Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty

Wendy Doniger at Shimer College in 2012
Born Wendy Doniger
(1940-11-20) November 20, 1940
New York City, New York, U.S.
Residence Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Citizenship United States
Fields Sanskrit literature,
History of Religions
Institutions University of Chicago
Alma mater Radcliff College (BA),
Harvard University (PhD),
Oxford University (DPhill)
Doctoral advisor Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Sr. (Harvard)
R.C.Zaehner (Oxford)
Doctoral students 62,[1] including Jeffrey Kripal and Alexander Argüelles[2]

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (born November 20, 1940) is an American Indologist whose professional career has spanned five decades. A scholar of Sanskrit and Indian textual traditions, her major works include, Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva; Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook; The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology; Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts; and The Rig Veda: An Anthology, 108 Hymns Translated from the Sanskrit.[3] She is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago, and has taught there since 1978.[3] She served as president of the Association for Asian Studies in 1998.


Doniger was born in New York City to immigrant non-observant Jewish parents, and raised in Great Neck New York, where her father, Lester L. Doniger (1909–1971), ran a publishing business. While in high school, she studied dance under George Balanchine and Martha Graham.[4]

She graduated summa cum laude in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Radcliffe College in 1962,[4] and received her M.A. from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in June 1963. She then studied in India in 1963–1964 with a 12-month Junior Fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies. She received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in June 1968, with a dissertation on Asceticism and Sexuality in the Mythology of Siva, supervised by Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Sr. She obtained a D. Phil. in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, in February 1973, with a dissertation on The Origins of Heresy in Hindu Mythology, supervised by R. C. Zaehner.

Doniger holds the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Chair in History of Religions at the University of Chicago.[4][5] She is the editor of the scholarly journal History of Religions,[6] having served on its editorial board since 1979, and has edited a dozen other publications in her career. In 1985, she was elected President of the American Academy of Religion,[7] and in 1997 President of the Association for Asian Studies.[8] She serves on the International Editorial Board of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

She was invited to give the 2010 Art Institute of Chicago President's Lecture at the Chicago Humanities Festival, which was titled, "The Lingam Made Flesh: Split-Level Symbolism in Hindu Art".[9]



Since she began writing in the 1960s, Doniger has gained the reputation of being "one of America's major scholars in the humanities".[10] Assessing Doniger's body of work, K. M. Shrimali, Professor of Ancient Indian History at the University of Delhi, writes:

... it (1973) also happened to be the year when her first major work in early India's religious history, viz., Siva, the Erotic Ascetic was published and had instantly become a talking point for being a path-breaking work. I still prescribe it as the most essential reading to my postgraduate students at the University of Delhi, where I have been teaching a compulsory course on 'Evolution of Indian Religions' for the last nearly four decades. It was the beginning of series of extremely fruitful and provocative encounters with the formidable scholarship of Wendy Doniger.[11]

Doniger is a scholar of Sanskrit and Indian textual traditions.[3] By her self-description,

I myself am by both temperament and training inclined to texts. I am neither an archaeologist nor an art historian; I am a Sanskritist, indeed a recovering Orientalist, of a generation that framed its study of Sanskrit with Latin and Greek rather than Urdu or Tamil. I’ve never dug anything up out of the ground or established the date of a sculpture. I’ve labored all my adult life in the paddy fields of Sanskrit, ...[12]

Her books both in Hinduism and other fields have been positively reviewed by the Indian scholar Vijaya Nagarajan[13] and the American Hindu scholar Lindsey B. Harlan, who noted as part of a positive review that "Doniger's agenda is her desire to rescue the comparative project from the jaws of certain proponents of postmodernism".[14] Of her Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit, the Indologist Richard Gombrich wrote: "Intellectually, it is a triumph..."[15] Doniger's (then O'Flaherty) 1973 book Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Śiva was a critique of the "Great tradition Śivapurāṇas and the tension that arises between Śiva's ascetic and erotic activities."[16] Richard Gombrich called it "learned and exciting";[15] however, John H. Marr was disappointed that the "regionalism" so characteristic of the texts is absent in Doniger's book, and wondered why the discussion took so long.[16][17] Doniger's Rigveda, a translation of 108 hymns selected from the canon, was deemed among the most reliable by historian of religion Ioan P. Culianu.[18] However, in an email message, Michael Witzel called it "idiosyncratic and unreliable just like her Jaiminiya Brahmana or Manu (re-)translations."[19]


Beginning in the early 2000s, a disagreement arose within the Hindu community over whether Doniger accurately described Hindu traditions.[20] Together with many of her colleagues, she was the subject of a critique by Rajiv Malhotra[21] for using psychoanalytic concepts to interpret non-Western subjects. Aditi Banerjee, a co-author of Malhotra, criticised Wendy Doniger for grossly misquoting the text of Valmiki Ramayana.[22]

Christian Lee Novetzke, associate professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Washington, summarizes this controversy as follows:

Wendy Doniger, a premier scholar of Indian religious thought and history expressed through Sanskritic sources, has faced regular criticism from those who consider her work to be disrespectful of Hinduism in general.[23]

Novetzke cites Doniger's use of "psychoanalytical theory" as

...a kind of lightning rod for the censure that these scholars receive from freelance critics and 'watch-dog' organizations that claim to represent the sentiments of Hindus.[23]

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, concurring with Novetzke, adds that while the agenda of those in the American Hindu community who criticize Doniger appears similar to that of the Hindu right-wing in India, it is not quite the same since it has "no overt connection to national identity", and that it has created feelings of guilt among American scholars, given the prevailing ethos of ethnic respect, that they might have offended people from another culture.[24]

While Doniger has agreed that Indians have ample grounds to reject postcolonial domination, she claims that her works are only a single perspective which does not subordinate Indian self-identity.[25]

The Hindus

Doniger's trade book, The Hindus: An Alternative History was published in 2009 by Viking/Penguin. According to the Hindustan Times, The Hindus was a No. 1 bestseller in its non-fiction category in the week of October 15, 2009.[26] Two scholarly reviews in the Social Scientist and the Journal of the American Oriental Society, though praising Doniger for her textual scholarship, criticized both Doniger's poor historiography and her lack of focus.[27][28] In the popular press, the book has received many positive reviews, for example from the Library Journal,[29] the Times Literary Supplement,[30] the New York Review of Books,[31] The New York Times,[32] and The Hindu.[33] In January 2010, the National Book Critics Circle named The Hindus as a finalist for its 2009 book awards.[34] The Hindu American Foundation protested this decision, alleging inaccuracies and bias in the book.[35]

In February 2014, as part of settlement with plaintiff to a lawsuit brought before an Indian district court, The Hindus was recalled by Penguin India.[36][37][38] Indian authors such as Arundhati Roy, Partha Chatterjee, Jeet Thayil, and Namwar Singh inveighed against the publisher's decision.[39][40] The book has since been published in India by Speaking Tiger Books.[41]



Doniger has written 16 books, translated (primarily from Sanskrit to English) with commentary nine other volumes, has contributed to many edited texts and has written hundreds of articles in journals, magazines and newspapers. These include New York Times Book Review, London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, The Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, International Herald Tribune, Parabola, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Daedalus, The Nation, and the Journal of Asian Studies.

Interpretive works

Published under the name of Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty:

Published under the name of Wendy Doniger:


Published under the name of Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty:

Published under the name of Wendy Doniger:

Edited volumes

Published under the name of Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty:

Published under the name of Wendy Doniger:

See also


  1. Taylor 2011, p. 149.
  2. Curriculum Vitae, uchicago.edu; accessed June 16, 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 Shrimali 2010, p. 67.
  4. 1 2 3 The John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought,"Wendy Doniger profile, socialthought.uchicago.edu; accessed February 22, 2014.
  5. Q&A with Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor and author of The Hindus, news.uchicago.edu, November 5, 2009; accessed February 22, 2014.
  6. History of Religions Editorial Board, press.uchicago.edu; accessed February 22, 2014.
  7. American Academy of Religion, "Past Presidents: Past Presidents of the AAR, aarweb.org; accessed February 22, 2014.
  8. Association for Asian Studies, AAS Board of Directors and Officers: AAS Past Presidents, asian-studies.org; retrieved February 22, 2014.
  9. Art Institute of Chicago President's Lecture, chicagohumanities.org; accessed February 14, 2015.
  10. Martha Craven Nussbaum, The clash within: democracy, religious violence, and India's future, Harvard University Press, 2007 p.249.
  11. Shrimal 2010, p. 68.
  12. Doniger, Wendy, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Viking-Penguin, p. 35
  13. Nagarajan, Vijaya (April 2004). "[Book Review: The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade]". The Journal of Religion. 84 (2): 332–333. doi:10.1086/421829. JSTOR 421829 via JSTOR.
  14. Harlan, Lindsey (28 July 2009). "The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. By Wendy Doniger. American Lectures on the History of Religions 16. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. xii + 200 pp. $26.95 cloth". Church History. 68 (2): 529. doi:10.2307/3170935. JSTOR 3170935 via JSTOR.
  15. 1 2 Richard Gombrich, Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty Religious Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jun. 1978), pp. 273–274
  16. 1 2 Marr 1976, pp. 718719.
  17. Kakar, Sudhir (April 1990). "Book Review:Other People's Myths: The Cave of Echoes Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty". The Journal of Religion. 70 (2): 293. doi:10.1086/488386. JSTOR 1203930 via JSTOR.
  18. Ioan P. Culianu, "Ask Yourselves in Your Own Hearts..." History of Religions, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Feb. 1983), pp. 284–286
    That is why, with the exception of Geldner's German translation, the most reliable modern translations of the Rgveda-W. O'Flaherty's being one of them-are only partial. However, W. O'Flaherty has, in her present translation, a wider scope than other scholars – Louis Renou, for instance, whose Hymnes speculatifs du Veda are a model of accuracy – who prefer to limit their choice to one thematic set of hymns.
  19. Taylor 2011, p. 160.
  20. The interpretation of gods
  21. The axis of neo-colonialism, Malhotra Rajiv, World Affairs, Year : 2007, Volume : 11, Issue: 3, Print ISSN 0971-8052.
  22. "Wendy Doniger Falsehood".
  23. 1 2 Christian Lee Novetzke, "The Study of Indian Religions in the US Academy", India Review 5.1 (May 2006), 113–114 doi:10.1080/14736480600742668
  24. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 248
  25. "I don't feel I diminish Indian texts by writing about or interpreting them. My books have a right to exist alongside other books." Amy M. Braverman. "The interpretation of gods", magazine.uchicago.edu (University of Chicago Magazine, 97.2), December 2004; accessed February 14, 2015.
  26. "Top authors this week" Hindustan Times Indo-Asian News Service New Delhi, October 15, 2009
  27. Shrimali 2010, p. 80: "There are several issues that need more detailed and nuanced analysis rather than straight-jacketed formulations that we read in The Hindus. These concern terminologies and chronologies invoked, perfunctory manner in which class-caste struggles have been referred to — almost casually, complex inter-religious dialogue seen only in the context of Visnu's avataras, and looking at the tantras merely in terms of sex and political power. The work rarely rises above the level of tale telling. On the whole, this is neither a serious work for students of Indian history, nor for those with a critical eye on 'religious history' of India, nor indeed it is the real Alternative History of the 'Hindus'.
  28. Rocher 2012, p. 303: "She especially loves to illustrate ancient stories by interjecting comparisons with situations with which the audience is familiar: Doniger commands an unbelievably vast array of comparable material, often, though not always, from American popular culture. Doniger acknowledges that the book was not meant to be as long as it turned out to be, "but it got the bit between its teeth, and ran away from me" (p. 1). Several pages are indeed filled with "good stories" that are only loosely, some very loosely, related to the history of the Hindu religion. Going into detail on the drinking and other vices of the Mughal emperors, even though carefully documented, is a case in point (pp. 539-41). ...When it comes to legal history in the colonial period in particular, there are passages that are bound to raise ... eyebrows. ... the history of Hindu law was more complex than is represented in this volume. Anglo-Hindu law was far more than "the British interpretation of Jones's translation of Manu."
  29. James F. DeRoche, Library Journal, 2009-02-15
  30. David Arnold. "Beheading Hindus And other alternative aspects of Wendy Doniger's history of a mythology", Times Literary Supplement, July 29, 2009
  31. David Dean Shulman, 'A Passion for Hindu Myths,' in New York Review of Books, Nov 19, 2009, pp. 51–53.
  32. Pankaj Mishra, "'Another Incarnation'", nytimes.com, April 24, 2009.
  33. A R Venkatachalapathy, "Understanding Hinduism" The Hindu March 30, 2010
  34. "National Book Critics Circle Finalists Are Announced", blogs.nytimes.com, January 23, 2010.
  35. HAF Urges NBCC Not Honor Doniger's Latest Book, as reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and Sify
  36. "Penguin to destroy copies of Wendy Doniger's book 'The Hindus'" The Times of India
  37. "Penguin to recall Doniger’s book on Hindus" The Hindu
  38. "How Doniger’s now-recalled ‘The Hindus’ ruffled Hindutva feathers" firstpost.com
  39. "Academics, writers decry Penguin's withdrawal of Doniger's book, The Hindus", timesofindia.indiatimes.com; accessed February 14, 2015.
  40. Buncombe, Andrew. "Arundhati Roy criticises Penguin for pulping The Hindus: An Alternative History". The Independent. Delhi. Retrieved February 14, 2015.
  41. B Mahesh (8 December 2010). "Doniger's Hindus returns, 20 months after its withdrawal". Pune Mirror. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  42. PEN Oakland Award Winners: Josephine Miles Award. Accessed February 22, 2014.
  43. British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences. "The Rose Mary Crawshay Prize 2002 Awarded to Professor Wendy Doniger", britac.ac.uk; accessed February 22, 2014.
  44. American Academy of Religion Martin E. Marty Public Understanding of Religion Award - Current and Past Winners, aarweb.org; retrieved February 22, 2014.
  45. "Wendy Doniger Named 2015 Haskins Prize Lecture", ACLS News, October 22, 2013; accessed February 22, 2013. "A Life of Learning" by Wendy Doniger (with video; May 8, 2015 lecture at Philadelphia, PA) acls.com. Retrieved 2015-08-19.


Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Annette Peach
Lucy Newlyn
Rose Mary Crawshay Prize
Kate Flint
Succeeded by
Jane Stabler
Claire Tomalin
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