Book Review: The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger

The Rig Veda is one of the great classics of world religious thought. A collection of disparate hymns to various deities, foremost among whom are Indra, Agni, and Soma, it has come a long way from its roots in the syncretism of Aryan and pre-Aryan Indian religious systems. While the culture it reflects is a semi-nomadic warrior society that has recently conquered and subdued a settled agrarian (and ostensibly peaceful) culture of the Indus Valley, by the Upanishadic era (beginning in earnest circa 500 BCE) the hymns it contains were being reinterpreted along more mystical, spiritual, and even incipiently monotheistic lines.

Doniger does a fair job in capturing all of this in her selections and commentary in this book. The sample size is fair, as this contains about 10% of the actual Rig Veda. It is, alas, not always entirely representative of the source material, however. This is due to an unfortunate disposition toward those minute and stupid things modern academics are interested in. The table of contents, for example, in which the various hymns featured in this sampling are listed by theme, reveals an interesting predilection toward the obsessions of liberal academics. Indra, the primary god of the Aryan religious system, has 21 pages total of this book, for example, and Soma, both a god and a hallucinogenic plant whose use was widespread in the Vedic religious system, has 18 pages of hymns dedicated to him. The theme of “women,” however, which, outside of natural sexual desire and the need to perpetuate society and species through procreation, was not an especially intense concern of the Vedic authors, receive a whopping 32 pages, more pages than any other subject! The result is that, rather than presenting a sample representative of the content of the Rig Veda and the concerns of the society from which it emerged, Doniger instead provides a sample that entirely reflects the concerns of her academic colleagues.

All of this is unfortunate, but it does not make the book entirely worthless, as such academic idiocies so often do. The positive aspect of this concern with academic fetishes over all else is that Doniger does not, as Eknath Easwaran and other translators of and commentators upon Indian religious texts so often do, allow the superstitions and predispositions of modern Hinduism to determine the content or commentary. Modern Hindus, under the influence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, among other later works, read back their monism and its accompanying mysticism into the Vedic texts and many academics, in their grovelling before foreignness, one symptom of the rampant Western self-hatred of the academic, are all too happy to oblige them in this ahistorical outlook. This is, of course, entirely unhelpful for the honest interested party who really seeks to understand a text within its historical and cultural origins rather than within the mythology and ex post facto justifications that have grown up around it.

To summarize, I applaud Doniger for her willingness to be honest about the polytheistic warrior culture of the Rig Veda. I only wish she were as honest about her own atheistic sex-fetish culture in academia. If she were, this sample translation of the foremost Veda would have been of more value. As it is, I recommend it as a decent introduction insofar as the reader is aware of the biases of Doniger and her compatriots.

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