The Hindu Right has called her lewd, vulgar and disrespectful while the secular Left celebrates her. An interview with Wendy Doniger, who has studied Hindu scriptures and stories for over 40 years and is now out with her new book
Anyone who is serious about studying Hinduism needs to study the works of Wendy Doniger (69), who for over 40 years has been researching, translating, and commenting on Hindu scriptures and stories. Had it not been for her, I would not have had access to so many tales hidden in our scriptures. Her language is direct and simple, shorn of distracting ornamentation. But her interpretations and choice of words (like the insistence in using the word 'evil' even though no common Indian language has a synonym for it) though thought-provoking are not always satisfying.
The cover of Doniger's book shows Krishna riding a horse made up of naked women. This is a popular theme in Patta Paintings of Orissa; more often, the women collectively give shape to an elephant or a temple-shaped Kandarpa Ratha, chariot of the love-god
A distinguished professor at the Divinity School, Chicago, with a PhD from Harvard and DPhil from Oxford and with several honorary doctorates to her credit, her first book, published in 1978, was the Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva. This year sees the release of her latest book The Hindus: an Alternative History, which puts together the various influences beyond the Sanskrit texts that have shaped Hindu thought over thousands of years. Despite the usual male-bashing and Brahmin-bashing, this is without doubt a monumental work that is awe-inspiring and humbling in its scale.
The Hindu Right has denounced her writings as being lewd and vulgar and disrespectful. An egg was thrown at her during a lecture in London. Mercifully, it missed her, struck the wall behind her, and, thankfully, propelled her name beyond academic circles, enabling more people to read the delightful stories she unearths. That this event which took place in 2003 is recounted again and again every time her name is mentioned makes one wonder if it is being milked for media mileage by various forces for it does give an act of immaturity more significance than it deserves. The Hindu Left, or should we say secular Left, would disagree vehemently as they bend over backward applauding her objectivity. The truth is, like all things human, somewhere in between the extreme reactions Wendy Doniger evokes. And this, I feel, is evident in her answers given to the questions I emailed her a few days ago.
In one of the questions, I had suggested that she enjoys intellectual heckling. It is an opinion I have held for long. I realise after reading her answer that it could be just a case of a different sensibilities. For example, the cover of her book shows (of the countless options Hindu art has to offer) Krishna riding a horse made up of naked women. This is a popular theme in Patta Paintings of Orissa; more often, the women collectively give shape to an elephant or a temple-shaped Kandarpa Ratha, chariot of the love-god. Such images have been around for a long time. The erotic content is often overlooked, or may occasionally evoke mild amusement. As the book discusses women and horses and patriarchy in the Hindu context, the image even seems appropriate.
But when a Jewish American scholar puts it on her book about the Hindus, it can in a time of political opportunism, religious intolerance, and scholastic puritanism be construed as provocative and insensitive. But then, maybe, this priestess of Saraswati, having read and reread the Vedas and the Brahmanas and the Upanishads and the Shastras for over four decades, has more faith than I do in the maturity and wisdom of humanity.
Excerpts from an interview:
Does violence, as perpetrated by Hindu Right groups, have any parallels or sanction in the Hindu texts?
That's a very hard question... Clearly, many of these Hindu extremist groups are violent, and they can do a great deal of local harm, individual harm, intimidating people whom they hate; to that extent, they are indeed a threat and have already done considerable harm, stirring up sentiments that, on occasions such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid, have cost thousands of innocent lives.
Violence of this kind violates the spirit and letter of every Hindu text I know, particularly the many, many texts that regard non-violence, ahimsa, as one of the most important human virtues. But violence itself is certainly a part of Hindu history, as it is of the history of every religion I know. Historical evidence tells us of the many wars and other violent conflicts in India, both among Hindus and between Hindus and people of other religions.
And the textual evidence is equally strong that this was always a matter of grave concern.
The Mahabharata abounds both in descriptions of actual violence of humans against humans and, at the same time, in philosophical and religious arguments to show why such violence is wrong. I would go so far as to say that Hinduism has the most extensive anti-violence literature of any religion I know, in part because there has always been so much violence in India, and the texts keep trying to stop it.
Is the Hindu way under threat?
No more than any other tradition. Change happens. All religions that cling to old ways of doing things, all orthodoxies, have to struggle to maintain their worlds when all the rest of their culture is changing. Some aspects of Hinduism, such as the caste system, are under pressure to change, and new religious movements siphon off worshippers from more traditional forms of Hinduism. But Hinduism as a whole is certainly not under threat; it is thriving, precisely because it is changing.
Many people are uncomfortable with the secular left, and with the religious right. But they don't have much of a voice. What do you have to say to them?
I believe in democracy, in everyone having a voice. As long as people are allowed to speak and write what they think, and to vote without fear of repercussions, they will have a voice, and they will be free to say what it is about the left or the right that makes them uncomfortable. India is a democracy, and the rights laid out in its Constitution must be preserved and defended. This is never easy to do, in the United States or in India or anywhere else, but it is very important to keep speech free.
'Hindu texts punish homosexual acts with very minor fines'
There are people who believe that homosexuality is against Hindu culture. Is that scriptural or their imagination? Any references of breathing exercises curing homosexuality?
There is very little information about homosexual behavior in traditional Hindu Sanskrit texts. The dharma-texts briefly list homosexual acts as unnatural, and use a pejorative term (kliba) for people who deviate from a rather narrow definition of normal sexuality, but even those texts punish homosexual acts with very minor fines, in dramatic comparison with much more serious punishments for infringements of heterosexual customs (heavy punishment for rape, for instance). The Kamasutra, by contrast, is entirely non-judgmental in its description of men who have oral sex with other men. So you could say that some parts of Hindu culture condemned it while other parts did not. I don't know anything about those breathing exercises.
Which of the many Hindu scriptures that you have translated over the years filled you awe, and which one filled you with disgust? Why?
I suppose the Rig Veda struck me with the most awe, such a beautiful, profound text and so old, but the one that fascinated me most was the Yoga-Vasishtha, with its brilliant stories. No Hindu texts have ever disgusted me; I got quite angry at Manu from time to time while I was translating him, especially when he was particularly racist or sexist, but I never lost my respect for his enormous intelligence and his ability to put together into an integrated whole so many different aspects of dharma.
Your writings seem very left brained. Is that you, or simply the demands of academia?
I would say that I am more of a right-brain type, more intuitive; people sometimes complain, especially editors of early drafts of my books, that I make instinctive connections and fail to spell out, for the reader, the logical processes that led me from one point to another. I have to work hard at the left-brain, analytical processes.
My mother and aunts wonder why academicians refer to Shiva-linga as Shiva's phallus. They feel it is not so. Whose truth is the truth that of the believers or that of the research scholar?
There is no one correct truth here. Historically, the Shiva-linga was indeed understood as a representation of the phallus of Shiva; you can see this from visual representations like the Gudimallam linga and from stories in the Puranas about the origin of the linga from the body of Shiva. But since the 19th century reforms of Hinduism, many Hindus have entirely lost these historical associations and see the Shiva-linga as a purely abstract symbol. So your mother and aunts are right, but the scholars of the history of Hinduism are also right.
I feel Hindu scriptures use a lot of symbolic language so one is never sure what is 'real' and what is 'representation'. Is the Ram of the Ramayana, a man, a god, a principle of metaphysics? What do you think?
The beauty of symbolic language is that a powerful symbol can be many things at once, and certainly the Ram of the Valmiki Ramayana is a man, a god, and a principle of metaphysics. At any moment, or in the mind of any particular reader or devotee, he may be more one than another, but all of the possibilities are always there. It is simultaneously "real" and "representation."
Brahmin-bashing is a favorite pastime of the intellectual. Is there nothing redeeming about Brahmanism?
In my book, The Hindus, I demonstrated at length the great positive contribution that the Brahmins have made to Indian civilisation and therefore to the civilisation of the world. And there are many kinds of Brahmins; some are powerful and narrow-minded, and they have done a great deal of harm to people of other castes; but many are entirely open-minded, and they have opened the way for women and people of lower castes to contribute to traditional Hinduism. Brahmins are primarily responsible for Sanskrit literature, which is a glorious thing. But I also went out to point out how much the other castes have also contributed to Sanskrit literature in ways that have been overlooked.
Is Hinduism all about patriarchy and caste?
Certainly not. The basic structures are patriarchal and caste-oriented, but Hindu men and women from all castes have always transcended the boundaries of the basic structures and much of Hinduism has nothing at all to do with either patriarchy or caste.
What is the one consistent theme you find across the history of Hinduism?
I suppose there is no single theme; I've argued for clusters of basic themes rather than a single one. But the cluster would include karma, dharma, narratives, puja of one sort or another, and attention to the infinite diversity of possibilities for a human life.
How would you define dharma?
Again it includes so many things justice, truth, law, religion but I suppose I would define it as the way that one should live in harmony with other people and with nature.
When I read your books, I feel you enjoy heckling people. Your choice of words can be rather stark. I can almost feel you chuckle at the orthodox getting their knickers in a twist. Am I imagining this?
Yes, I think you are indeed imagining this, but apparently you are not the only one. Perhaps if you gave me an example of something that you regard as heckling or stark I could see where the misinterpretation has come in.
My sense of humour, which is a New York Jewish sense of humour, sometimes is mistaken for flippancy. But I never ever write with the intention of making anyone angry. The only people I poke fun at in The Hindus are the scholars who generated such outlandish ideas about the Indus Valley on the basis of absolutely no evidence. I never ever poke fun at any Hindus. I sometimes see Hindu texts as themselves as funny, or as poking fun at other people, and I enjoy those texts and cite them. I certainly do not always agree with what the texts say. But I do not heckle them.
Unlike a guru-shishya tradition where information flow was customised to the student's intellectual and emotional grasp, books are highly democratic. Uninitiated and uninformed readers can be in for a shock when they read some of the things you recount in your writings.
This is a good point. It is indeed a shock to encounter information about your own tradition that you never heard when you were growing up. But this is an argument for making such information available earlier, not for avoiding it in order to avoid the shock. Uninformed readers need to become informed readers, and my hope is that once the initial shock wears off, they will come to appreciate their own tradition even more than they did when they thought it was narrower than it actually is.
No major monotheistic religion depicts God in female form. Why?
Well, there are just a few monotheistic religions, primarily the three Abrahamic religions, and even there the Christians have Mary, who is, for some, the most important figure. I think since men controlled the real world in those religions, they imagined that the ultimate control must be male too.
Do you believe in rebirth?
Yes, but since very few people, if any, can remember their previous lives, I don't find the concept of rebirth as nourishing or interesting as it would be if you could remember who you had been. But I think it's a very good idea, and quite likely true. Everything else is recycled in nature, after all; why not the soul, the spark of life? But consciousness evidently is not recycled, and that's the problem.
Do you pray? To whom?
Sometimes, but not to anyone in particular.
Who is your favorite god?
Shiva, particularly as he is described in the Puranas. His qualities seem to me to explain the way the world is glorious, terrifying, unpredictable, passionate, but he is also brilliant and very much of an intellectual.
Who is your favourite goddess? Why?
Durga, particularly as she is worshipped in Bengal. I love the stories about her courage and beauty, and when I lived in Bengal I loved the rituals of Durga-puja, particularly the final immersion in the river amid all the floating lights.
Can the world exist without religion?
Apparently not. It is everywhere, and has always been everywhere. This is not to say that everyone is religious; many people are not. But no culture has survived as a whole without religion.
'Western writers... have a hidden agenda'
K N Govindacharya, former general secretary of Bharatiya Janata Party, reacts
"I have not read the book yet, but I feel that civilisation, culture, religion and the way of life all have different meanings. It is not possible for the western world to understand it ever. They try to make a big deal out of a small thing, which has no connection with our Hindu dharma. For us, the battle of Ram and Ravana is a symbol of a victory of dharma over adharama, but they could only find violence in it.
"Western writers try diversionary tactics and have a hidden agenda to earn fame by creating controversies for their own benefits.
"I have not read the book, but this book is another try by the western world to gain a larger goal through Hinduism. They do not have an internal and holistic thought process in their writing, which makes them feel that a small section of society is a whole world for them.
"Such writings cannot benefit society. They will either create distortion or tension."
Mythologist Dr Devdutt Pattanaik has studied Hindu texts and world mythology for 14 years. He is also the author of several books on the subject. For more, log on to http://www.devdutt.com/
DISCLAIMER: All opinions expressed here are of the interviewee and do not represent the views of this newspaper