Open Conversation

Wendy Doniger: ‘I love the Hindu storytelling tradition’

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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Wendy Doniger in Open Conversation with Tunku Varadarajan

WENDY DONIGER HAS published over 40 books, most of them on Hinduism and Sanskrit literature. A professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, she has translated The Laws of Manu and the Kama Sutra into English, as well as an anthology of hymns from the Rig Veda (which includes a most delightful rendition into English of the Purusa-Sukta, or The Hymn of Man). She has also written the volume on Hinduism for the Norton Anthology of World Religions. There are few people on earth who can match her erudition in her chosen fields, and fewer still the wit and verve with which she serves her readers. And yet in India, the land where she should be most brightly feted, hers is a name that is blighted with controversy. In 2011, a year after the publication of her audacious book The Hindus: An Alternative History, she was the target of a lawsuit filed under the notorious Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, accused of seeking maliciously to hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. The self-appointed guardians of Hinduism who took matters to court were successful in their objective, which was to have her book yanked from the shelves of all bookstores in the land. Doniger has not set foot in India since 2011, fearing for her safety; but she continues to teach the sacred texts of a land that she dare not visit, and to be a commentator on a religion she has been accused of defaming. Now on the cusp of retirement, the 76-year-old Indologist spoke to me at her summer home in a tiny village on the New England coast. A condensed version of the conversation.

I thought we’d kick off with a prickly Indian question: What’s the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva?

There are many different forms of Hinduism, including Hindutva, which is to me just one branch of a very large tree. The trouble with Hindutva is that it says it’s the tree. It doesn’t represent present-day Hinduism, it represents one particular offshoot of Hinduism, which began under the British. And it owes a great deal to colonialism.

Hindutva owes a great deal to colonialism?


Tell us more. I’m sure proponents of Hindutva wouldn’t see it that way.

I see it beginning in the 18th century with Anglophone Indians, mostly in Bengal, who had a hate-love relationship with the British. Many of the intellectuals in Calcutta admired the British legal and ethical systems, so there was a revision of Hinduism in the minds of those who founded the Brahmo Samaj. They said that real Hinduism has nothing to do with the things that the British loathed—the sex, the violence, beheading buffaloes, worshipping the lingam. All that’s not really Hinduism, they said. Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita, it’s the Upanishads, and it is philosophy, because philosophy was the one thing in India that the British really did admire.

This one thin strain of Hinduism, acceptable to Europeans, got lifted out as the real Hinduism. It continued with the Arya Samaj afterwards, and then it encountered nationalism. It wasn’t nationalist at first, but it picked it up pretty soon, especially after the 1857 Uprising, and became violently anti-Muslim. It took off for sure under Savarkar in 1920, and that’s when the word ‘Hindutva’ was actually coined—when Hindutva as a physical, nameable movement really took off.

When did you come to be interested in India? And was it always Hinduism? How did India happen to you?

India happened to me because of my mother. She was very interested in Asian art and literature. She never finished high school. She was an auto didact, but read widely in several languages. She was born in Vienna, and she was crazy about the Angkor Wat which she called ‘Angkor Vat’ with her Viennese accent. One day, she gave me a copy of A Passage to India.

In high school?

No, I was littler. Just 10.

You read EM Forster when you were 10 years old?

Yes, and obviously missed a great deal of it. But it gave me the impression that India was where everybody was religious, and the whole wonderful place was vibrating with religious feeling. There are Hindus and Muslims in the book, but it was the Hindus that I was most interested in because I’d heard in Latin class that there was such a thing as Sanskrit. And Sanskrit was the language of ancient India, the Hindu language of India.

I began to read more about India and became interested in the ancient literature. One book that my mother gave me in 1954, when I was 13, was Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana, a very wicked retelling of the Ramayana, for which he was prosecuted under the same law that was eventually used to prosecute me, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

Where were you in school?

I was in Great Neck High School, in Great Neck, Long Island, for many years the only place on the north shore of Long Island where Jews could buy property. All the rest of Long Island was ‘restricted’, as they said. So, all the really talented Jews in Manhattan who wanted a place on Long Island lived in Great Neck. They had a terrific school system because they put all their money into it.

They had all the bright Jewish kids…

They did. David Baltimore was in my class. He went on to win a Nobel Prize for medicine. Ironically, the other really successful American woman Sanskritist was Barbara Stoler Miller, who was in my class at Great Neck High School, the class of 58. What are the odds of two women with chairs in Sanskrit in America coming from the same high school class? Remarkable. By the time I was 17 and I went to Radcliffe, I knew I wanted to major in Sanskrit.

Is there some sort of affinity between Jews and Hindus?

Oh, enormous.

The Shaiva scriptures are the most rational reaction to the irrationality of the world. The world’s a mess. I mostly don’t read about Trump. I run away from the world into my studies. I would say one of the reasons I studied ancient India was to get away from the world

Tell me some more about that.

It’s very interesting how the Jews and Hindus are. First of all, there have been a lot of Jewish scholars of other cultures because Jews in Europe were always bilingual and bicultural. They spoke Yiddish at home, and also Polish or German or whatever it was. Jews, for hundreds of years, have had to negotiate a cultural bifurcation that other people didn’t have to.

The Jews and the Hindus are the only people I know of who not only have taboos about food, but about the vessels in which food is cooked and served, which is really obsessive. They have that same kind of horror, that nervousness about purity.

And there’s also a very vibrant storytelling tradition, which ends up in all the Jewish jokes nowadays, but it’s the Hasidic and the rabbinic tradition. There’s a great deal in the Hindu tradition which is resonant with Judaism and a disproportionate amount of the scholars of Hinduism are, in fact, Jewish.

Have you detected any kind of reverse interest in Judaism among Hindus?

Not much, not much. Interesting that there isn’t…

Another way in which the Hindus and Jews traditionally have been alike and different from others is that neither one is traditionally a proselytising religion. The Buddhists and the Christians say, ‘Let me make you a Buddhist. Let me make you a Christian.’ The Jews says, ‘No, no. If your parents are Jewish, you’re Jewish.’ And that’s really traditionally what Hindus have always said, too. These new movements that take converts are departing from the original Hindu spirit.

What impact has the world beyond India had on the Hindu religion?

I’m really a Sanskritist, so the texts that I know best are pretty early: the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas. So, during the period that I’ve studied, most Indians stayed at home. But my view is that the period between the end of the Mauryan Empire [in the 3rd century BCE] and the beginning of the Gupta Empire [in the 4th century CE] was a wonderful time.

British scholarship, which is empire- oriented, thinks of the Guptas as the golden age, but I think it’s the beginning of the end. I think the really golden age of India was this period when there wasn’t an empire, when India was a mess in many ways and in which many cultures went into India.

I think that a great deal of the glory of Hinduism was at a time when there were a lot of foreign cultures in India, the Greeks, the Scythians, and so forth. One reaction to them was, ‘Let’s listen to what these strangers are saying and think twice about what we believe and what we do.’ But another response was to circle the wagons. ‘Let’s write down our stuff so we know who we are while these strangers are wandering around our streets.’ Part of the glory of the Sanskrit literature of that period was the experience of foreign cultures in India, and sometimes, great classics were produced in reaction.

Such as?

Well, Manu, The Laws of Manu. The earlier Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras are a little looser. So, Manu begins to make tighter rules. In the Rig Veda, for instance, we have many beautiful funeral hymns. One of them is addressed to the widow, and says, ‘Get up, don’t lie down by the grave. Go forth and live your own life.’ And it’s quite clear that widows remarried. But Manu says ‘Absolutely not.’

So, things get worse and worse in terms of caste and dharma. But in literature, things get better and better. You have two different sets of investments in India. You have the Brahmin investment, resisting change, resisting foreign influence, and you have the brilliant artists and painters. You get an enrichment of culture while you get an impoverishment of social freedom.

Are we seeing something akin to that today? Even as India is more global than it has ever been in the modern age, we’re seeing a rise in religious insularity.

That is what’s happening. You have people sniffing cocaine in Bangalore and then you get these thugs going around beating up people if they hold hands in public. They say ‘We’re not American, we’re not going to accept these bad habits.’ I think there’s a reaction in society. Women are going to work, women are walking around the streets, and they start getting raped and beaten up and killed. So yes, just as more freedom is being exercised, with more Western habits, there’s a tightening.

Has some of your original love for India abated over time?

No, I still love it. Oh, I still love India.

In spite of everything that’s happened to you there, and to your book?

Oh, that’s not India. Just as Trump is not America. The Hindutva people have got the whip hand right now so they’re doing a lot of damage. But even during the worst part of my encounter with India after the book, for every obscene, anti-Semitic, horrid email I got, I got three or four from people in India saying ‘I read your book, I learned stuff I didn’t know, I’m glad you wrote that book.’ I have many, many friends in India and I still love Hinduism. I still love the worship of Shiva, I love Ganesha.

What do you like about Ganesha?

I love Ganesha because I love his naughtiness, I love the old stories about him and his trickiness. I love that he has a rat as his pal—a bandicoot, actually, it’s not really a rat. Better than a rat!

I also love India as I remember it. You know, I only lived in India for a year-and-a-half, when I was 22. I’ve visited many times since then. I had a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies in 1963. I sought to work with Rajendra Chandra Hazra, the big Puranas man in Calcutta. I had a letter of introduction from my Harvard professor and went to see Hazra, with funding for a year. He gave me tea, and he said, ‘I couldn’t possibly work with a woman.’ And that was the end of that.

The Jews and the Hindus are the only people I know of who not only have taboos about food, but about the vessels in which food is cooked and served, which is really obsessive. They have that same kind of horror, that nervousness about purity

That’s it?

That was it. I never saw him again.

Did you ask him why? Or did you just know?

I knew. He was an old-fashioned, patriarchal misogynist. So, I then spent that year just travelling all over India and falling in love with it.

When was the last time you went to India?

It was 2010, to the Jaipur literary festival, where Will Dalrymple flew me in and put me up in a fancy hotel, and I gave a talk. There was nothing but literary people there those days.

And you haven’t been back since?

I have not, and there are several reasons. There was a criminal lawsuit. I was served with a summons in Chicago [in 2011] by a slimy old summons- serving kind of Chicago guy. And I did not appear in court. The Penguin lawyers said they were taking care of it. ‘You don’t have to come to court,’ they said. And in fact, what they were doing, under Ravi Singh, blessed Ravi Singh [the publisher of Penguin Books India], was stalling. They stalled until 2014, and when I asked why, they said, ‘Because we want to keep the book in print as long as possible.’ Which meant that they thought they would lose the case if it ever came to court. So, I never appeared, and they settled out of court. But because I had not answered the summons, I was in contempt of court, and it’s not clear to my lawyer friends in India whether I am still in contempt. It’s possible that if I did go to India, they’d look at my passport and say, ‘Would you please step this way, madam.’ And then we’d have one big mess. I just would not feel physically safe in India

It’s not just India. Don’t you face hostility from some Hindu quarters in America, with people objecting to non-Indians studying Hinduism?

There’s a lot of it. It used to be the case that the Hindutva people would come to my talks and ruin the question-and-answer session. For a while I had security. It hasn’t happened much lately. In a way, it’s simply an escalation of that feeling that you correctly identified, ‘Who the hell are you, a White woman, to tell us about our religion?’ I used to get it in a much nicer form. There’d be a Q&A, and then, usually, an elderly Hindu gentleman would stand up and say, ‘You mentioned the Upanishads. Well the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says, ‘Da-da-da-da—da’.’ And he would start to give an alternative lecture showing that he, as an Indian man, really knew what it was all about and I didn’t. And it was always polite. That was okay with me. It’s just another voice. The idea that you’re disqualified from speaking about Hinduism if you’re not a Hindu, the racist idea—that’s the new part. That’s the part which I can’t deal with very well.

An altogether different question: An Indologist I know wanted me to ask why you focus so much on the ‘kama’ dimension of the purusharthas [the four goals of human life]?

There’s a lot of other stuff that I write about, but it’s kama that my readers are most interested in, which is why I’m known best for it.

Kama is sexy.

Kama is sexy. Everybody loves kama. I’ve written about other things as well, but I’ve always tried to address what other people weren’t writing about. One wants to be original. I teach the Purusharthas, and for years I’ve always used my own translation of the Laws of Manu. Now, I also use Patrick Olivelle’s [professor at the University of Texas, Austin], because his notes are better than mine. I still prefer my translation, but his notes are superb.

For the Arthashastra, it was always a real problem, because there were really boring translations. But now, at last, we also have another wonderful translation by Olivelle. And for the Kama Sutra, I used the Richard Burton translation, which is so readable. I used it for years, and then a student asked a rather specific question about a particular line, about what it meant. And I said, ‘You know, let me go back to the Sanskrit for that.’ I did, and it was nothing like what Burton had written. I’d accidentally discovered that the Burton translation, which everybody uses—it’s out of copyright—was just totally inaccurate. And so, 15 years ago, I translated the Kama Sutra with Sudhir Kakar, who was an old friend.

Remember, also, that there weren’t that many women Sanskritists around, so I felt that it was a woman’s point of view that was really needed. All the great old Sanskritists were guys.

And the guys were not paying enough attention to kama.

Yeah, because they were interested in grammar. Boring stuff. Panini.

Tell me about the manuscript that you’ve just completed for the Yale Press. You call it ‘Against Dharma’…

A wonderful way to approach Hinduism is to read three great texts together, the Arthashastra, the Kama Sutra, and Manu. Translating Manu was a real problem for me, because when you do a translation you need to get in the head of the author, try to think why he’s thinking the thoughts he’s thinking, and try to say them in English as he would have said them if he spoke English. You digest the Sanskrit thought as best you can, figure out exactly what it’s saying and what each word means, and how you’d say that in English. You have to get into the author’s head.

That was fine for Vatsyayana. I love Vatsyayana. But Manu is a sexist, racist pig. How are you going to think like Manu? That was a real challenge, but I did it by admiring him as an intellectual. What is there in him that I’d like to be like more than I am? Not more sexist, not more racist; I’d like to be smarter than I am. I’d like to know more than I know. And he’s so smart, and knows so much. I could feel that I had become this really bright, erudite man. And in that way, I could get behind Manu and write the book the way I thought I’d have written it had I been Manu.

But, in all those years it was hard to teach the Arthashastra. The kids would stop coming to class in that week. None of them would write their term papers on the Arthashastra.

Why so?

The translation. It’s just so detailed, so hard to understand. There are several translations by Indian scholars, and they’re fairly accurate but they’re unreadable.

Which is the best translation?

Well, now, Olivelle has done a new translation, as I said, and he sent it to me while he was working with it. I had a pdf [file] of it, and I got to know the Arthashastra, really, for the first time. Working on it with him, I began to know it, and to really appreciate it, and I kept thinking, ‘Someday I’ll write a book about the Arthashastra and the Kama Sutra.’ I began to notice how much alike they were. The Kama Sutra is closely based on the Arthashastra, in all sorts of ways. The more you read it, the more you see the parallels.

That’s fascinating.

It is, because it means that sex is then treated in this Machiavellian way. Then Yale came to me and said, ‘How would you like to give the Terry lectures?’ [The Dwight H Terry Lectures, endowed by a Connecticut businessman in 1905.] And I was flattered. But its guiding theme is about how science and religion can be reconciled. I asked myself, ‘What do I know about the relation between religion and science?’ Nothing! And then I thought, ‘Well, you can call the Arthashastra science, and certainly Dharma is about religion, so if you talked about the way the Arthashastra and the Kama Sutra—which I’d begun to realise were really one book in two forms—fight against Dharma, it would fit the Terry lecture series!’ So, that’s the book that’s going to come out. Its subtitle is ‘Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics.’ There’s also a chapter on Narendra Modi’s approach to science, and the craziness of it. Now I really, really won’t be able to go to India again!

Have you ever been a practising Hindu yourself?

I don’t practise any religion, but I think my philosophy of life is Hindu. I think that of all the possibilities of what happens after death, reincarnation is the most persuasive and the most likely. The most attractive. I don’t think there’s conclusive evidence for it, but I think it’s the best idea of all. Heaven and Hell is a stupid idea.

I also love the Hindu storytelling tradition. Their stories are the greatest stories and have the most wisdom about the questions that have no answers at all. I think the whole mythology of Shiva fits the Cosmos as I’ve come to know it better than any other religion. If you imagine that there is a god, he simply would not have allowed Trump to get elected, but Shiva might have, just for a joke. It seems to me that the grim humour of the best of the Shaiva scriptures really explains the way the world is much better than anything else I know. The Shaiva scriptures are the most rational reaction to the irrationality of the world. The world’s a mess. I mostly don’t read about Trump. I run away from the world into my studies. I would say one of the reasons I studied ancient India was to get away from the world.

And yet Hinduism, the sphere that you escaped into in order to get away from the world, has actually brought the world jarringly back into your life .

Ah, yes, so true. I ran smack into the world by hiding in ancient Sanskrit and ancient India. The place where I thought no one could get me, they got me.