Saturday 30 December 2017

The ring changed Dushyanta from a lying cad to an honourable man: Wendy Doniger

In Wendy Doniger’s ingenious new book, The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry, she traces the story of the ring across tales and cultures: from Shakuntala’s ring to Portia’s, from Rama’s ring that Sita recognises to DeBeers’ engagement rings. The ring often signifies the woman’s self, it saves honour, reveals identity, ignites memory and marks desire while the wearing of the ring imitates the act of sex. In an email interview with Charmy Harikrishnan, Doniger, who is the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, talks about the evolution of the signet ring in some of the prominent Indian texts, how the ring helped Kalidasa whitewash Dushyanta’s erotic record, and how Indians are now confusing their great myths with ancient history, and hurling racial and sexist abuses at scholars like her and Audrey Truschke. Excerpts:
"Kalidasa created his Shakuntala at a time when the power of women —
which was fairly robust in the Mahabharata; think of Draupadi! — had
significantly waned," Wendy Doniger said. 

When and how did the signet ring appear in Indian texts? It has a significant presence in literature — from the Ramayana to Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa to Kalidasa’s Abhinjana Shakuntalam. 
The texts you mention, which I discuss in the book, are the earliest ones I know that refer to signet rings. It’s generally thought that such rings came into India with the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 326 BCE. But I think, since we have hundreds of examples of seals, though not seal rings, from the Indus Valley Civilisation before 2000 BCE, someone in India may well have had the bright idea of using a seal on a ring long before the Greeks came to India.

In the earliest version of Shakuntala’s story in the Mahabharata, there is no ring but the woman is wise, vocal and discourses on dharma. But Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, as you say, is ‘hardly more than a child and says little’. 
Kalidasa created his Shakuntala at a time when the power of women — which was fairly robust in the Mahabharata; think of Draupadi! — had significantly waned. The perfect heroine would no longer be able to defend herself as the Mahabharata’s Shakuntala was able to do, to chastise King Dushyanta and teach him a lesson in dharma. So Kalidasa had to give his heroine some help, in the form of the magic ring that first erased and then restored Dushyanta’s memory of her.

Interestingly, you and critics like Romila Thapar point to Kalidasa’s use of the device of the ring to protect the king from ‘blame’ and ‘the royal sin’ of abandoning a woman. 
Yes, the ring changed Dushyanta from a lying cad (which he was in the Mahabharata) to a perfectly honourable man who was the victim of a curse — carried by a ring — that clouded his memory. Since Kalidasa’s patrons, the Gupta dynasty, traced their lineage back to Bharata, the son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, it was in Kalidasa’s best interests to whitewash the king’s erotic record.

How did the ring become a repository of so much even when it doesn’t hold huge symbolism in the society at large in India? Even wedding rings are rather recent. 
Rings signify an enduring promise of love, but they also signify the identity of the lover. The idea of endurance is suggested by the material that the ring is made of, usually a form of metal. And the idea of sexual love is suggested by the relationship between the ring and the finger. Given as an emotional pledge of affection, rings often end up as vital legal evidence of marriage and paternity. As for their prominence in India, they play an important part in the earliest literature of India, which is in Sanskrit, and the use of Sanskrit at first was limited to the very small upper crust of the Indian population.

The rings in these texts, therefore, usually belong to kings and princesses, though also to merchants. Some of those stories about rings filtered down into the folk literature in several vernacular Indian languages; for instance, the story of the clever wife — who uses a ring to prove to her husband that he fathered her child — is told in many folk traditions ‘in society at large in India’. But wedding rings are not prominent in these folk tales, or in Indian popular culture; bangles and anklets and nose rings really play a larger part there. Still, they are rings (circular jewellery)!

You trace the presence of the ring across cultures. How different is it in Indian literature? 
The Indian stories share many of the more general meanings — of love, marriage and betrayal — that are found throughout the corpus in the Indo-European world, but they have a particular inflection of their own, growing out of ideas, unique to India, about the nature of women, the customs of marriage, the physical process of paternity and the distribution of wealth. And, in my humble opinion, the Indian stories are the best, the most ingenious and the most richly embellished, simply because the Indian tradition of storytelling is the most vivid and robust.

In India, why is there a tendency to approach literature/ myths as historical truths rather than as texts?
India has always had a rich tradition of literature and myth, and it has also always had a rich tradition of science, in the form of the shastras: the sciences of mathematics, grammar and astronomy, architecture, medicine, the care of horses and elephants, and much more. These two realms of myth and science were always quite distinct. But in reaction to the scorn of the British during colonisation, and Indian admiration for colonial scientific achievements such as trains, some Hindus began to insist, first, that Europe might have science but India had spirituality; and, then, that Hindu religious texts (particularly the Vedas) also had science — such as airplanes — long before the British did.

Dayanand Saraswati argued that Krishna and Arjuna had flown to North America during the Vedic period (so that when Columbus landed in 1492 and called the people there ‘Indians’, he was right). This sort of colonial-period ‘science envy’ of the West has recently been revived by Hindu nationalists, against whose fabrications genuine Indian scientists have vehemently protested. Hindutva factions have also mixed myth and history by asserting that the Babri Masjid was built over the place where Rama was born and by opposing the construction of a shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka by insisting that such a canal would destroy a causeway that, according to the Ramayana, an army of talking monkeys built in order to attack the fortress of a ten-headed demon.

How do you see the ‘Hinduisation’ of present-day India by the editing out of Mughals — from renaming roads and railway stations to changes in school and university syllabi? 
Hindutva factions are, again, at the heart of these attempts to replace history with myth, in this case anti-Muslim myth. In a similar way, PN Oak’s argument that Hindus built the Taj Mahal was revived this month when the Central Information Commission reportedly ‘sent a directive to the Union Culture Ministry to clarify its stand on whether the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by Shah Jahan or a Shiva temple’.

Why has it become so difficult for scholars to study, analyse and write about India? After the case against your book The Hindus: An Alternative History, there was the vicious trolling of Audrey Truschke over her book on Aurangzeb? 
The difficulty comes not in the writing — some excellent writing about India has been published by Indian scholars in recent years — but in the ability of authors and publishers in India nowadays to avoid violent repercussions against serious works of scholarship. Despite a lawsuit, my books are still available in India and are widely read; some people like them, some people don’t, as should always be the case with scholarship that deals with volatile issues.

But some booksellers are afraid to carry them, or to carry them openly, and, given the violence of some of the Hindutva censorship tactics, I certainly cannot blame such booksellers, though I applaud the courage and integrity of those who do in fact sell the books. The attacks on Audrey Truschke are more of the same; such attacks have nothing to do with the author or the treatment of the subject, but with an anti-Muslim agenda backed by physical violence that the present government of India shows no inclination to control. The attacks, on both me and Dr Truschke, are laden with sexism and anti-Semitism that have nothing to do with the issues raised by our books — issues that should instead inspire spirited discussion of the actual historical.

Have you looked at some of the popular retellings of the epics and puranas? 
I have indeed, and some of them are truly wonderful. I particularly love Amruta Patil’s retellings, and Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusion, and Arshia Sattar’s version of the Ramayana for children, but there are many others. They bring out threads and connections and undertones that are really there in the Sanskrit texts but are muted and hidden, easy to miss until these modern writers bring them out. The old Amar Chitra Katha reduced all the stories they retold and bowdlerised them; these modern retellings, by contrast, make the stories stretch and expand into the modern world, taking on deeper meanings.

Apart from rings, jewellery is central to Chilapatikaaram and Mrichhakatika. Was it indeed the line that a woman can be identified by the jewellery she is wearing? 
Indian jewellery, in particular, is beautifully wrought in silver and gold; Indian craftsmanship is rightly famous throughout the world. Such pieces would therefore be unique, and make it possible to identify the woman who owned them, as in fact Sita’s jewellery identifies her in the Ramayana. And India has been the home of fabulous jewels, often unique rubies and emeralds, the pearls of Sri Lanka and the diamonds of Golconda, the source of so many European stories of the stolen idol’s eye and other enormous jewels with equally enormous curses upon them. So it is not surprising that jewellery should identify the women in some of the greatest works of ancient Indian literature, and that this mythology should also find its place in popular folklore.

(Source: ET)

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