Against Dharma

Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics

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Wendy Doniger
The Terry Lectures Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Yale University Press
    , March
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Wendy Doniger’s book Against Dharma: Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics uses the study of ancient religious texts to speak to contemporary developments in Narendra Modi’s India. Since its resurgence in the 1980s, Hindu nationalism has been attempting to purify and “rewrite” a history of Hinduism, seeking to reclaim civilizational glory by centering a masculinist and muscular Hinduism to an imagined Hindu nation. Hindu nationalists draw on early 19th-century reform movements that puzzled over how to purify and revive a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. Hindu nationalist attempts at modernization and homogenization have resulted in its dissemination of Hindutva—a reductive, monolithic and politicized variant of Hinduism. Since Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister in 2014, Hindutva has gathered unprecedented momentum, leading to idiosyncratic public invocations and defenses of Hinduism. 

Doniger’s own work has been targeted as a part of such efforts. In 2011, Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Books), which precisely argued against any monolithic, reductive reading of Hinduism, was widely repudiated by Hindu nationalists as heretical and offensive to Hindus. Post the filing of a lawsuit under Section 295A of Indian Penal Code that forbids deliberate and malicious acts that intend to outrage the feelings of any religious community, Doniger and her publisher Penguin India faced litigation in 2014. This resulted not just in the subsequent withdrawal of Doniger’s book from the Indian market, but also the “destruction” of all existing copies of the book within six months. Other developments include the rise of “mythoscience” that Doniger addresses in the last chapter of the book. Hinduism is increasingly asserted to be the wellspring of modern scientific knowledge, a strange contrast to the opposition between science and religion arising from a distinct project of secularism in the Christian West. In Modi’s India, Hinduism is claimed as the origin for scientific practices as wide-ranging as genetic engineering, plastic surgery, and the development of nuclear arms. Doniger points out that a “science envy” can be traced to India’s early days of postcolonial nation building but claims about science in Modi’s regime are unprecedented in their wild counterfactuality (176), provoking outrage in the Indian scientific community.

It is in such a political climate that Doniger returns to what she does best—an iconoclastic, psychoanalytically inflected reading of ancient Hindu texts to highlight dissent and subversion within them. She draws together three central texts—the Arthashastra, the Dharmashastra, and the Kamasutra—to show the intertextuality of these texts, and how they depict the three aims of life—dharmaartha, and kama—as relating to one another. 

Liberal commentators in India have asserted the need to save Indian secularism from Hindu nationalism but also to save Hinduism itself from its Hindutva doppelganger. In her attempts to recoup Hinduism from Hindutva, Doniger is deeply committed to textual doctrine but also avowedly secular in her critical examination to counter doctrine as dogma. Secular liberals might find Doniger’s book reassuring that Hinduism can be redeemed and reclaimed from the clutches of right wing politics. A number of scholars, however, would argue that Hinduism is irredeemable in its necessary reliance on caste hierarchy as a system of stratification and ostracization. Seen from the vantage point of Dalit communities most disenfranchised within Hindu hierarchy, Hinduism appears, as Dalit icon B. R. Ambedkar put it, “a veritable chamber of horrors.” Untouchability is not a perversion of Hinduism, it is doctrinally sanctioned in the Manusmriti. Doniger, however, shows that marginalized groups (more broadly conceived than groups identified as untouchables) who are seen in the Manusmriti as abhorrent, are oftentimes depicted as politically savvy spies in the Arthashastra, and celebrated for their joyous revelry in the Kamasutra. In so doing, she attempts to complicate Hinduism’s position on groups of marginalized people seen as polluting and reviled, showing that they were hailed for their political and sensuous prowess, hinting at an upper caste regard and envy of these groups. 

Doniger does not see a seamless univocality in the upper caste Brahminism upheld within all three texts, even as she points out that textual study was always the domain of upper caste men. Doniger acknowledges dharma to be a tool of control of subaltern classes by dominant Brahmins, but also points to a “hidden script” of the subversion of dharma available to both Brahmins and subalterns (23). Dharmaartha, and kama are arranged into a hierarchy such that duty (dharma) is always ranked highest in order to temper the pursuit of political power (artha) and physical pleasure (kama). Yet, even as Dharma as duty is invoked to moderate the desire for power and sex, its subversion is also written into the Arthashastra and Kamasutra such that it did not impede the fullest pursuit of neither power nor sex. Brahmins are not in hegemonic agreement with one another in these texts. They contradict one another, mostly in the interest of buttressing their own ideologies, and internal contradictions within these texts betray constant undercurrents of ambivalence and dissent. For instance: the Kamasutra, she insists, put pleasure first always in ways that were clearly un-Brahminical but also made sex deeply ethical in a way that was very Brahminical.

Ultimately, Against Dharma is a provocation about how textual study within religious studies can inform public debates about contemporary politics. Through an ambitious and synthetic account of how three religious texts central to Hinduism temper and contradict one another, Doniger belabors contestation and unequivocality in her readings, attempting to cock a snook at Hindu nationalists for whom heterodoxy has been a niggling obstacle in the achievement of a unified Hinduism as the basis of national identity. More than that, Doniger attempts to intervene in public debates at a time when Hindu nationalist ideology does not remain restricted to hegemonic politics. Indeed, Hindutva is increasingly becoming the very lens through which a populist India sees itself and its past. It remains to be seen whether this book can, in fact, transcend the gulf between populist affect and secular reason, which in some sense, is precisely where Doniger seeks to intervene.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pinky Hota is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Smith College.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago Divinity School, and author of more than forty books, including The Hindus: An Alternative History. She lives in Chicago, IL.



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