Small Talk with Wendy Doniger: Vatsyayana’s status update


Published on 30 August, 2015 in Mumbai Mirror

With her new work, author and academician Wendy Doniger hopes that she can change the mistaken belief that the Kamasutra is a ‘dirty book’.

For the past few months, liberal India has tried hard to come to terms with a triggerhappy mode of censorship. By recently attempting to block 857 pornographic websites, the government only helped precipitate a crisis of personal freedom. In an atmosphere that is undeniably charged, the release of a book by the controversial Wendy Doniger will surely be considered provocative by some. Given the fact that the American Indologist is now attempting to interpret the Kamasutra in a new light, the fire, her detractors could argue, is again being carefully stoked.

9789385288067_AuthorThe Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra is Wendy Doniger’s latest addition to her commentary on Indian textual traditions. It contradicts the otherwise coloured perception of the text. Unveiling new and positive aspects of the Kamasutra that was composed in the third century CE, Doniger takes the onus upon herself to remind Indian audiences that “the Kamasutra was an occasion for national pride, not national shame”. Though the book contains detailed discussions on penis sizes, the liberating sexual desires of women, gender inversions and same-sex relationships, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago insists that despite the contentiousness of the subject matter at hand, her work ought not to become another subject of controversy.

“In the present puritanical climate of India, with ‘pornography’ a legal issue once again, I do fear that anything to do with sex, including the Kamasutra, will excite controversy,” she confesses. Doniger believes that it is only etymology that can help place the Kamasutra on a pornography shelf. “The word ‘pornography’ in English means ‘prostitutes’ writings’, and the Kamasutra claims that an early version of its text was commissioned by prostitutes. But in the real sense of ‘pornography’, meaning obscene and titillating writings, the Kamasutra is absolutely not pornographic. It is a very serious and quite unique sociological study of the world of leisure and pleasure in ancient India. And therefore it really should not be controversial at all.”

Doniger’s earlier book, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), won two prestigious awards in India — the Ramnath Goenka Award in 2012 and the Colonel James Tod Award in 2014 — and then, quite suddenly, became the cynosure of sudden controversy when Dina Nath Batra, a retired headmaster, filed a lawsuit against the book’s publisher Penguin India. After fighting for four years, the publishing house agreed to cease publishing further copies of the book and pulp the remaining editions in February last year.

To hardline audiences like members of Batra’s activist organisation Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, Doniger’s books possibly come across as an attack on age-old beliefs and traditions, but the author, in her defence, claims to only be stating fact. In one of the chapters in The Mare’s Trap, she dissects three passages from the Kamasutra that allude to women’s exclamations of pain in reaction to physical abuse. Rather than being indications of their wish to escape or refuse, these cries are considered tricks to excite their male partners during the act. In the context of present-day violence against women, Vatsyayana’s assertions do seem clearly problematic.

“My book argues that one of the basic agendas of the Kamasutra is to reveal how deeply violence is embedded in everyone’s sexuality, and therefore how necessary it is to have a book like the Kamasutra to show people how to tame that violence, to cultivate a sexuality that is mutual between men and women. This could go a long way toward helping people deal with the unacceptably high incidence of violence against women in India today, and elsewhere in the world,” says the History of Religions professor.

Later in the book, Doniger also questions modern barriers that are ignorant about the fluidity of sex. She adds, “I think it’s a terrible shame. The Kamasutra is more open-minded about same-sex relations between men and women not only than any other ancient Indian text, but than most ancient cultures. Since the time of the Kamasutra, though, much has happened to India and the complex political and religious history of the subcontinent has caused India to lose touch with this and other very liberal aspects of its ancient culture.”

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