Our Judeo-Hindu Tradition – by Peter Eisenstadt

Our Judeo-Hindu Tradition
Peter Eisenstadt

I was distressed last week to read that the Indian government has banned Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Published in 2009, it is the magnum opus of perhaps the greatest Sanskritist and mythographer of our time. She is both a translator of Hindu classics (such as the Rig Veda) and a peerless analyst of world mythology. According to Doniger, she and her publisher had already made cuts in the volume (which is almost 800 pages) in anticipation of right-wing Hindu outrage at her work, to no avail. (However, as someone pointed out in the Times, in this era of e-books it can still be downloaded in India without too much difficulty.)

I am not sure why the right-wing Hindus, the advocates of Hinduvta, were so outraged by her book. They are easy to outrage. Among other things, it probably had to do with the sex—the study of which is one of her specialties. (Among other accomplishments, she is responsible for the definitive English translation of the Kama Sutra.) I enjoyed Doniger’s The Hindus, though to tell you the truth I found it a bit meandering and self-indulgent. For a first book on Hinduism, I would recommend Gavin Flood’s An Introduction to Hinduism, or perhaps Patrick Olivelle’s superb translation of the Upanisads.

I enjoy reading about Hinduism, with all of its teeming complexity. It is, I think, my second favorite religion. And I have long been impressed with its similarities to my favorite religion, Judaism.

Among the “great” religions, Judaism and Hinduism are by far the oldest. Neither has a real founding date—Hinduism was around by about 1500 BCE, and Israelite religion is only a few centuries younger, but these are just guesses. Rather than having a definite birth, both religions simply grew. Along with this, neither religion has a real founder, at least not

in the ways the Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, or Mohammed are clearly the founders of their respective religions.

Another way of saying this is that Judaism and Hinduism are the only two “great” religions that are the extensions of national cults. Neither was particularly interested in spreading its message to other lands or peoples (though Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and Judaism, particularly before the destruction of the Second Temple, had its epoch of proselytizing.) But both religions had enough universal elements to give rise to great missionary religions, Christianity and Islam from the stock of Judaism, and Buddhism as a development out of Hinduism.

Of course, the size of the respective national groups of Judaism and Hinduism are vastly different, with about 1.1 billion Hindus versus about 14 million Jews. However, in the first century CE there were approximately 3 million Jews and 30 million people in India, so had Jewish history had taken a different turn, the numbers might not be quite so lopsided in Hinduism’s favor.

There are other similarities. Judaism and Hinduism are the two great religions most concerned with ritual purity. They are two great religions with the most elaborate legal code and guide to right practice. They are also the great invader religions, stories of a favored people entering a fertile land and coming to dominate and control it, the great us and them religions. (What the historical reality is in either case is not important, what is relevant is the myth.) And while this might be a close contest with several other contenders, but Judaism and Hinduism might be the two great religions in which women have the least important roles. All of this, arguably, comes from the tribal origins of the religions, religions formed before the convenient division between religion as a spiritual enterprise, and the rest of life. Judaism and Hinduism make no distinction between religion and life. They are all-encompassing. They are both, are Mordecai Kaplan suggested for Judaism, civilizations, rather than mere religions.

And yes, there is one major difference between Judaism and Hinduism. Judaism is probably (along with Zoroastrianism) the original monotheism, while Hinduism is by far the oldest and most successful of all polytheistic religions, with multiple gods and goddesses. But the difference is, I would argue, less than meets the eye.

In every monotheistic religion there is a polytheism trying to get out, and vice versa. In Judaism, leaving early polytheistic traces aside, there the masculine God and the feminine Shekinah, and explosion of divine attributes in the Sephifrot of Kabbalah. And Hinduism contains the one great uniting spirit of Vedanta and the Upanisads. (For another example, are the great unitary philosophical unmade maker and prime mover gods of Plato and Aristotle, forged among the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece.)

No religion is purely monotheistic or polytheism. At times, God is one; at times, God is many. (The one advantage, or advance that monotheism has over polytheism is that in a monotheistic religion, poor God, with no family, rivals, or lovers, is forced to have all of his/her adventures with humans, rather than playing around with other gods.)

So though the other “Abrahamic religions” of Christianity and Islam obvious share more content with Judaism, I would argue that Judaism and Hinduism share the same religious form, national religions that have survived the relentless push of the great missionary religions. Both Judaism and Hinduism are, unavoidably and inextricably, histories of a people as well of a religion, with its doctrines and practices.

And of course there are other similarities in their national histories. Both have experienced the beauty and tragedy of national rebirth, and achieved their independence, clumsily, from the British, after World War II. Both religions have developed extensive and powerful right-wing nationalist movements. Both movements have committed assassinations of prominent moderates (Gandhi, Rabin) and both movements have moved from the margins to the center of national power. And for the Jews and the Hindus, the right wing movements have attempted to dominate and monopolize the national discourse, ever ready to label their critics as traitors, ever suspicious of anyone with fresh ideas and novel insights.

Is there a future for national religions in the 21st century? Because both religions are unavoidably about more than just “religion.” Judaism cannot be separated from the Jewish people. Hinduism cannot be understood apart from the destiny of India. In both cases, national turmoil, travail, and often invented “existential crises” have given power to right-wing nationalists.

And this is why those who love both religions need to defend and support the Wendy Donigers, the bringers of uncomfortable truths to those who would distort its message. One can be a member of a national religion without xenophobia, and love your own people and traditions without denigrating other peoples or religions. One can feel chosen

by God (or gods) without feeling that other peoples are any less chosen. This is the essence of our Judeo-Hindu tradition.