A Tribute to Professor Wendy Doniger

Author
Various Authors

December 3, 2018

Ed. Note: Today’s column commemorates the scholarship, teaching, and mentorship of Wendy Doniger with a collection of tributes by several of her colleagues and students, both former and current, on the occasion of her retirement this academic year. After receiving a Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University (1968) and a D.Phil. in Oriental Studies from Oxford University (1973), Doniger joined the faculty of the Divinity School in 1978. Her research and teaching interests revolve broadly around two areas, Hinduism and mythology. Her courses in mythology address themes in cross-cultural expanses, such as death, dreams, evil, horses, sex, and women; her courses in Hinduism cover a broad spectrum that, in addition to mythology, considers literature, law, gender, and zoology. Doniger is the author, editor, or translator of over fifty published volumes, including seventeen completed interpretive works with several forthcoming. In addition to her teaching, professional service, and supervision of over eighty doctoral dissertations, she served as the Director of the Martin Marty Center from 2004 to 2007 and again from 2016 to 2017. Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, will retire from the teaching faculty of the Divinity School at the end of the Winter Quarter.

Below we share tributes from Doniger’s colleagues and students—David Haberman, Hugh Urban, Laurie Patton, Gavin Flood, Gary Tubb, and Seema Chauhan—in which they reflect on the impact of her scholarship, teaching, and mentorship for their own work and teaching. 


 

I arrived at the University of Chicago from the University of Colorado in the fall of 1977. Coming from the alternative scene of Boulder and feeling a bit out of place in the more formal world of the Divinity School, I felt great relief the next year when Wendy Doniger (then O’Flaherty) blew through the corridors of Swift Hall in her pink Harvard robe and red cowboy boots like a blast of fresh air. Students were immediately drawn to her passionate, creative energy. She was obviously interested in her students, giving special attention to her doctoral advisees. As one of the latter, I not only appreciated the care she gave to her graduate students, but also the freedom. As long as students performed with excellence, she turned them loose and supported their academic projects with enthusiasm and warm encouragement. 

Wendy inspired her students in innumerable ways. I have fond memories of the excitement of meeting in her home with a small circle of students reading Yoga Vashistha in Sanskrit while encountering some of the strange stories within this text through Wendy’s imaginative eyes. As a model of a highly fruitful academic career, she exudes a voracious appetite for intellectual inquiry and is an extremely prolific writer, publishing over forty books and hundreds of articles in a wide range of venues. She brought new life into the study of mythology, particularly that of Indian narratives and Sanskrit textual traditions. Some of her publications elicited negative criticism, but I take this to be a sign of her boldness and willingness to step outside established modes of interpretation. By any means of reckoning, she has been very successful. She holds the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Chair in History of Religions at University of Chicago, was president of the American Academy of Religion and the Association for Asian Studies, serves on the International Editorial Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and has been recognized as one of America’s greatest scholars in the humanities, to mention but a few of her accomplishments. In so many ways she seems bigger than life on the eve of her retirement. With numerous publications on Hinduism, advisor to some 80 doctoral dissertations, and a remarkably high profile, Wendy has had an exceptionally strong impact on the study of Hinduism in the American academy.

I have come to have a particular appreciation for the way Wendy functions as an exemplary scholar-translator. She has translated a wide spectrum of Sanskrit texts and has also contributed an abundance of interpretive works. There is an oscillating and highly productive relationship between these two genres of publication. She once wrote: “For me, the translations balance the more interpretive books, filling me up with a knowledge gleaned from an intimate and detailed response to a particular author, in contrast with the more diffuse and more self-generated conversation that drives me when I write the other sort of book.” Translation—the attempt to have deep contact with and give voice to another, whether it be textual or ethnographic—is at the very heart of the enterprise of cultural studies. Although I have gone into the field beyond the “rather bookish life” that Wendy has claimed to live, I have learned a great deal from her tacking back and forth between the labor of translation and interpretation. Finally, I close by noting that Wendy is also a gracious host, who takes great delight in feeding her guests. I count myself among the fortunate for having had her as my doctoral advisor. 

By David L. Haberman (PhD’84), Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. 


 

Wendy Doniger will long be remembered, admired, and loved for a great many things—for the astonishing breadth and range of her scholarship; for her deep knowledge of South Asian languages, history, and culture; for her seemingly boundless and infectious energy; and for her wonderful, often hilarious sense of humor. However, perhaps the quality that I most appreciate and have attempted to emulate in my own life is her tremendous generosity toward her students. Not just a brilliant mentor intellectually, Wendy has always been there to guide her students through their darkest grad school hours, to teach them the subtle arts of writing, teaching, and academic politics, and to launch them from the nest out into their own careers. Just as she was always prepared to read each dissertation draft with red pen in hand—correcting each dangling participle—she was also always ready to calm the panicking student who had been dismayed by the job market or to soothe the young professor who had been disillusioned by the academic system more broadly. Even now, twenty years after graduating, I can still ask Wendy for a letter of recommendation and receive an immediate response, despite already owing her a mountainous karmic debt.

In my own work and teaching, I have struggled to follow her example as well as I can, hoping to offer my own students the same sort of care, time, and boundless patience that she showed me. What I have found is that emulating her astounding scholarly production is an impossible task in itself, but trying to emulate her deep sense of kindness and compassion is perhaps an even more daunting challenge. While her contributions as a scholar are manifold, significant, and widely recognized, her contributions as a kind, caring, and compassionate mentor are perhaps even more profound and will have repercussions across many lifetimes.

By Hugh Urban (PhD’98), Professor of Comparative Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Ohio State University.


 

"Doors"

In 1985, my initial criterion for what graduate school to attend was whether the professor called me back when I inquired about their program. As I answered the first phone call, I heard a bright voice on the other end of the line. At first I thought it must be a fellow student; no professors could be that cheerful, and call me back that immediately.

I was wrong. It was Wendy. And that was the moment my idea of the intellectual life changed forever.  

Now I have memories of Wendy’s greetings at a seemingly infinite number of doorways. The red door at Wendy’s home in Chicago, with Henry and Bill barking furiously, as I arrived, slightly terrified, to help her transfer the typescript of Other People’s Myths onto her first computer. The the same red door, where I knocked, slightly less terrified, to come to a party of fellow students and professors, and where I stayed long into the night, completely absorbed in conversation, tripping home to dream of collages where horses, statues, and Rubenesque bodies danced across impossibly emerald landscapes and impossibly turquoise oceans. The gray metal women’s bathroom doors in Swift Hall, during the one-hour interval between my oral exam and proposal defense, where Wendy followed me to change from her Harvard gown to her Oxford gown, just to mark my two rites of passage as distinct. The heavy oak doors of Rockefeller Chapel, where Wendy stood gently chiding my father at my graduation for allowing me to have a job while I also got my degree.

Later, in intellectual adulthood, there was the sand colored door in Truro, where entering Wendy’s home was like falling down a rabbit hole of intellectual, gustatorial, and sartorial delights among the dunes. The brown hallway doors at Bard, where I was an assistant professor and Wendy received her honorary degree. And the same kind of doors again at Emory, where Wendy delivered the ACLS lectures that would become The Implied Spider. And finally, the doors of my basement in Middlebury, Vermont, where Wendy had come for my presidential inauguration and brought her golden retriever Kim to play with my two Great Pyrenees, Padma and Suka.

Of course, these were all metaphorical doors, where the bright voice at the door saying, “Hello, hello hello!” was taking me on the most significant journey of my life, where play with ideas is a most serious, fundamental, and creative act. Wendy’s greeting at the door was an invitation to an endless sojourn where the life of the mind goes hand in hand with profound friendship and lasting community.

There are no words for such gifts. There are only the images of doors, forever opening. 

By Laurie L. Patton (PhD’91), President and Professor of Religion at Middlebury College.


 

I first came upon Professor Wendy Doniger’s work as an undergraduate, and I particularly remember the volume on karma and rebirth that she edited. Then, in my first year of doctoral study in Religious Studies the University of Lancaster, I discovered the just-published Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (1980) and later Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities (1984). These wonderful, paradoxical titles had an almost intoxicating effect on my young brain, and I couldn’t put them down (I still have my copious notes). What I admired then, and still admire now, is Professor Doniger’s ability to combine textual scholarship with a higher level, conceptual engagement, asking questions about what ancient Hindu stories mean, what they have to tell us about constant human concerns—death, sex, love, purpose—and how narrative traditions can themselves be understood as social commentary through history. Shortly after, I heard Professor Doniger lecture in Oxford on the image of the horse in Hindu mythology and will always remember the aplomb with which she fielded questions about topics quite other than those of her lecture! Many years later I had the honor of meeting Professor Doniger when she came to the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies as a visiting scholar. She wears her deep learning lightly, has a wonderful sense of humor, and her lectures for me were just as engaging as her books.  

But leaving aside my anecdotal reflection, Professor Doniger has had an important and lasting effect on Hindu Studies and the History of Religions more broadly. It is perhaps an understatement to say that she has attracted controversy, but her more recent work on Hinduism has highlighted the importance of Hindu values and purposes of life as well as the importance of tracing histories of those Hindus who have been underrepresented in the history of the tradition. And we must not forget the importance of comparison in her work, for through comparison new knowledge and ideas are generated. It is, then, with mixed feelings that I wish Professor Doniger all the very best in her retirement, mixed because I hope that (after she has walked the dogs along the beach) she will indeed return to the serious work of reading, thinking, and sharing her thoughts. Life is long. Thank you, Wendy. 

By Gavin Flood FBA, Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion at Oxford University.


 

Wendy Doniger is my colleague and friend of longest standing at the University of Chicago. We were tied together before either of us came here, through having studied Sanskrit, both as undergraduates and as doctoral students, under the same professor, making us what in Sanskrit is called satirtha, “bathed in the same water.” We just missed overlapping as students at Harvard. Wendy received her PhD there in the same month in which I graduated from high school; I had hoped to go to the U. of Chicago for college but could not afford to accept their financial package and had to settle for Harvard. Yet I retained the vision of greener grass and reacted with a mixture of envy and excitement when Wendy later began teaching at Chicago in the same month in which I began my first faculty appointment at Harvard.

During the following years Wendy came back to Harvard occasionally, sometimes to give invited talks, and was generous in checking in on me and offering good advice, which I wish I had followed more diligently. So when I finally managed to join the University a dozen or so years ago, I already had a trusted guide and cherished colleague here. The value of that connection has continued to grow each year, and more to my advantage than to hers. 

Wendy’s scholarly importance, like that of the Mahabharata epic that she regularly teaches both in Sanskrit and in English translation (and that she will continue to teach in Sanskrit courses in the SALC Department each Winter Quarter, even after her retirement), begins with an unrivaled breadth of voices made available to students and scholars at many different levels. In her written work, she selects, translates, and explains a wide range of texts, including not only the Vedic scriptures on which she has worked since early on—ancient treatises on myth and ritual, and texts of classical Sanskrit poetry—but also a number of treatises from traditional systems of knowledge (most notably on politics and on passion), texts of epic literature and of mythological history, and works recording voices from segments of Hindu society not often heard from before.

And what makes this richness of material truly illuminating is the power and complexity of her own voice: in writing and speaking about these texts, it is itself enriched by a wide array of theoretical viewpoints—including various forms of literary and of social theory, as well as scholarly approaches to the study of mythology and the history of religion—and of experienced practical criticism, enlivened by an extensive awareness of cinema, opera, fiction, poetry, and other artistic forms.

Given the range of knowledge reflected in her immense collection of work, it is all the more remarkable that she seems to remember all that she has written and most of what she has read, and is capable of reassessing her earlier approaches in light of new information and a rational analysis of earlier endeavors, so that each new book from her has the potential to deliver ever richer and deeper insights into South Asian Culture and the many other topics in which she is interested. In combination with her penetrating intelligence, her irrepressible courage and curiosity, and her unflinching honesty, the result is a body of elucidation unmatched in scope, variety, and interest. We are most fortunate to have had her here.

By Gary Tubb, Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professor in the Department of South Asian Literatures and Civilizations and in the College, Associated Faculty in the Divinity School.


 

"From Parokṣa to Sākṣāt: From Afar to In Person"


As an Indian girl growing up in a Christian British village, I felt like an outsider to both the Indian diasporic community and the British-Christian community. It was into the world of Hindu mythology that I retreated. Populated by fierce women who frustrate patriarchal expectations, gods who fuel human anxieties, and anti-gods who resist the stereotype of a villain, Hindu myths opened up a space in which I could mentally ask questions about religion, ethics, race, and gender. Why does Rāma consider his duty to his father to be more important than his duty to his wife? I would imagine what I would say if I could ask the characters themselves, knowing that they would engage me in debates as openly and vigorously as they did each other. But whenever I mustered up the courage to ask such questions in my everyday life, I was met with hesitancy, confusion, and on many occasions, silence.

When I was 14, I purchased a book entitled Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook, by Wendy Doniger. It was, and still is, my favorite book because it was the medium through which I could finally talk to someone who adored narratives as much as I did. Each narrative is placed in its cultural-historical context and its key questions are carefully introduced. Translations of the Sanskrit narratives were rhythmic, fluid, and entertaining. My favorite section was “Appendix C: The Bibliographical Notes.” Here, the author explicitly told me to compare each text she had translated with its multiple variants, imploring me to ask more questions and read more myths. Little did I know at the time that the parokṣa author of Hindu Myths would become my sākṣāt PhD advisor, continuing to push me to ask even more questions and read even more myths.

Today, Prof. Doniger is my sākṣāt interlocutor. In fact, when reflecting on her interaction with myself and other students, I realized that her pedagogical methods do bring to life those of frame-narrators in Hindu myths themselves. She never simply delivers an exposition for you to regurgitate in an essay. Just like the frame-narrators in the Mahābhārata, Prof. Doniger inquires about the questions that are important to you and uses stories and analogies to open up a conceptual space in which you can think through the problem that you raised. She never tells you that your problems are insignificant. Whenever you are sitting in office hours lamenting (often unnecessarily) a particular obstacle that confronts you, Prof. Doniger will narrate a sub-tale about a former student who overcame a similar fate—just as Yudhiṣṭhira is told the story of former heroes. And most importantly, Prof. Doniger never wants you simply to conform to the narratives that other people expect or desire of you; she doesn’t want you to fulfill the institutional narrative that tells you who you should be, how you should act, and what you should study. Instead, she helps you to determine the goals that you yourself want to achieve, the means of achieving them, and finally, the means of exceeding them so that yours becomes an extraordinary story that will be retold alongside the many other extraordinary stories of her former students. 

There are so many other things that Prof. Doniger has done from afar and in person—things that made it possible for the field of Hindu Studies to exist and thrive, things that she has probably done for me without my even knowing. For all that Prof. Doniger did for me parokṣaand for all that she continues to do for me sākṣāt, I thank her.

By Seema Chauhan, PhD student in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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