In this chapter, Wendy Doniger introduces us to the ideas of various philosophers, philosophical sects and the relationships between them. She begins by giving us a list of the various schools of thought that were operating at the time, calling them the six Darshanas (points of view) (504-505). She also highlights a general relationship between various schools and tells of how these schools “fought mostly with words, occasionally with miracles, more often with (and for) the purses of their patrons, and rarely with fisticuffs” (506). She does describe an exception to the rule in the example involving Emperor Akbar, but that’s all it seems like – an exception.
She then introduces us to Shankara and tells us a few stories about him. Shankara was a guru, proselytiser and philosopher who founded matts that still exist to this day. He was a nondualist in his approach and he was challenged on it by Ramanuja and Madhva, two other philosophers that Doniger introduces here and talks about later. Shankara’s stories include stories about him as an incarnation of Shiva fighting the Buddha incarnation of Vishnu, about him defeating Mandanamishra’s wife in an argument about “the art of love”, and one from his childhood in which he becomes a renouncer. All these stories some of the issues that Doniger has brought up before: the intervention of god, sex, and renunciation. These choices seem to cement in the image of Shankara in a relatable way since these ideas are some that Doniger has already talked about before.
Doniger then brings up Ramanuja and Madhva, two other philosophers that differ in their stances; the former holds the position of what Doniger calls “qualified dualism” and the latter holds the position of dualism. Doniger only provides us with one story of Madhva and Shankara in which Shankara is renamed Sankara, a word that denotes indiscriminate mixture. In this story, Shankara is portrayed as an evil Buddhist who seduces a Brahmin’s wife (referring to one of the stories about Shankara) and is celebrated by the antigods. Once Sankara dies, “the god of wind became incarnate as Madhva, to refute the teachings of Manimat-Sankara” (511). Clearly, the relationship between Madhva and Shankara, or at least their followers, was rocky.
Doniger then devotes some space to talking about monism but that doesn’t last too long and then she moves on to talking about the Shaiva Siddhanta movement which opposed the idealism and dualism of both Shankara and Kashmir Shaivism. The main idea that Doniger delivers to us here is that animal sacrifice was still a thing in India and was encouraged by people like Madhva, even with the non-violent movements that were in place at the time. She does so via a story titled “Liberating the Beast From the Snare” (514).
In what seems like some sort of filler, Doniger then talks about the Cat and Monkey schools of the Shri Vaishnava sect in South India. In the Monkey school, the devotee is actively clinging to God and is saved by their grace while in the Cat school, the devotee is passive and let’s god carry them around in a more acquiescent way (515). Members of the Monkey school believed that the Cat school was for those of the lower castes since they were not allowed into temples and were kept out of ritual acts which the Monkey school participated in.
Doniger spends some time talking about how the material world is a maya and leads into the meat of the chapter when she talks about the illusions of caste and gender. She starts with a story of Chudala in which the illusion of gender is highlighted and then talks about the stories of Lavana, Harishchandra, and Gadhi to illustrate the illusions of caste.
There’s a lot to cover in this chapter so I’m only going to limit my analysis to the illusion of gender, which I found most interesting. In this story, Chudala is the wife of a king blessed with certain powers and when she tries to teach them to her husband, she is rejected. Two things happen here: First, Chudala clearly thinks her husband to be capable of learning these powers, thus highlighting the likely gender of the author who might’ve also thought that men can learn most things. Second, the rejection of the husband also shows that the attitude towards women, even learned ones, is a negative one. Women aren’t expected to know certain things, even if they do. This is an interesting thing since by this time, we would expect there to be a more inclusive attitude towards knowledge (as we saw in the puranas with the inclusion of different stories that snuck in under the nose of the Brahmins) but that is clearly not so in the case of women here. It was also interesting to see that even though switching to a woman’s body is shown negatively (“I am so ashamed as I see myself becoming a woman” (520)), the woman’s knowledge is celebrated, but only because she turns herself into a man. That is what persuades the King to take lessons from his (now man) wife and causes him to be attracted to him (her). The King probably didn’t want to take lessons from his wife for he is to portray himself as superior to her, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to risk coming off gay either, so why not just take lessons from your wife before going into or during exile (assuming you have to go into exile, since moksha is one of the four aims of the Hindu life)? The King seemed fairly stupid to me and even thought the notion of gender-switching is shown as a positive in the end, it seems like anyone who probably practiced this in real life back then would only be demoted to the level of a pariah and shunned from society, so the story doesn’t seem like it was inspired by actual events. That, along with a negation of the wife’s knowledge make it seem like this story, while a good example of maya, isn’t really the best one to quote when we want to think of real Hindus. I think Doniger could’ve picked a more real story, but maybe the existence of a more real story is just a maya I have.
- On page 521, Doniger says that in the story of Chudala, the King goes from kama to moksha to kama. Based on my reading, I think it should say artha to moksha to artha. Which do you think is the right one?
- Do you think that the similarities in the stories of Harishchandra, Lavana, and Gadhi arise due to them being the same story? In a time when stories from other religions were influencing stories in Hinduism, shouldn’t this be possible?
- What were your thoughts on the negation of Chudala’s knowledge?