Our reaction to eroticism, sex and various matters concerning women have become regressive. What would have been very normal in ancient India is now taboo and blasphemy.
In Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right, co-editor Wendy Doniger (I know that simply by mentioning her name, I will be infuriating many Hindus, but she has a right to be heard) writes, “Complex psychological and historical factors have bred in certain contemporary Hindus a sense of shame for the eroticism of their own religion.” She adds, “It has also robbed them of their sense of humour”.
O infuriated Hindus (and I am very much a Hindu too), you may question her authority to write, or rather insult, “Hinduism”. But the point she has made is pertinent, especially in the present context, when there’s resistance from many quarters to accepting divergent views about the Hindu ways of life and the Hindu schools of thought.
There’s now a clear divide among the “intellectuals”. At one end of the spectrum are people who call themselves liberals and most of them have strong leftist inclinations. They look at India’s heritage and culture with skepticism, scornfully rubbishing almost everything. Some of the regressive aspects of the Indian mindset provide good fodder to this group.
At the other end is the group which is termed Hindutva-vaadi by the liberals. This group, more often than not, invokes the illustrious cultural past of India, not always looking at things in the most scientific way. Nevertheless, much of what they say cannot be rubbished.
As the term Hindutva-vaadi doesn’t have much significance under the present context, we would rather call this later group rightist, against the former leftist, for the sake of simplicity. For the time being, let me refrain from using terms like left-of-centre or right-of-centre or any such combinations.
Regarding Doniger’s comment, it’s likely that the leftists would agree with it and the rightists disagree. The degree of agreement of the leftists could be as vociferous as that of the disagreement of the rightists, both bordering on a level of weirdness, defying logic after a certain point. In all the cacophony of both the groups, what is often lost is what exactly has become of the Indian psyche, the Indian mentality, which is no doubt a complex function of culture, heritage, religion, history and many other related factors.
The recent documentary India’s Daughter created a furore when the contemptible viewpoints of one of the rapists in the Nirbhaya gang rape in December of 2012, and their defense lawyers were seen as the regressive Indian mentality towards women. Here too, we should accept, when such a statement about Indian mentality is being made, that what’s meant is the mentality of a large number—perhaps a majority—of Indians, not necessarily yours or mine. Nevertheless, it’s important to find out what exactly most Indians think about women and their status in society. It’s also important to investigate if there are indeed any “complex psychological and historical factors”, which could have robbed Indians of, not only their sense of humour, but also simple universal standards of civility.
It’s an ironical dichotomy that in the entire Indian subcontinent, which includes Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, more women have held the highest positions of power and authority than in the West, where women are supposed to be more empowered. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first female head of government in the world when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1960. Indira Gandhi had been the Iron Lady much before Margaret Thatcher. Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia held more important positions in their respective countries much before female head of governments were a vogue in the West. But that doesn’t mean women are the most empowered in the subcontinent. India ranks 132nd in Gender Inequality Index and 101st in Global Gender Gap Index.
In the aftermath of India’s Daughter, a lot has been said about the Indian mentality, especially concerning women. It’s indeed encouraging that so many people, men and women equally, ruffled many a feather and rattled many a leaf and let loose a gush of wind to blow away the stink of a regressive mentality of men of our country. Indeed, India’s daughter has been raped. For that matter of fact, one Indian daughter is raped every 15 minutes in India. So the furor was totally justified.
It’s disgusting to see how India’s daughter is being treated. It’s disgusting to see how she’s being violated every fifteen minutes. It’s disgusting to see how she’s helpless in front of her violator, in front of her abusive husband, insensitive father and an apathetic society as a whole. But then, what would you say of a god who is equally insensitive to her? Everyone is like particles of dust in front of the Almighty. Perhaps that’s why you won’t hear much furor against Him. But that says all about the status of women in India.
“As Sabarimala Ayyappa is ‘Nithya Brahmachari’,” proudly claims the site sabarimala.org, “women between the 10-50 age group are not allowed to enter Sabarimala. Such women who try to enter Sabarimala will be prevented by authorities.”
The famous Sabarimala Temple is under the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous body, managed by people selected by the Kerala government.
In 2006, when the Kannada actress Jayamala said she had touched the idol in the temple 20 years ago, the temple had to be cleansed. The purification ceremony, called parihara kriyas, was initiated in fifty temples across Kerala and was expected to be completed within two years. The process must be over by now. Everything is purified.
Of course, there are PILs against this ghastly act of violation of the rights of India’s daughters, but you wouldn’t find an Arundhati Roy or a Shobhaa De or a Medha Patkar or an Anna Hazare around, protesting against this crime against women. Just think of the symbolism of the entire thing—even God has shut His door to India’s daughter.
Let’s look into the technicalities. Lord Ayyappa is a bachelor, a brahmacharin, and hence he doesn’t like any menstruating women in his vicinity. The Sanskrit dictionary gives the following meaning for brahmacharin: a young Brahman who is a student of the Vedas (under a preceptor) or who practices chastity; a young Brahman before marriage (in the first period of his life). The term is attested in the Atharva Veda.
But it’s really a curious case as to why a brahmacharin has to shun menstruating women. On the contrary, our epics and traditions are replete with instances of brahmacharins revering the spouses of their teachers, gurus, as mothers. In the ancient Gurukul system, where the brahmacharins had to spend the first part of their lives under the tutelage of the gurus in the residential ashramas, the Guru Ma, the wife of the guru was never shunned by the celibate brahmacharins. So where did this ridiculous tradition of shunning women by a brahmacharin come from?
In a Bengali play about Alexander’s campaign in India, the warrior-king tells his army chief, “True Seleucus, strange is this country…” Indeed it’s strange when you see educated people all across South India going to offices barefooted, wearing black dresses for a month and then taking leave from work to do a tiring trek to pay their obeisance to the bachelor Lord who doesn’t want to see the face of any menstruating woman.
This can’t be ignored as a pagan ritual practiced by some aboriginal tribe. It’s a government-approved violation of womanhood supported by a major part of the country where the literacy rate is much higher than that in Haryana where women are killed even before they are born, and medieval khap panchayats decree girls to wear “decent” clothes and not carry mobile phones. (Even though female infanticide is more of a socio-economic evil, but still, it’s relevant in the present context of the general mindset about women.)
It could be argued that the story of Ayyappa is complex and complicated and that the banning of women is due to the deeply rooted cultural taboos against menstruation—blood is considered ritually unclean not just in India but in all religions and cultures around the world. That reminds us of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s lines, tumi adhom hoile ami uttam hoibo na keno, if you’re inferior, why can’t I be superior? There could be counter arguments based on legends, traditions and beliefs. Nevertheless, shouldn’t such things be looked at with a scientific mind and debated? After all, we’re an argumentative lot, aren’t we?
If we looked around, we would stumble upon many such Sabarimalas.
It would be really interesting to figure out when and how exactly such things crept into the Indian mindset. Civilizations evolve from a pagan, totemic culture to a sophisticated one over thousands of years. The Indian civilization has continuously evolved since the days of Bhimbetka, Mehrgarh, Indus Valley and earlier. The culture we see, the rituals we follow, have all evolved over thousands of years. We still have remnants of certain practices which have been continuously in vogue since the times of the Indus Valley Civilization. So when we come across certain deplorable rituals or practices in our modern times, it may be useful to look back and try to find out the source of such things. It’s not that it would eradicate the problem, but knowing the cause of any disease always helps in finding the right vaccine to prevent the disease in future.
When we’re dealing with the subject of how we treat women, especially menstruating ones, it would be interesting to study a very small group of people in the Hindukush who are believed to have preserved some of the very ancient Rig Vedic rituals and practices, which now have no trace elsewhere in the subcontinent. In fact, this group, the Kalash people, restricted to the three Kalash valleys near the Chitral town in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan—Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King was set in this part of the world—are believed to be the direct descendants of the people who might have written the Rig Veda at a later point of time. So in antiquity, they predate the Rig Vedic people.
The Kalash festival Chaumos, the year-end carnival coinciding with the winter solstice, is akin to the Vedic Chaturmasya. Chaumos seems to be a vestige of a very ancient and almost forgotten Vedic ritual called Mahavrata, which is a sort of year-end carnival to stimulate heat and fertility on winter solstice. Sankhayana Aranyaka, a later Vedic text, speaks about this ritual, bits and pieces of which are found in ancient Greece too, especially in the Thesmophoria ritual to promote fertility of humans and earth. Mahavrata was observed on the last or the penultimate day of the year. All throughout, it has strong sexual connotations.
This particular ritual was little different from most other Vedic rituals. There would be a swing representing the Rig Vedic golden swing of the heaven—that’s the sun. When the swing touched the ground, it symbolized the union of sun and earth—again a euphemism for fertility. Similar sacred wedding rituals of symbolic significance were there also in ancient Greece—they called it Ieros Gamos. Then, like the Greek Aischrologia, obscene talk, Mahavrata was also marked by sexually explicit dialogues between a Brahmachari, someone vowed to celibacy, and a courtesan, someone like a Greek Hetaera. This custom is referred to as bhutanam maithunam, copulating of a purified person, and the moral progress repudiated as puranam utsannam, dying and decaying.
As a part of the ritual, maidens with water pitchers would dance round a fire singing, “The cows smell pleasantly—here is sweet drink! Cows smell with sweet odor—sweet drink. The cows are mothers of butter—sweet drink. May they increase amongst us—sweet drink…” As they sang, they struck their right thighs with their right hands and then emptied the pitcher in the fire. Thighs or sakthi were symbols of sexuality used in the Rig Veda at many places.
The 86th hymn of the 10th book of the Rig Veda has a sort of sexually explicit Aischrologia between Indra and his wife Indrani.
Indrani says: “There is no wife who is subhasattara, more pleasant and righteous than me. There is no woman who is suyashutara, who can receive sexual embraces better than me. Na mat pratichyaviyasi, no one can shake her body better than me during sexual intercourse. Na sakthi udyamiyasi, no one can raise her thighs better than me.”
There’s no other meaning of sakthi other than thigh and udyam can’t have any other meaning than to raise or elevate.
Towards the end, Indrani says: “Yasya rambate antara sakthya,” one who hangs down “that” between the two thighs, na seshe kaprit, toils he not to keep alive, to produce progeny. Vijrimbhate spreads like a flood, he who possesses the romasha, which can’t be anything other than the female genital organ.
It doesn’t require much imagination to guess what exactly is being discussed here. Interestingly, the 19th century British Indologist, Ralph T.H. Griffith, a Christian, who was among the first to translate the Rig Veda into English, skipped these lines as they were surely beyond his acceptable limits of decency.
The Kalash people have preserved many aspects of Mahavrata and Aischrologia in their Chaumos festival. Till some time back, as a part of the festival, they would practice a very interesting ritual which has slowly died down, expectedly due to pressures from the majority Muslims all around. This particular thing might have been a local improvisation, but the underlying theme of a fertility ritual was indeed very strong.
A young prepubescent boy, would be considered budalak, the shepherd king. During the summer, the budalak would be sent to the high mountain pastures with the shepherds. He was fed well by the shepherds for few months and made strong and fat. After a few months in the mountains, he was brought back to the valley during the Chaumos and allowed to choose a girl—she could be anyone, a virgin or even a married woman. Then he was allowed to have sex with the chosen girl for one full day—any baby born out of this sex was considered very pure, onjeshta.
On the final night of the Chaumos festival, the villagers are divided into two groups. One group sing softly good old songs praising their gods and the other group sing wild passionate obscene songs—that’s an authentic Kalash version of Aischrologia during their Mahavrata.
Now, where could shunning menstruating women stand in all these? It’s very clear that neither the Rig Veda, nor the pagan tribes in some remote corner of the Hindukush who’ve preserved the primitive rituals which are a few thousands of years old, have such ridiculous and regressive ways of treating women and sex. Even the way eroticism was handled could shock many traditionalists and puritans now. So it’s indeed true that over time, some complex psychological and historical factors have turned things around in such a way that what would have been very normal thousands of years back is now taboo and blasphemy.
Our reaction to eroticism, sex and various matters concerning women have become regressive over time. The impact of Islam and that of the Victorian British culture on prudishness – the idea of original sin, chastity, etc. – could be investigated, alongside the inherent evolution of the Indian society and the influence of the various local cultures. It’s indeed a very positive thing that over thousands of years India has absorbed a lot from the diverse local cultures, thus evolving and remaining flexible and inclusive till this day. Accepting all the positives, it’s also important to question anything that doesn’t serve any good purpose to the humanity, to the progress and the overall development of the nation and its culture.
So it’s important for us to look back at times, and find the right ways. Interestingly, the rightists seldom bring out these aspects of our culture and heritage. Had they done so, the leftists would have been silenced and we could have solved the curious case of the Indian mentality about women, sex and eroticism.