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Reconstructing A History of Ideas

Amiya P. Sen

Edited by Wendy Doniger
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2009, pp. 692, Rs. 999.00


As an individual deeply interested in the religion and culture of early India, I have consistently admired the writings of Wendy Doniger, enjoying every bit of what I have been able to read of her several works, ranging from lengthy monographs to crisp prefatory remarks and editorial interventions. Other than a sparkling, entertaining quality, about the prose itself, her writings have always carried vast erudition and insights that are both engaging and energizing—almost goading one to think afresh even on issues that have acquired academic placidity. The work under review is no exception. It comes with a narrative that is at once racy, witty, evocative and provocative and will, I imagine, occasionally leave the unsuspecting reader gasping! The Hindus, however, is also a work of a different conception and order. For one, it is difficult to categorize. At least in South Asia, it might not be very successful as a text-book for its choice and arrangement of subjects, argument and chronology is at times strikingly unconventional. Importantly enough, it includes new subjectivities and objects of historical interest that are yet to find a significant presence in our university curriculum. There is abundant and new material here on women, dalits, tribes and other socially marginalized individuals or communities. Of these, perhaps the most striking is recounting Hindu cultural attitudes towards other life-forms. There is ample information here on cows, crows, peacocks, monkeys, dogs and jackals though the clear favourite has to be the horse. In fact, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that in this work the horse and ‘horsy’ matters stage a come-back almost every fifty pages! (Quite appropriately, there is even a photograph of the author in the company of one). However, I would be clearly remiss if I failed to mention how, in the present work, these new subjects are also suitably embellished by copious citations from original sources, rendering the narrative that much more instructive and interesting. Much as our author seems to distrust brahmins and brahminical texts, it is her mastery over classical languages and texts that makes such embellishments possible. What I also liked about the present work is its conscious attempt to reconstruct a coherent history of ideas wherein, ideas, even when not inextricably tied to material contexts, produce a sense of the historical. Here, ideas can be seen in double-play—signifying both sentiments and events and thereby leading the ...

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