These essays, by one of Hinduism's most unconventional scholars, reveal unexpected and intriguing connections
On Hinduism | Wendy Doniger
The mirror of mythology
On Hinduism is a treat. For those who already know and admire Wendy Doniger’s work, this is a handy (if hefty) compendium of many of her essays. Some of these were scattered over scholarly journals or delivered as lectures in various parts of the world. For those who are reading her for the first time, the book is a marvellous introduction to the multiple ways that Hinduism can be approached and understood through the stories that it tells. For Doniger’s dogged and vociferous detractors, it’s just more grist for their mills.
In short, the book is a winner on all counts.
On Hinduism is divided into topical sections, such as “Gods, Humans And Anti-Gods", “Kama And Other Seductions" and “Horses And Other Animals". In the most superficial ways, these section titles indicate the theme that unifies the essays contained within each of them. But, in keeping with Doniger’s astounding knowledge of Hindu myth, thought and her encyclopaedic mind which allows her to see connections in the most unexpected and unconventional ways, ideas and motifs overlap and cross over from one section to the next. This is not a read cover-to-cover kind of book. Rather, it is a stream of consciousness book—you can pick an idea and follow it through a number of essays.
Neither the sections nor the fundamental ideas of Hinduism are presented chronologically. This allows the reader to wander rather than march through the essays, pausing at one, browsing through another, skipping a third, but all the while, putting together a lush and vibrant bouquet of rare flowers. Lurking on the edges of all the Hindu (and sometimes Buddhist and Jain) tales are stories and myths from other parts of the world. These provide the reader with further paths to wander along, leading him/her into Doniger’s other books that are wider in their scope but still firmly located in the quest for existential meaning that myths contain.
As with all of Doniger’s writing, the primary compass that guides the exploration of Hinduism is the story. In our complex tales of gods and animals, kings and priests, lower and upper castes, women and androgynes, Doniger maps the ideas that shape the contours of the Hindu universe and the Hindu person. In other places, Doniger has spoken of her method, her approach to mythology, as a “tool-box". So, she can appear, for example, as a Structuralist or a Formalist or a Freudian. Never wary of who her intellectual ancestors may be, she lets the story dictate the theoretical tool she needs to unravel its threads of meaning. In “Rings of Rejection And Recognition in Ancient India", Doniger reads the story of Shakuntala as it appears in the Mahabharat, and then as it is told by Kalidasa, and connects it, via the motif of the token of recognition, with the necklace in Harsha’s Ratnavali.
In this essay, Doniger cites both A.K. Ramanujan (a sometimes-Structuralist) and Heinrich Zimmer (an always-Jungian) as she argues that “The two layers of symbolism, of personal identity and recognition on the one hand and of sexual union on the other, unite to make the ring the pivot of myths about the identity of a sexual partner. More specifically, the ring plays a role in stories told in ancient India about the tension between illicit eroticism and legal marriage and progeny".
Rather than turning to Manu or Vatsyayana and their prescriptive shastras (which she does in other essays in the volume), here Doniger uses her special talent. She finds the same set of values and shastric preoccupations in stories—which makes the Hindu view of the world a lot more accessible to a lot more people. What better example of the perils of karma and dharma could there be than the Mahabharat and the Ramayan—both of which are also mines for Doniger’s treasures?
On Hinduism is held together by Doniger’s strong and distinctive voice which carries both wit and wisdom, both the exuberance of wonder and the weight of experience. Doniger is one of the most important scholars of Hinduism and of religion in general—her work continues to provoke, to startle and to challenge in the best of all possible ways. When we read her seriously (and on her terms rather than on ours), we are bound to ask questions, not only of her but of ourselves: of our received knowledge, of our pride and our prejudices, of our fears and our delights.
For argument’s sake, if we read Doniger on our terms only, her work becomes ever more the refractive mirror in which we might examine our other selves. We can, of course, choose to oppose, even condemn, the reflection that Doniger’s mirror reveals. When we do that, we equally oppose the most fantastic aspect of ourselves, an aspect that only Doniger’s mirror has the power to show us, in close-up and in technicolour: “What is not found here will not be found anywhere else."
More than any other single scholar, it is Doniger who revels in the enormous diversity of the Hindu tradition, celebrating its unique ability to hold contrasts and contradictions within itself. When we reject Doniger’s scholarship, we are also rejecting that truly spectacular fact. What a terrible loss that becomes.
Arshia Sattar studied with Wendy Doniger in the 1980s and continues to think of her as a teacher of all that is important in life.