Presidential Lecture Series
Wendy Doniger
Stanford Humanities Center

Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger portrait
Wendy Doniger portrait

Since the appearance of her first critically lauded book, Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva in 1973, Wendy Doniger has been an unparalleled presence in international religious studies. Holding two doctorates, from Harvard and Oxford, in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Doniger is an author, translator, and editor whose prolific career has seen the publication of almost thirty books in as many years. From 1978, Doniger has taught at the University of Chicago, where she currently is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee of Social Thought.

From her initial grounding in Sanskrit and Hindu sources, Doniger has developed a comparative approach that now encompasses materials as varied as ancient Greek myth, the Hebrew Bible, medieval romance, Shakespearean drama, and Hollywood cinema. Within this vast range of texts and forms, Doniger’s recurrent preoccupations include dreams, multiple realities, evil, androgynes, masquerades, bedtricks, sex, women, and animals. Provocatively juxtaposing the tales of many different epochs and cultures, Doniger’s recent work departs radically from the academy’s usual fixation on discrete social and historical periods. But Doniger’s global vision does not abandon the meticulous research that distinguished her earliest regional work. Instead it proposes a new mode of scholarship that is at once exactingly learned, strikingly original, exuberantly humane, and refreshingly witty.

Characteristic of Doniger’s present perspective is The Implied Spider (1998), her most explicitly methodological and theoretical work. Here she discusses myth through the metaphor of the gaze, which can be both telescopically broad and microscopically intimate. Myths, Doniger argues, operate at the intersection of these polar perspectives. As telescopes, they disclose our shared human experiences and the universal concepts that express them, while as microscopes, they reveal the uniquely personal, even solipsistic nature of individual lives. Their varying range of focus consequently enables us to establish connections and conversations between disparate cultures. Defending this project of comparative mythology, Doniger writes:

Myth is cross-culturally translatable, which is to say comparable, commensurable. The simultaneous engagement of the two ends of the continuum, the same and the different, the general and the particular, requires a peculiar kind of double vision, and myth, among all genres is uniquely able to maintain that vision. Myth is the most interdisciplinary narrative.[1]

Doniger achieves this delicate balance between the similarity and difference that coexists among archetypal narratives by respecting the distinctive voices of her culturally disparate texts. She always proceeds inductively, arriving at the evidence of our common humanity only after carefully aligning the concrete details of stories from societies otherwise alien to each other. Her methodology “assumes certain continuities not about overarching human universals but about particular narrative details concerning the body, sexual desire, procreation, parenting, pain and death, details which, though unable to avoid mediation by culture entirely, are at least less culturally mediated than the broader conceptual categories of the universalists.”[2] Locating what is shared in diverse myths need not succumb, Doniger insists, to the naïve essentialism of generalists who dangerously elide difference. Rather, the telescopic must never be separated from the microscopic, for only as complements are the truths of both perspectives realized and respected.

Doniger’s conviction that connections can be established between distant social worlds also informs her many authoritative translations, which enable linguistically and culturally opaque texts to be read with understanding and pleasure by English-speaking readers. Her early works, Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook (1975) and The Rig Veda: An Anthology, 108 Hymns Translated from the Sanskrit (1981), established her reputation as an outstanding translator who renders with fidelity the original texts into lucid and elegant English. “Her writing has a poetic élan rare in the scholarly world. This élan does not exclude, but includes, a lightness of tone. [Doniger] has done more than anyone to liberate us from the heaviness and prudishness of translations from Sanskrit,”[3] one reviewer observes. In 1991 Doniger translated from the French Yves Bonnefoy’s compilation, Mythologies (1981). Her version fundamentally restructures the original’s alphabetical order, rearranging the 395 articles by geographical region and so offers a new understanding of the way these tales are related culturally and historically. More recently, Doniger's translation, with the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, of the Kamasutra (2002) liberates the sensual and spiritual vitality of this classic third-century Indian text from the obfuscation and titillation of Sir Richard Burton’s Victorian prose. In contrast to Burton's rendition, the original Kamasutra, Doniger and Kakar reveal, exhorts women to enjoy their sexual desires and to scold their errant husbands. Their new translation also recovers the ancient text’s insistence on the indispensable balance among erotic, secular, and religious pleasures. Despite its reputation, "the real Kamasutra," Doniger remarks with her characteristic droll aplomb, "is not the sort of book to read in bed while drinking heavily, let alone holding the book with one hand in order to keep the other free.”[4]

This ability to hear the voice of the original text and to appreciate its uniqueness has marked Doniger’s critical and interpretive work from its very beginning. Of her first book, Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva, one reviewer wrote:

Every decade or so a scholarly book appears that is recognized immediately as a bench mark in its area of study, a work which, by virtue of the novelty of its approach, of the thoroughness of its research and analysis, will serve for many years as a guide to scholars in charting their own courses. This study of the mythology of Siva is, without doubt, such a book.[5]

Methodological eclecticism is another constant in Doniger’s work, which dexterously deploys critical strategies as various as structuralism, psychoanalysis, philosophy, theology, and feminism. Typical is Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (1984), which explores the centrality of dreams in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Because “each chapter takes up a different facet of the problem of reality and illusion,” Doniger explains, “I use different hermeneutical tools, both Indian and Western, at different points.”[6]

Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (1980) bases itself on Hindu and Sanskrit sources but also introduces Celtic and Greek myths — signaling the comparative, cross-cultural orientation that has shaped Doniger’s work since the late 1980s. In Other People’s Myths (1988), she considers myths from the Hindu, Greek, Christian and Jewish traditions. “The ‘others’ in this book are the people who cluster on the borders of what we define as ourselves — our Western, human, mortal, adult nature: they are strangers (primarily in the sense of non-Westerners), animals, gods, and children.”[7] Splitting the Difference (1999), recipient in 2000 of the PEN Oakland literary award for excellence in non-fiction multi-cultural literature, examines the doubling and bifurcation of bodies — especially female bodies — in classical Greek and Hindu myths. In The Bedtrick, for which she was awarded the Rose Mary Crawshay prize from the British Academy in 2002, Doniger asks why the themes of deception, masquerade and mistaken identity in sexual relations are so prevalent across time and place, from ancient Hindu myths to contemporary Hollywood cinema.

Doniger’s prodigious output extends beyond the books mentioned here, including as well some 240 published articles. She also has an outstanding record of teaching and academic service and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. By her own admission, Doniger is an insomniac[8], and the spirit of someone who never sleeps and who is constantly in motion — fitting, indeed, for one who first trained as a dancer with George Balanchine and Martha Graham — is perhaps the only way to account for so energetic and illustrious a career.

Her current works in progress include a novel, Horses for Lovers, Dogs for Husbands, and an interpretive work, The Mythology of Horses in India. Her latest book, The Woman Who Pretended To Be Who She Was (due to be published later this year), is about the mythology of self-imitation in ancient India, Shakespeare, medieval Celtic, German, and French romances, and Hollywood films. It forms the basis for her lecture, which is entitled, “Self-Imitation in Ancient India, Shakespeare, and Hollywood.”



[1] Doniger, Wendy. The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, p.9

[2] Ibid., p.59.

[3] Bolle, Kees W. “Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in Retrospect,” Religious Studies Review 10.1 (January, 1984): 20-25.

[4] Vatsyayana Mallanaga. Kamasutra ed. and trans. by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p.liii.

[5] Long, Bruce. “The Analysis of Saiva Mythology,” Journal of Asian Studies 34.3 (May, 1975): 807-813.

[6] O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984, p.7.

[7] O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other People’s Myths: The Cave of Echoes. New York and London: Macmillan, 1988, p.2.

[8] Doniger, Wendy. The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p.xxii-xxv.


Text by Annette Keogh, Assistant Curator, British and American Literature
Stanford University Libraries (c)2004.


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University


Self-Imitation in Ancient India, Shakespeare, and Hollywood