Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty

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O’Flaherty in 2012

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (born 20 November, 1940) is an American Indologist.


  • There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women. Nor are the goddesses by and large compassionate; they are generally a pretty bloodthirsty lot. Goddesses are not the solution.
  • Aldous Huxley once said that an intellectual was someone who had found something more interesting than sex; in Indology, an intellectual need not make that choice at all.
    • Wendy Doniger, “When a lingam is Just a Good Cigar: Psychoanalysis and Hindu Sexual Fantasies,” in The Psychoanalytic Study of Society, Vol. 18: Essays in Honor of Alan Dundes, ed. L. Bryce Boyer, Ruth M. Boyer, and Stephen M. Sonnenberg, 81.**Doniger, “When a lingam is Just a Good Cigar,” 279 and 288. also quoted in Antonio de Nicolas, Krishnan Ramaswamy, and Aditi Banerjee (eds.) (2007), Invading the Sacred: An Analysis Of Hinduism Studies In America (Publisher: Rupa & Co., p. 196
  • As the Hindu gods are "immortal" only in a very particular sense---for they are born and they die---they experience most of the great human dilemmas and often seem to differ from mortals in a few trivial details...and from demons even less. Yet they are regarded by the Hindus as a class of beings by definition totally different from any other; they are symbols in a way that no human being, however "archetypal" his life story, can ever be. They are actors playing parts that are real only for us; they are the masks behind which we see our own faces.
    • Wendy Doniger, "Introduction," Hindu Myths, (Penguin Books: 1975).

Q&A with Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor and author of The Hindus[edit]

That's what really interested me about India, the religious aspect-and the extravagance of it. There was so much of it; the temples had all these things crawling all over them. It was so alive and complicated compared to the relative austerity that I saw in Jewish and especially Protestant ceremonies. Not so much Catholic ceremonies, though....
The culture-its excess-really suited me. I always liked Indian miniature painting much more than Renaissance painting. I didn't see what was so great about Rembrandt or Michelangelo. I liked paintings where there were 10,000 people in the scene and elephants and horses! I liked the carvings on Indian temples so much more than the simple architectural outlines.
I was raised deeply imbued with my parents' atheism. The thought of really, seriously practicing any religion doesn't really work for me. But I feel at home in religious buildings and ceremonies. I still hang out a lot in Catholic churches in America. I like going to Catholic masses; I always go to Christmas and Easter. In India I always go to temples and to the pujas. But to be committed to the dogma of any religion-to be told what to believe-goes against my grain in some basic way.

In: Q&A with Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor and author of The Hindus UChicagoNews, 5 November 2009

  • There was an Indian edition of most of my books, but it didn't make much of a splash.
    • On the impact of her books in India. But her publication of The Hindus: An Alternative History, a sweeping history of Hinduism from its origins in 2500 B.C. to the present, though a success, it has been controversial (this aspect has been covered in another quote above).
  • I've always felt like I haven't given anything back to India after all that she had given me, just soaked up all the wonderful stories and told them to Americans. Now at last I feel that I have contributed something to India, sharing with them stories that many of them know but many of them do not, and sharing an approach to the history of the Hindus that highlights things that are usually ignored.
    • About her contributions to India.
  • That was the other thing that drew me to India-the language. In high school my Latin teacher taught me Greek unofficially on Monday nights. I loved Greek; I loved the idea that there was another script. And then my Latin teacher told me there was a language that was even older and more interesting than Greek: Sanskrit. So everything started coming together-the art, the literature, the language.
  • I was raised deeply imbued with my parents' atheism. The thought of really, seriously practicing any religion doesn't really work for me. But I feel at home in religious buildings and ceremonies. I still hang out a lot in Catholic churches in America. I like going to Catholic masses; I always go to Christmas and Easter. In India I always go to temples and to the pujas. But to be committed to the dogma of any religion-to be told what to believe-goes against my grain in some basic way.
  • But when I do think about religious problems, I think in Hindu categories. When my father died, it was the first time something really terrible happened to me-and Christianity and Judaism were of absolutely no use to me. My Jewish and Christian friends would take me to synagogues and churches, and it didn't help at all. And then I started thinking about the myths I was translating at the time, which were about death-why there is death, how death came into the world, what happens when we die, speculations about karma and rebirth. The Hindu version of it made more sense to me than anything. It just seemed like Shiva as a god was more likely to be responsible for the world the way I knew it than the gods of Judaism and Christianity. Capricious, beautiful, violent, it just made more sense.
  • I feel at home in Hindu temples. I like how complicated they are. Being in a great Hindu temple is like being in a forest. You can wander around all day. People kind of leave you alone. When you wander around temples when there isn't a ceremony, there's a kind of peacefulness about them, and I recognize the scenes and the icons. That's Shiva doing this, that's Parvati doing that. Whereas when I go to the Vatican, I have to have someone explain to me what the Sistine Chapel is all about. So I'm at home in Hinduism in that sense, I know what it's all about.
    • About her intent to practice Hinduism
  • It's the religious aspects in which I feel most at home, in a way. No, I don't really feel at home in India anymore. I'm not physically comfortable in India most of the time-I like Chicago, I like snow. It's an irony that I should be an Indologist because I don't like hot climates. I don't like crowds. There are too many things about India that don't suit my physical makeup. And also, I hardly ever go to Bengal, so I don't have a language[ to speak. So I go as a visitor. I visit friends. To some extent, ironically, I'm more at home in India now because there are fabulous hotels with good food and people speaking English, it's like being in New York, but if I go to a village I can't talk to people. I don't know if I ever really was at home in India, but I love being there.
    • About her comfort level staying in India.
  • India is still foreign to me, it's a familiar foreignness in some way, but it's still surprising. When you see a temple in India, you don't say, oh there's another temple, you say: "My God! How could anyone have had the imagination to do something so amazing!" It's never what you expect.
    • About her comfort level staying in India.

'The Hindus' (2009)[edit]

  • The two sets of sources, textual and nontextual, reveal bits of history to us in different ways, like the lame man riding on the shoulders of the blind man. When it comes to history, you can’t trust anyone: The texts lie one way, while images and archeology mislead us in other ways. On the one hand, the gods did not fly around in big palaces, as the texts insist that they did, and we cannot know if women really did speak up as Gargi does in the Upanishads, or Draupadi in the Mahabharata.
    • In: The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 34.
  • James Joyce, in his novel Finnegans Wake, in 1939, punned on the word “Hindoo” (as the British used to spell it), joking that it came from the names of two Irishmen, Hin-nessy and Doo-ley: “This is the hindoo Shimar Shin between the dooley boy and the hinnessy.
    • In: The Hindus: An Alternative History, p. 30.

About her book 'The Hindus'[edit]

  • I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate... I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book [The Hindus: An Alternative History]. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a w:Lawsuitcriminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece – the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.
    • Wendy Doniger, In: India: PEN protests withdrawal of best-selling book, Fleursdumal.org
    • Her book [The Hindus: An Alternative History] became controversial and Dinanath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a case against the publisher, claiming that the book was offensive to Hindus and therefore in violation of Section 295A of the Indian penal code which prohibits ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.'
  • Doniger makes clear that no history focused on an imperial centre can capture the history of the Hindus here, any more than could such a state-focused story in the days before the arrival of the Muslims. But at the same time, the very structure of her presentation points also to the import-ance of the state as a locus for understanding how the history of the Hindus depends also on an engagement with broader currents of historical change extending outside India and linking this history to larger, worldwide processes.
    • Gilmartin, David (December 2010), "Review of Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguin), 2009. 779 pages. $35", Indian Historical Review, 37: 338–345
  • As a loosely applied, but strongly integrative, model, she proposes three roughly consecutive alliances: first the Vedic one of gods and humans as opposed to anti-gods and ogres, then the epic-Puranic one in which ascetics and renunciants seem to join over-ambitious ogres and anti-gods in threatening the gods, and finally the bhakti alliance that restores human dependence on the gods. From the point of view of the historian such a loose periodisation is satisfactory and convincing, especially in the first three fifths of the book, which deal with little else than the social and cultural history of religion. For the periods of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and the British, however, when the author's focus partly shifts to political circumstances, her story is often episodic and sometimes, I think, a little naïve..
    • Kolff, D. H. A. (2011). "Wendy Doniger, the Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguin), 2009. 779 pages. Rs 999". Indian Historical Review. 37 (2): 333–338. doi:10.1177/037698361003700214.
  • Long before Doniger’s book was pulped, an event which the secularists have eagerly highlighted, her book was replied to in detail by Vishal Agarwal... He showed that she was either wrong or unmistakably biased in hundreds of passages. For a lifelong tenant of a very prestigious Indology chair, it is shameful that she could deliver such substandard work. But the fact that her work was anything but scholarly, has been carefully hidden by the secularists, including in the present article. Yet the fact that such a bad book was universally applauded and even earmarked for an Indian award, tells you a lot about the power equation, with the anti-Hindu forces jubilantly on top.
    • Koenraad Elst, On Modi Time : Merits And Flaws of Hindu Activism In Its Day Of Incumbency – 2015 Ch 17
  • But because Doniger’s flippant approach serves the purpose of belittling and ridiculing Hinduism well, it is welcomed and highlighted by the Indian elite with its many-pronged attack on Hinduism... American Indologists including Wendy Doniger have always condoned religious discrimination on condition that Hindus are at the receiving end; they only protest when Hindus show initiative... Yet, they did have the arguments. A list of the numerous factual errors in Doniger's book has been compiled by Vishal Agarwal.. [he] has shown how her book's treatment of Hinduism is unconscientious and flippant to a degree that would never be accepted from a professor of her rank for more established religions. ... ... And she is not even a psychologist: elsewhere, her “alternative” (actually quite conformistic, only a bit more titillating) deconstruction of a religion would have been criticized as not based on any competence.
    • Elst, Koenraad. Hindu dharma and the culture wars. (2019). New Delhi : Rupa
  • It is a learned book: one cannot help being amazed by the amount and variety of source materials the author has at her command, many of which one would not find, or not expect to find, in a book on the history of Hinduism and its practitioners...She especially loves to illustrate ancient stories by interjecting comparisons with situations with which the audience is familiar: Doniger commands an unbelievably vast array of comparable material, often, though not always, from American popular culture.... Since Wendy Doniger openly disclaims any ambition to have written a conventional history ("my training is as a philologist, not a historian," p. 3), minor historical slips may be forgiven. Yet, there are some that deserve to be rectified.
    • Rocher, Ludo (April/June 2012), "Review: The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 132 (2): 302–304
  • There are several issues that need more detailed and nuanced analysis rather than straight-jacketed formulations that we read in The Hindus. These concern terminologies and chronologies invoked, perfunctory manner in which class-caste struggles have been referred to — almost casually, complex inter-religious dialogue seen only in the context of Visnu's avataras, and looking at the tantras merely in terms of sex and political power. The work rarely rises above the level of tale telling... On the whole, this is neither a serious work for students of Indian history, nor for those with a critical eye on 'religious history' of India, nor indeed it is the real Alternative History of the 'Hindus'. The main actors of the narrative are not speaking themselves. They merely seem to be mouthing dialogues scripted by the privileged upper classes.
    • Shrimali, K. M. (July–August 2010), "Review of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger", Social Scientist, 38 (7/8): 66–81
  • An array of puns, asides and (sometimes off-key) jokes makes the book more bulky and somewhat anecdotal, but also entertaining to read.
    • Shome, Shubhodeep (2012), "Review of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger", South Asia Research, 32: 77–79

About Wendy Doniger[edit]

  • Doniger is fond of using pseudoscientific language to make her dismissive, negative and often poorly evidenced opinions on Hinduism sound weightier than they are—claiming for instance that Western feminists who embrace the Hindu Goddess are wrong because, when she compares India to Monotheistic, Male- God cultures, there is “in general an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women.” Doniger does not produce any evidence to substantiate this sweeping statement which she has made....
  • Doniger’s school of scholarship universalizes Freudian methodologies and pathologies, and combines them with obscure Indic materials to weave wild theories about Indian culture. Indians advocating Freudian psychoanalysis have simply accepted and mimicked the Western theories without independently verified clinical and empirical data to establish their applicability in Indian contexts.
  • “For Hinduism studies, the 21st century opens with an audacious tome by Wendy Doniger, ‘The Hindus An Alternative History’, Penguin/Viking 2009. This act of ‘courage’ or saahasa (also done with plenty of saa-haasa or tongue in cheek humor), ends up being closer to the ancient meaning of the word saahasa as used in Indian law codes, that is, an offence. After reading only a few pages of this book, I was reminded of something I did in my greener days. In late teens, when I had enough Sanskrit to read Valmiki, I went to my village educated mother, hoping to shock her, with my discovery that Valmiki’s Rama when in exile used to hunt the deer, roast the meat and offer it to Sita. My mother, though not pleased at this great news, watched me intently to study my intentions and quickly took away my sadistic pleasure by quoting a line from Tulsidas, of whose Ramayana, she was a daily reader. ‘Naanaa bhaanti Raam avataaraa/ Raamayana shata koti apaaraa’ (Rama has taken many kinds of avatars and Ramayanas are hundred crores in number). Today I marvel at the profound meaning this rural untutored woman had deciphered from the text of Tulsi that some of us are unable to grasp even though we may have spent a life time of reading and teaching heavy classical texts in Sanskrit and that too sitting on the cushion of a salary. She not only kept ‘her Rama’ intact, but showed no antagonism, distaste or horror of the ‘hunter Rama’ who was just another avatara, and not somebody who would threaten her faith, demolish the ‘myth of the holy cow’, endanger notions of Hindu vegetarianism, create doubts about the historicity of Rama, or give a boost to the tension between ‘Hindu attitude to violence in sacrifice and the Hindu ideal of nonviolence’ in life, a favorite theme in Doniger’s book. Myths or stories are many and in many versions. Do they mean to burden us with a past to be carried as a cross or are they meant to liberate us from ignorance and illusion that we ourselves create? Or, are myths to be interpreted as ‘narratives’ that aim to make a people, Hindus specially, uncomfortable, dislocated and even ashamed of their own heritage in order to make them yield to predatory cultures? These are some of the questions that come to mind while reading Doniger’s massive volume.”
    • Nothing New or Alternative in Doniger's “Linga”, her “narrative of religion", Bharat Gupt. quoted in [1] [2]
  • [High-profile India-watching academics] “need to indulge America’s saviour complex if they need a share of the shrinking funding. The objective of the research needs to alleviate the misery of some victim and challenge a villain. And so, Doniger will provide evidence of how Puranic tales reinforce Brahmin hegemony, while Pollock will begin his essays on Ramayana with reference to Babri Masjid demolition, reminding readers that his paper has a political, not merely a theoretical, purpose. .. Being placed on a high pedestal is central to both strategies. Criticism also evokes a similar reaction in both sides – they quickly declare themselves as misunderstood heroes and martyrs, and stir up their legion of followers... Doniger and Pollock have inspired an army of activist-academicians who sign petitions to keep ‘dangerous’ Indian leaders and intellectuals out of American universities and even American soil”: Subramanian Swamy, Narendra Modi, and in similar controversies Rajiv Malhotra, the Dharma Civilization Foundation and others. Indeed, the Indological community’s touching (occasional) concern for freedom of speech is not erga omnes... No dissent is tolerated. If you agree with either side, you become rational scientists for them. If you disagree with them, you become fascists – or racists.... Being placed on a high pedestal is central to both strategies. Criticism also evokes a similar reaction in both sides – they quickly declare themselves as misunderstood heroes and martyrs, and stir up their legion of followers. ... “Likewise, Doniger and Pollock keep reminding their readers that Hinduism’s seductive ‘spirituality’ must at no point distract one from its communal and casteist truths.”...“Doniger and Pollock follow the Greek mythic pattern that establishes them as heroes who are in the ‘good fight’ against ‘fascist’ monsters.” ... Wendy Doniger’s conception of Hinduism deserves a more thorough treatment, much of which has already been pioneered by Rajiv Malhotra. But one general observation, which counts for the whole current of psycho-analytical “deconstruction” of Hinduism, is that the clumsy Freudian concepts she uses are simply not sufficient to understand Hindu explorations of consciousness and human nature... “Despite their deep knowledge of Hinduism, neither Elst nor Frawley, neither Doniger nor Pollock, believe in letting go and moving on, which is the hallmark of Hindu thought, often deemed as a feminine trait. Instead,... Doniger and Pollock keep reminding their readers that Hinduism’s seductive ‘spirituality’ must at no point distract one from its communal and casteist truths.”
    • Devdutt Pattanaik, Elst, K. quoted from Elst, Koenraad. Hindu dharma and the culture wars. (2019). New Delhi : Rupa. (quoting D. Pattanaik)
  • It (1973) also happened to be the year when her first major work in early India's religious history, viz., Siva, the Erotic Ascetic was published and had instantly become a talking point for being a path-breaking work. I still prescribe it as the most essential reading to my postgraduate students at the University of Delhi, where I have been teaching a compulsory course on 'Evolution of Indian Religions' for the last nearly four decades. It was the beginning of series of extremely fruitful and provocative encounters with the formidable scholarship of Wendy Doniger.
  • And of course, [Wendy Doniger's] translation, again is a ‘re’-translation” of others’ works” in which she has “merely added a fashionable(?) Freudian coating… Simple question: if ‘that’ much is wrong in just one story (and this is a small selection only!) — what about the rest of this book and her other translations?… It might have been better to have used the old translations and to have added her Freudian interpretation to them… In sum: The “translation” simply is UNREALIABLE... In view of all of this, I wonder indeed whether Doniger’s translation would have been accepted in the Harvard Oriental Series rather than in Penguin… And a little less hype would also do: ‘a landmark translation, the first authoritative translation in this century’ (cover); ‘to offer to more specialized scholars new interpretations of many difficult verses.’ (p. lxi) — I doubt it.

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