WENDY DONIGER’S BOOKS over the years have been either vast and encyclopaedic (The Hindus: An Alternative History, 2009, On Hinduism, 2013, and The Ring of Truth, 2017) or minutely detailed (The Woman who Pretended to Be Who She Was, 2004, and Reading the Kamasutra, 2016). They remind us of two things about her remarkable intelligence and her therefore remarkable scholarship. One, that she knows a lot of things about a lot of things and can bring them together in unusual and intriguing ways, and two, that she has the patience and sensitivity to read a text minutely and carefully, opening it up in ways that were hitherto unconsidered. To our great advantage, she manifests both these talents in Beyond Dharma, where she argues (in the main) that Kautilya’s Artha Shastra and Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra both provide contemporaneous challenges to the strictures of an idealised and prescriptive dharma as articulated in the Dharma Shastras.
Doniger has already paired the Artha Shastra and the Kamasutra as mirror texts that together reflect ideas and attitudes different from those enunciated in the Dharma Shastras. But here, in Beyond Dharma, in essays that are based on her recent Terry Lectures at Yale University, she takes her own argument further and explicitly states that these treatises on artha and kama (manuals that discuss the enjoyment of power and sex), actually oppose what is found in the Dharma Shastras, particularly in the Manu Smriti. As one of the blurbs on the cover of the current volume declares, this is a revolutionary idea as it deconstructs both the idea of a single dharma as the uncontested basis of human action as well as points to fissures and contestations within what we have always believed to be a unified and hegemonic Sanskrit discourse. These ideas of pluralism and diversity within the Sanskrit tradition have been gaining traction over the last few decades (Sheldon Pollock’s work has done much to desacralise and democratise the Sanskrit ‘cosmopolis’), and now, Donald R Brown says of Doniger’s book, ‘[The work] demands that we all reconsider the resistance to self-righteous moralising offered by the ancient Indian treatises on sex and politics.’ The significance of Doniger’s argument in this book lies in what she says about where, when and how the resistance to the formalised Dharma Shastras was articulated.
The vexed question of the bases for ethical behaviour lies at the heart of many discussions about Hinduism, precisely because the idea of what is good and true is not delivered from on high, via the word of God. The Mahabharata, for example, warns us over and over again that dharma is sukshma—subtle, elusive even. Doniger substantiates the fundamentally destabilising claim of this great text by reminding us that despite the existence of a pervasive and almost universal idea of sadharana dharma, a dharma for all, there were different opinions about who should to do what and when. Sometimes, these differences came from different philosophical positions and perspectives (darshana). Other times, differences about what an individual should do arose because of where one was speaking from—a stage of life (ashrama), a social position (varna), a time of emergency (apatkala).
Beyond Dharma also concerns itself with where dharma is placed in the scheme of the purusharthas, the goals of human life. That hierarchy of values, surely, is a universal and eternal concern, as contemporary as it is classical. How do we prioritise what we want in life and how do we fulfil our desires and realise our aspirations within a framework of ethics and morality that is defined by the ‘ought’ and the ‘should’ ? It is in this regard that Doniger offers us a truly profound insight. She says, simply but emphatically, ‘Dharma is a question, not an answer.’ This pared down statement holds us responsible not only for what we do, but also for choosing the ways in which we articulate our ethical dilemmas.