An esteemed scholar of Hinduism presents a groundbreaking interpretation of ancient Indian texts and their historic influence on subversive resistance
Ancient Hindu texts speak of the three aims of human life: dharma,artha, and kama. Translated, these might be called religion, politics, and pleasure, and each is held to be an essential requirement of a full life. Balance among the three is a goal not always met, however, and dharma has historically taken precedence over the other two qualities in Hindu life. Here, historian of religions Wendy Doniger offers a spirited and close reading of ancient Indian writings, unpacking a long but unrecognized history of opposition against dharma.
Doniger argues that scientific disciplines (shastras) have offered lively and continuous criticism of dharma, or religion, over many centuries. She chronicles the tradition of veiled subversion, uncovers connections to key moments of resistance and voices of dissent throughout Indian history, and offers insights into the Indian theocracy’s subversion of science by religion today.
In this detailed investigation, Doniger (The Hindus) explores how two ancient Indian texts the Arthashastra (on the pursuit of power), and the Kamasutra (on the pursuit of sensual desire) subverted the ethical and social standards of their day. The "three aims" of human well-being (dharma, artha, and kama, loosely described as religion, politics, and pleasure) were ideally kept in balance by Hindus, but Doniger maintains that, at the time the books were written (between the fourth and second century B.C.E., dharma was privileged in practice and the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra surreptitiously challenged its dominance. Their strategies included what Doniger calls bookending, the practice of undermining the focus on the spiritual by providing practical, functional ideas for navigating the political and sensual realms of life. With ease and wit, Doniger builds her novel case that the Kamasutra and the Arthashastra dissented from the status quo of their day, and diligently considers passages from the texts as she discusses ways Indians found to continue defying the primacy of the dharma through many hundreds of years. Considering the Lokayatikas and the Charvakas, materialists and skeptics in contemporary India, she writes that they are "heirs of the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra, at least to the extent that the idea of doing whatever you need to do to get what you want... with no regard to the dharma in either case, was fuel for the Lokayatika/Charvaka legend." Although Doniger's writing is clear and direct, readers not thoroughly familiar with the lessons and principles of the dharma will get lost in her long comparisons across texts. This detailed treatment of a narrow, specialized topic is best suited to academics interested in the history of Indian rebellion against the dharma.