Another little tale: Noor, a slender Muslim girl with a sexy overbite, joined my school as a senior. Rumor had it that she’d been expelled from her old school for hanging out with boys. Pretty Noor was clearly lacking in the brains department and soon she was back to her old tricks—Lotharios on fast motorbikes and slicked-back pompadour hair would pick her up at the school gate at the start of lunch break and rush back with her, grinning shamelessly, just before the bell rang for afternoon class. What they managed to do in so short a time boggles the imagination.
Years went by and I was in college. One day, strolling down the main drag of our suburban neighborhood, a woman waved at me from the doorway of one of the new houses that had mushroomed all around us. Garbed in purdah, carrying an infant in her arms, she did not look like anyone I would know. Curious, I walked across and recognized the overbite—yes, it was Noor! As she plied me with tea and pistachio barfi, she told me her father had forced her to marry right after school. Her husband was a businessman who treated her like dirt—because, she admitted sadly, he was aware of her wicked past. He’d agreed to marry her only because of the huge dowry her father had offered. She pointed to a photo of her husband and herself on the mantelpiece; I bit my lip: just a few days ago, this same fellow had stopped his car as I walked down the road and, with a lecherous smirk, had asked if I’d join him for a beer at Bangalore Club.
If this sort of stuff happens in the higher echelons, what do you think happens to, say, women servants? Let me tell you about the strapping driver employed by a friend of mine. After work, the fellow would visit one of his five mistresses—each of whom had been abandoned by her husband. The woman would fry up spicy chicken livers to go with the country liquor to which he was addicted, but if she dared to pick a fight, he’d up and leave, sticking four fingers in the air—the message was this: hey, woman, if you don’t like me just the way I am, there are four others right now who’ll take me in!
Deepa Mehta, one of our finest film-makers, was asked why she thought the attitude towards women in India is so depressingly ugly. “Patriarchy,” she retorted succinctly. “We’ve always felt that the girl child is worth nothing and should in fact be aborted even before she is born. The boy can do no wrong. If the girl is treated as a sub-human, or the boy is raised to believe he can do no wrong, then this is what will happen.” But India was not always this way. What happened? My own elliptical quest for answers led me to partially blame Manu, author of the Manava Dharma-shastra (dates for the creation of this text vary from 1500 BCE to 500 AD) for tossing the Indian gender ball down the hill. Some say Manu compiled the laws at the request of ten great sages following a great flood; others claim he was given the sacred laws by Brahma the Creator himself, rendering the Manusmriti divine. Whatever the truth, Manu was no democrat, for the Brahmin (highest caste) was accorded near divine status while the Sudra (lowest caste) was denigrated and reviled. The Manusmriti specified light fines and penalties for Brahmin offenders and these punishments increased in severity for warriors, farmers, and serfs.
Manu’s views on women in particular make me shudder. Woman, he pronounced, was inept, inconsistent, and prone to sensuality. Therefore he deemed her unfit to exercise individual rights. As an infant, she was to be placed under the dominion of her father; as a wife, she was to be subservient to her husband; as a mother, to her sons; if widowed in her youth, she was never to marry again; if her husband was an adulterous rogue, she was still bound to consider him equal to God; while she could share in the wealth of the family, her wages were never to exceed half of a man’s wages for the same labor; and worst of all, she was prohibited from studying the sacred scriptures or participating in important social functions. I am not surprised that Dr. Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti in public. Born into the lowest caste himself, this brilliant man who battled unimaginable odds to rise to his eminent position, and who crafted the Indian Constitution, would have had excellent reason to do so. I only wish I had been there to dance around that particular funeral pyre.
The good news is that Manu’s influence was not as profound as it might have been. Indians, bless our hearts, can be notorious law-breakers; many, I am sure, scorn Manu’s code for its evil in rigidifying the once liberal caste system and for its misogyny. In fact, right up to about the eleventh century, Indians were a free-thinking lot with a healthy sexual outlook. Take a look at the Kamasutra (The Art of Love-Making), where union between the sexes is elevated to an unparalleled art form. In those golden days, Indian women were free to choose their own partners and men vied with each other to win their hearts in a tradition known as swayamvara. As for the amazing temples of Khajuraho and Konarak, they depict the art of sexuality in both its proud eroticism as well as its transcendental spirituality. Nor was it just sexual freedom that our maidens enjoyed—Gargi, Maitreyi, Leelavati and Lopamudra engaged in spirited philosophical and political debate. As for Mirabai, a fourteenth century Rajput Princess whose heart-melting songs of adoration for the Blue God Krishna are still sung all over India, she wriggled free of a rigid and entrenched patriarchy to become an icon for the liberation of all women.
Certainly the Shakti Cult was responsible for providing women with a multitude of freedoms. Predating the Hindu faith, it was based on the sacred union of male and female as the balancing forces in the Universe. Male represented the physical manifestation of the “Divine”, while female represented Shakti, or non-material energy. Adherents of this path treated all females as personifications of Nature—a notion which echoes eco-feminism in new-age terminology. And so ancient India glorified polyandrous Draupadi with her five Pandava husbands, and extolled Mandodari, wife of the demon-king Ravana, who married her brother-in-law Vibhishana after her husband’s death. Tara wed Sugriva after the death of Bali and Kunti had pre-marital sex. All these women were considered noble, and rightly so, for they were exceptional humans. As for the Mahabharata, it provides proof that far from being considered a mundane pleasure, sexuality had entered the dimension of the sacred.
Then Muslim hordes invaded India and ruled for almost six hundred years. Hindus ordered their women to stay indoors, fearing the hot eyes of their Muslim rulers. And, as ugly fear-based patriarchal values took over, the mutual respect, friendship and love forged between our men and women dissolved into the fear and suppression we so often see today.
Sex is a creative energy bestowed on all living creatures and inextricably aligned to the level of consciousness. Since humans have the highest degree of consciousness, sex occupies a vital place in human inner consciousness and is therefore more than a self replicating process. All ancient civilizations performed fertility rituals to celebrate the energy of the elemental Universe; indeed it is through the body that both body and mind can be transcended, for orgasmic ecstasy suspends the body and elevates consciousness. (To be continued in the next post).
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who destroys all that blocks us from knowing we are the immortal and blissful Self.