Drowning in Karma cola

In this excerpt from ‘On Hinduism’, her masterly new book, Wendy Doniger traces the resurgence of Puritanism in contemporary India.

books Updated: Mar 12, 2013 12:43 IST
Hindustan Times
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In this excerpt from ‘On Hinduism’, her masterly new book, Wendy Doniger traces the resurgence of Puritanism in contemporary India

On Hinduism
By Wendy Doniger
Aleph Book Company
Rs. 995 pp 660

A pervasive and often violent moral policing has taken over parts of the Indian world today... In 1996, Hindutvavadis began terrorizing MF Husain for his paintings of naked Hindu goddesses… An essay written in 1991 by AK Ramanujan, a world-famous scholar of Indian literature... was about some of the many versions of the Ramayana... A student wing of the BJP opposed its inclusion in the syllabus... on the grounds that it hurt Hindu sentiments...

The Hindutvavadis often blame Western influence on the people whom they censor, while, ironically, many of the Hindutvavadis’ own actions closely resemble censoring frenzies in the United States.

But the Indian incidents are better seen as part of a separate logic of Hindu Puritanism, which has a long history of its own...

Erotic religious imagery is as old as Hinduism. The earliest Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda (c. 1500 BCE), revels in the language of both pleasure and fertility... Sensuality continued to keep its foot in the door of the house of religion throughout the history of India. Read the complete excerpt

But the Upanishads also introduced into India the concept of two paths, one the path of family life, society and children, the other the path of renunciation, solitary meditation and asceticism. ...The erotic tradition continued to thrive in Hinduism.

Many poems to gods in the medieval devotional tradition of bhakti imagine the god as a lover, often an unfaithful lover, and depict the relationship with all the sensual details of good erotic poetry...

In addition to these religious texts that incorporated eroticism, there were more worldly texts that treated the erotic tout court... the Kamasutra is the most famous...

But, at the same time, the dharma texts like Manu’s dharmashastra, with their deep suspicion of women and eroticism, retained their stranglehold on much of Hindu society. And then came the British…

…Influenced by British Protestantism, and embarrassed by aspects of their faith that the colonial rulers found abhorrent or ridiculous, the highly Anglicized Indian elite during the Raj developed new forms of Hinduism, particularly the movement known as the Bengal Renaissance or the Hindu Renaissance.

Following the British lead, these Hindus largely wrote off the dominant strain of Hinduism that celebrated the passions of the gods.

Eventually, these movements grew into the form of Neo-Vedanta called Sanatana Dharma (Eternal or Universal Dharma) that is embraced by many Hindus to this day. Sanatana Dharma is the banner of Hindutva, which presides over the censorship of art, film, literature and social behaviour.

...Hindu attitudes to sexuality were further confused by the very public, and very contradictory, sexuality of one of the most important Hindus of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi...

His celibacy drew not so much upon the Upanishadic and Vaishnava ascetic traditions, which were the source of many of Gandhi’s practices, as upon the hydraulic Tantric techniques of internalizing power... Gandhi was a one-man model of the perennial Hindu attempt to harness sexuality.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries... nationalists blamed India’s sexual conservatism on ‘an unholy combination of imposed Muslim religiosity and imported British “Victorianism”’.

There is some truth in that general historical argument, but it has three serious flaws. First, as for the Muslims, it ignores the enthusiasm for the erotic arts on the part of such Muslims as the Lodi dynasty... and the Mughals...

Second, blaming the British for Hindu prudery allows the very real memory of missionary Puritanism and the racist snobbery of the Raj club culture to overpower the equally important role of other sorts of Brits in the rediscovery of India’s erotic heritage.

Most of all, blaming the Muslims and the British ignores the history of native Hindu anti-eroticism. For, as we have seen, India had its own home-grown traditions of prudery in opposition to its own sensuality. Nowadays... Many Hindus… advocate a sanitized, ‘spiritual’ form of Hinduism...

The irony is that in aping the Muslim and British scorn for Indian sexuality, contemporary Hindus who favour censorship are letting foreign ideas about Hinduism triumph over and drive out native Hindu ideas about-and pride in-their own religion and in the diversity and tolerance that have always characterized the world of the mind in Hinduism.

Among the other bad habits they picked up from the West, from seeds sown, perhaps, during colonization but flowering only in the more recent contacts with American imperialism, was the Protestant habit of censorship.

Never before has the old tension between the erotic and ascetic strains of Hinduism taken the form of one path telling the other path that it has no right to exist...

Read the complete excerpt

First Published: Mar 08, 2013 22:47 IST