Master Teacher Roundtable: Wendy Doniger

According to Wendy Doniger, there is an ancient Hindu text that offers a rather colorful explanation of how a soul enters “rebirth” into a next life.  The soul hovers over the bed — or wherever your parents are doing the deed — and chooses life as son or daughter right there.  If the soul desires the woman and hates the man, it enters the womb as a male.  If the soul desires the man and hates the woman, it enters the womb as a female.  It’s an explanation that even Sigmund Freud would enjoy analyzing.

It’s pretty remarkable that of all the topics discussed during her two-and-a-half hour lecture titled “Death and Rebirth in the History of Hinduism” — this is the anecdote that captivated me (and humored me) most.

Wendy is not a traditional yogi.  In fact, she’s not a master yoga teacher at all.  She is an academic with Ph.D.s in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard and has been teaching at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago since 1978.  Hence, her talk was highly intellectual and reminded me of some of the hard-to-stay-awake lectures I used to attend as a student at Northwestern University.  The flow of the discussion was tough to follow, especially since questions from the floor jumped around on all sorts of topics related to karma and death — highly esoteric topics unto themselves — and Wendy’s answers weren’t very straightforward.  In the end, the information dispensed left me more confused than when I entered.

I’m quickly learning that that’s a theme with yoga education, however: Each new door I walk through reminds me just how little I know.  And that’s OK.  In fact, it’s great.

Aside from the idea that souls watch people fornicate, here are two other gems I took away from Wendy’s lecture:


The concept of lila (“lee-lah”).  Lila is a Sanskrit word that means playfulness or the act of putting on a performance.  According to ancient Hindu texts, this is the spirit in which the Divine (God) created the universe.  Wikipedia explains it this way: “Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute (Brahman).”

I immediately conjured up an image of God — the male God with the white beard, as described in my CCD classes — having a good chuckle as he unfolds a storyboard featuring the universe in perpetuity.  He then sprinkles billions of game pieces — or souls — on the storyboard and sits back to watch as these pieces begin interacting with one another on the storyboard.  Life becomes one giant game of, well … Life.If the universe is truly the result of “creative play,” and we’re all just bit players on this global stage, then why the hell do we take everything so seriously?  If this is all “play,” then nothing is “real” … shouldn’t this make life immensely easier to live?

Lila reminded me of the line from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’: “All the world’s a stage / And all men and women merely players.”


Karma is different from fate.  Wendy said that many misinterpret karma as a fatalistic concept — in other words, it’s something about your life that you cannot change.  Not so.  “Karma explains the hand you’re dealt, but not how to play it,” she said.

She provided this hypothetical: If you’re born into the world blind, it’s your karma.  But that doesn’t mean you accept your blindness and do nothing about it.  You go to doctors, you seek out treatments, you pray, you inspire other blind people to live vibrant lives.  You exert free will to try and change the situation.  You work through your karma.

I will continue working through mine, that’s for sure.

Getting ready to listen to Wendy Doniger’s lecture. All spots of this floor were ultimately taken — the studio was packed.

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