Author Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago’s Divinity School , writes on this blog about her new work. This new work further consolidates the view that much of the now politically packaged Hinduism was actually a product of colonial scholarship in the ninteenth centruy.

The Battle over Hindu History

For years, some Hindus have argued that the 16th century mosque called the Babri Masjid (after the Mughal emperor Babur) was built over a temple commemorating the birthplace of Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu) in Ayodhya (the city where, according to the ancient poem called the Ramayana, Rama was born), though there is no evidence whatsoever that there has been ever a temple on that spot or that Rama was born there.

On December 6, 1992, as the police stood by and watched, leaders of the right-wing Hindu party called the BJP whipped a crowd of 200,000 into a frenzy. Shouting “Death to the Muslims!” the mob attacked Babur’s mosque with sledgehammers. In the riots that followed, over a thousand people lost their lives, and many more died in reactive riots that broke out elsewhere in India. On the site today, nothing but vandalized ruins remains, and, in a dark corner of the large, empty space, a small shrine with a couple of oleograph pictures of Rama, where a Hindu priest performs a perfunctory ritual. Whether or not there ever was a Hindu temple there before, there is a temple, however makeshift, there now.

People are being killed in India today because of misreadings of the history of the Hindus. In all religions, myths that pass for history–not just casual misinformation, the stock in trade of the internet, but politically-driven, aggressive distortions of the past–can be deadly, and in India they incite violence not only against Muslims but against women, Christians, and the lower castes.

Myth has been called “the smoke of history,” and there is a desperate need for a history of the Hindus that distinguishes between the fire, the documented evidence, and the smoke; for mythic narratives become fires when they drive historical events rather than respond to them. Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat, sparked a revolution in India in 1857. We are what we imagine, as much as what we do.

Hindus in America, too, care how their history is taught to their children in American schools, and the voices of Hindu action groups ring out on the internet. Some of these groups, justifiably incensed by the disproportionate emphasis on the horrors of the caste system in American textbooks, and by the grotesque misrepresentation of Hindu deities in American commercialism, ricochet to the other extreme and demand that all references to the caste system be expunged from all American textbooks.

And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it’s a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “The Hindus believe. . . ,” is talking nonsense.

My narrative is alternative both to the histories promulgated by some contemporary Hindus on the political right in India and to those presented in most surveys in English–imperialist histories, all about the kings, ignoring ordinary people. But the texts tell us not just who was the ruler but who got enough to eat and who did not. And so my narrative is alternative in its inclusion of alternative people. How does one include the marginal as well as the mainstream Hindus in the story? The ancient texts, usually dismissed as the work of Brahmin males, in fact reveal a great deal about the lower castes, often very sympathetic to them and sometimes coded as narratives about dogs, standing for the people now generally called Dalits, formerly called Untouchables. The argument, for instance, that Dalits should be allowed to enter temples, an argument still violently disputed in parts of India today, can already be found, masked, in ancient stories about faithful dogs who should be allowed to enter heaven. So too, though Feminists often argue that Hindu women were entirely silenced, women’s voices–their ideas and attitudes and, above all, their stories–were often heard and recorded by the men who wrote down the texts.

Foreigners, too, made contributions to Hinduism from the very beginning. Once upon a time–about 50 million years ago –a triangular plate of land, moving fast (for a continent), broke off from Madagascar (a large island lying off the southeastern coast of Africa), and sailed across the Indian Ocean and smashed into the belly of Central Asia with such force that it squeezed the earth five miles up into the skies to form the Himalayan range and fused with Central Asia to became the Indian subcontinent. Or so the people who study plate tectonics nowadays tell us, and who am I to challenge them? Not just land but people came to India from Africa, much later; the winds that bring the monsoon rains to India each year also brought the first humans to peninsular India by sea from East Africa in around 50,000 BCE. And so from the very start India was a place made up of land and people from somewhere else. India itself is an import, or if you prefer, Africa outsourced India (and just about everyone else).

The magnificent civilization of the Indus Valley (in present-day Pakistan) traded with Sumer, Crete, and Mesopotamian, before it came to a mysterious end in about 2000 BCE. At just about the same time, in the nearby Punjab, a very different culture entered India from the Northwest and created the great corpus of texts called the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism. Other invaders– Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and British–made valuable contributions to the complex fabric of Hinduism.

We can trace certain important ideas throughout the centuries of this unbroken tradition. For example: A profound psychological understanding of addiction to material objects is evident throughout the history of Hinduism. Addiction was the concern not merely of kings or scholars but of ordinary people, like the proto-hippy and the gambler who are depicted in the Vedas (see excerpt). One reaction to this perceived danger was to control addiction through asceticism or renunciation. And so began an ongoing battle between a great tradition that always celebrated sensuality (think: elephants encrusted with rubies, temples that make rococo look like Danish modern, the Kama-sutra) and another that feared the excesses of the flesh and practiced meditation (think: Gandhi).

Some of the British, especially in the early colonial period, admired and celebrated the sensuality of Hinduism. Others, particularly but not only the later Protestant missionaries, despised what they regarded as Hindu excesses. Unfortunately, many educated Hindus took their cues from the second sort of Brit and became ashamed of the sensuous aspects of their own religion, aping the Victorians (who were, after all, very Victorian), becoming more Protestant than thou. It is not fair to blame the British for the Puritanical strain in Hinduism; it began much earlier. But they certainly made it a lot worse. And cultural influences of this sort, as much as the grand ideas, are part of what makes the history of the Hindus so fascinating.

Read an excerpt from “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, which is being published today.

Read Michael Dirda’s review of Doniger’s new book.

By Wendy Doniger  |  March 19, 2009; 8:45 AM ET