Hinduism – 6: Interactions in the Mirror of Sex

Continued from Hinduism -5: Impacts of Interactions With Muslims

The aim of this series of posts is to comprehend how Hinduism was impacted by its interactions with outsiders – first Muslims and then the British – in order to better understand where we are today and how we got here.

In the last post, we concluded that interaction with Muslims had very little impact on how Hindus viewed their own religion – its philosophy, practices or traditions. However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim.

We will argue later that the impact of the interaction with the British was very different. But before we address that topic in detail, it is both useful and interesting to presage the argument with a specific illustrative example. The illustration pertains to the attitude towards sex and is described largely in the words of William Dalrymple as they appear in his highly informative article (India: The Place of Sex) in the New York Review of Books (June 26, 2008). 

Dalrymple portrays pre-Islamic India using the art forms prevalent at the time of the Pallava dynasty (590-630 AD):

This was a world where the frontier between the divine and the human remained porous. Vishnu, Brahma, and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and intervene in its battles. Images of the holy family of Lord Shiva echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms and heads distinguishes one from the other. Queens, courtesans, and goddesses alike are shown carefree and sensual: bare-breasted, they tease their menfolk, standing on tiptoe to kiss them, hands resting provocatively on their hips….

There is something wonderfully frank and direct about these gods who embody human desire. Lord Shiva reaches out and fondly touches the breast of his consort, Uma-Parvati, a characteristically restrained Chola way of hinting at the immense erotic powers of a god who embodies male fertility. Elsewhere, Hindu sculpture can often be explicitly and unembarrassedly erotic, as can much classical Hindu poetry: Kalidasa’s poem The Birth of Kumara has an entire canto of ninety-one verses entitled “The Description of Uma’s Pleasure,” which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of the divine couple. The same is true of much of the secular poetry of the period….

Sexuality in India has traditionally been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry. It was looked upon as an essential part of the study of aesthetics: srngararasa—the erotic rasa, or flavor—being one of the nine rasas comprising the Hindu aesthetic system. If the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, the oldest scriptures of the Hindu tradition, collected in the Rig Veda, begins with the creation of kama—sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the Hindu scheme of things, the gratification of kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma—duty or religion—and artha, the creation of wealth.

The explicitly erotic sculptures that fill the walls of temples such as Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, as well as the long Indian literary tradition of erotic devotional poetry, may be read at one level as metaphors for the longing of the soul for the divine, and of the devotee for God. Yet such poems and sculptures are also clearly a frank expression of pleasure in life and love and sex. In pre-colonial India the devotional, the metaphysical, and the sexual were not seen as being in any way opposed; on the contrary the three were closely linked.

Here is how Dalrymple describes the encounter of this world with Islam:

Islam brought with it to India a very different attitude toward sexuality, which was much closer to Eastern Christian notions—the environment in which so many early Islamic attitudes developed—and which divided the mind from the body, and the sensual from the metaphysical. Like much early Christian thought, Islam emphasized the sinfulness of the flesh, the dangers of sexuality, and, in extreme cases, the idealization of sexual renunciation and virginity. In Iranian literature, love is usually portrayed as a hazardous, painful, and dangerous condition: in the great Persian epic Layla and Majnun, Majnun is driven mad by his love for Layla, and ends up dying wasted, starving, and insane.

Yet, remarkably, Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing. The Kamasutra survived and in time even helped to convert to the life of pleasure India’s initially puritanical Muslim rulers. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries many of the classics of Hindu writing on the erotic were translated into Persian for the use of the princes and princesses of Indian Muslim courts. At the same time there was an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art and literary experimentation. This was the age of the great poet-courtesans: in Delhi, during the late eighteenth century, the courtesan Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice:

“She decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers in ink exactly as is found in the finest cloth of Rum.”

At this period, too, a new specialist vocabulary of Urdu words and metaphors developed to express the poets’ desires: the beloved’s arms were likened to lotus stalks, her thighs to banana stems, her plaited hair to the Ganges, and her rumauli—a word that was coined to describe the faint line of down that runs down the center of a woman’s stomach, just below her navel—to the River Godavari. In this spirit, the Lucknavi Muslim poet Shauq (1783–1871) wrote a series of masnawis—or rhymed couplets—on amorous subjects entitled Fareb-i-Ishq, or The Wiles of Love. At the same time Islamic weavers struggled to produce not the heavy burkhas now worn by their Wahhabi-influenced successors, but ever more transparent and revealing cholis, or blouses, with weaves of wondrous lightness named baft hawa (woven air), ab-e-rawan (running water), and shabnam (evening dew).

Similar concerns inspired the ateliers of the miniaturists. In eighteenth-century Delhi one of the later Mughal emperors, Muhammad Shah II, commissioned miniatures of himself making love to his mistress, while further south in Hyderabad the artists were producing miniatures that tapped into the old erotic pulse of pre-Islamic Indian art, and that were concerned above all with the Arcadia of the scented pleasure garden. Here courtesans as voluptuous as the nude apsarases—the beautiful, heavenly sprites of ancient Pallavan stone sculpture—attend bejeweled princes. Such images would be unthinkable anywhere else in the Islamic world.

And what transpires with the arrival of the British:

It was not, therefore, during the Islamic period that the dramatic break with India’s erotic traditions occurred; instead that change took place during the colonial period with the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Responding to the evangelical diatribes about “Hindoo immorality,” a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to reexamine their own traditions. A movement arose advocating the banning of courtesans, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.

Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about both the role of the erotic in pre-modern Hinduism and India’s history of sexual sophistication. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian AIDS crisis a few years ago, the health minister of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed that “India’s native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms.”

Dalrymple traces this history partly to explain the prudishness of modern right-wing Hindu reformers. We will argue that their militancy can also be attributed to a similar process.

This is the essence of the story of India and its interactions with outsiders – how Muslims became Indians absorbed by the openness and informality of Hinduism; and how Indian elites (both Hindu and Muslim) became quasi-English impressed by the superiority of science and rationality.

This was also how Hinduism began to doubt its strengths and started to remake itself in the image of another faith. The details have to await the next post which will then set up an explanation for how two streams, Hindu and Muslim, merged into an Indianness only to diverge again with tragic consequences.

To be continued…

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  • sanjaychoudhry
    Posted at 20:09h, 27 December Reply

    “However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim.”

    This is bull crap. Do you have any proof that social stratification existed among the Hindus in Muslim times? Do you have any contemporary records? Caste system as it exists today is a creation of the British through their census.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:05h, 28 December Reply

    Sanjay, You are right on a number of counts and perhaps ‘social stratification’ was not the best term to use in the context.

    You have your finger on one of the most important interventions in the subcontinent – the introduction of the census by the British. The caste system became much more rigid under the British after the codification under the census – before that there was a lot more fluidity in the social system. The use of the word ‘mirror’ in the title of this post is quite apt in this context – British society was divided by class and it was natural for them to interpret Indian castes in the mirror of their own social class system.

    You are also quite right that this should be a discussion based on evidence. On this blog, we have given great importance to the social and political implications of the census using historical documentation from the excellent book by Kamaljit Bhasin Malik (In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2007). The posts dealing with this issue are listed under the theme of ‘Modernity’ on the Main Page.

    While it is correct that the British made both religious and caste distinctions very rigid (on religion, see the post on Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?), it is also a fact that the British did not invent everything. The narrative of Fa Hien, a Buddhist pilgrim from China who visited India around 400 AD, mentions groups who were outcastes and universally shunned by reason of their work as disposers of the dead.

    Given that there were a significant number of conversions to Islam and also given that there is no evidence of large-scale use of coercive measures, it seems reasonable to suggest that groups such as the ones mentioned above would have supplied the bulk of the converts. It is also reasonable to infer that because Hinduism was a remarkably open and tolerant religion, there were no violent oppositions to such conversions. Once again, such opposition, embodied in the shuddhi movement, for example, became common after the census had made numbers important in ways that were earlier not the case.

    There are a number of issues here that need to be discussed to improve our understanding of the past and thereby help us in dealing with the present. That is the objective of this blog.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:04h, 18 March Reply

    SouthAsian, I will be eternally greatful to you for publishing this series on the interaction with muslims. It has answered many questions in my mind. Particularly, I couldn’t help wonder that there was something wrong with the way history of the muslims was being peddled in India today. It simply did not explain their Indian-ness to me. If they were invaders only and if there were only forced conversions, then I cannot imagine the successding generations accepting Islam wholeheartedly. Your series has really brought me great peace and understanding on this issue.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:29h, 12 May Reply

    William Dalrymple’s evidence for his claims is made of literary works and the architecture of temples. I would think that ideas in literary works floated among the elite in Hindu society. Would the attitudes of the elite represent the masses? I doubt it.
    About the temples, again I think that the ruling elite who constructed these temples pretty much did what fancied them. Does that mean the masses related to the sculptures the same way the elite did? I’m not so sure. They could have. Otherwise the temples would have been abandoned from the start. They may not have and may have merely gone into the temples to win favour with the ruling elite.

    Take the example of sexually tantalizing bill boards in India. If these happen to survive into the future after everything else was destroyed in some sort of calamity, can we say that Indians of today were a sexually expressive bunch?

    I hope I am making sense.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:49h, 13 May

      Vinod: The attitude of the elite does not represent the masses. The causality runs the other way. The elite are the trendsetters and the masses aspire to their lifestyles – that is the basis of all advertisement. So, if the sexually tantalizing billboards are all that survive, they would be an indicator of fantasies of middle class Indians with the ability to buy. A quick observation of TV ads is enough to indicate that people without purchasing power do no exist or matter. Your suggestion to research the aspirations of middle class males would make for a great project.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:33h, 13 May

      SA, you may be right in the modern world where social mobility and the middle class are a reality. But in the pre-modern world that Dalrymple examines, would the masses actually aspire to follow the elite or would they have simply thought of them as beyond the pale of normality and ignored them?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:39h, 14 May

      Vinod: That is a good question to which I do not have an answer. I am sure much would be available on the sexual mores and customs of the middle ages in different societies. My own sense is that the Victorian Age was an aberration; attitudes were less puritanical in earlier times. Also, while the masses might not have aspired to become like the elites in the absence of any means of social mobility, public art patronized by the latter could not been completely against the sensibility of the former.

  • Margene Narr
    Posted at 02:00h, 31 March Reply

    Hinduism is perhaps the oldest continuing religion in the world, with sacred texts estimated to date back to 3000 B.C. Many of its traditions have lasted for eons, with origins lost in time. A Hindu wedding, one of the most sacred of rites, incorporates many of these timeless rituals and customs. In ages past, these traditions and rituals would extend over several days, but in today’s hectic society, such a schedule is difficult to accommodate. Today, many of these traditions are performed the night before and the day of the wedding ceremony. The Hindu ceremony centers not just on the bride, but celebrates the coming together of two families. To illustrate this theme, many customs involve both families.-

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:17h, 25 July Reply

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