From the mouth of the horse: Wendy Doniger on her new book on horses
Wendy Doniger has been crazy about horses since she first rode one in 1965. Released earlier this week, Winged stallions and mean mares, she says, “is the work of lifelong love.” The affection with which Doniger chooses horse stories from Indian mythology and history is tangible. “Yoga,” she points out, “really means putting a damper on your mind and body, harnessing the otherwise unruly senses. It is a metaphor for the horse: to put the yoke on a horse is to tame and control it.
In Doniger’s book we see how both gods and men have tried to tame horses since the dawn of time, but according to her, horses too “lead humans from the tamed world to the natural world. “. Speaking to INDIA TODAY on a Zoom call from Massachusetts, describing the joy she would feel when her horse took off, Doniger’s face lights up: “It’s like flying. You just hang on for the dear life. You become him. You enter his world. Doniger, an accomplished storyteller, allows the horses in her book a very similar abandonment. His reins are loose. His stallions and mares usually speak for themselves.
Horses sometimes play a crucial role in the Hindu pantheon. When Vishnu, for example, appears with a horse’s head, his name is Hayagriva. Kalki, his last avatar, is imagined either as a horse or as a rider. But horses, Doniger points out, become even more important in Hindu ritual. While the horse sacrifice has been performed by several kings through the ages, Dasharatha sacrifices a horse in the Ramayana, not for sovereign power but for offspring. “The idea of the sacrifice here is that the horse gives the king his royal power, his fruitful power.” Rather than imagine it as a sacrifice of a horse, Doniger considers it a sacrifice through horse. “The horse’s life force goes into Dasharatha and then into Rama.”
Unlike stallions, who are often prized for their virility, mares are sometimes vilified for their excess sex. Worse yet, they are seen as bad mothers. Saranyu, who takes the form of a mare, abandons not only his partner, the Sun, but also his children. “This is not how mares behave. Mares take care of their foals the same way everyone takes care of their babies, ”says Doniger. “I think this story is really based on a deep-rooted Indo-European male sexism. What you value in men are things like heroism, warrior qualities. Women are just there to keep men happy.
Doniger’s book is more than just an analysis of myths, however. He is informed by history as well as by religion. Indians, she says, saw mares differently after the Arabs began to arrive on horseback: “In Arab mythology, mares are very good. Muhammad’s mares, for example, are very popular. Thus, in the Rajput stories that Doniger tells, there are noble mares, but there are also noble Muslims. “You often see that it is the horse that complicates the idea of who is an enemy and who is a friend.”
The Arab influence, according to Doniger, can be seen both in the stories we tell about horses and in our horses themselves. “Arabian horses are really the basis of most of the great Indian breeds today: the Kathiawari, the Marwari. They have mixed together so much that you absolutely cannot tell them apart. In one chapter, Doniger shows how the British categorize Indians on the basis of caste in the same way their horses belonged to a breed hierarchy. These stories of discrimination can be difficult to read. “To know what a horse will look like, you have to know who its parents are. When you apply this to human beings, as people did in the 19th century, it all quickly becomes casteism and classism. “
contrary to Hindus: An Alternative History and About Hinduism, books of somewhat encyclopedic scope, Doniger’s recent titles have had a narrower focus. A little like Winged stallions, his book of 2017 The trout ringHe arrived at larger truths through the prism of sex and jewelry. “As a young Jewish girl from New York, India was the distant, the exotic. But as I got older, getting to know India better, I realized that it looked a lot like my world and all the things I love the most about India are the things I love the most everywhere. I started to write more personally. I really care about animals, sex, and jewelry.
same Beyond Dharma, Doniger’s 2018 book on dissent in ancient India, was deeply personal. “It was inspired by my concern to silence dissent in India today.” After Penguin India decided to pulp Hindusin 2014, 80-year-old Doniger says his relationship with the country has changed. “I miss my trips to India. They are not essential for my job, no. I’ve always been a textualist, never an anthropologist, but my friendships mean a lot to me. I think I will probably never see India again.
‘Winged Stallions And Wicked Mares’ by Wendy Doniger; Talking Tiger, Rs. 699, 322 pages