In the recent past, there has been a lot of uproar, first by the protectors of Indian culture and then by the protesters. Be it the attacks on women in pub, the pub culture, or the proposed Valentine Day disruptions. None of them have got it right. The protectors are as selective in their quotation and interpretation of the culture as the protesters. In all this, they both are losers because none of them are actually getting the true points of the past (the quoted culture) or the present (the changes in times, the harmony of society, the amicable solutions). Just like the environment is never in danger, but the humans and life forms are due to the changed environment, similarly, it is not the culture that is in danger, but people who lose the power of interpretation of what is right and wrong, and how to handle the wrong. Maybe the protectors have a purely political motive of garnering votes from non-urbanites with these urban issues that have no relevance to most actual voters.
[The main aim of this article is to set a balance between extreme opinions about Indian culture people and media are spreading by misquoting or misunderstanding the ancient texts. This article quotes the scriptures in context so that we can appreciate the wisdom gone by and apply only the good points in our lives. Despite the length this article tries to shed light into the liberal views our ancestors had, compared to the very narrow minded and violent nature of today's culture-custodians. Thank you for your patience]
In all this, it is surprising that Times of India went to Wendy Doniger for her expert comments and printed them in the Sunday issue of Bangalore edition (Feb 8, 2009). Wendy is well known for her skewed perspective of Indian culture and philosophy (her interpretations of Ganesh and seeing phallic symbol speaks more of her mental state than of Indian culture). There are only two types of voices being heard – one, of those who haven't lived, and do not have much compassion for, Hindu culture and religion e.g. Wendy, (after all how many times are Hindu scholars asked to comment on Christianity or Islam); and two, of those who born as Hindus have spent lives in the rituals (or maybe not) but without broadening their knowledge to the context and reasons of such practices. Surely, most of them have failed to understand what Hindu society was like prior to external influences and subsequent calcification of society when some bad practices became norm in Indian society. There are much better scholars of Indian culture, both Western and Indian, whom TOI could have approached to comment.
This silence needs to be broken with the proper quoting, understanding of our texts; because two wrongs don't make a right and we may be the ultimate losers if we lose the true message of the great minds of our past, whose study of human psyche and its dilemmas is amazing. Most of the philosophical texts need patience and clear mind to understand. Most of the social texts need the proper understanding of the context of the society as well as the statements and reapply them to modern contexts properly. To throw around prejudices and bad mouthing is quick and easy; to explain them properly takes more time.
Let me first take on Wendy's coverage of Hindu scriptures and the selective, biased quotations. While Manusmriti has been a pet stick to beat Hindus, the detractors have no idea or intention to know of the greater good in this social constitutional guide, without whose understanding no one can claim to understand the past and present of the complexities of Hindu society. Such a text didn't survive centuries because it oppressed women and certain sections of the society, but because it understood that the needs and abilities of different sections are different, and catered to all.
Wendy asserts that the problematic male attitude towards women can be traced back to Upanishads. She says, "But we also find in the Upanishads the first seeds of a renunciant movement that rejects the desire to have children, wealth, and women, warning that sexuality must be controlled, primarily by controlling women." She fails to quote anything from these esoteric philosophical discourses where the rishis have tried to put social controls on women, that too of others. Rather, we see even in ShrimadBhaagavat MahaPurana (श्रीमद्भागवद्महापुराण) , 3:14:9-28 that Diti (दिति), wife of Rishi Kashyap (कश्यप) in her amorous mood one evening asks him to satisfy her. Then Rishi Kashyap says, 'Like a person crosses an ocean on a ship, similarly the householder, while supporting all the other aashrams (brahmacharya ब्रह्मचर्य, vaanprastha वानप्रस्थ , sanyaas संन्यास ) crosses the ocean of worldly miseries. Wife is said to be the half body (ardhaangini अर्धांगिनी ) of a man desirous of the three goals (dharma धर्म , artha अर्थ , kaam काम ). Man pursues truth and life worry free when his wife takes the responsibilities of the home management. ... But still, this is the time for evening meditation, the hour of Shiva; hence please wait till I finish my duties.' Diti still insisted and Kashyap obliged her accepting it as destiny, rather than cursing her or oppressing her.
The wise have always warned the saadhak (साधक), the pursuer of truth and spirituality, of the dangers of distraction to the penance of truth. And lust being one of the strongest to overcome. Kaam is one of the six internal enemies - 'kaam काम (desire), krodh क्रोध (anger), moh मोह (attachment), lobh लोभ (greed), mada मद (delusion), matsar मत्सर(jealousy)' Hence, the saadhak has been warned to avoid any situation where they may fall victim to the temptation. Nowhere have they said, unlike many other religions and societies, that women are evil by themselves. It would also help to read Shukasaptati (शुकसप्तति), a story of a merchant son who goes out to foreign lands for business, leaving behind a young bride with his wise parrot and maiynaa. When the new bride in the company of friends is overcome by sexual desire, she tries to arrange to meet many men. The wise parrot and maiynaa, tell her stories with riddles and keep her at home on the condition of telling the answer. Nowhere do we find women forcefully kept chaste. A popular saying goes, 'Even the wife leaves the poor, indeed poverty is the source of all ills.' Even as late as Chaanakya's Chandragupta, there are provisions of women inheriting property from their parents, and rules on after a woman's death, how much should the children from her previous husbands get in inheritance.
As for the Upanishads, that source of pure pursuit of truth, they accept practical truth to be relative to time and space. In Taittireeya Upanishad, Shikshaa Valli, at the graduation, the guru gives the last sermon to the outgoing students, "satyam vada. dharmam chara. ... maatRi devo bhava. atithi devo bhava. ... atha yadi te karma-vichikitsaa vaa ..." (सत्यम् वद । धर्मं चर । ... मातृ देवो भव । अतिथि देवो भव । ... अथ यदि ते कर्म-विचिकित्सा वा ) i.e. "Speak the truth. Follow the dharma (right path). ... Be of the thought that mother is divine, father is divine, teacher is divine, unannounced guest is divine. Follow only those of our deeds that are unblemished, not others. ... Even after this (10-14 years of residential study with the guru) if you have a dilemma about the right duty or behaviour (about a situation), then whatever the braahmaNa (ब्राह्मण) (i.e. the wise thinkers) of that place - the wise who are of noble thought, able (to guide), engaged (in duty and good conduct), of unharsh nature, desirous of the right thing – whatever they do in the context of that situation, you should do, whatever they say, you should say." [Taittireeya Upanishad, Shikshaa Valli, 11 Anuvak ]. This shows that truth has to be reinterpreted with time and location, and those who are wise, good natured, engaged in work (not idle talkers) and of noble thought, only they should guide the society in situations of dilemma. And the greatest of great rishis of the Upanishads were humble and realistic enough to acknowledge their possible shortcomings and the change of applied truth with time and location.
The very title of Wendy's article 'If the wife is not radiant, she doesn't stimulate the man" is selective and distorted, even though factual and universally accepted. It connotes as if the Indian culture has sanctioned the treatment of women as property by men. Whereas, it is only those selfish men who have not read the scripture or have not even thought on their own, that treat women likewise. Here is the full context and preceding text to this first line of the shlok 3:61 from Manusmriti. After talking in chapter 2 about the roles and conduct of a student, a brahmachaari, chapter 3 deals with marriage, in-laws, guests and hospitality:-
- The wise father (of a girl) shall not take anything by way of 'fee' from her groom. By taking a dowry out of greed (bride price), he becomes the seller of his offspring [3.51].
- The relatives who, out of folly, live off of the woman's property like vehicle, clothes; those sinner go to worst hells [3.52] (forget about dowry given by the bride's father, it was more prevalent for the groom to give bride price, as is in many other cultures as well.
- Many rishis have prescribed a token fee of a pair of cow and bull in 'aarsh'(आर्ष) marriage, but even that is akin to selling your daughter [3.53].
- Where such fee is not taken (but may be given out of affection by the groom's side), that is not selling, but worshiping/respecting and showing affection to the woman [3.54].
- If desiring more prosperity in life, father, brother, husband, husband's younger brother (older is considered as father only) they all should respect the bride and adorn her (with ornaments) [3.55].
- The divine are extremely happy where women are respected (worshipped, figuratively), where they are not, all actions (projects) are fruitless [3.56].
- The family in which the daughters or newlywed brides mourn, that family suffers a quick destruction; and where they don't it surely prospers [3.57].
- Those homes that these disrespected women (daughters, daughters-in-laws) cast curse upon, they are eradicated as if destroyed by (the tantric deity of black magic) Krityaa (कृत्या) [3.58].
- Hence, men who seek prosperity should always respect women, (and) on solemn occasions and festivals, adorn with ornaments, clothes and food [3.59].
- The family in which the husband is content with the wife and the wife is content with the husband, is certain to have divine blessings [this doesn't mean only sexual contentment as the headline of the article connotes, but how the two perform their duties to the home, family, their conduct, etc. like how a wife manages the whole house, relations, children, finances etc. or how the husband protects, earns, has social reputation, standing and circle etc.] [3.60].
- If the wife is not attractive (doesn't attempt to attract with makeup etc.) and/or the husband is not attracted; the husband's progeny is not possible on that account of lack of attraction [3.61].
- When the women look beautiful (adorn jewelry, do makeup, dress up) the whole family looks good, and when they don't everything looks insipid. [3.62]"
The main headline of TOI was only the first line of 3.61. Even that in itself is a simple fact that if the wife is not attractive, the husband will not get to extend his own lineage. So this again, is a factual warning to the husband not just the wife. He should keep her happy, respectfully, and encourage beauty in family and life.
The second jibe Wendy takes at Manusmriti is, "Some Hindu texts by male authors remove from men entirely the responsibility for the conflict between sexuality and chastity and project it onto women. The dharma text of Manu even admits that what makes women so dangerous is the fact that men are so weak: 'It is the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth; for that reason, circumspect men do not get careless and wanton among wanton women. It is not just an ignorant man, but even a learned man of the world, too, that a wanton woman can lead astray when he is in the control of lust and anger. No one should sit in a deserted place with his mother, sister, or daughter; for the strong cluster of the sensory powers drags away even a learned man.'"
This is from Chapter 2 of Manusmriti, where the duties, roles of the brahmachaari, the student, are mentioned. He is warned of the distraction of the senses coming in the way of his studies, and advised to avoid situation where any such temptation is possible. He is instructed to not even touch feet of guru's wife if she is young [2:212] The part of avoiding to be alone with a young female relative should be seen in the perspective of those times with sparse population, no electricity. A look at the reducing age of maturing among today's teen should give an idea why such situations were warned of. It simply admits the weakness in face of such strong temptations. Different people of different background would have different resisting powers. And it is not always the man who is tempted. Devayaani (देवयानी) of guru Shukraachaarya, was attracted to Kach (कच) who was her father's student. When proposed, he refused saying that she is like her sister (guru's daughter). He of course got a curse for it that he will never be able to practice his knowledge.
Wendy goes on to say - "This second, misogynist group produced texts advocating the repression of and, in some cases, violence against women. ... For the renunciant movements addressed a problem that was also of great concern to worldlier Hindus: addiction. ... A tension therefore runs between the vitality of the Hindu sensual and artistic traditions, on the one hand, and the Puritanism of many Hindu sects, on the other. ... 'Pub culture' is indeed no part of classical Indian culture, but both repression of women and respect for women are."
First, Hinduism never says one size fits all. Hence there are different practical sets of rules and guidelines for the four varnas (types of people by nature and profession), four ashrams (the four age groups) and the two genders. The eight types of marriages of women for the good and bad of the four varnas in this and next world are braahma(ब्राह्म), daiva(दैव), aarsh(आर्ष), praajaapatya(प्राजापत्य), gaandharva(गान्धर्व), aasur(आसुर), raakshas(राक्षस), paishaach(पैशाच) [MS 3:20]. Of these, first four are recommended for all, but the rest four are only permitted to certain varnas depending upon their innate nature. Nowhere have the householders been denied the pleasures of life, indeed it is the householder alone who has the moral right to enjoy the pleasures of life. The goals and paths of a householder are different than from a renunciate, and hence they are given different advices.
The whole Kaamasutra guides in the controlled, rightful enjoyment of life. But don't be fooled in thinking that Kaamasutra does not accept the need and existence of alcohol, youth parties, public festivals, social merrymaking, aphrodisiacs, prostitution or the dangers of them. In the celebration of Madanotsava (मदनोत्सव) "the king himself would watch from the palace terrace, the merry making of the urbanites, when the alcohol (only special types of alcohols were allowed in public events) made the women so intoxicated that they would throw colored water on any men, and the streets were covered with colored powder and water, the streets were so crowded all night that people's shoulders got bruised." Even Chaanakya didn't recommend banning alcohol or the drinking of it in "pubs", but rather to control the production, quality, distribution and sale of it and properly tax it. Manusmriti says that the consumption of meat and alcohol is not unnatural to happen with humans, but it has its own ill-effects.
And lastly the quotation of 'In childhood she is guarded by father, in youth by husband, and in old age by sons, women don't deserve independence' [9:3], this holds true even today, where crime against women happen at all ages, even more so in cities. But, this ethos of this statement is that women are the reputation of a family, no one thinks great of women or families with women of lose character or of bad company, even today in any society. But how does one protect the woman? Manusmriti says, "No man can protect a woman by force, so employ some of the following methods [9:10]. Ensure that they are not idle (just like idle mind is devil's workshop), and engage them in the management of money matters (investment, expenses), shopping, hygiene, religious functions, kitchen and home making [9:11]. Relatives cannot protect a woman even by locking her up, but only those women who protect themselves (by taking care and avoiding situations of illicit temptation) [9:12]."
It is important that that we try to understand our culture, past, traditions after giving proper effort and time to it. Also, important to remember is that Indian culture has never gone against women, celebrations or senses on its own. They have only prescribed a moderation in any enjoyment, without which any society or person will soon become aimless. In both extremes of current protectors and protesters, culture and the good name benevolent Lord Raama is getting dragged in mud, but the loss is only of us, living Indians. While every human should remove the weeds from their ancient wisdom, firstly attempt should be made to understand its botany to know what is weed and what is flower.
And the violent protectors of Hindu culture should also pay heed to this gentle instruction from Manusmriti to the student, who will later go out and do good for the society:
One desiring dharma should bring the good of creatures with non-violent means using sweet and gentle words.
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Original Times of India article
(c) 2009 Shashikant Joshi, a graduate of IIT Kharagpur and an IT professional by trade has been entertaining himself with the Indian scriptures for over 20 years. He has also written a book of poems, Hindu prayer book, made an audio CD on Hitopadesh, written a screenplay for stage show, edited and published a monthly magazine in Cleveland Ohio, USA, and has also given lectures at Cleveland State University on Indian culture and spirituality.
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