When I first picked up "The Hindus" -- a tome seemingly rich with scholarship and, at 780 hardbound pages, as hefty as the legendary demon Kumbhakarna -- I was struck most of all by the author's name on its cover: Wendy Doniger. A mist of apprehension spritzed my Hindu soul. Could this lady (a professor at the University of Chicago) be the same Wendy Doniger who wrote last year -- in one of the more batty commentaries in an election season replete with unhinged scrivenings -- that Sarah Palin's "greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman"? If so, could this author really be trusted with a history of my people, the Hindus?
Let us be clear: Ms. Doniger's book is not a history of Hinduism, still less an attempt to render the religion comprehensible to all. It is not a work of theology either but a loosely chronological cultural history of "the Hindus." She begins, naturally, with an examination of their origins in the Indus Valley (now, ironically, in Pakistan) and is particularly illuminating on the relationship between humans, animals and gods in the "Rig Veda," the most ancient Hindu sacred text, from 1,500 B.C. In keeping with her promise to deliver an "alternative history," she pays as much attention to the role in ancient Hindu texts accorded to women, pariahs, ogres and the like -- the beings on the margin, as it were -- as she does to Brahmin and Kshatriya (warrior) males, the more conventional power-players in the Hindu tableau vivant.
A religion without a central church or pontiff -- and with no predominant sacred place (à la Mecca) -- Hinduism has spawned hundreds of competing devotional sects and theological strains. Ms. Doniger does a deft job of tracing their few unifying tenets -- those of karma (actions) and dharma (righteousness) and a merit-based afterlife -- and of holding these beliefs up to critical examination against the obvious injustices of the caste system. Her most beguiling chapters, though, are the ones in which she examines the impact on the Hindus of India's numerous foreign invaders -- from the earliest "Aryans" in the second millennium B.C. to the imperial British, the last and perhaps greatest external shapers of Hindu society.
Instructively, too -- at a time when the Indian elections are almost upon us -- Ms. Doniger trains her light on the use and abuse of Hindu mythology in modern Indian politics, what she calls "the past in the present." It will come as no surprise that she is as unloving of the Hindu Right as she is of the Right in America, and with greater reason. Unlike India's Hindu Right, the American Right does not seek to disenfranchise citizens on the basis of religion.
India is a country, she writes, "where not only the future but even the past is unpredictable." Here Ms. Doniger refers to Hinduist attempts to interpret the past in ways that would portray the Muslim presence in India as unfailingly injurious to Hindus and devoid of any redeeming quality. Her previous scholarship, one notes, has been derided by "political" Hindus, a cadre notorious for its intolerance of unconventional interpretations of Hindu sacred texts. A militant Hindu once hurled an egg at Ms. Doniger as she lectured in London. Of this episode she writes: "He missed his aim, in every way."
Tartness is a quality that Ms. Doniger has in abundance. The male author of the "Kama Sutra," she says, "may have sympathy for women but not true empathy; his interest in their thoughts is exploitative, though no less accurate for all that." Elsewhere she compares a "Mantra Against Your Wife's Lover," from the "Brihadaranyaka Upanishad" -- a Sanskrit philosophical text from 500 B.C. -- to "a Noel Coward drawing room comedy."
A reader's enjoyment of Ms. Doniger's scholarship is enhanced by the fact that she is a philologist and not a conventional historian; as such, she is inclined to roam freely between eras, focusing on the themes and symbols that take her fancy. For instance, her meditation on the role of the horse in Hindu society -- and the effect on the Hindu psyche of this animal, on whose back all invaders of India galloped into view -- is original and eye-opening. She weaves together text and argument from sources as diverse as Kipling's "Kim" (Mahbub Ali, remember, Kim's friend and sometime employer, is a horse-trader) and the Hindu epic "Ramayana," in which a horse is sacrificed after Rama, the protagonist god-king, returns from exile.
Arab invaders to India in the 13th century were appalled, Ms. Doniger writes, to find that Hindu kings fed their horses a mash of "peas or beans, flour, sugar, salt, molasses and, to cap it all, ghee" -- that is, clarified butter, sky-high in cholesterol. Ghee, of course, is the most prized of Indian foods. It is offered in rituals to the gods. To the medieval Hindu of martial caste it was but natural that the horse -- prized higher than anything else a warrior could wish for -- be fed ghee as well. It was a very Hindu gesture: not so good for the health; but soothing, indeed, for the soul.
Mr. Varadarajan, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business and a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the opinions editor at Forbes.