Religion in India: A Historical Introduction

Fred W. Clothey

Routledge 2006

The Hindus: An Alternative History

Wendy Doniger

Oxford University Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2024
The Hindus is a striking and original work, which anyone seriously interested in Hinduism will want to read. Religion in India is also an excellent book, but it is one among a number of competing offerings designed as undergraduate survey texts.

Both books are historical accounts, proceeding roughly but not strictly chronologically. The Hindus has what Doniger calls "banyan" divergences, for example with largely overlapping chapters "Fusion and Rivalry Under the Delhi Sultanate: 650 to 1500 CE", "Avatar and Accidental Grace in the Later Puranas: 800 to 1500 CE" and "Philosophical Feuds in South India and Kashmir: 800 to 1300 CE". And Religion in India puts most of its coverage of Sikhism into a single section, has a single "Streams from the West" chapter which goes back as far as the earliest Syrian Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian arrivals in India, and so forth.

Clothey's wider scope includes Jainism and Buddhism and Sikhism and Islam, but those feel like additions to a core centred on Hinduism, and the balance is not too different to Doniger, who covers the interaction of Hinduism with those religions. And Doniger has a focus on "subaltern" perspectives — those of women, animals, lower class/castes, non-Sanskrit traditions, and so forth — but to explain those she needs to give a full treatment of the more "orthodox" traditions.

Doniger's research has centred on mythology and textual traditions and Clothey's on ritual, and this is apparent in their choice of material. In looking at contemporary religious variety, for example, Clothey describes pilgrimages, festivals, and the roles of temples and shrines, as well as gurus and new movements. Doniger covers an equally broad but rather different selection, ranging from the different versions of the Ramayana to the women painters of Mithila. And on Hinduism in the United States, Doniger touches on virtual worship, literary appropriations and often tasteless representations of Kali and Tantra, while Clothey surveys the variety and history of South Asian places of worship in Pittsburgh.

The much greater length of The Hindus allows for a lot more detail, including quotes from or summaries of texts and stories. It also has more extensive notes and bibliography. But accessory material is limited: it has three maps, maybe a dozen small halftones, and a short glossary. Religion in India has more maps and halftones and timelines along with material to support use as a survey textbook: further reading lists for each chapter, names of people highlighted on first appearance, and so forth.

Doniger is earthy, occasionally informal, and invokes cultural references that are a little US-specific (and which may not work at all in twenty years). But she manages that without irreverence, while remaining calmly magisterial. Clothey isn't difficult to read, but remains formal.

May 2024

External links:
Religion in India: A Historical Introduction
- buy from
- buy from or
The Hindus: An Alternative History
- buy from
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- books about India + Indian history
- books about religion
- books published by Oxford University Press
- books published by Routledge
%T Religion in India: A Historical Introduction
%A Clothey, Fred W.
%I Routledge
%D 2006
%O paperback, glossary, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780415940245
%P 282pp

%T The Hindus: An Alternative History
%A Doniger, Wendy
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2009 [2010]
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199593347
%P 779pp