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How lucky are we that the crowning glories of classical Indian literature such as Vatsayana, Kalidasa or Jayadeva were not born in 21st century modern, secular India. For had they been, chances are, neither their masterly works - the soul of classical Indian literature - nor they themselves would have survived the present day motley custodians of religion and culture.
How could have poet Jayaveda’s Gita Govinda, concentrating as much on religious fervour as on the intense sexual frolic between Krishna and Radha, passed muster with India’s increasingly sensitive moral police.
Would Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava still be the highly sensual romantic ode to the birth of the son of Shiva and Parvati, in which the Hindu goddess of love, Rati, laments on the death of her beloved Kama thus (translated by celebrated Sanskrit scholar Arthur Ryder)? Here's the description.
O Love, do you remember
me tying you up
with the strings of my girdle
when you got my name wrong,
or the beatings with the lotuses
that were my ear ornaments,
paining your eyes with
their flailing filaments?
O master of sexual delights,
I'm still wearing on my limbs
the decoration of spring flowers
you fashioned for me,
but that beautiful body of yours
is not to be seen.
You were called to mind
and called away
by the cruel Gods
before you completed
the adornment of my left foot.
Come, finish painting it.
Or what poet would have survived today’s right-wing cultural outrage machine who wrote: “Mat pi sharaab Ghalib masjid mein baith ke; Ek hi botal hai, kahin khuda na maang le” (Drink not Ghalib in the mosque; lest God may ask for the only bottle you have).
Given the highly liberal nature of its civilizational contribution to the world, the irony of abandoning cultural openness in India could not have been starker. Today, small but growing and ever more vocal groups of cultural vigilantes in India are attacking everything from books and films to art and western attitudes if they deem these injurious to their faiths or if these don’t conform to their notion of purity and morality.
Books are getting pulped and authors are forced to rewrite; song lyrics change and films and art exhibition are being banned as these vigilantes use the country’s loosely worded hate-speech and blasphemy laws to muzzle cultural liberalism.
The controversy around the textbooks by New Delhi-based retired teacher Dina Nath Batra simply reinforces this steady waning of cultural liberalism in India, something that not only undermines the country’s expanding clout on the global stage but also its civilizational contribution as a foremost intellectual centre since the earliest history of mankind.
“We will not allow writers to insult Hinduism and our gods and goddesses under the excuse of scholarly research,” the 85-year-old teacher was quoted as saying recently. In his wish list for school education in India is an end to English education, starting a call centre for inculcating cultural values and nationalism among children and rejecting foreign languages.
He has forced so many books to be pulped, syllabuses to be tweaked and liberalism to be challenged that he has earned the sobriquet of the ‘Ban-Man’.
But the steady erosion in liberalism is not purely a religious or cultural phenomenon. It has an economic dimension. It is an assault some ascribe to the dislocation caused by a growing economy, and the gap between an affluent, urban youth embracing western values and the more traditional rest of the society, whether older or poorer.
And more often than not, the religious card gets played.
Part of the problem is that India has failed to engage in serious debate about the balance between art and religion, and between freedom of expression and the defence of religious sentiments.
This is a depressing but instructive period in the evolution of Indian society, large sections of which still remain liberal. Let’s hope illiberalism, cultural or religious, does not become mainstream so that our Kalidasa and Jayadeva do not turn in their graves.
The author’s views are personal.