The Hindus: A Labour of Love Denied the Light of Day

When a book provokes, the only appropriate response should be to write another

Ratna Raman Delhi 

I stumbled upon Wendy Doniger’s Hindu Myths in the 1980s and was deeply grateful for the selection and translation of seminal myths from wide-ranging classical Indian sources into English. That the myths were accessible in an English translation and usefully condensed in a book was for me a matter of great delight. Sanskrit was my second language for the Class XII Board Examinations and the subsidiary subject of choice during my undergraduate years, when an able teacher helped me grapple with the Kenopanishad and the plays of Kalidasa in an otherwise empty classroom.  However, the formal study of a second language that is neither the language of power nor part of everyday use, often occupies the realm of double displacement.  In such a universe books that translated sources were always welcome, and Penguin translations in particular represented a benchmark of accessible authenticity.

Although Sanskrit has been part of school curriculum in North India, it has long ceased to be the language of power.  It was easy to put aside the language, learnt under duress at school and forgotten through sheer disuse, in the wake of the unending blandishments that life offered, both daily and through the printed word in other languages. My generation’s march towards modernity, away from mother tongues and classical tongues, also records the diminishing of poly-lingual sensibilities to bi-lingual dimensions.  Every language that is no longer in power edges slowly to the peripheries. Sanskrit perhaps suffered more, because unlike other languages that still provided functional keys to two dimensional living it was certifiably a dead language.

 So yes, at school we got the grammar right through the sustained cramming of shabd roops  (noun formations) and dhatu roops (verb formations in past, present and future tense). Outside of the grammar we engaged primarily with rather elementary and functional formations, except for the occasional verse. Some of the stories and the narratives that formed the treasure trove of this ancient language reached us, often from other oral traditions, those of Tamil (a language definitely on the backburner in North India) and Hindi in my case.

The reason Wendy Doniger’s translations in English were a revelation was because her journey was in the opposite direction, from the first world to the Indian subcontinent.  She was drawn to Indian culture, fascinated by its “excess” and bewitched by its stories as a young teenager.  She was curious enough to study Sanskrit as a seventeen-year-old, adding to her training in Latin. She also discovered in the course of her readings the wealth of puranic stories and drew attention to their simple, pragmatic narratives and revelled in their direct utterance.

It is always exciting to flirt with a new idea or a language. It is far more difficult to hold on to one’s curiosity about a culture and replace the initial excitement with a sustained familiarization that promotes a lifelong affair. It is easy enough to learn to use a language at a very functional everyday level. It is, far more difficult thing to master this language and translate its thought processes and ideas into another language. It is an effort to assimilate enough love for a language no longer in everyday use and make it an integral part of a personal and professional life. The Hindus is a high point in a labour of love that Wendy Doniger has been engaged with for over five decades.  Only someone incapable of appreciating the hard work  and dedication that translation demands; only  someone uncomprehending of  the rigor and discipline that  a lifetime devoted to reading, assimilating, collating and putting together stories and ideas from another culture, can be capable of asking for  Doniger’s publication The Hindus to be pulped.

This, in fact, uniquly qualifies Dina Nath  Batra and his associates, who have accused Doniger of wounding the sentiments of believers and of being motivated by missionary zeal.  Such trouncing of extant belief in order to supplant it with another dominant faith ended  in the  previous century and had been brought about  then by  efforts far more strenuous  than the writing and publication  of a book. Constitutionally, India today provides for the congregation of multiple religious identities.  Self-appointed saviours of religious sentiment in this new scenario only reveal an outdated insularity and bigotedness.  Messrs Batra, Kumar and Gupta would do well to recall that colonial Macaulayite perception about a shelf of European Literature outweighing all the literatures of India was eventually replaced with greater open-endedness in the twentieth century itself. Even in those ignorant times, enough admirers of the richness and multiplicity of Indian narratives and ideas, notwithstanding exotic\ idealized perspectives, existed. Doniger’s book, far from being a mockery of Indian inheritance is a composite attempt to put together sporadically occurring  data. That she speaks of an alternative history, teasing out the diverse voices and players in a long cultural period demands both admiration and gratitude.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014