First Person

A life of learning: Wendy Doniger on becoming the woman who pretended to be who she was

The noted scholar on what she fled when she chose to learn Sanskrit at 17 – and how the hostile Hindutva response made her choose to fight on her own turf.

Excerpts from the 2015 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, presented at the Annual Meeting of American Council of Learned Societies in Philadelphia, PA, on May 8, 2015.

My life of learning, and of the love of learning, has been one of learning from books given in love. Most of what I learned came from someone I loved, beginning with my mother, Rita Doniger, born Rita Roth... When I was still very young, perhaps six or seven, she gave me a copy of her favourite set of books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the latter, in my opinion, the greatest work of European mythology since Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The Red Queen, who believed that she was always right about everything and brooked no disagreement, strongly reminded me of my mother; and the White Queen, who always cried out in pain before she pricked her finger, became for me, throughout my life, a way of resisting my own tendency to fall prey to paralysing anxiety about things that might never happen.

Through the Looking Glass was also strongly influenced by Indian philosophy (a connection noted by Swami Vivekananda and other Vedantin philosophers). Think, after all, of the idea that we are all part of the dream of the White King... She gave me books about India. When I was about 12, she gave me EM Forster’s A Passage to India, which seared my soul. It’s one of the books that I read in a single 24-hour binge, and that I remember exactly where I was when I read it: in my room in our house on the Long Island Sound.

I stayed up all the hot, humid summer night, with all the windows open, listening to the crickets and the moaning of the foghorns in the Sound, and then to the birdsong in the morning. It made me want to study India, to go to India, to go into those caves that Forster described. I cited certain key in- sights and metaphors from Forster in my own books throughout the years.

And then, in 1954, when I was 13, my mother gave me a copy of Aubrey Menen’s newly published, wickedly satirical retelling of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. I didn’t know then that Menen’s book had already been banned in India under Indian Penal Code 295A, and of course I could not know that I myself would run headlong into that same law over half a century later...

During the McCarthy Era, people like Pete Seeger and Zero Mostel drifted in and out of our house; I learned my first Sanskrit words from Pete Seeger, in Gandhi’s song, “Raghupati Raghava.”...

My father, Lester Doniger, had come to America from the village of Raczki, in the Polish corridor, in 1920, and worked his way through a degree in English literature at NYU night school, where Irwin Edman and Thomas Wolfe were among his teachers. He had become a very successful publisher. As he was a staunch FDR man, later a Stevenson man, there were often violent arguments at the dinner table; napkins were thrown down, plates pushed away only half touched. He had worked with the New York Times and published reference works, and so he would come back to the table with some such text and read out the figures – how many people Stalin had murdered, or something of that sort – only to hear my mother reply, “Well, if you believe those Capitalist rags.” I learned then that there are some arguments you cannot win.

My mother also felt that the world would not be fit to live in until the last rabbi was strangled with the entrails of the last priest. When, in 1954, under McCarthy, the phrase “under God” was inserted in the pledge of allegiance, she wouldn’t let me say it, and I had to go and sit in the principal’s office each day during the assembly in which all the other children said the pledge of allegiance. In 1991, a few months before she died, Adam Phillips did an NPR program about me, and interviewed her too. At one point he asked her how, given her views of religion, she felt about the fact that I made my living writing about religious texts. She laughed and turned to me and said, “But you don’t believe any of it, do you?”

...

But by the end of high school I had burnt out. I no longer thought that Communism could fix the world. I didn’t think anything could fix the world, and I was tired of the political arguments that could never be won. From my mother’s political activism I fled to my father’s profession of publishing, trading in my red diaper for a red pencil. He made books, while my mother collected books, particularly first editions. I wanted to be like him and not like her...

A refuge in Sanskrit

Sanskrit was also another kind of refuge for me, a refuge from the intense ambition and competitiveness that was bred into me, as it was into so many children of Jewish refugees, and exacerbated in my case by my mother’s own frustrated intellectual ambitions, which she visited upon me, to use the Biblical phrase. I had become burnt out by the pressure, in high school, to excel in all of my studies, to get the kind of grades that got a Jewish girl into Radcliffe. I guessed, rightly as it turned out, that I would have no competition if I studied Sanskrit, and this, too, was a source of welcome respite from the fray. And so I did the right thing for some of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons, and began the study of Sanskrit at Radcliffe when I was 17.

At Radcliffe, I fled almost literally to the pinnacle of the ivory tower, for the Sanskrit room at Harvard was at the very top of Widener Library, Widener A, so far up that the window opened directly onto the flat roof, and during class I could see the pigeons waddling around right at the level of the windowsill, their cooing a kind of background music for my recitations. I had become an old-fashioned Orientalist femme de cabinet, and my cabinet was Widener A, its dusty air perfumed with the sweet, slightly mouldy smell of old Indian books. This heavenly sky-walking was balanced by the other half of my intellectual work, down in the dark rows of the Widener stacks, where on some occasions, finding what I was looking for or something even better that I had not even intended to look for, I actually broke out into a sweet sweat of excitement.

I studied Sanskrit with the great Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, who taught me not only Sanskrit but Indian literature, Indian history, and Indian religion – he was a one-man band for Indian culture. He also taught me something else, harder to define, something about the pleasure of scholarship, the elegance of the written word, the luxury of the world of the mind. He told me once that he regarded it as a waste of time to educate women, since they just got married and had children, but he continued to teach me generously and to encourage me to go on with my studies. He had me read Kalidasa’s great poem, Kumarasambhava, “The Birth of the Prince,” an elegant poetic riff on the story of the marriage of the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati.

But Ingalls also told me that the same story was narrated in the Puranas, a far simpler, sloppier, popular form of Sanskrit, which the highbrow, high-born Ingalls (his family owned the Homestead Inn in West Virginia, which was restricted – no Jews allowed) regarded as the equivalent of pulp fiction. To his horror, I much preferred the Puranas to the court poetry, and this was a turning point in my academic life: I had found my level, as a lowbrow Sanskritist, a rare crossbreed. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the myths of Shiva in the Puranas, and it eventually became my first book, Shiva: The Erotic Ascetic.

So I was trained as a Sanskritist. But I was not a real Sanskritist; real Sanskritists (Ingalls was not at all typical) are cold-blooded pedants interested only in verbs and nouns, and I was a hot-blooded ex-ballet dancer still interested in stories. Real Sanskritists, on several continents, have been known to turn and leave a room when I entered it...

My Passage to India

When I went on to graduate school at Harvard, my life as a Sanskritist floated on in its tiny, unstructured paradise: no PhD qualifying exams, no need to fill out long application forms for grants; the relatively few people who applied to go to India were more or less automatically financed. (The jaws of my students drop when I tell them about all this.)

In 1963, Ingalls sent me to India to work with Rajendra Chandra Hazra, the world expert on the Puranas. Upon arriving in Calcutta, and checking in at the Ramakrishna Mission, I duly wrote to Hazra and then went to see him; he gave me tea and said that he couldn’t work with a woman. And that was the end of my training as a Sanskritist in India.

I spent that year beginning to get to know India in reality, after all those years of fantasy. I went up to Shantiniketan in the Bengal countryside and learned to speak Bengali and to sing Tagore songs and to dance in the Manipuri tradition; I went down to Madras and studied Bharat Natyam with the great Balasarasvati. I went back up to Calcutta and met Ali Akbar Khan, who helped me buy a sarod and taught me to play it. I went to the Kailasa temple at Ellora and the erotic temples of Khajuraho and the temple of the sun at Konarak and the caves of Shiva on the island of Elephanta and the great frieze by the sea at Mahabalipuram.

With her mother Rita at Mahabalipuram, India, 1964.
With her mother Rita at Mahabalipuram, India, 1964.

I rode camels in Jaisalmer and elephants in Ajmer and trains everywhere, sleeping on the upper berths of trains or on the floor in the Third Class Ladies’ Waiting Room at the stations. And all of it, including my round-trip airfare from New York, on $6,000 from the American Institute of Indian Studies, with money left over to buy the complete critical editions of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Rig Veda, every Purana that had ever been published, and a three-foot high solid bronze statue of the goddess Parvati, from the Vijayanagar period...

The Oxford decade

In Oxford, during intervals from riding on the Downs, I eventually wrote a DPhil dissertation with Robin Zaehner, whose supervision consisted entirely in taking me out once a year to a very good dinner at the Elizabethan Restaurant, right above the shop that Lewis Carroll had immortalised as the Sheep’s Shop, and giving me increasingly drunken bits of what turned out to be very good advice about my subject, the concept of heresy in Hinduism. Zaehner at that time was obsessed with Charles Manson, about whom he was writing a book (Our Savage God), and it took a great deal of effort on my part to keep Manson and Aristotle, another obsession of Zaehner’s, out of my dissertation, which eventually became my second book, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology.

The Sanskrit dream world continued to work its magic. I never had a job interview; I just seemed to meet people and they offered me jobs. (Again, my students’ jaws drop.) Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (an anthropologist) wanted to hire me to teach in the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he was acting as director; finding it impossible to sell me to the Sanskritists, he winkled me instead into the History Department, where Bernard Lewis welcomed me and protected me from the Sanskritists, and Ken Ballhatchet taught me some history.

As a teacher, still despairing of ever changing the world, I settled instead for a chance to mend it bird by bird, stone by stone – tikkun olam, as the Hebrew expression puts it – through small, random acts of kindness, as a teacher, scholar, and writer. I remained alienated from the world of action – politics, reform, marching in protest – but deeply committed to my non-actions, my trivial, personal acts, with great passion for helping each student, writing each book. To this day, my idea of perfect happiness is to sit in a quiet, beautiful place and write, with my dog at my feet.

With her mother Rita in Oxford, 1973.
With her mother Rita in Oxford, 1973.

'If you commit suicide now, you’ll be sorry later'

In my decade in Oxford, my father became an important influence on my writing. He was, after all, a successful publisher, a man who knew how to read a manuscript and make it better; he read everything I wrote (I sent him all my notes from India), and invariably loved it...

My father died in 1971, while I was pregnant with my son Michael, who my father knew was on the way. A combination of post-partum depression and grieving for my father put me into the Warneford Hospital (first named the Oxford Lunatic Asylum in 1826, later the Warneford Lunatic Asylum). They actually still did basket weaving there, and when I protested that it was a waste of my time, they let me bring in my typewriter, and there I wrote much of my book on evil in Hindu mythology, while working through my own first personal experience of radical evil.

Eventually I was discharged by a wise psychiatrist, a Holocaust survivor, who had once told me, “If you commit suicide now, you’ll be sorry later,” and assured me, as I left and asked her if she thought I’d end up back there again, “I think you will never again experience simultaneously the death of your father and the birth of your first son.” And she was right.

The distrust of argument

My father remains my ideal, imagined reader to this day; he was always on my side. His voice, still strong in my ears, encourages me to take risks, to have confidence that I will find some readers who will get my jokes, love the stories that I love, and respect my opinions even when they do not share them.

I sound out every line I write, imagining the reader reading it, and never imagining as the reader certain scholars, who shall remain nameless, who might be watching with an eagle eye, poised to pounce on any mistake I might make; no, I always imagine the reader as my father, on my side. I try to be that person to my students, who are otherwise vulnerable to an imaginaire of hostile reception that can block their writing, as it keeps some of my most brilliant colleagues from publishing. My father saved me from that.

The distrust of argument that had been bred in me at my parents’ contentious dinner table made me, in my own work, very non-confrontational. In this I took after my father, who may have learned the same lesson in the same place but was also, I think, by nature a man who wanted everyone to like him.

In personal encounters, I would always go around an opponent rather than try to go through. I would refuse to write a review of a book I didn’t like. But I didn’t want to write about what other people wrote about; the maternal genes in me were also quietly working their magic there. I would express my dissident opinions, but only on my own turf; if I read in a book something that I thought wrong, that ignored texts that revealed another aspect of the subject, the “wrong” book would inspire me to write the “right” book, using those neglected texts to make my own point.

If the dominant paradigm was that the karma theory solved everything and that the Hindu gods were always loving and truthful, I wrote about the many alternative narratives that had been advanced by Hindus who did not think that karma was the answer, and the many myths in which the gods were deceitful or hurtful.

In England, though Richard Gombrich was my companion in arms in the world of Sanskrit, it was again the anthropologists who supplied much of my intellectual nourishment – EE Evans-Pritchard and Rodney Needham in Oxford, Edmund Leach in Cambridge, Mary Douglas in London, and, later, Claude Lévi- Strauss.

I first encountered the works of Lévi-Strauss in Moscow, where I had accompanied my husband, a Russian historian, for a year (1970-71) at the height of the Cold War, under Brezhnev. While my husband was burrowing in the archives, I wandered over to the Oriental Institute and discovered the structuralists and semioticists of the Tartu school. (This was the only time in my life when I found Sanskrit of practical use: since all the Moscow Sanskritists I knew were dissidents, the Sanskrit library at the Oriental Institute was bugged; we met there and spoke what amounted to pidgin Sanskrit to baffle the KGB eavesdroppers.)

Later I met Lévi-Strauss in person, in Paris, and we corresponded until his death. Among the many things I learned from him was an answer to the puzzle of the proliferation and repetition of myths: that each version addresses a paradox that can never be solved, and so you try again, and again, and again; this also showed me the way to deal with the apparent paradox of Shiva’s asceticism and eroticism.

On a more practical level, Lévi-Strauss’s structural patterns provided me with a way to discuss hundreds of variants of a myth at once, instead of printing them out in a large, separate volume, as I had done for my 950- page Harvard dissertation. And Lévi-Strauss also showed me the best resolution of the senseless arguments advanced to explain the coincidence of myths across cultures, borrowing versus independent origination: he reasoned that one culture borrows from another only those things that are attractive and sensible to the receiving culture, hence in a sense original in that culture too.

This validation of the link between versions of a myth in several cultures justified, I felt, my persistence in writing about cross-cultural patterns of myth, a subject that had fallen into disrepute in my academic world.

Imposter nightmares

When, in 1975, I followed my husband back from England to Berkeley (giving up my tenured lectureship at the School of Oriental and African Studies), again an anthropologist, Alan Dundes, was my best friend (indeed almost my only friend; I was spurned by the Berkeley South Asianists). Only when I reached my final academic home, the University of Chicago, in 1978, did I find Indologists broad-minded enough to welcome me in – Hans van Buitenen, Milton Singer, AK Ramanujan, the Rudolphs, Ed Dimock, Kim Marriott – though even there, the historians of religions Mircea Eliade and Frank Reynolds were in many ways my closest colleagues and my first teachers in the field of the history of religions.

I came to Chicago under colours even more false than those I had worn as a historian in London. In 1968, Mircea Eliade had been the only official reader (besides Ingalls) of my PhD dissertation (again, the jaws drop); he had liked it, and published two long essays from it in the journal that he had just founded (in 1961), History of Religions, of which I now serve as the senior editor. Eliade encouraged me to come to Chicago. Ten years later, in 1978, I accepted the offer of Eliade’s colleague, the dean of the Divinity School, Joe Kitagawa, and arrived in Chicago as a full professor and chair of the History of Religions Area, having taken only one course in religion in my whole life (and that one from the highly eccentric Arthur Darby Nock). I was able to hold my imposter nightmares at bay only by reassuring myself that I was, at least, a real South Asianist, and I had an appointment in that department too.

But I also had an appointment in the Committee on Social Thought, which changed my life. In those days, the Committee was a truly motley group (nowadays the term would be interdisciplinary) of people who called themselves a salon des refusés – maverick anthropologists, art historians, historians of religions, Islamicists, Sinologists (one was the chair), Indologists, novelists (Saul Bellow), musicologists (Charles Rosen), classicists, economists, historians of religion (Eliade was there, too) – all of them slightly out of step with their own official academic caste and very, very good at whatever they did.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. All of them, but particularly David Grene, encouraged me to draw upon everything I knew, not just what I had been certified to know, in my writing and teaching, and so I gained the courage to rush in where classicists and scholars of English literature, film, Freud, and feminism feared to tread. Never again would I write only about India, and never again would I have to apologise for not being a real Sanskritist. The nourishment I drew from supportive colleagues in such a wide range of academic disciplines is reflected in the rather eclectic nature of the work I did then and have continued to do. The ugly duckling had become a swan – or, to quote one of my own favourite myths, I had become the woman who pretended to be what she was...

I seem to chain smoke my books, lighting each from the embers of the last, or, if you prefer, making new yogurt from a bit of yogurt from the last batch. Each book left something unsolved, unsatisfied, and that drove me on to the next; the leftovers from the Shiva book (in which the god violates many of the Hindu codes of chastity and caste purity) spilled over to make the book about the origins of evil (in which other gods, too, break their own rules). Some of the stories about Sita and Helen in Splitting the Difference turned out to be bedtricks, and demanded a book of their own; some of the bedtricks turned out to be self-masquerades, and demanded a book of their own; some of the self-masquerades were about rings, and that’s where I am now, finishing up The Ring of Truth, and Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry. The red thread through all of them seems to be the intersecting themes of rebellion and masquerade. More recently, I have been drawn away from masquerade, and into rebellion.

Whom I write for

I have always felt that what I do is translation, both in the literal sense (translating Sanskrit texts into English for Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics and the late lamented Clay Sanskrit Series) and in the broader sense of translating India for Americans... For of all the beautiful things that are made in India, the stories are the most beautiful of all.

In 1987, the Brooklyn Academy of Music inaugurated its Majestic Theatre with a production of Peter Brook’s stage version of the Mahabharata, an all-night, nine-hour production for which my old Great Neck classmate Barbara Stoler Miller had served as the Sanskrit advisor. Watching the Brooklyn audience, my people, watching the Indian characters, the heroes of the Mahabharata, my people, I felt as I had felt introducing a new boyfriend to my parents, hoping so much that they would like him. I was delighted that my fellow New York Jews (and others) stayed up all night for an Indian play (as Indian audiences often do) and adored it. I was similarly delighted when my American students and, after a while, scholars and non-scholars in the broader world of letters liked my translations of Indian stories. Eventually I discovered that I had a very appreciative Indian audience as well, both in America and in India; most of my books were co-published in Indian editions. Yet it has only been recently that I’ve taught myself to stop assuming a New Yorker as my reader, so that I no longer say “we” (in contrast with “Hindus”), just as I had to learn to stop using “he” as the default pronoun.

I never ever imagined a pious, self-righteous Hindu as my reader. It never occurred to me that I could possibly make anyone mad at me by writing, full of appreciation, about Sanskrit texts whose authors had been dead for thousands of years. How foolish I was.

The problem now with (some) Hindus

And so, in 2003, the hostile response to my books from the rightwing Hindu community blind-sided me. After all those happy years of pure fantasy, both in my subject matter and, I now realise, in my own self-perception, suddenly I found myself fighting against real live bad guys again, just as I had done standing beside my mother in the barricades in the McCarthy days. Indeed, the seed of my problems may have been sown way back in 1954, when my mother gave me that copy of Aubrey Menen’s satire on the Ramayana that was banned for its blasphemous attitude to the god Rama. And so began what I have come to think of as my Indian wars.

Attacks began first in the Hindu diaspora in America, in the early years of the twenty-first century, and then in India. First came assaults on other peoples’ books, and then on mine and those of some of my students. The attackers, in both India and the American diaspora, were members of a movement called Hindutva, “Hinduness,” a nationalist group with roots in the early twentieth century, who aim to restrict discussions of Hinduism to their own narrow, bowdlerised version of this rich and often earthy tradition, and who grotesquely misrepresent its history. They therefore care very much about what I was saying about people who had died thousands of years ago.

My response was, as always, tempered by the memory of those old, unwinnable dinnertime Stalin arguments; I did not engage in a direct confrontation with the off-the-wall Internet tirades. Instead, I stayed on my own turf and published, in 2010, a book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, highlighting, more clearly and directly, I hoped, precisely those elements that they wanted to erase: the earthier, often satirical stories of the gods, the skeptical and even antinomian arguments, the less than pious folk versions of the great myths, the criticisms of caste and protests against the mistreatment of women. Almost immediately, a Hindutva group brought a lawsuit against me and Penguin Books, India, demanding that my book be withdrawn from publication and all remaining copies destroyed.

Penguin’s lawyers fought the suit for four years and finally settled in 2014, agreeing to the demands (though in fact no copy was destroyed, or “pulped”, despite the media claims: all remaining copies were quickly bought out). To my surprise, there was a massive, international protest. The book became a cause célèbre, “the Doniger affair.” Demonised by the Indian right, I became the poster girl of the Indian left. When the dust settled, Penguin generously agreed to let the Indian publication rights revert to me, and the book – which continued to be available illegally, in brown paper wrappers and in PDFs on the Internet, and legally but expensively (Penguin India now imports the New York edition) – is soon to be republished in India by another Indian publisher [This lecture was given in 2015]. My response to the attacks on The Hindus was to publish another book, this time a 700-page source-book, the Norton Anthology of Hinduism, bringing together the texts that proved that I wasn’t making it all up.

And so, in the end, I was dragged bei den Haarn, as my mother would have said, “by the hair,” back to the world of politics from which I had fled half a century ago. I was reminded of the man who, living in Europe in the 1930s, realised that there was going to be a terrible war there and decided to get out while he could; he sold all his possessions and fled to the safety of a remote island in the South Seas. It was Iwo Jima. The tale of the Appointment in Samarra also comes to mind: running into what you are running away from. Or Alice, trying to get to the garden and always coming back into the house. Here I was, fighting the good fight after all. Well, I had been trained to do it. I was a bit rusty, but I still knew what to do when the bad guys tried to shut you up: keep talking. I realised that I had to fight what my students couldn’t fight, because they were vulnerable in ways that I was not: they might be denied visas to India, their books turned down by nervous publishers, their employers pressured – by wealthy, conservative Hindu donors – to fire them. But I, being near the end of my career, had nothing to lose. Was I a Sanskritist in political activist’s clothing, or the reverse?

Becoming My Mother

When I entered the fray in India, fighting for my book but also fighting for Penguin, for all publishers, in a way, my reflexive thought was that my father was standing me in good stead; no, said my son Mike, grandma is standing by you.

Suddenly I found that I was living my mother’s life after all. Like a character in the recognition narratives I wrote about, like Cinderella, or Oedipus, I realised who I was: not my father, but my mother. More precisely, I had become not my mother but what she wanted me to become, and what she herself would have wanted to become had she had the chances that she had given me, starting with those first books given with love. Recognising the seed of my present moment in her hopes for me so long ago, I thought, as I did so often, of the words at the end of Gatsby:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

©2015 by Wendy Doniger. Full text of this Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, presented at the Annual Meeting of American Council of Learned Societies in Philadelphia, PA, on May 8, 2015 is available here.

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