Wendy Doniger: The Battle over Hindu History





[PROFESSOR OF THE HISTORY OF RELIGIONS, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO’S DIVINITY SCHOOL. Doniger’s research and teaching center on Hinduism and mythology. Her courses in Hinduism cover mythology, literature, law, gender and ecology.]

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....


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