Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 25, 2009

First published October 25, 2009

 in Sunday Midday

Interviewing Wendy Doniger

A part of this was published in Sunday Midday on 25 Oct 2009.

Who is serious about studying Hinduism needs to study the works of Wendy Doniger (b.1940), 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.

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 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.

What made a dancer trained under Martha Graham move into academic research?

There was no real connection, but a conflict: I had to give up dancing to study Sanskrit, and it was a hard choice to make, but I have never regretted it.

What is that first event that drew you towards Hindu scriptures?

I suppose it was the first time I saw my mother’s rubbings from Ankor Wat, that were on the walls of our house, and I asked her about them; or the time she gave me a copy of E M Forster’s  Passage to India; or when I read the Juan Mascaro translation of the Upanishads. I don’t know which one of these events came first, but they came together to ignite my interest in Hinduism.

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 civilization and therefore to the civilization 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 want 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 humor, which is a New York Jewish sense of humor, 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 customized 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. Is that why there is outrage at some of your work by a section of Hindus?

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.

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.

There are people who believe that homosexuality is against Hindu culture. Is that scriptural or their imagination? Any references if breathing exercises cure 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.

How certain are you about anything you write? Do you ever doubt your conclusions?

I always doubt my conclusions, and indeed I usually try to avoid making them at all; my editors are always begging me to write them at the end of books, where I really just prefer to tell the stories. I often change my mind after I’ve written something. But I always try to make the best sense of any thing I write about to the best of my knowledge at the time when I’m writing it.

What do you seek in a student?

Intelligence, of course. Enthusiasm. A pleasure in learning languages. A mind that comes up with ideas about the things it encounters, rather than just soaking up information. Humility, the constant realization that you never really know enough about anything to be sure of your conclusions.

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 feel 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.

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. Without that, it’s just an abstract idea, not something you can use in your life. 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? Why?

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.

Do you prefer God with form or without form?

With form, absolutely. I have little capacity for abstract thought; I like stories.

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.

Have the scriptures that you have read changed you? How?

Certainly reading the Hindu texts over the years has changed my worldview. In particular, the texts that I read when I was writing TheOrigins of Evil in Hindu Mythology helped me to come to terms with the death of my father, whom I had loved so much that at first I didn’t think I could go on without him. The Hindu understanding of death was a great comfort to me then, more than any Christian or Jewish texts had ever been.

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