Wendy Doniger is a great scholar. She is intelligent and articulate. Regrettably, she was born in the wrong hemisphere. The background in which one grows up colours one’s views. The problem with the erudite writing of Doniger is that she sees everything through a Judeo-Christian prism. For a western audience who knows the oriental thought process only through translations, her writings open a window to an exotic culture.
That accounts for the rave reviews she receives in academic circles in the West. Doniger reads the right texts and reaches at the weirdest conclusions. Better brains than Doniger’s have grappled with the concept of dharma for the past many millennia. This untranslatable word has been discussed threadbare in almost all secular and religious literature of our country. However, no text was audacious enough to claim it has the ultimate definition of dharma.
The Mahabharata is a classic example where the concept of dharma is deliberated in incredible detail. For someone used to the inflexible commandments of ‘thou shall and shall nots’, whether they have grown out of that juvenile simplicity or not, it would confound to confront a culture that believes in different degrees of right and wrong. When a book comes with a preposterous title such as Beyond Dharma, the reader might believe, for once, someone has understood what dharma is and has dared to go beyond it.
The harsh fact is that the book does not even touch the peripheries, let alone go beyond it.
Sample this. Doniger argues Arthashastra, Kamasutra and Manusmruti have contradictory passages. She quotes Vatsayana to prove how some verses of Kamasutra as well as that of Kautilya’s Arthashastra are contradictory to the concept of dharma in Manusmriti.
These constitute dissent against dharma as per Doniger. We would wonder what the earthshaking discovery is that she has made when we have relished passages in the Ramayana or the Mahabharata which contradict one another. Is it not common in a free society for scholars to differ from each other unless you have a central church purging dissent or issuing fatwas?
In another passage, she says Hindus during the classical period were more orthoprax than orthodox. They cared about revering the Veda as a part of ritual life than as a text whose ideas and gods people knew and accepted. To conclude this, she need not have pondered over obscure Sanskrit texts nor was there any need for the past tense in her run-of-the-mill statement. Present-day Hinduism also follows orthopraxy. Ninety-nine percent of Hindus have read none of the original Sanskrit texts that scholars like Doniger ponder over. They need not. The ever-changing dharma of Hinduism hardly depends on any religious text, including the Vedas. It doesn’t depend even on gods, the belief in them or not.
The choice of three books she has chosen for her journey beyond dharma itself is amusing. She says Kamasutra facilitates adultery and Arthashastra talks about invasive spying among its other vile suggestions. Thus, both texts violate social dharma. What was she expecting when she read Kamasutra? It is a treatise on art of love. Arthashastra is a book on polity and administration and not a Sunday sermon from a local parish church.
It would be entertaining to know her take on American morality after reading the CIA training manual. Doniger quotes passages on warcraft and espionage in Arthashastra with the sanctimonious outrage of a naive high school girl. Her take on Kamasutra is that of a Victorian spinster. She gleefully points out passages to prove Vatsayana’s ambiguous take on dharma, forgetting that the concept of dharma itself is ambiguous and contradictory in all Sanskrit or Tamil texts.
The three books she has taken for her wishful journey had served three different purposes in our culture. As they originated in a civilisation, with mind-boggling diversity, one can find contradictions and commonalities in not only these three specified books but also thousands of other texts. One need not
sweat to find dissent against dharma in the verses of Kamasutra—one can find it any text on dharma. The dissent is inherent to any concept in Hinduism.
The Tantric text, specifically Shakteya Agama texts, would refute most of Manusmriti. There are texts that ridicule the Vedas. Such is the complexity of India and her culture. When a scholar from another culture tries to decipher it with the tools she is familiar with, we will get books like this.
If you are not the touchy type itching to protect Hindutva by burning public property over a book, this could be an entertaining evening read over a cup of filter coffee. It provides an excellent opportunity to understand the exotic and bizarre thoughts that run through the mind of the American scholars when they confront a different reality like ours.