Is Doniger’s student laying a trap for Hindus with “Uttara”?

Wendy Doniger is a controversial Professor of Religion at the University of Chicago; her area of focus is on Hinduism. Doniger’s greatest claim to fame is that in 2014 her book “The Hindus, An Alternative History” was taken out of circulation in India by the publisher (Penguin) after it was revealed that the book contained gross mistranslations of Sanskrit as well and many factual and historical errors.  She was also accused of overemphasizing the sex-positive aspects of Hinduism in what appeared to be a lewd and sullying manner. The book was not BANNED in India as many tried to imply; Penguin voluntarily withdrew the book from Indian markets, likely because they knew ensuing litigation would reveal the shoddy intellectual quality of the work and tarnish their brand. However, Doniger did gain international sympathy from the mainstream media who focused on some of the more emotional and volatile reactions to the book’s inaccuracies which Doniger’s proponents tried to paint as being fundamentalist.

Western academics of the ilk of Doniger are very much aware of the fact that due to centuries of cruel oppression and social demonization that there is a reactive streak in many Hindus, they know Hindus have a tendency to jump at the slightest provocation, and Doniger’s team may very well be looking to use that to their advantage.  The last time Doniger tried to use the reflexes of Hindus by insulting their injuries it blew up in her face, she became the subject of academic criticism and her reputation was tarnished.  Many aligned academics watched as this drama unfolded and perhaps realized that this time they needed to be a little more careful before provoking the wounded tiger of Hinduism for their own gains. One such person could be Arshia Sattar, Wendy Doniger’s PhD student.

Arshia Sattar
PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago

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Arshia Sattar obtained her PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 1990, Wendy Doniger was her doctoral advisor. Sattar has recently published her new book “Uttara: The Book Of Answers” which seeks to give a feminist, anti-patriarchal perspective on a controversial addendum to the famous Ramayana of Valmiki. The cover of Sattar’s work could easily lead one to believe that she is seeking to raise ire rather than discussion. The artwork of the cover shows Sita (wife of Rama) being consumed by flames while accusatory hands point down at her. The infamous Doniger herself is quoted on the cover: “A terrific read and a revolutionary contribution to our understanding of the Valmiki Ramayana”. Sattar and Doniger know that not everyone in the world is a PhD, and we don’t all have the time to read their works, but what they do likely know is that to the casual observer this looks like an accusation against Hinduism. Namely, that the Ramayana encouraged the burning of women whose chastity was in question and so Hinduism encapsulates barbaric misogyny in its so-called “book of answers”. But maybe Sattar wants Hindus to react, maybe she wants us to lose our cool so that she can surreptitiously prove a point.

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A review of the book on Vagabomb states that Sattar turns the Uttara Kanda, the so-called last and seventh book of the Ramayana, on its head by providing a new and feminist ending. The Ramayana is a Hindu epic which follows the trials and tribulations of a hero named Rama as he travels to vanquish an evil king named Ravana who has kidnapped his wife Sita.  Left without any further explanation, the book review posted on Vagabomb would leave the naive reader to believe that the Ramayana undisputedly ends with the banishment of Rama’s wife Sita because the kingdom is gossiping that perhaps she could have lost her chastity while kidnapped. This is an inflammatory accusation which many nominal Hindus may not be able to quickly challenge on an intellectual level, and so it is possible some could resort to emotionalism in trying to defend their religion. Should some well meaning but unprepared Hindus try to defame the accusers without addressing the accusations, this could play into stereotypes and make it look like Hindus approve of or are trying to cover up for practices which would be viewed as extremely backward to the modern world, and maybe this is exactly what Sattar and her allies want.

Doniger and her like may have learned something from their affair in India with the retracting of Doniger’s book “The Hindus”… if you are going to garner public outrage, you better make sure you have your facts straight. It would seem that despite the incendiary cover art and snarky book reviews, Sattar has made sure that she presents a historically accurate analysis of the Uttara Kanda. In an article published by Sattar in the online zine Scroll India entitled “Why the Uttara Kanda changes the way the Ramayana should be read“, Sattar very concisely conveys the fact that the Uttara kanda where Sita is banished to the forest for presumed impurity is an ideological addition which was inserted some time later by completely different authors. According to Sattar’s analysis, Sita’s banishment was likely introduced by Vishnu sectarians trying to reduce Hindu pluralism into a more manageable and austere semi-monotheism. So even Sattar herself admits that the original Ramayana of Valmiki ended with the lasting love of Rama and Sita and that originally Sita was never banished as the later additions state.

But Sattar’s nuanced approach to the Uttara Kanda leads to many questions, such as if she knows that this version of the story is a later addition, why not make this the obvious topic of the book? Sattar had the option of showing her unbiased intellectual capacity, she could have used her privilege to bring Hinduism’s diversity and ideological fluidity to the forefront, but instead she chose to highlight what could be perceived by outsiders to be misogynistic caricatures of the extremely pluralistic and obviously changeable faith of Hinduism. Her writings would lead non-Hindus to believe that Hinduism needs some kind of feminist re-writing, that it cannot be accepted as it stands.  This is not only inaccurate but it is also malicious on the part of Sattar. Rather than react in any irate fashion to her depictions, perhaps it would be best to spread Sattar’s article as it makes all our points on the issue of the Uttara Kanda for us, that is was a sectarian and ideologically driven addition to the original text which was introduced a great time later from the original writing and by different authors. (SEE: “Why the Uttara Kanda changes the way the Ramayana should be read“).  And if Sattar is looking for a feminist interpretation of Hinduism, she need not invent one herself, she can kindly refer to Indrani’s hymn in the Rig Veda where the Queen of Heaven boldly proclaims herself the be the master of her husband and the ruler of the universe!
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RIG VEDA 10.159
Saci Paulomi.

1. YON Sun hath mounted up, and this my happy fate hath mounted high.
I knowing this, as conqueror have won my husband for mine own.
2 I am the banner and the head, a mighty arbitress am I:
I am victorious, and my Lord shall be submissive to my will.
3 My Sons are slayers of the foe, my Daughter is a ruling Queen:
I am victorious: o’er my Lord my song of triumph is supreme.
4 Oblation, that which Indra gave and thus grew glorious and most high,—
This have I offered, O ye Gods, and rid me of each rival wife.
5 Destroyer of the rival wife, Sole Spouse, victorious, conqueror,
The others’ glory have I seized as ’twere the wealth of weaker Dames.
6 I have subdued as conqueror these rivals, these my fellow-wives,
That I may hold imperial sway over this Hero and the folk.

4 thoughts on “Is Doniger’s student laying a trap for Hindus with “Uttara”?

  1. ANANTH SETHURAMAN

    All cannot narrate the Ramayana. The Ramayana is linked with adhyatma when the narrator has attained gyanodayam–or to use 20th century Western philosophy’s terminology, has the ability to be in non-intentional mental states. Sattar has most certainly not attained gyanodayam. The Ramayana she writes is going to be completely delinked from adhyatma.

    Reply
  2. RC Tripathi

    I like the article. Arshia Sattar could have been more faithful to the subject by choosing appropriate cover-design. The observation of Wendy Doniger added on the page further confounds the confusion.

    Reply

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