“O dharma, how hard it is to understand your essence. Only you know who protects you and who destroys you.”
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s pensive dirge may be taken as a warning that the legitimate perspective of culture should not become a predicament for society. Few know that Vidyasagar’s first work, Vasudevcarit (“The Life of Vasudev”), based on the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana dealing with the amorous deeds of Krishna, was written as a school primer. It was considered unsuitable for publication by G.T. Marshall, Secretary of the Sanskrit College and College of Fort William.
My point is that ever since the Christian missionaries sneaked a piggyback ride with the colonialists, India has witnessed an alliance of unsurpassed fidelity between Victorian sexual prudery and middle class puritanism, which distrusts excessive individualism and deviance from the common norm. This modern bourgeois morality is of an entirely different genre from the moral restraint exhorted by the sastras (religious texts), and may even be regarded as un-Indian to the extent that it seeks to rigidly delimit the contours of social conduct, without providing for exceptions to the rule.
But now that that revered Empress, who lent her name to an age of repressed sexuality, has herself been found fit for exile from Eden, it is time we allowed the catholicism of the sannatan dharma (eternal way of life) to triumph. It is now almost a month since Deepa Mehta’s celebrated film, Fire, became victim of a de facto ban. Yet, neither Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor any of his colleagues have seen fit to denounce the phoney morality behind the violence in cinema halls in Mumbai and Delhi.
The sudden targeting of a movie running uneventfully for three weeks without adverse impact on public morals reflects sheer prejudice against unusual (though not unknown) forms of self-expression. It was a perfect opportunity for our poet Prime Minister to speak up for the fraternity of liberty, but he opted for discretion over valour. Left alone to carry the cross, the inexperienced Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi tossed the ball back to the Censor Board’s court. It is to be hoped that Pramod Mahajan, who took over as I & B Minister after the event, will vindicate his reputation for broadmindedness by the time the case comes up in the Supreme Court, where Mehta has turned for justice.
The court will no doubt decide the case on merits, yet there are issues of concern to the discerning public that deserve comment even at this stage. The first is the tragic polarisation among intellectuals, though the issue truly involves artistic privilege, freedom of conscience and self-expression, and above all, women’s rights to experience and articulate the multiple dimensions of their personalities as they journey to discover their Identity and Self. Yet, it is mostly Left-leaning intellectuals who have supported Mehta, and the silence of centrists and rightists makes the fight for Fire seem like a gay rights’ movement, which, in fairness, it is not.
Homosexuality/lesbianism is as old as human civilisation, and is no more unusual than, say, a left-handed child. Yet, world over, the tyranny of the majority has confined them to the closet, and they have been hounded as deviants, lumpens, out-castes. In India, the males have mainly survived in small religious sects, and little is known about their female counterparts. Mehta is not quite correct when she says that lesbianism is part of the Indian heritage; though she probably only means that it’s existence has been acknowledged by ancient chroniclers. Actually, it is simply a human condition, and is as universal as the four blood groups and twenty-four chromosomes.
In the west, homosexuals have been victims of witch-hunts, Inquisition, et al. It was only with the qualitatively different urbanisation created by the Industrial Revolution that they began to find space for themselves. Yet it took the Jewish pogroms of the first half of this painful century to morally discredit the hunting down of human beings like animals. Homosexuals had their day in the 60s’ sexual revolution when flower children, hippies, et al took over the campuses and shook the smug, moral virtuousness of civilised society by the scruff of its neck. They infused enough energy into the environment for heterosexuals to re-examine their prejudices and beliefs, and come to the conclusion that they do not have the right to judge, much less condemn, their fellowmen. The roots of western tolerance lie in this simple humility. Yet, even today, prejudices are fairly deeply entrenched, and homosexual rights are an issue in every US presidential election.
Coming to India, there is a need to distinguish between tradition and scripture. To the extent that Hindu texts acknowledge unnatural sex, they may be said also to validate it, albeit for the select few, such as the male worshippers of Kartikeya (despite efforts I have not been able to find direct references to lesbianism). This brings us to traditional practice.
In every society, the sheer struggle to survive nature, disease, war, created a powerful impulse towards large families. This naturally tilted the scales in favour of heterosexual unions, and if we recall the horrible treatment of barren women we can appreciate the hatred towards relationships that are by definition without ‘fruit.’ This is understandable when we remember that it was only in 1800 that the world population first touched one thousand million (now close to 6,000 million).
Naturally, homosexuality/lesbianism was seen as perverse, deviant, and inspired by evil. However, now the time has come for a mature realisation that homosexuality/lesbianism is the natural sexual tendency of some individuals. There is simply no justice in hounding and ridiculing individuals choosing a non-heterosexual relationship.
The moral prefect was a painful part of the history of the Christian west, which took two thousand years of sustained struggle by the so-called heretics to overcome. Today, it is a grim reality in Islam. But it has neither religious nor historic sanction in the sannatan dharma, and must not be allowed to make a backdoor entry in a society justly famed for its civilisational tolerance. Mr Balasaheb Thackeray needs to be told that Hinduism neither appoints nor needs ‘sole spokesmen.’ If, as is being alleged, Mr Thackeray is merely fishing for a cause to bring back his party’s fast eroding middle class vote, he would do well to contain the menace of the ‘hafta culture’ (regular payments from well-off families) that is beginning to rival underworld extortions.
Mehta may have made a competent film, but she misses the point when she says her film is about “the sexuality of the emerging Indian woman,” thereby inadvertently giving the impression that women in general are seeking fulfilment by experimenting with such relationships. The point is not a choice of sex, or even a right to experiment with sex, but the expression and fulfilment of a naturally burgeoning sexuality. The difference is vital. In this context, the “emerging Indian woman” is really the suppressed ancient woman (of all cultures) struggling to come forth and display an extra facet of her multifarious personality. The Indian tradition has always recognised that sexuality is intimately and inextricably associated with creativity and its expression. Indeed, that is why they are both located in the sex chakra.
The Pioneer, 5 January 1999