Internationally acclaimed Sanskrit scholar and author Wendy Doniger was famously at the receiving end of an egg thrown by an enraged Hindu at a London lecture in 2003. Since then, she has continued to infuriate the Hindutva brigade with her unorthodox views on Hinduism and its sacred texts, earning for herself the epithet: “crude, lewd and very rude in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit academics”. Undeterred, Doniger has gone on to write a learned and rambunctious 780-page opus, The Hindus: An Alternative History, which is out this week in its Indian edition. Some excerpts of an interview with Sheela Reddy:
You have faced much flak from the Hindu right wing for your writings. Why?
You’ll have to ask them why. It doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with the book. They don’t say, “Look here, you said this on page 200, and that’s a terrible thing to say.” Instead, they say things not related to the book: you hate Hindus, you are sex-obsessed, you don’t know anything about the Hindus, you got it all wrong. The objections seem to be a) I presume to know things about Hindus that they didn’t know; and b) I was saying things about the Ramayana which they didn’t like.
If whatever you say about the Ramayana is all there in the texts, why don’t we recognize it? Who bowdlerized it and when?
It happened over the centuries. After all, the oldest Ramayana is well over 2,000 years old. Over the years things have happened, Hinduism has changed a lot. It probably started with the Bhakti movement —in the sense of the passionate worship of a single god. Rama did things in the Ramayana that the Bhakti movement wouldn’t have said about him, had they written the Ramayana.
Until recently, there wasn’t only one way to tell the Ramayana. That’s why Hinduism is such a wonderful religion.
So puritanism crept into the Ramayana around the 10th century?
Yes, I guess so. It’s not just puritanism, but the idea that Rama was a perfect man and couldn’t have made a mistake. Did you, for instance, know that in the Tulsidas version, the real Sita never went with Ravan to Lanka, but a chhaya (shadow) Sita went to Lanka?
So how do you explain the many versions of the Ramayana - many of them very subversive texts – that have survived along with the Ramayana we now know?
That’s why Hinduism is such a wonderful religion. It’s because people are allowed to have their own texts: there was no Pope or ulemas to say you may not tell the story that way—until now. You have groups that say Rama would never have sent Sita away so we have the shadow Sita who went to Lanka instead of the real Sita. Then you have other stories that say that in fact Lakshman was really in love with Sita , which of course Tulsidas doesn’t say, and neither does Valmiki. And you have stories in which Sita is the daughter of Ravana. Until recently, there was no one who said there was only one way to tell the Ramayana. Everyone in India knew that the stories were told differently, because women married into different families and right away there was a different story. And no one would say that you got it wrong.
Is it in Valmiki’s version that Rama thinks his father, Dasaratha, is a sex-addict?
Lakshman is the one who actually says it. He says the king is hopelessly attached to sensual objects. But Rama himself says (at 2.47.8) that the king is kama-atma, entirely consumed by kama.
You also suggest that because Rama is afraid of turning into a sex addict like his father, he throws Sita out after enjoying sex with her?
You have a chapter in Valmiki’s Ramayana where Rama was so happy with Sita, they drank wine together, they were alone, enjoying themselves in every way, indulging in various ways, not just the sexual act. And in the very next chapter he says I’ve got to throw you out. So I’m suggesting: what is the connection between those two things? And what does it mean that Rama knows that Dasaratha, his father, disgraced himself because of his attachment to his young and beautiful wife. So I’m taking pieces of the Ramayana and putting them together and saying these are not disconnected.
Lakshmana says his father Dasaratha is hopelessly attached to sensual objects. Rama himself says that the king is kama-atma, entirely consumed by kama.
So you are saying his fear of following in his father’s footsteps is making him betray his own sexuality?
Yes, I am. Or even of being perceived that way. Remember he keeps repeating: “People will say….” Maybe he knows that his love for Sita is much purer than Dasaratha’s love for Kaikeyi. But even so, he is afraid that people who noticed Dasaratha’s love for Ram will say that like his father, he too is keeping a woman he should not because he’s so crazy about her. So he fears public opinion will connect him with his father. Yes, I think that’s there -- but it’s not the only thing there is in the Ramayana. It’s just something others haven’t pointed out, so I thought I’d better point it out.
Isn’t that foolhardy, especially when you are already the target of Hindu outrage?
Not really. There’s no point in writing a book if you don’t say what you believe. Otherwise you have to stop writing, and I didn’t want to do that. My real fear is that I might not be able to return to India and that’s a very sad thing for me. Two of my colleagues can’t go back to India because there are court cases against them for blasphemy. But I think liberal forces are gaining ground in India. The Supreme Court threw out the last blasphemy case saying it was nonsense. I am hoping to return to India next year.
What has been the response so far from American Hindus?
My favourite one on Amazon accuses me of being a Christian fundamentalist and my book a defence of Christianity against Hinduism. And of course, I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew! I’m very Jewish, and all my writing is very Jewish.
Historians point out that the first temple for Ram was built only in 10th century AD, whereas the Ramayana was composed between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. How do you explain it?
Well, in order to have a temple you have to have a real movement. You have to have a lot of money, land, a whole system of building temples, which the Hindus did not have at first. The Buddhist were the first to build temples—the stupas. But Hindu worship originally was the puja. The king of course had royal ceremonies like the ashwamedha and so on. But Hindu people mainly did their own puja—you had the family priests, you had your Agni sacrifices. But it took the Bhakti movement to organize Ram or Shiva worship. The Kama Sutra does not refer to temple worship, it talks only of festivals you go to. Hinduism underwent changes from the organized religion of the Vedic period before you had temple worship.
Most Indians now are ‘neo-Vedantic’. They think Hinduism is spiritual—the sensual was suppressed, censored during British rule.
So temples to Ram came at the same time when the Ramayana was becoming more straitlaced?
Exactly. People invested in how Rama should be. When you build a great big temple to a man who was perfect, then you can’t tell these kind of stories in that kind of a temple.
While Valmiki is generally said to be the author of the Ramayana, the older books-- two to six—have no mention of him?
Well, we don’t know who Valmiki was. It’s unlikely that one person wrote the whole Ramayana. Certainly unlikely that Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata—it was too great a book for a single author. Things were added on in Ramayana’s first and seventh book later on. For instance, in the seventh book we have a story long before the story of Rama and Sita about how Ravana raped one of the great apsaras, Rambha. And she comes weeping, dirty and bleeding, to her husband, who asks: “What has happened to you?”
When he finds out, he curses Ravana that if he ever touches a woman against her will, his head will shatter into a thousand pieces. So that story is then told in the Ramayana to explain why Ravana didn’t force himself on Sita despite keeping her in his house all those years. In the earlier Ramayana, there’s nothing about this. Ravana doesn’t force himself on Sita for other reasons – he doesn’t want to or because she has a power over him. This is a later idea that creeps in.
In the later books, they started telling stories about Valmiki, who may have been the author of the earlier books but didn’t talk about himself. Tradition has it that Valmiki wrote the Ramayana, but there’s no way of telling if it’s true.
It’s so interesting that the Balmikis, who were Untouchables, just took his name and have their own stories about Valmiki -- how he wasn’t a Brahmin, but a robber. Until this (Hindutva) crowd got hold of the internet, people didn’t say you can’t tell the Ramayana that way. It wasn’t a Hindu idea.
Do you think the Ramayana’s evolution has been brought to a stop by the “internet brigade” of the Hindu Right?
Absolutely not. India is a big country. People are still free and telling the Ramayana their own way. Have you seen the film Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley? It’s a very funny Ramayana. I am editing an anthology of Hindu texts where there is a Marathi text called Ashvamedha, which is a satire on the sacrifice. Satire is still alive in India, and retelling the Ramayana hasn’t yet closed down. The sad thing is that the simplified version is widespread, and most people will know it by what they see on television. Or read in the Amar Chitra Katha comics, which has had an enormous influence. This version is also the cleaned-up version. In fact, it cleans up all the Hindu gods—it is Christianised in many ways. The story of Skanda, for instance, where Agni interrupts Shiva and Parvati making love in order to catch his seed in his hands and throws it in the Ganges, is transformed in the Amar Chitra version into Agni arriving at Shiva’s court, where Shiva sits side by side with Parvati, ending up with Shiva actually climbing a tree to pluck a seed which he then gives to Agni.
You refer to a time in Hinduism “of glorious sexual openness and insight.” When did the sense of shame and denial creep in?
I don’t know when it started but it became powerful under the British. You’ve got Protestant missionaries in India saying, “My God! You people are oversexed. Look at the carvings at Khajuraho and the temple dancers!” The British made the upper caste Hindus, the kind of Hindus that wanted to please the British, ashamed of those aspects of their religion. It was under the British that the worst kind of rewriting and censorship happened.
So why haven’t historians in the modern period revived the suppressed texts?
It’s sad that most Indians will know Ramayana from the simplified, cleaned-up versions of the television and Amar Chitra Katha.
Most historians, at least those who know Sanskrit, know what’s there. But most people don’t know Sanskrit. Of those who do, many are Brahmins who have an investment in this prudish hyper-Hinduism. The general public is what I call neo-Vedantic: they believe Hinduism is spiritual, philosophical. The British loved Hindu philosophy, so did Europeans and even the Americans—they loved Vivekananda and the philosophical Hinduism he brought to the West. The great leaders of the nineteenth century came from this non-sensual aspect of Hinduism and that is what Hindus who read English and worked for the British by and large thought was Hinduism. That is what they were proud of. The Gita is the most important example of this. The Gita has always been well-known and well-loved in Hinduism but it is by no means the most important book for most Hindus for most of Hindu history. Most Hindus have other books that were important to them than the Gita like the Upanishads, the Puranas, Tulsidas’s and Kamban’s Ramayana. But the British loved the Gita—it was the first book to be translated from Sanskrit to English. And ever since the British period, many Hindus have believed that the Gita is their most important book. It has become a very important book but it was made central.
You once described the Gita as a book of war?
It’s another of those things where I am so badly misquoted. Twenty years ago I gave a talk on the Gita in Philadelphia and a newspaper wrote that I had said something bad about the Gita, which I never said and which has been quoted for 20 years. I’ve written about the Gita, and it is indeed a book of war. In the sense that if you read it in the Mahabharata, it takes place when Arjuna doesn’t want to enter the battlefield and fight. By the end of it, he fights. It says the body is not real, only the soul, so it doesn’t matter if you kill your cousins.
Critics accuse you of eroticisation of Hinduism. Why?
The accusation that I only write about sex is crazy when you read a list of my books. The best book I’ve written is about dreams and maya —Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities. My second best book is about the origins of evil in Hindu mythology. They mention I translated the Kama Sutra but don’t tell you that I also translated the Rig Veda and the Laws of Manu. I think I have a double disadvantage among the Hindutva types. One is that I’m not a Hindu and the other is that I am not a male. I suppose the third is that I’m not a Brahmin, but I don’t even get there because I’m not a Hindu! I think it’s considered unseemly in the conservative Hindu view for a woman to talk about sex—that’s something men talk about among themselves.
Have you ever been tempted to maintain a discreet silence on the sensual aspect of Hinduism in order not to entangle with the Hindu right wing and not tarnish your academic reputation?
Never. My mother was a terrific revolutionary and iconoclast and she raised me not to care about what other people said if I thought I was doing the right thing. So it’s just not in me to do that. My feeling is more that if no one is saying it, someone has got to say it. When I write, I try not to tell all the stories of Krishna as a charming little baby because everybody knows those things. So I say, what about the stories people don’t know like Krishna’s lies and the amazing things he does. If Krishna is God and he lies and lets the battle happen, this is something to know about the vision of the deity, the vision of God. These raise interesting questions about the nature of God. I am 68 years old, I have publishers who will take what I write, so I have nothing to lose. I can’t be fired. They might kill me, but I’m going to die soon anyway. Like my favourite actor John Garfield says to some gangsters who want him to throw a fight: “What can you do to me? Everybody dies.” It’s a wonderful line.
Why do you call your book “An Alternative History” ?
Books about Hinduism are about spiritualism, about Brahmins , about men…I wanted to write a book about the more worldly aspects of Hinduism, about its concerns with women, lower castes, children, animals. I wanted to show there was a rich source of information for alternative people. I also wanted to show an alternative history to the BJP version—about Babur’s mosque being built over a Ram temple sort of thing or that monkeys built a bridge to Lanka. It was also an alternative to the way British wrote Indian history: all about kings and battles. I wanted to write an alternative to the old fashioned, political history of kings.
Is Ram a historical figure?
There may have been a man named Rama, but Valmiki’s Ramayana is not his story. Ramayana is a story that an author made up. Whether there was a king or not, we don’t know. And if there was a king, we don’t know if he said the words that Valmiki put in the mouth of Rama. We don’t even know, as Romila Thapar has pointed out, that the Lanka of the Ramayana is the Sri Lanka of today. There’s a lot of evidence that they are not the same place at all.
Why do you call yourself a “recovering orientalist”.
I was trained 50 years ago in the old-fashioned way Sanskritists were trained—I learnt Latin and Greek. And I didn’t learn Bengali and Tamil as my students now do. They didn’t teach any other Indian language along with Sanskrit in those days. Ancient India is all that one studied—so in that sense I was trained as an Orientalist. That’s why in my book I couldn’t say nearly as much about the medieval and modern period as I could about ancient India—I couldn’t get to the sources because I know only Sanskrit. But I am recovering from the Orientalist training I received 50 years ago. I’m learning about the other periods.
A shorter version of this interview appears in print. Typos fixed on 20 October, 2009.