Beyond Dharma

April 3, 2018

Ancient Hindu texts speak of the three aims of human life: dharma, artha and kama. Translated, these might be called religion, politics and pleasure, and each is held to be an essential requirement of a full and fulfilling life. Balance among the three is a goal not always met, however, and dharma has historically taken precedence over the other two qualities, or goals, in Hindu life. Here, Wendy Doniger offers a spirited and close reading of ancient Indian writings—especially Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra—unpacking a long but unrecognized history of opposition against dharma.
Doniger argues that scientific disciplines (shastras) have offered lively and continuous criticism of dharma over many centuries. She chronicles the tradition of veiled subversion, uncovers connections to key moments of resistance and voices of dissent throughout Indian history, and offers insights into the Indian theocracy’s subversion of science by an exclusivist version of religion today.

The Ring of Truth

May 8, 2017

From Shakuntala to Scheherazade to Marilyn Monroe, from Ancient India and Greece to Medieval Europe to modern cinema, sexual desire and jewelry, particularly rings, have been very often connected. Why do jewels keep appearing in stories about marriage and adultery, love and betrayal, loss and recovery, identity and masquerade? What is the mythology that makes finger rings symbols of true (or, as the case may be, untrue) love across the world?

Wendy Doniger’s new book offers a riveting cross-cultural history of jewelry and its role in seduction, romance and infidelity. Few writers could begin with personal family anecdotes, shift to Sanskrit and Greek epics and the plays of Kalidasa and Shakespeare, make detours into fairy tales and folklore, return to Hollywood films and modern pop songs and still maintain a coherent, illuminating and supremely entertaining discussion. Yet that is precisely what Wendy Doniger accomplishes in this lively and penetrating examination of the enduring power of myth as revealed through stories about jewels, sex and clever women. The Ring of Truth, like all of Wendy Doniger’s books, is an astonishing and hugely satisfying work of scholarship rendered in compulsively readable prose.

Praise for The Hindus: An Alternative History
‘[A] staggeringly comprehensive book.’
—Pankaj Mishra, New York Times

‘Doniger’s is an amazingly breathtaking book in its sweep. Indeed, before this, one would have thought such a book could never be written…She writes with sympathy and empathy and with humour and wit…[The Hindus] is a great book.’
—Bibek Debroy, The Indian Express

‘[This] is no ordinary trek through inscriptions and chronicles. It is more like a psychedelic pilgrimage to sites, ritual moments, and beloved texts scattered over three millennia.’
—David Shulman, The New York Review of Books

‘[A] masterpiece…There is no book like Doniger’s which so meticulously and faithfully interprets the Hindu spirit.’
—A.K. Bhattacharya, Business Standard

Praise for The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra

‘Doniger’s strength as a scholar lies in her knowledge and understanding of Hindu texts, and that strength is on glorious display here.’
—Arshia Sattar, Open

‘One of the definitive guides to making sense of the ancient encyclopaedia of sexual behaviour.’
—Sarthak Ray, Financial Express

‘To explore [the Kamasutra] you need a suitable guide, and none could be better than Wendy Doniger, who alone among the great living Indologists is also an authority on Hollywood B movies, as well as on the dizzying welter of stories that can intertwine in and around a bed.’
—Roberto Calasso, New York Times

The Hindus: An Alternative History

October 23, 2015

Spanning over six millennia, this monumental and thoroughly engrossing narrative account of Indian history and myth offers a new way of understanding one of the world’s oldest and most fascinating religions.

Hinduism does not lend itself easily to a strictly chronological account: many of its texts cannot be reliably dated even within a century; its central tenets—karma and dharma, to name only two—arise at particular moments in Indian history and often differ in each era, between genders, and from region to region, caste to caste; and what is shared among Hindus is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another. Yet the greatness of Hinduism—its vitality, earthiness and vividness—lies precisely in many of these idiosyncratic qualities that continue to inspire debate and devotion today.

With immense skill Wendy Doniger illuminates those moments within the Hindu tradition that resist forces that would standardize or establish a canon. She brings a multiplicity of actors and stories to the stage to show how brilliant, creative—and often subversive—thinkers have kept Hinduism alive and dynamic through the ages. She reveals how Sanskrit and vernacular sources are rich in knowledge of and compassion toward women and the lower castes; how they debate tensions surrounding ritual, faith, violence and tolerance; and how animals are key to important shifts in attitudes toward different social classes.

A groundbreaking work by one of the world’s foremost scholars of Hinduism, already acclaimed for its extraordinary insight and analysis, The Hindus is destined to become a classic.

Reading the Kamasutra

July 1, 2015

The Kamasutra, composed in the third century CE, is the world’s most famous textbook of erotic love. There is nothing remotely like it even today, and for its time it was astonishingly sophisticated. Yet, it is all but ignored as a serious work in its country of origin—sometimes taken as a matter of national shame rather than pride—and in the rest of the world it is a source of amused amazement, and inspires magazine articles that offer ‘mattress-quaking sex styles’ such as ‘the backstairs boogie’ and ‘the spider web’.

In this scholarly and superbly readable book, one of the world’s foremost authorities on ancient Indian texts seeks to restore the Kamasutra to its proper place in the Sanskrit canon, as a landmark of India’s secular literature. She reveals to us fascinating aspects of the Kamasutra as a guide to the art of living for the cosmopolitan
beau monde of ancient India: its emphasis on grooming and etiquette (including post-coital conversation), the study and practice of the arts (ranging from cooking and composing poetry to colouring one’s teeth and mixing perfumes), and discretion and patience in conducting affairs (especially adulterous affairs). In its encyclopaedic social and psychological narratives, it also displays surprisingly modern ideas about gender and role-playing, female sexuality and homosexual desire.

Even as she draws our attention to the many ways in which the Kamasutra challenges the conventions of its time (and, often, ours)—in dismissing fertility as the aim of sex, for instance—Doniger also shows us how it perpetuates attitudes that have continued to darken human intercourse: passages that twin passion with violence, for example, and those that explain away women’s protests and exclamations of pain as part of a ploy to excite their male partners. In these, as in its more enlightened observations on sexual love, we see the nearly two- thousand-year-old Kamasutra mirror twentieth-century realities.

In helping us understand a celebrated but under-appreciated text, Doniger has produced a rich and compelling text of her own that will interest, delight and surprise scholars and lay readers alike.

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