Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, first became fascinated by India as a child and went on to study the Hindu scriptures and mythology. Doniger, 77, has written and translated more than 40 books including those on the Kama Sutra, dharma, folklore and other aspects of religion and myth. Her most recent book is The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry. Her 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History was at the heart of a controversy in India and was taken to court. Edited and condensed excerpts from a phone interview:
What first fascinated you about India as a child?
Among the first books I read about India when I was about 12 years old was E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. And I was fascinated by the way that Hindus and Muslims seemed to be deeply religious people and the landscape itself was permeated with these religious feelings—the wonderful caves and the mosques on the banks of the river. After that I became more interested in the stories and images. Eventually I wanted to go to India to see all the places I had been reading about.
When I went initially I went to study the scriptures with a pundit. I wanted to work on the Puranas—that was what my dissertation was about—and the great expert was in Calcutta. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and I was beginning my Phd. My professor sent me to India. He felt, as I did, that I shouldn’t go on reading about India any longer without seeing it.
So I went to the pundit and he invited me to his house and gave me some tea and then said he couldn’t work with a woman! So there I was in India with a full year of funding and no academic programme. Since I couldn’t study in Calcutta as I had planned to, I used the year to see India. And I went everywhere on trains, I travelled third class and slept at night in the ladies waiting room in the station. I lay down on the floor with other Indian ladies, I did it very cheap and stayed in dak bungalows. This was in 1963-64.
You had studied India textually very closely until then. How did that affect the way you experienced India when you visited?
I was always interested in Shiva so I went to Elephanta and places where I could see Shiva sculptures. My favourite place was Kailasanath, though I also love Mahabalipuram. I went to the great Hindu monuments, to Khajuraho and Konarak.
The fact that I was studying Sanskrit texts determined what I wanted to go and see; I wanted to see the Himalayas and the great sculptures and the descent of the Ganges. I wanted to see the sites where the stories I had read took place. It was very exciting to find traces of the ancient world. I wasn’t that interested in contemporary India. I had gone to India to find ancient India and I did find ancient India. Modern India was a big surprise and a big pleasure but it wasn’t what I had been looking for.
Did it line up with your expectations?
One thing I didn’t realise was the difference the land and climate would make. I had never seen anything like a monsoon. All the poetry I had read about the monsoon and lovers waiting for the rain to come—I thought it would be a cloudy period with some showers from time to time, I didn’t realise it was like an ocean emptying and it was impossible to go outside even for a minute.
But was there also a certain familiarity given you had studied the texts?
There was certainly a familiarity with the culture, sculpture, paintings. I knew what to look for, particular panels, particular temples. That was like meeting an old friend again and remaking an old acquaintance.
For those in your field how important has it been to visit the places aside from studying the ancient texts?
The old-fashioned Orientalists never went to India but nowadays all of my students go to India, and much sooner than I went. I was at a turning point in the middle of the 20th century, that’s when people in America realised that the first thing you had to do when you studied the Indian texts was to go to India.
Is the idea of travel in the scriptures limited to travel for the purpose of religious pilgrimage or is there also the idea of travel as indulgence or pleasure?
In the religious texts starting with the Upanishads the main instruction the sage gives his pupils is wander, be a wanderer. The idea is as a religious person you should never settle down. The idea of moving about and being homeless really is a very ancient religious goal starting from the Upanishads and going on. Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics weren’t to stay anywhere. Then they made exceptions, ‘well you can’t travel during monsoon, you can settle down just then’ and after that they established monasteries.
Even for pilgrims, the religious goal is often combined with worldly desires to travel. It’s for the same reasons anyone travels; for a change, to see old friends, to get away from the routine, to see the world. I think a lot of pilgrimage is travel rather than just religious enlightenment. That has always been present in India from ancient times.
But in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, travel also comes by way of exile. So isn’t it a form of punishment too?
It’s a punishment to leave the palace, to not be in the great luxury and splendour and life that you have when you are in a king in a palace. But once they get out they have a lot of fun. The books are full of description—‘now we are going to see that mountain—oh what a beautiful mountain it is!—and now we are going to this forest—and see the wonderful animals in the forest’! So they actually take enormous pleasure in their travelling.
The initial exile is tragedy but the actual life once they are out of the palace is described joyously and in great detail. ‘Now we are going here, this is a great city, see how beautiful the buildings are, see how beautiful the women.’ There are a lot of really classical travel descriptions in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. So they are great travel books. They aren’t entirely tragic. They see wonderful things and meet wonderful people. Bad things happen too, Ravana comes and Draupadi gets attacked, but the tirtha yatra or the digvijaya are very happy and described in enormous detail. It’s quite clear the authors of those had travelled widely in India.
You mentioned how you spent some time in Moscow speaking Sanskrit. How did that happen?
I was in Moscow in 1970-71 when it was under communism. As soon as I got there I went to the Oriental Institute and met some Russian colleagues who were Sanskritists. They were all in political trouble. They hung out all day in the library, as they’d been fired from teaching positions. We had reason to believe they were under surveillance, as was I, as a foreigner. Most rooms had microphones in them; we couldn’t speak Russian or English without being overheard so we spoke Sanskrit in order to baffle the KGB who were listening to our conversations. None of us was in the habit of speaking Sanskrit so we made really hilarious mistakes and made up words in order to speak about modern things for which there were no Sanskrit words.
You haven’t been to India since 2010. Is that because of the case against you?
I can’t go. It’s a combination of things. It’s not clear if I’m not still in contempt of court because the case was settled out of court so that no judge could pronounce me no longer in contempt.
And I feel there is such violence in India against people who have spoken out against the government, and the perpetrators are never punished, so I wouldn’t feel physically safe. In addition, I am getting old; at 77 the travel is difficult. But if a government is elected that allows freedom of speech, then I would feel safe to come to India.