27 Dec 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…