Wendy Doniger is an American indologist and Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions at University of Chicago where she has taught since 1978. Her work is focused on translating, interpreting and comparing elements of Hindu mythology through modern contexts. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities.
MISC: What is a dream?
Wendy Doniger: I can tell you what I know from ancient Indian texts, where a dream is a mental state invisible in waking life, that brings you closer to a reality.
And the relationship between dream and myth?
I think a lot of imagery in myth takes from the universal things that come up in dreams. But it’s also true that people often dream about things they know from myths. So it’s a two-way street. Dreams provide myths with images, but so do myths provide dreams with material.
So there’s a looping and shared creativity of dream and myth among most human cultures.
I think so. Every culture has dreams and many of the myths in many cultures tend to use universal dream imagery.
At a very basic human level then, dreams are an engine for creative narrative.
Even the dullest people are creative in their dreams.
And dreams also become a narrative device in many myths.
Dreams are stories. We dream myths in images that are connected by implicit narrative and then you can actually write a narrative; make up a myth which more explicitly connects the dots.
Do you have a favorite narrative where dream is literally evoked?
I think Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is a brilliant application of dream imagery. You just see dream images in them. The idea of transformation, against your will. Running fast and not getting anywhere. And then the explicit discussion of the fact that the White Queen is dreaming and we’re all parts of her dream and if she wakes up we will cease to exist. The idea that you could be part of someone else’s dream is an idea that Lewis Carroll may very have got- ten from India. It’s a very old Indian idea and Carroll knew a lot about India.
Your book Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities uses such a wide palette of sources, from Freud to Plato to the Sanskrit texts. Does the form of the book mean to imitate the dreaming process?
Yes. It’s free association. Something rhymes with something else. In dreams, it’s sometimes hard to find the logical associations, but there is one. And when you write, you have the logical associations. You plot out the outline of a book, but things come to you. One thing reminds you of another and the more creative the writing is, the more irrational the connections are, but they make sense in their own way.
How are the distinctions between dreams and reality in the classical Indian texts you’ve studied different than the ones we make today?
In classical Indian civilization, dreams were regarded as more real than waking reality. The understanding was that waking reality is false in many ways and it’s just pointing to other, realer realities. Dreams move you up one step on the path to figuring the real truth at the heart of things.
So dreams can be realer than reality, because they give a truer sense of the way that knowledge overlaps. It’s difficult to think that was in waking life. We like to separate our disciplinary lenses rather than layer them.
Yes. The way that knowledge grabs very different levels of the world and puts them together. You know things in several different ways at once. The categories in which we stack bits of knowledge traditionally shouldn’t be kept that separate. The idea that scientists know one reality and poets know another. The methodology in my book jumps quite a bit from artists to scientists. Dreams are one of the ways that those realities can come together as a total picture of how we know things, what we know, and how we evaluate what we think we know.
This article appears in MISC Fall, 2013, The Inspiration Issue