Endless Rings Of Other Untruths, Sex And The Art Of Jumping To Conclusions

 

Wendy Doniger’s book makes for a long and tedious read. For one who looks for sex in every nook and cranny, it may be a delightful read, for those who place kama firmly balanced with the purusharthas of dharma, artha and moksha, the delight is significantly less. 

By Sumedha V Ojha

Wendy Doniger has written a new book, The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewelery. It is not focused only on India and Hindus this time. Can sex and the Hindu be far behind with Doniger?

First, a description of the book. In her words, the book is “about the stories that … people have told, throughout recorded history and all over the world, about pieces of circular jewellery, particularly rings…The mutual imitation of real and fake, legal and illegal, marital and extramarital jewellery is a pervasive motif…” She asks the loaded question “Why are sex and jewelry, particularly circular jewelry, particularly finger rings, so often connected?,” and proceeds to answer it through her Freudian analysis, mostly of ring stories, but also some others. The ring, and to a lesser extent, the bracelet and the necklace, are symbols of the act of sex, are exchanged in various ways according to the complicated sexual politics of myths and stories as understood by the author.

The book consists of ten chapters and is a collection of stories about rings and jewellery from across the world, going back to Greek antiquity, up to the modern day, with an attempt to analyse the symbolic statements the jewellery transactions make. The repertoire ranges from an introduction to ancient stories involving the exchange of rings, such as Shakuntala from the Mahabharata, and stories involving fish and rings recovered from them, to medieval European love tales, such as those involving Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, as well as Siegfried, Gunther and Brünnhilde. The Ramayana has not been spared and the role of Ram and Seeta’s jewellery in the story has been analysed in great detail. The famous story of Muladeva from the Bada Kaha, the ancient Prakrit story cluster, has also been described, taking into some account, its travels across the world; the version considered is from the Kathasaritasagara of Somadeva. The affair of the French Queen Marie Antoinette, and her diamond necklace, bring us up to more modern times. She finishes with stories of Marilyn Monroe and other American beauties, and finally, the greatest advertising heist of all time, De Beers ‘Diamonds are forever’.

So far as books go, it is an attempt to collect as many of them, which fit loosely, or are sometimes made to fit into her paradigm of the exchange of jewellery across the world in one. It is far from comprehensive, often repetitive, but there is a great deal of material to work with.

Her aim is to make a few general points; the ‘slut assumption’ is ‘taken for granted’, i.e, women get jewellery from the men they sleep with either as wives or mistresses; women use jewellery to their advantage and men to the disadvantage of women, concerns are all about paternity and legitimacy in these exchanges and stories, or myths, if you will, are about overcoming reason to believe in sexual love. She also tries to trace ‘myth making’ through the Siegfried and Brünnhilde story to see how myths evolve, and tries to use these insights to comment on modern myth making of the De Beers variety.

This is all very well, but the book remains deeply unsatisfactory on an academic, as well as analytic plain. This review will concentrate on the most important points, as a full critique would need another book.

For this complicated jumble of stories to make any sense, the analysis needed to be intelligent, in depth and pointed, leading to conclusions which would lay bare hidden meanings and help further the understanding of the societies being studied. I will demonstrate why this is not really so.

The problem is both in the choice of psychoanalysis as the methodology, the erroneous or vacuous conclusions it leads to, as well as the errors of omission and commission in ‘selecting’ the stories to be analysed, and inaccuracies in pointing out issues. Let us look at the method, first.

Doniger’s psycho analytical approach to the ‘analysis’ of Indic culture and Hinduism is too well-known to need any reiteration here; Rajiv Malhotra has focused attention on her restrictive and single minded approach in his various critiques.

It would be instructive here to look at this from the point of view of comparing different approaches to understanding stories or myths. Doniger has made the discredited psychoanalytic approach peculiarly her own. Is it because sex sells?

After all, Freud and his methodology have been heavily criticised and more or less discredited, Freud has often been marked out as a charlatan, also a product of Victorian mores and times which cannot be universalised. His case studies were rooted in his own cultural tradition and it is a good question whether they can be universalised. Carl Shorske, William McGrath, John Toews, among others, have highlighted the normative considerations of Oedipal theory and its cultural rootedness. Feminists, queer theorists, post-colonial theorists and even strands of leftist theory, have been left dissatisfied with psychoanalysis and rejected it partially or completely. The postulation of the feminine as a passive object of desire and repudiation of its agency is particularly problematic in the context of Indic culture and religion with its pronounced emphasis on the power of the feminine.

Psychoanalysis is all about sexual repression and its resolution in ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ ways. In the context of ancient India, a sexually liberated place, if there ever was one, the choice of this method seems even more foolishly inspired.

In the context of using psychoanalysis in the area of religion, Freud was a religious radical, an atheist with a pronounced tendency to interpret religious beliefs simply as reflections of internal convulsions projected onto supernatural beings. The bias in using such a method for the study of religions seems inherent.

Although a detailed consideration is outside the scope of this short review, it is not as if there are not many alternative methods to choose from, Levi Strauss, Jung, even Mircea Eliade, who her chair is named after, offer invaluable insights and meaning to myths. Levi Strauss and his concept of ‘bricolage’ have been mentioned in passing, but no attempt has been made to harness this method to further any understanding of the stories told in this book.

One specific example will, however, be given. It would be instructive to compare this book with Jewels of Authority, edited by Laurie Patton, where the premise of the importance of jewellery and its centrality to the lives of women is the same, but the essays contained in it are wide ranging and embrace far more subtlety, nuance and differences in meaning and symbolism than the tedious repetition of sexual exploitation, enslavement and denigration of women Doniger sees everywhere.

Patton’s book is an interdisciplinary attempt at textual study embracing sanskritists, historians and gender studies experts. Ellison Banks Findly, Mary Mcgee, Vasudha Narayan, Stephanie Jamison, and indeed, Patton herself, among others, discourse on some of the same stories and traditions Doniger talks of, and reach refreshing and meaningful conclusions. It would be most instructive, for instance, to read the difference in Doniger’s understanding of Kalidasa’s plays as compared with Jamison. The former finds only male chauvinism and misbehaviour at its worst, while Jamison has shown us, with analysis of the texts, how women could and did exercise power over their husband’s lives and decisions. The two books will have to be read in their entirety to appreciate this point and one is tempted to add to the reading list of Doniger.

The error in choosing this method of analysis is inadvertently noted by Doniger herself in at least two places, when she wonders, while analysing the play Mrichhakatikam, why the courtesan and the wife do not have the theoretically stipulated and necessary antagonistic relationship, and why Vasantsena, the courtesan, lends her lover jewellery, and why his wife redeems those jewels with her own. When a theory is unable to explain the stories it has set out to analyse, surely, it needs a relook.

Doniger is too rooted in her ‘Western-Christian’ wife versus courtesan paradigm to be able to understand the position of ganikas in ancient India.

Another analytical failure is clear in the context of her analysis of the play Shakuntala, when her method leads her to the conclusion that the ring justifies polygamy, although she notes that any such overt justification is not necessary in a society where polygamy was well established and accepted by all.

However, the holes in her psychoanalytic approach have never led her to reconsider it.

Ferdinand Saussure is seen as the father of semiotics, the idea of signifier and signified and langue and parole has become central to the social sciences. Doniger mentions it but misses the use Levi Strauss has put it to in the analysis of myths and stories. He pioneered the method of deconstruction to arrive at an understanding of the language of myth, ‘langue’ of revertible time and ‘parole’ of non revertible time, myths and stories operate in both, and Levi Strauss adds, in a third, too. They explain the past, present and future. It is therefore a mistake to attempt a chronological analysis of certain myths using non revertible time only as has been attempted with the story of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. It is an open question — whether such a facile analysis of plot change with so called change in the mores of society can really be supported.

The chapters on Marie Antoinette, Hollywood stars’ divorce and jewelry shenanigans such as those of Elizabeth Taylor and the successful marketing of diamonds are interesting, however, they offer nothing new or path breaking.

Now, to inaccuracies and omissions, which are, alas, inescapable while discussing the work of Ms Doniger.

The Ramayana is a fairly well settled text, but even here, Ms Doniger chooses to make gaffes, referring to some obscure post modern telling to make the point that Seeta had left all her jewellery in Ayodhya, yet had some left to drop down to Kishkindha, thus proving that ‘myths’ are illogical, unreasonable, and not to be taken seriously without drilling down to the underlying sexual meaning. In point of fact, of course, she had been sent to the vanvaas with a special set of clothes and jewellery from her father-in-law, as set down by Vashisth, and then been given some more by Anusuya during her vanvaas. Nor does Seeta, as mentioned in the book, balk at wearing the ‘cheer’ or bark dress. She wears it before, admonished not to do so by her father-in-law and the raj purohit, Vashisht. These do not fit into the narrative being peddled, so, they are ignored. The long and lyrical description of Hanuman’s entry into Ravana’s palace in Lanka at night is misrepresented as Hanuman merely seeing Mandodari wearing jewels. Then, too, the suspicion that Seeta is pregnant with a child who is not her husband’s is completely unwarranted, as the Valmiki Ramayana makes it clear that she became an expectant mother years after the return from Lanka. These make for jarring reading and the conclusions are obviously far off the mark.

Egregious, too, is the claim that Shantanu had raped Shakuntala; one wonders where Doniger and her cohorts get these so called ‘facts’ from. Not any of the original texts, certainly.

The story of Muladeva in the section called Pregnant Riddles and Clever Wives, comes from the Bada Kaha, a Paishachi Prakrit work of a few centuries before the common era which was re-written later in Tamil, Marathi and three Sanskrit versions; one Nepali and two Indian. Doniger looks only at the Kathasaritasagar of Somadeva; not even the Brihatkathamanjari of Kshemendra to say nothing of the Tamil Perunkatai or the Marathi Vasudeva Hindi. This is a serious lack. She does trace its movements to Europe and Africa, but this still leaves many gaps. Vasudeva Hindi, for instance, is firmly within the Jain canonical tradition and a comparison with the Sanskrit versions would show the impact of religious persuasion on the elements of the story of Muladeva and his clever wife, but this, too, does not really suit the narrative and is ignored. Quite inexcusable for someone who purports to be an expert on Indic religions.

I must also mention here that the issue of jewellery as stree dhan has almost entirely escaped Doniger’s analysis. As has the concept of jewels which carry on family traditions and jewellery given by men to men to mark important occasions. Before leaving for his vanvas, Ram gave away his jewellery, to other men; after his return to Ayodhya, he again gifts wondrous jewels to his departing friends and allies, also men. Women give women jewellery, too. Kaikeyi gives a beautiful mukta haar to Manthara when the latter brings her news of Prince Ram’s impending anointment as yuvraaj. After she is suborned by Manthara, she promises her more jewellery when Bharat sits on the throne. Again, the daan of jewellery is a central Indic concept, but seems to have escaped Doniger’s notice. Is it because such instances do not fit into the six pre- meditated points which ‘had’ to be made and were set out in the introduction?

The Ring of Truth makes for a long and tedious read, Freudian nonsense taxes the patience; convoluted and manufactured conclusions leave one scratching one’s head. For one who looks for sex in every nook and cranny, it may be a delightful read, for those who place kama firmly balanced with the other three purusharthas of dharma, artha and moksha the delight is significantly less. Alas, she manages to miss the meaning for the sex.

I must end with what I consider a crying scandal and a terrible example of the physical and intellectual loot of India. In the author’s own words, “There is also a story behind my bracelet of ancient Indian gold coins from the Gupta Empire (c. fifth century CE). John Marshall, who had excavated much of India in the early twentieth century, had given it to Penelope Chetwode when he wooed her back in the 1930s; she married another man (John Betjeman) but kept the bracelet.” Penelope Chetwode, a travel writer of the period, gave this bracelet to Doniger and she still wears it as she says.

Was India’s priceless heritage nothing but a bauble to tempt women who caught the eye of the colonial archaeologists who spent the 20th century making Indian history in their own image? I leave it to the reader to think on the catastrophic depredations of colonial attitudes and actions towards India.

 

— After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.

 

 

 

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