Adi Shankara with disciples/Wikimedia Commons
Snapshot
  • Does Saundarya Lahari really deter character-building in children, or is this simply talk from a culture that is still within the grip of Victorian values?

One of the interesting tropes in our epics is this – whenever there is a good thing happening, there will come either a Manthara – the hunchback maid from the Ramayana, who could not bear the coronation of Rama, or a Sishupala from the Mahabharata, who could not bear Krishna receiving the first honours in Yudhishthira’s royal sacrifice. Sections of the Indian media and intellectuals seem to suffer from a socio-pathological syndrome which can be called the Manthara or Sishupala syndrome.

If it is Independence Day, there will be a TV debate about whether the increase in the sales of national flags indicates jingoism. If it is Deepawali, of course it is crackers and pollution. If it is Pongal, then cruelty to animals. if it is Navratri, then there will be a debate based on the outdated refuse of colonial Indology – Durga as an Aryan sex worker. There is a method to this madness – a deep-seated hatred towards everything Indic or Hindu, a suicidal achievement of the Nehruvian education system that even India’s first prime minister would have found appalling.

So, when 80,000 people, including thousands of school children recited the Saundarya Lahari, it was only natural that the Manthara syndrome surfaced once again. An opinion-editorial cried out that “the Sanatanis are making big mistakes and there is nobody to point out that”. And then the writer indicated what was wrong – “Saundarya Lahari is a Tantra text, not to be chanted by children.”

The article went on to question the traditional attribution of authorship to the scripture: “Saundarya Lahari has exquisite description of the female body. If Shankaracharya was celibate, how could he go into such detailed and extraordinary descriptions of the female body?”

Well... that is the koan. The tradition which attributes to Shankara the authorship of this literature is thus providing a mystery for the student to understand the feminine as the self and not objectifying the female body. Naturally, shallow pseudo-rationalism has a tough time understanding it.

Then, the writer quotes one Agni Sreedhar, “a journalist and Tantra scholar”, and builds on the criticism: “... It is as if you are teaching Kama Sutra to children. It is a crime actually. I am shocked that 14, 15, 17 year olds were made to recite it. … This is not like casual sex education. One may argue why not educate children at an early stage itself. But not all children can go to university before going to first standard. Teach them Bhagavath Geethe, or Katopanishath or Dasa Keerthanas and if not blinded by Vedic attitude, teach Basavanna. They help build character in children.”

Note the implicit insinuation – so Saundarya Lahari somehow is destructive to character-building in children?

One can see clearly where the argument leads – criminalisation of even traditional hymns through a Victorian template. Imagine Siddaramaiah introducing legislation for “scrutinizing morally fit, religious verses to be taught to Hindu children” or the Supreme Court passing an order to appoint a religious inquisitor council that will go through all Hindu literature to decide the age limits for the verses to be taught. Of course, jihad and holy wars, being morally elevating, can be taught at a tender age. But Saundarya Lahari? No – it has been strictly decreed PG-18 by the inquisitors of Indian secularism. Imagine a situation where teaching Adi Shankara, Jeyadeva and Andal is a criminal offence.

Welcome to a Wahhabi form of secularism in India.

But is Saundarya Lahari really harmful to the young minds as is claimed? I am from Tamil Nadu and I have a parallel. I am sure every region in India will have such a parallel to draw.

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We in Tamil Nadu grew up with Andal’s Thiruppavai. Andal’s poetry contained in it both bridal and erotic mysticism of the highest order. Every year, in the month of Markazhi (December-January), boys and girls competed to recite the verses of Andal by heart. They works are like the seeds thrown. As we grew, they either grew with us or remained dormant. When they sprouted, the psychological and spiritual insights they provided not just in spiritual matters but even in matters pertaining to gender relations was phenomenal.

Consider the Thiruppavai. Andal describes the Divine Consort of Vishnu in one song as having “tender breasts similar to golden vessels, lips so red and subtly dilating hips”. In another, she speaks about Vishnu “resting the flower coiffured Nappinnai’s breasts on His own flower adorning chest”. When we learnt these verses, we understood the devotional spirit naturally and, in our innocence, the love of Andal for Vishnu. As we grew, the songs grew with us, guiding us – making us understand how in the very human sexual relationship and attraction, the divine spark lurks within for us to discover. When we, with full respect for the other gender – not objectifying it, enter into a relationship, we essentially walk the path of the Divine and if we allow the verses to grow in us, they guide us in our inner pilgrimage – what Jung calls individuation and Maslow, self-actualisation. But in the case of Indic psychology, it goes even further.

Even traditionalist commentaries on Thiruppavai speak so openly about the fluid nature of gender identities themselves. Today, we have fixed gender stereotypes which play havoc with the lives of gender minorities.

In verse 11 of Thiruppavai, Andal, in her effort to awaken a sleeping girl, describes her waist-hip region as similar to the hood of a snake that is in a termite mound. Sri Kanchi Prathivathi Bayangaram Annamacharya, in his commentary on the verse, points out that the wordings suggest Andal is seeing the other girl through a male’s eyes. Then he goes on to explain how the gender identities become fluid and interchangeable in heightened emotions.

One should look at the complete way and ease with which the traditionalists analyse the possible sexual undercurrents and then connect it to bridal mysticism with a seamless consistency – neither contrived nor imposed. All these aspects have been involuted in the verses every Hindu child learns in Tamil Nadu.

What is true for the poetry of the girl from Srivilliputhur is also true for the poetry of the boy from Kaladi.

Unfortunately, our education system does not make use of these wonderful and very unique ennobling dimensions of our culture. Instead, it imparts colonial values and favours dogmatic religion, which in turn results in artificial binaries, and it is this that does immense harm to the psyche of our children.

Sex education cannot be “casual” as the op-ed damning Saundarya Lahari claims. It has to be contextualised in culture, history and society. These sacred literature and even our traditional folk literature provide our educators with that context. In the West, sex education is secularised. In India, the context is diametrically opposite. We may be in a condition of social stagnation and in the stranglehold of Victorian values, but our culture still has the potentiality to make us whole. And we are fools not to use it and worse than fools if we decide to throw them into oblivion with claims of mystic secrecy.

Featured image: Adi Sankara with disciples (Wikimedia Commons)

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