On Hinduism and Xenophobia

I remember reading something set in ancient Persia and noting that the name of the chief god, Azura Mazda, was quite similar to the names of the demons ("asura") in Hindu myths.  Reading Wendy Doniger's latest book, On Hinduism, brought the aha moment:
The great god in the Avesta ... is called Ahura Mazda, the great asura, a benevolent spirit. Even in the Rig Veda, several gods are still called asuras (Varuna in particular). And just as benevolent asuras became malevolent demons in later India, so too, benevolent Greek daemons (another sort of god) became malevolent demons in Christianity, and the devas of ancient India and Persia (gods, cognate with deus in Latin) became the devils of Christianity.
The change had, in other words, something to do with xenophobia.  This habit of identifying other peoples' gods with devils has been happening a long, long time.

On Hinduism is a collection of the essays that Doniger wrote over her lifetime.  The essays are great -- the one on the representation of Shiva ("lingam") alone is worth the price of admission, but she tops even it in her essay on Saranyu (the Hindu equivalent of Eve). Even her throwaway asides are gems of insight.  The essay on Saranyu, for example, ties the obscure tale of the the Ur-mother of Hindu myth that dates to the Rig Veda to the well-known story of Kunti and Karna. Once she points it out, it is amazing how many of the remnants of the Saranyu story -- an abandoning mother, a brilliant father, mortals and immortals, mutilation -- all make their way in slightly modified ways into the Karna myth. The essays are wonderful and I have been savoring the read, going back and rereading some of them (I can't think of a book that's ever made me do that).

Doniger says that she has changed the essays to account for changes in her views over time.  She also changed words, like dharma and Shiva, whose italicization and spelling conventions have changed since the time when she first wrote the essays. Finally, she says, she had an Indian reader read the text to point out areas where she might have inadvertently caused offense.  She needn't have bothered.  The right-wing blowhards who succeeded in getting Penguin to drop the book in India would have taken offense anything more real than a bowdlerized Amar Chitra Katha comic.

Considering that it's precisely her droll, outsider's voice that I find refreshing, it is ironic how many of the criticisms of her work come down to her "otherness": she's a woman, a Jew, a non-Indian; who is she to write this stuff?

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