In Conversation with Wendy Doniger

In-conversation with Prof. Wendy Doniger

Background links for Prof. Donigers new book:

1.      Book at AMAZON --> The HINDUS: An Alternative History

2.      “Ram Was Happy With Sita...Indulging In Every Way...And Then He Threw Her Out” (330 comments)

3.      Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong! (115 comments)

4.      'I never ever poke fun at any Hindus' (49 comments)

5.      Chapter by chapter review of  'The HINDUS: An Alternative History' – (14 out of 25 chapters)

Prof. Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago recently  visited Boston University on 9/22/2011 for a lecture on the topic of "Why Do Hindus Argue About Their Scriptures?". 
Despite a fully booked schedule, she generously granted an opportunity to for an  interview on 9/23/2011. She talked to our contributing journalist, Sanjay Saxena of Dev Sanskriti University (Executive. Director  for University Advancement, and CEO, Dev Sanskriti University Foundation), on a wide range of topics starting from her motivation to study Hindu Dharma, through her teachers & training in this subject matter, all the way to the methodology of 'knowing' in 'Western tradition' in contrast to the process of knowing in the 'Vedic tradition'. And, many things in between.

Wendy Doniger, having earned a doctoral degree each from Harvard and Oxford, and seven honorary doctoral degrees, is one of the Western academia's most influential scholar of Hindu-ism. She has been advisor/reader to over 100+ PhD dissertations. Her work has broken 'new ground in Hindu scholarship', exploring Hindu-ism through modern contexts, such as gender, sexuality and identity. She has written three Penguin classics on Hindu-ism, and published English translations of Sanskrit classics the Kamasutra and Rig Veda. But, despite this international fame, Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School at Universityof Chicago, thinks her work has made little impact in India. "There was an Indian edition of most of my books," once mused Doniger, "but it didn't make much of a splash."

 That changed dramatically with 2009 publication of  'The Hindus: An Alternative History,' billed by it's publisher, as the 'definitive narrative account of history and myth, that offers a new way of understanding one of the world’s oldest major religions.' It's a sweeping narrative of Hindu-ism from 2500 B.C. to the present. This book sold out its first edition of 2,000 copies in the first weeks. She is confident that 'fresh viewpoints' are essential to understanding the worlds that shaped the Hindu tradition, and the ways Hindus shaped society. Her courses in mythology address themes in cross-cultural expanses, such as death, dreams, evil, horses, sex, and women; her courses in Hindu-ism cover a broad spectrum that, in addition to mythology, considers literature, law, gender, and zoology.

 Among over thirty books published under her name are sixteen 'interpretative works,' including Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic; The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology; Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities; Tales of Sex and Violence: Folklore, Sacrifice, and Danger in the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa; The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade; The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth; and The Hindus: An Alternative History. Her in progress works are: Hinduism, for the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2012); Faking It: Narratives of Circular Jewelry and Deceptive Women; and a novel, Horses for Lovers, Dogs for Husbands

For detailed CV, publications and the #praise of her new book, please see official faculty page of Prof. Doniger. Where, her CV still cites on page 26, a praise from September, 2002 article entitled, "RISA Lila - 1: Wendy's Child Syndrome".

Readers can familiarize themselves with the background of debate around her new book, using links at the top or bottom of this interview.

Lokvani presents this interview with a hope, that readers will enjoy this candid conversation with Prof Doniger, which began with popular Vedic Mantra, that has been setting off the quest for learning over several millenniums, in it's magnificent tradition of knowledge.

Sanjay Saxena: Thank you Prof. Doniger, for your generosity in agreeing to this interview, and with your permission, we might start with chanting a Vedic Mantra:

ॐ सहनाववतु सह्नौभुनक्तु  सहवीर्यं करवावहै 

तेजस्विनावधीत्मस्तु  मा विद्विषावहै 

ॐ शांतिः शांतिः शांतिः

 Om sahanaavavatu sahanau-bhunaktu, saha-vIryaM karavaavahai.
tejasvinaavadhItamastu, maa vidvishaavahai.

OM shaantiH shaantiH shaantiH


  1. What continues to motivate you to study Hindu Dharma for over 40 long years now?

Prof. Doniger: It's the texts of Hindu-ism. But, primarily, really the narrative-texts. The stories, and the mythology. These texts are mostly in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas and I find them beautiful stories!

Sanjay Saxena: So, it's the stories that motivated you to dive deep in to this?

Prof. Doniger: .... Yes, I always love the stories.

Sanjay Saxena: Oh ! you always loved the stories !

  1. Did you accomplish what you were looking, for when you started this journey?

Prof. Doniger: Well there is always more! You can always learn more!! But, I have found many things that I wanted to find. That has been very satisfying. Yes... I have done what I wanted to do. Although there is more that I would like to do.

  1. Did you find,  in your long study of Hindu Dharma, anything of value, such value that, you think is useful for today's world, specially in these troubled times, that world is passing through? 

Prof. Doniger: Yes. I think there is a great deal in Indian philosophy that prepares you to take on the world, in which there is a great deal of evil and suffering.

Sanjay Saxena: So what is that thing of value that you found can help people  to overcome evil and suffering.

Prof. Doniger: Not to overcome it, but to understand it.

Sanjay Saxena: Just to understand it?

Prof. Doniger: And to expect it (evil). I think the Hindu mythology, the stories of how (evil) just came into the world and about the way that one views this evil and suffering--stories of the Mahabharata particularly, I think--have a great deal to teach us about dealing with the world which is not the way we would like it to be. 

  1. Coming back to the start of your journey, who were your first teachers/Gurus of Hindu Dharma? And, how did you find them. And, to what places did you have to go to find them.

Prof. Doniger: Well, I studied Sanskrit at Harvard with Daniel Ingalls, and most of my training in Indian literature and Indian religion was really at Harvard, and with Professor Ingalls. He was the only teacher in those days, there was not a whole faculty. It was just really him. So, he was my teacher, he was my Guru. And, in addition, there were books that I read, by other people, that mattered to me.

  1. Now that in so many years, you have trained so many scholars and professors, if you have any questions or you are in need of consultation, who are the 'go-to' people you consult with or you go to talk about (Hindu Dharma.)

Prof. Doniger: Well.... nowadays it's really my colleagues at the University of Chicago. I have wonderful colleagues in South Asia Department there. Steven Collins and Gary Tubb. In the old days it was Ramanujan, Ed Dimock, they taught me a great deal when I went to Chicago.  Also from Sudhir Kakar and friends in India...

Sanjay Saxena: Sudhir Kakar and friends...

Prof. Doniger: Yes, .. and McKim Marriott and Milton Singer, great scholars at Chicago in the 70s and 80s, when I came here. I learned a great deal from them. 

  1. U. Chicago is a terrific  institution with programs for study of Hindu Dharma. Tell me some the USP (unique selling points) of studying Hindu Dharma in U. Chicago, in your school.

Prof. Doniger: One of the things that is particularly good about studying about India at the University of Chicago is that you can study many languages, you can also study literature, about the history and the  political science, the anthropology. You can do many different approaches to the study of India. And then, music, Philip Bohlman teaches Indian music. So, the faculty offer not just one kind of track, they teach many aspects of Hinduism. And, I find that very refreshing.

  1. Do you think anything is comparable to U. Chicago offerings anywhere in the US? What are the other universities that offer similar programs?

Prof. Doniger: Not in the US. I think it's (Univerity of Chicago) the best place to study India in the US. The closest is UT Austin, Texas. That has some really...really good scholars. That's another really good place.

Sanjay Saxena: What do you think of your alma mater, Harvard (University) in comparison to U. Chicago.

Prof. Doniger: Harvard is getting better... now! But, I think for many years , it wasn't just as good as Chicago. It's now that that it (Harvard) is re-building the India program... and in the years to come, it may really be even better. But, I still think the University of Chicago (program) is better than Harvard at the moment.

Sanjay Saxena: Right. I agree with that. Sure!

  1. Based on your long study of Hindu Dharma, what would be your recommendations to the Hindu folks to improve Hindu affairs, in the United States particularly and in general worldwide?

Prof. Doniger: I wouldn't really..... I don't really know how to ... I don't know. I couldn't answer that really. That's not the sort of thing I would really know; they would know more about that than I would.

Sanjay Saxena: Sure! But, you had a long study I thought, and may be you have some opinion or ideas or suggestions basically to give.

Prof. Doniger: I think, it's good for people to learn their own history.

Sanjay Saxena: Learn the history, that's your recommendation. Yes, I absolutely agree.

Prof. Doniger: And, learning the texts. I think too often, Hindus only learn of the Ramayana for instance, from the televised Ramayana serial, instead of reading Tulsi (Ramcharita Manas) or Valmiki (Ramayana). I think they should be encouraged to go back to their own literature. It's so wonderful. If they don't know their own texts, they are missing a lot. And, I think they should be encouraged to learn from texts rather than television.

Sanjay Saxena: Yes, very true! Very true!! It's becoming even more difficult in the age of Google and iPhones, to make  kids go and  pick up a book and study it these days. But, it's a good idea, they should go back to the Texts.

Prof. Doniger: And, also I would like to see that people who have Indian languages don’t let their kids grow up just speaking English. They should speak their Indian languages with their children.

Sanjay Saxena: Yes, I think that's a million dollar advice, that people should not loose language, because, if language is gone a lot of concepts are gone, key concepts are gone.

  1.  In your lecture on 9/22/2012 at BU, you were mentioning about the study of the Vedas. In the body of Vedic literature itself,  specially in  the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (बृहदारण्यकोपनिषद् ‌‍), there are four tools of knowing, for example there is a verse that says: "आत्मावारे दृष्टव्यः  श्रोतव्यः मन्तव्यः निदिध्यासितव्यः***". If  this is the recommendation for knowing (in the Vedas itself***), how does it fit into your methodology, that you use for teaching and knowing this subject matter of Hindu Dharma?

Prof. Doniger: I think you have to first of all learn the language. And, then you have to read the texts. Then you have to learn the history. And lastly, you want to learn to read the commentary, the interpretations. Those are the steps that I would do.

**( 1.Language--> 2.Text--> 3.History--> 4.Commentary from interpretations.)

** the 'Western path' for knowing the Vedas.

***(. श्रवण , . मनन , . निदिध्यासन  . साक्षात्कार) *** the Vedic path (process) for knowing the Vedas.***

  1.  In Hindu Dharma, there is a word called Dharma-Shastra (धर्म शास्त्र) to describe their Dharmic (धार्मिक) literature . That's what they use as label for the 'Texts' that are called 'Scriptures' in the West. Do you think that the label  'Scripture' is correct and precise depiction or translation the word Dharma-Shastra (धर्म शास्त्र)?

Prof. Doniger: Absolutely not. I have never heard it (Dharma Shastra) called 'Scripture.' I don't know who uses that word.

  1.  In the title of your lecture, on 9/22/2012 at BU, the title was  "Why Do Hindus argue about their scriptures?"

Prof. Doniger: I had in mind the Vedas, not the Dharma Shastras.

Sanjay Saxena: So the English word, 'Scripture' can only be applied to the Vedas and nothing else?

Prof. Doniger: No, I don't think the word 'Scripture' should be applied to any of the Hindu texts. The whole point of the talk was that 'Scripture’ is not the right word to describe Hindu texts. 

Sanjay Saxena: Yes, that was my thinking and you just confirmed it, so thank you very much for that.

Sanjay Saxena: Well, Prof. Doniger, I am still thirsty to know, "Why Do Hindus argue about their scriptures?", I think we didn't have enough time to really catch up on this topic there (BU) yesterday.

Prof. Doniger: (1) Well, the argument is really about what parts of the scripture should be discussed. The idea is that nowadays there are aspects of the Ramayana that people object to and don't want to have translated and discussed. And that in previous periods, anyone could discuss any of the parts of the “Scripture,” of the Ramayana, ..... the Hindu texts, lets say the Hindu texts. And what is new is the idea that certain aspects of them are now being ignored and denied.. So, that's what I thought the argument is about.

(2) The argument is also about whether or not some Hindus believe that the Bhagwad Gita (श्रीमद्भगवद गीता), is the only important Hindu Text, another, that people don't read Gita at all. NOT ALL Hindus read the Gita.

(3)  It was also about how 'central' certain texts are.  There shouldn't be any argument at all, because some people read one text and some people read some other texts.

Sanjay Saxena: Oh ! so you mean that there shouldn't be any argument about which are the Texts. Only thing about that is, what parts should be read and what should be ignored? Is that understanding of mine (about your argument) correct? 

Prof. Doniger: I would think that's a matter of individual choice, that people should not judge for others what part they should or should not read.

Sanjay Saxena: OK, so they should just mind there own business, mind there own readings and not bother with...

Prof. Doniger: Yes.

Sanjay Saxena: All right. Wonderful (to know that).

  1. Now, that you mentioned about the Gita. So, yesterday you also made a comment about that 'Gita criticizes Vedas',  and then you quoted that verse:

यावानर्थ उदपाने सर्वतः सम्प्लुतोदके 
yavan artha udapaane  sarvatah samplutodake

तावान्सर्वेषु वेदेषु ब्राह्मणस्य विजानतः ॥२.४६॥

yavan artha udapaane sarvatah samplutodake ||2.46||

Prof. Doniger: No, it (the Gita) doesn't criticize the Vedas, it simply says that, the Vedas are not the most important text.

Sanjay Saxena: Well, what I understand is that or it (the verse 2.46) says is that: "those people who have realized the Brahman (ब्रह्म), as a Tatva-jnani (तत्व ज्ञानी), Brahma-jnani (ब्रह्म ज्ञानी), Brahman (ब्रह्मण), for them the value of the 'Texts', becomes like the value of a small pond, when there is water everywhere around them." So, it in no way seems like reducing value (importance) of anything. It is for a special category of the people, who have reached to a special state (of consciousness). And, in that state, words or texts doesn't really matter. Simply, like in pole-vault (jump), a pole takes the jumping athlete on the other side of the bar.  Athlete then, leaves the pole behind, as it has no more purpose (left) after completing the jump to the other side. I was kind of intrigued by  your interpretation, how did you arrive at the conclusion that this verse is 'reducing the importance of the Vedas', in any way?

Prof. Doniger: Well, I agree with what you just said.  The text is saying that people with a certain (higher) kind of understanding don't need the Vedas.

Sanjay Saxena: Right.

Prof. Doniger: So we agree :)

Sanjay Saxena: Good. Yesterday in your lecture, I was kind of... I noted it down in my note sheet.. I noted the phrase that 'Gita criticizes Vedas' , and I wanted to ... (ask about it).

Prof. Doniger: No. The Gita doesn't criticize the Vedas at all, It says the Veda is not essential for religious understanding. 

Sanjay Saxena: Prof. Doniger, may I request you a copy of your yesterday's BU lecture? If you could e-mail me, if at all possible. I wanted to re-read it, basically to understand little deeper. It's very interesting premise and thesis that you are giving about the 'text selection' and other things. So, I just wanted to kind of catch up on that.

Prof. Doniger: I’m afraid I can't do that. It's only in notes. It's not all written out neatly. It’s not finished. I was speaking from notes.  [Since this interview, I finished the text and it will be posted on the Boston University website.]

Sanjay Saxena: No problem. I was just requesting, if you could. Thank you very much for that.

Prof. Doniger: I am afraid I can't

Sanjay Saxena: That's OK. That's no big deal.

Prof. Doniger: I hope you asked most of the questions that you needed to.

Sanjay Saxena: Yes... well, it's never ending जिज्ञासा (jijnaasaa), I would say  or curiosity.  So, may be I will seek another opportunity some time in future. If I am lucky, I will get your time again. One final word, if you have to say anything to our readers of Lokvani. Final message in a few words, I will appreciate. And thank you very much for talking to me this late in night.

Prof. Doniger: I just think that they should learn Sanskrit. And, read their texts.

Sanjay Saxena: OK. Learn Sanskrit and read the text !

Prof. Doniger: Yes.

Sanjay Saxena: Thank you very much Prof. Doniger. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. And, when you visit Boston next time, you are welcome to stay at our home in Lexington, and I can also drive you around to where ever you want to go in any campus.

Prof. Doniger: Well, that's a very generous offer. Thank you. I have enjoyed talking to you. Goodnight.


**********************END OF INTERVIEW*********************

Background links for Prof. Donigers new book:

Books at AMAZON --> The HINDUS: An Alternative History

“Ram Was Happy With Sita...Indulging In Every Way...And Then He Threw Her Out” (330 comments)

Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong! (115 comments)

'I never ever poke fun at any Hindus' (49 comments)

Chapter by chapter review of  'The HINDUS: An Alternative History' – (14 out of 25 chapters)

***************** THE END *********************