Wendy Doniger is a prolific scholar specializing in the study of Sanskrit and Hinduism. Doniger has published 21 interpretive works, 9 translations, 16 edited volumes, contributed to 4 different encyclopedia articles, and written 374 articles on a range of topics primarily focusing on the Hindu tradition. Her interpretive works discuss topics ranging from sexuality to mythology, and approach each topic with a unique modern perspective. Doniger’s writing style appeals to a wide audience as she is responsible for writing three of the most popular Penguin classics which discuss Hinduism (Gigerenzer). Doniger continues to take revolutionary strides today not only in her interpretive works but also in her translations. She has been credited with transforming the way the Kama Sutra is understood with her latest translation (Smith). At a young age Doniger participated in some fieldwork in India as well as Russia but otherwise has remained a dedicated teacher at a series of different universities including Harvard University. Doniger remains one of the most important Indologists today due to her many contributions to the field.
Wendy Doniger was born in New York City on November 20th 1940. She has an older brother, her senior by 10 years, named Jerry, and a younger brother, born 10 years after her, named Tony (Doniger 2019: 98). Her father was Eleazar Doniger, who later changed his name to Lester Lawrence Doniger upon his arrival at Ellis Island. Lester was born in Raczki, a small town which was sometimes in Russia, but was also on occasion part of Poland or Germany. Lester was born in the year 1909, however when exactly is unknown as the birth dates of Jewish children went unrecorded (Doniger 2019: 7). Lester was Jewish, but he was a Jewish man with little faith. He would make a point of obeying the Talmudic law, but this was done to preserve a sense of identity and a connection to his family (Doniger 2019: 27). Lester worked as a publisher, using an English degree he received at NYU night school (Doniger 2015: 7). This had a large impact on Doniger, Lester would read all of her early works and help Doniger improve them (Doniger 2015: 16).
Her mother Rita Roth, was born in New York City June 9, 1911. However, shortly after her birth Rita’s parents moved to Vienna where Rita spent most of her early years (Doniger 2019: 13). Rita was a staunch atheist, although her family in Vienna was Jewish (Doniger 2015: 7). It is Rita’s influence, however, which led Doniger to the study of Hinduism. It was Pete Seeger, a friend of Rita’s, who taught Doniger her first Sanskrit words (Doniger 2019: 48). Rita also supplied Doniger with many books, all seeming to relate to India or Hinduism in some way. At the young age of 6 Doniger was given copies of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the latter speculated to be heavily influenced by Indian philosophy. At the age of 12 Doniger was gifted A Passage to India, the book which Doniger recounts as inspiring her to travel to India and to study India. Lastly, at the age of 13, Rita gave Doniger a copy of Aubry Menen’s satirical retelling of the Ramayana (Doniger 2015:2-3).
Wendy Doniger went to Great Neck Highschool. One of her classmates was Barbra Stoler Miller. Miller, like Doniger, went on to earn a PhD in Sanskrit (Doniger 2019: 68-69). Through much of highschool, Doniger followed her mother’s footsteps and acted as a political activist, advocating for the benefits of communism as a political system (Doniger 2015: 6-7). In highschool Doniger aspired to become a ballet dancer, and for a time studied with George Balanchine and Martha Graham. Doniger credits two high school teachers with helping her grow and become who she is today. First, Anita Lilenfeld, who directed Doniger towards the study of Sanskrit after she expressed interest in ancient languages. Second, Jack Fields, a teacher who helped foster Doniger’s writing as well as supported the subject matter which she chose to write about (Doniger 2015: 4-6).
After highschool Doniger attended Radcliffe College, the female counterpart to the all male Harvard College. Here at Radcliffe, Doniger began the study of Sanskrit at 17 years old. She studied under Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, who taught her Sanskrit and Indian culture, including Indian history, literature, and religion. Doniger went on to write her PhD dissertation on the Puranas and the myths of Siva found in them. This dissertation later became her first book titled Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Doniger graduated from Radcliffe summa cum laude and received the Jonathan Fay Prize(Doniger 2015:11-12).
After graduating from Radcliffe, Doniger left to live in India for a year. She was sent by Ingalls, her supervisor, to work alongside Rajendra Chandra Hazra, the world’s leading expert on the Puranas at the time. Hazra quickly informed Doniger that he would not teach women, and this was the end of Doniger’s official studies of Sanskrit in India. Instead, Doniger took the six thousand dollars awarded to her from the American Institute of Indian Studies and used the money to travel throughout India for a year (Doniger 2015: 12-13).
Upon Donigers return to North America from India she married an old highschool sweetheart named O’Flaherty. Due to this, a bulk of her work is published under the title Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (Doniger 2019: 118). Doniger then moved to Oxford with her then husband and stayed there from 1965 to 1975. She wrote her DPhil dissertation with Robin Zaehner and wrote her topic on the concept of heresy in Hinduism. Her dissertation later became the second book she published titled The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Doniger 2015:14-15). Much of this book was written in 1971 when Lester, Doniger’s father, passed away and Michael, Doniger’s son, was born only months later. Due to these events Doniger experienced the combined effects of depression at her father’s passing and postpartum depression following the birth of Michael. As a result of this Doniger was admitted to Waneford Hospital where she was given access to a typewriter and used her work on Hindu concepts of evil to work through her own depression (Doniger 2019: 120).
From 1968 until 1975 Doniger would lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In 1975, Doniger left her tenured lectureship and followed her husband to Berkeley. Doniger cites this instance as the point in which both her marriage and career began to fall apart, it was in the year 1978 that Doniger quit teaching in Berkeley and moved to Chicago, taking her son with her and leaving her husband (Doniger 2019:120). She has remained in Chicago from 1978 up to the present, teaching a variety of classes in the history of religions department and acting as chair for the same department. Doniger had a close relationship with Mircea Eliade, he was the only official reader for her dissertation. Eliade went on to publish two essays from it in History of Religions, a journal which he had founded in 1961. It is notable that Doniger is now the senior editor of the History of Religions. She also had an appointment in the Committee on Social Thought, a group of scholars all specialists in their field within the humanities (Doniger 2015: 19).
Doniger’s impact on Indology is not limited to her many lectureship positions at prestigious schools. The many books and articles which Doniger has published have each had resounding effects on the field. One of Doniger’s most recent books titled The Hindus: An Alternative History received extensive media attention due to its negative reception in India. The book was published in 2010 and highlighted the aspects of Hinduism which were less popular. Some of the topics discussed in the book include more humorous tales of gods, less pious versions of folk tales, and protests against different civil issues such as the mistreatment of women. Shortly after the book’s publication a right wing Hindu group demanded that the book cease publication and that the remaining copies be destroyed (Doniger 2015:22-23). Four years later Penguin India agreed to cease publication of The Hindus: An Alternative History. There is an Indian law which allows any book deemed offensive to Hindus to be taken as a criminal offence (Joshua). It was using this specific Indian law that Doniger’s book was eventually forced to withdraw from the Indian market. The decision to pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History was still met with some resistance. Different prominent Indian figures such as Arundhati Roy spoke out against this, criticizing Penguin India for backing down so easily (Buncombe).
Outside of the books previously mentioned, Doniger has published and translated some works that have had resounding impacts on the field of Indology. Some of her most popular interpretive works include The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, a book which engages with a variety of religions while simultaneously analyzing patterns and themes throughout, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, which focuses on the interaction between myth and everyday Hindu lifeand Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes, which aims to demonstrate the universal art of storytelling.Among her most popular translations there are the Kama Sutra and the Laws of Manu. Each of these works garnered significant respect in the ways in which they brought new light to old Sanskrit texts.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Doniger, Wendy (2019) The Donigers of Great Neck: a Mythologized Memoir. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press.
Doniger, Wendy (2010) The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. New York: Columbia University Press.
Doniger, Wendy (2009) The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin.
Doniger, Wendy, and Brian Smith (1991) The Laws of Manu. London: Penguin UK.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1995) Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1982) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1981) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Doniger, Wendy (2015) “A Life of Learning” ACLS Occasional Paper. 72: 1-24. Accessed January 28, 2020. http://www.acls.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/OP/Haskins/72_2015_WendyDoniger.pdf
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) “Inside and outside the mouth of God: the boundary between myth and reality.” Daedalus: 93-125.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1971) “The origin of heresy in Hindu mythology.” History of Religions 10, no. 4: 271-333.
Shinn, Larry D. (1981) “Precision or Reductionism: Whence Myth Studies?” Religious Studies 17, no. 3 : 369–76. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0034412500013032.
Arora, Kim (2014) “Penguin to destroy copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’” The Times of India. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Penguin-to-destroy-copies-of-Wendy-Donigers-book-The-Hindus/articleshow/30225387.cms
Buncombe, Andrew (2014) “Arundhati Roy criticises Penguin for pulping The Hindus: An Alternative History” Independant. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/arundhati-roy-criticises-penguin-for-pulping-the-hindus-an-alternative-history-9126247.html
Gigerernzer, Thalia (2009) :Q&A with Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor and author of The Hindus” UChicago News. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/qa-wendy-doniger-mircea-eliade-distinguished-service-professor-and-author-hindus
Joshua, Anita (2014) “Penguin withdraws book on Hinduism” The Hindu. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/Penguin-withdraws-book-on-Hinduism/article11535057.ece
Rothstein, Edward (2005) “The Scholar Who Irked the Hindu Puritans.” The New York Times. Accessed January 29, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/31/books/the-scholar-who-irked-the-hindu-puritans.html.
Smith, Dinitia (2002) “A New Kama Sutra Without Victorian Veils.” The New York Times, Accessed January 29, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/04/books/a-new-kama-sutra-without-victorian-veils.html.
- Mircea Eliade
- Kama Sutra
- Laws of Manu
- Robin Zaehner
This article was written by Stella Y. MacMahon (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.