus on sex / lust etc. In one sense I am quite grateful for Ms Doniger having produced this work - I am able to look at her complete body of work and state with confidence: this empress is wearing no clothes.
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on April 4, 2015
Born and raised as a Hindu Brahmin, as a young boy, I was often irritated by the relentless demands of rituals and insistence on acceptance without any perceived rationale or evidence. I pacified myself with the bribe of "Prasaad", which invariably accompanied every ritual, the Prize.

Growing up, reading a little, and a little more wider, I was increasingly amused by the labyrinth colours of myth and accompanying stories and any number of versions, from each elder who was eager to paint his or her own inference. I generally thought of these as juicy stories, but harmless with some moral strand underneath, not a bad mechanism to transmit ethics and values.

Moving on with life, I have observed the excesses and naked race to money and power by the religion and the self-appointed religious leaders, a wholly different and disturbing experience. This was no more benign, but potent and dangerous.

In the country which takes pride in Her plurality and tolerance, I have witnessed intolerance of the highest order, in the name of tradition, history and self-righteousness - "Pramparaa".

As the author rightly identifies, the ugly head of self righteousness, intolerance and exclusion is on the rise in India.

I put it that, banning of this book in India is a clear evidence of failure by the authority or leadership, who do not seem to have the confidence in their own history and ways of life.

I earnestly believe that, prescription is only for the sick; where information and accompanying freedom of choice is the right diet for the inclusive, harmonious and healthy society.

Great Book and a terrific effort by the Author. Thank you Ms. Doniger.
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on October 30, 2014
I have my roots in Hinduism and and I have read few books on religion and philosophy. The author has written about things that are "We do not talk about this" in new Hinduism like sex. To diminish her authority on the ground that she is not a Hindu and then must not talk about this religion is a self serving statement. I have yet to read a book that contests author's version of Vedic translation or a different versions of estepblished rituals. To all those who object to this publication, please advise where a reader can get real translation and palatable thought process that was in from Vedic times till rise of Hindutava.
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on July 20, 2014
Ms. Doniger's book provided me a great historical overview of Hinduism. I have lived in Hyderabad India for almost one year and will be here for another year. I enjoy exploring the religious diversity of India but it is very confusing. As a westerner, I came here assuming that I could grasp and categorize what I would see. Her book helped me to understand that is not possible. Indeed, I have come to realize that India is chaos and that it includes its religious expressions and practices. I gave her 4 stars rather than 5 in as much as a University of Chicago graduate ( AB '78 majoring in Early Christian Literature and New Testament) who studied with Jonathan Z Smith, Robert Grant, Langdon Gilkey, Bernard McGinn among others there in the Divinity School, I was slightly disappointed that I did not come away with a stronger understanding of Hinduism's anthropomorphic expressions.
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on June 16, 2014
I have not read this book, but I have read many of her other books, and many of the essays included in this book. I think this review area is being used to post negative opinions of the book in an orchestrated attempt to discredit Doniger. Everything I have read from her has been first rate. But there are many Indians both in India and sadly in this country who wish to ingratiate themselves with the Hindu nationalist movement attempting to discourage any serious scholarship written about India that is not in line with blind adoration of the country and the culture in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the newly elected party.
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on June 24, 2014
Not able to get hold of her banned book in India I downloaded this and read it. a very enjoyable book if a trifle heavy and cumbersome in some essays. I am a Hindu that goes thro the rituals in a Santayana like fashion, because friends and family do it- a cultural communal sort of ritual worship. As for my beliefs - I couldnt tell you for sure.

Knowing very little sanskrit and not having read any of the scriptures in the original I found this a truly revealing work bringing within my purview ancient Hindu texts of the Rig Veda Samhita, the Manu Smriti and such like. Till now i had only come across sanitised translations of philosohies from the Upanishads and stories from the puranas also sanitised. Like most Indians I am fairly well informed with regard to the epics themselves and the Gita.

I was surprised to find out that the popularity of the Gita and the Vedantic philosophy was as a result of sort of a conspiracy between Orientalists and anglophilic Indian reformers to present an acceptable Hinduism for European consumption! Vedanta was always a part of Hinduism but a minor part compared to the Tantric and Bhakthi traditions that still dominate today. ( I am not referring to the Tantra of Sex and Secrets but the sort that gave rise to the Agamas). I had never realised that the stories of the Puranas had earlier Vedic versions without the Puranic gods mentioned, nor that beef eating was acceptable to the Vedic nomads.
The best part of the book are the bits to do with the place of women, marginalised poeple and animals in Ancient Indian society.

Now onto the gripes. First of let me state that I agree with critics who say that this isnt about Hinduism as prcatised now. Of course it isnt. Thats not her premise. This is about how we got here from there. But Ms. Doniger could have written more on the Bhakthi and Tantric traditions that are the antecedents to Hinduism as practised today. Having said that I guess thats a book all in itself.

My bigger gripe is about the her techniques of criticism. I have never been a big fan of Literary criticism of the Marxist or psychoanalytical school. Thats not to say that theres no substance in them but they do sometimes go ridiculously too far. They do give us some insights that a literal reading of the text doesnt. But its all hypothetical and to talk in certainities based on these forms of criticism isnt scientific.

As for hurting religious sentiments, I dont see why religion is given protection where political beliefs or scientific theories are treated rigorously. A more robust discussion on all religions is the need of the moment not censorship or fear dissent. Good show Ms Doniger.
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on March 29, 2016
Enlightening.
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