Wendy Doniger Explores Cunning and Trickery in Sanskrit Literature for MLA Faculty Lecture

Wendy Doniger

Previewing her spring quarter MLA class, “Religious Law, Secular Law, and Sexual Deviation in Ancient India,” Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, delivered the MLA Faculty Lecture at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center on February 2 to a room full of current and prospective liberal arts students, as well as individuals interested to hear Professor Doniger’s latest views on India.

Stemming from lectures delivered at Yale University as part of the distinguished Terry Lectureship, Professor Doniger’s talk treated the relation of three concepts from Sanskrit literature—dharma, artha, and kama, loosely translated as moral duty, legal power, and sensual pleasure, respectively—as they were formulated in two major texts produced during a tumultuous period of history on the subcontinent leading up to the Gupta Empire.

Calling the theme of her lecture “dharma and dissent,” she concentrated in particular on the ways in which the authors of the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra showed a “stunning disregard for the moral and ethical sphere elaborated and extolled as dharma.” Noting that some scholars have referred to the unscrupulous trickery espoused by these texts as Machiavellian, Professor Doniger tried to place the extreme scheming advocated by Kautilya’s Arthashastra, for instance, in its appropriate perspective, stating that “by comparison, Kautilya makes Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa.”

“I love teaching in the MLA program,” said Professor Doniger, who received the 2007 Graham School Excellence in Teaching Award. “When I was younger, I wrote books stuffed with footnotes for other academics. In recent years, I’ve begun to write for a wider public and I’ve found the students in the MLA program to be great testing grounds for my ideas—people who are smart and intensely interested to go deeper into the subject under discussion.”

In his introduction to the lecture, Tim Murphy, Assistant Director of the MLA program, gave a brief overview of the MLA’s requirements, outlining the nine courses needed to receive the interdisciplinary degree. With required coursework in the humanities, social sciences, biology, and physics, graduates of the program, Mr. Murphy noted, emerge with conversational ability in all the major intellectual disciplines. He also added, for those possibly worried that their writing skills have lain dormant too long, that the program employs professional writing tutors to assist the students in shaping their written arguments.

While noting that classes are taught by scholars from the University of Chicago who, like Professor Doniger, have made major contributions in their academic disciplines, Mr. Murphy also highlighted that the MLA program is designed for people with busy schedules in mind, bringing in students from all walks of life and careers—lawyers, doctors, police officers, and more. He also pointed to what he called an emerging demographic among the MLA ranks: the mid-career specialist.

“These are people,” said Mr. Murphy, “who focused narrowly as undergraduates and who have built on this specialization as they’ve climbed upwards through their careers. Presently, however, they find themselves with new responsibilities, requiring broader and more diverse skillsets, and they enroll in the MLA program as a way to get the additional perspective and insight their focused specialization didn’t grant them.”

Adam Zelitzky, who graduated from the MLA program five years ago, took a moment during the evening’s question and answer period to emphasize the impact the classes he took through the Graham School had on his life. Saying that there is hardly a day that passes during which the lessons he’s learned through the program don’t resonate, he called it “an experience that changed my life, disciplined my thought process, and allowed me to rise the challenge of books and disciplines I’d never thought I’d approach before.”

By way of conclusion, Professor Doniger turned her sights to the legacy the ancient texts she’d discussed continue to have in India as well as the world today. Quoting Henry Kissinger, who praised the Arthashastra for its “dispassionate clarity,” she noted that in many ways the covert critique of dharma offered by these ancient texts has stayed alive and by some measurements even won the day. But if the spirit of dissent offered by the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra was nourished by a questioning and utterly rational scientific spirit, she noted that this clear-eyed component to their legacy has in some ways undergone modification. Citing numerous instances of what she called the “religious subversion of science,” she lampooned a spreading tendency within India to revise textbooks in line with a mythological view of science that sees much of what is most contemporary in the world—aircrafts, genetic engineering, teleconferencing, and more—as already flourishing in Vedic times.