Professor Wendy Doniger is a scholar of Hindu culture. She studied at Harvard and Oxford and is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Her numerous books include Hindu Myths: an Anthology, Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts, and The Hindus: An Alternative History. This last work became a No. 1 bestseller on its publication in 2009, but was later withdrawn from sale by its publisher, Penguin India, after coming under attack. It is now published by Speaking Tiger Books.
1 – You come from an American-Jewish background but are a world authority on Hinduism. What was it about this culture that resonated with you to make it the subject of a lifetime’s study?
It began with the language, Sanskrit. When I was just 14 or 15 years old, I studied Latin in high school, and then Greek, and my Greek teacher told me about Sanskrit, and I was fascinated by the script and the grammar. Then I read A Passage to India, and Rumer Godden’s books, and immediately I was drawn to the land of India, and in particular to Hinduism. I also loved all aspects of the culture—the brightly embroidered saris in reds and yellows and greens, the food—eating with your fingers! As I always wanted to do!— the music, particularly the sarod, with its sliding notes instead of frets; the sculpture and painting with all of its living detail—everything in the culture appealed to me more than the dull, bland equivalents in my own culture.
2 – A love of stories is key to your work. How have the myths and legends that you write about affected you personally?
They have become my favorite stories. They are the stories I think of when, as happens all the time, something in my real life seems to be a variant of a story I know, or poses a problem to which the answer is suggested in a Hindu myth or, sometimes, a Buddhist text.
3 – Certain stories, for example Cinderella, pop up in different guises all over the world. Why is this?
The great stories that have a cross-cultural appeal are about the things that happen to people everywhere, generally about insoluble problems that we all face. But sometimes someone in one culture, a brilliant storyteller, sees an angle, a hidden meaning, a possible solution, that no one in any other culture has thought of. Then an Indian or French or African version of a story that we know from our own culture becomes the telling that we remember best. For me, it is almost always the Indian version that seems most interesting and most profound.
4 – You’ve written extensively about Siva as a god who is both destructive and beautiful. Are there echoes in how your own work has been both highly praised and also the source of controversy?
A great myth, like the myth of Siva, is distilled out of some human being’s understand of a basic pattern in human experience that extends into many different aspects of a life. The paradoxical bond between beauty and terror in the myth of Siva can be seen in acts of courage and self-sacrifice in the course of a brutal war, the grace of man-eating tigers, and thousands of other moments in human experience. The tension between the good that a thoughtful and original book can do for some readers and the fury that it inspires in others is a rather trivial manifestation of the same sort of contrast.