The Endless Variety of Hinduism

Gandhi himself said that, “If I know Hinduism at all, it is essentially inclusive and ever-growing, ever-responsive. It gives the freest scope to imagination, speculation, and reason.” Here are a handful of quotations from Wendy Doniger’s astonishing book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, that say much the same thing. Religion, as always, is variety, response, change:

You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that they have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee, and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes, and that they have fought for their equality. (688)

The Hindus, an alternative history.jpg

By refusing to modify its component elements in order to force them into a synthesis, Indian mythology celebrates the idea that the universe is boundlessly various, that everything occurs simultaneously, that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other … [that] untrammeled variety and contradiction are ethically and metaphysically necessary. (48)

Hinduism, like all cultures, is a bricoleur, a rag-and-bones man, building new things out of the scraps of other things. We’ve seen how the British used the stones of Mohenjo-Daro as a ballast for their railway before (and after) they realized what those stone were and that a Buddhist stupa stands over some of the ruins there. So too Hindus built their temples on (and out of) Buddhist stupas as well as on other Hindu temples, and Muslims their mosques on Hindu temples (and Buddhist stupas), often reusing the original stones, new wine in old bottles, palimpsest architecture. In the realm of ideas as well as things, one religion would take up a word or image from another religion as a kind of objet trouvé. There are no copyrights here; all is in the public domain. This is not the hodgepodge that the Hindus and the early Orientalists regarded as dirt, matter out of place, evidence of inferior status but, rather, the interaction of various different strains that is an inevitable factor in all cultures and traditions, and a Good Thing. (101)