TODAY WHEN WE speak of eroticism, we either see it as something predatory, usually associated with men, or, if women speak of eroticism, consider it cheap and vulgar. Eroticism is certainly not associated with independence and liberty. That is for the West.
Yet, independence, freedom, liberty or Moksha is one of the four main goals of human life, as per ancient Indian scriptures, the other three being Dharma or responsibility, Artha or success, and Kama or fun. The traditional idea of liberty in India is very different from the idea of liberty in the West. Western independence is individualistic and social; it is the freedom to do things, guaranteed by the state. Moksha is also individualistic but relational, spiritual, and it is about freedom from material and sensual attachments as well as from social burdens.
In Buddhist, Jain and Hindu thought, all living creatures (jiva) are trapped in an ecosystem of fear, which is nature (prakriti). We are continuously seeking to escape it. One method of trying to escape is to create a safe ecosystem within society (sanskriti) or the household (grihasthi), but the household comes with its own challenges, the obligations that bind us. So, the escape from the forest takes us to a world full of obligations, and many people find these obligations burdensome and want to escape from it. But this escape does not liberate us from our desires, our anxieties, which make us crave the material and the sensual.
Those who escape to the forest are hermits (shramana), those who live in society are called householders (yajamana). Indian thought is essentially a tension between the liberated ascetic in the forest and the responsible householder in the settlement. Monastically inclined religions like Jainism and Buddhism favour the hermit, while Hinduism favours the householder. Hinduism also offers an innovative solution by which one can live in the household while thinking like a hermit. Thus, the mind (dehi) is liberated and functions on a spiritual plane, though the body (deha) functions in the material world.
This concept of hermit-householder is manifested through the character of Krishna, who is a householder but still considered one who is completely free, in his various roles as cowherd, charioteer, son, lover, husband, brother, father. His story is told in the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata and the Brahmavaivarta Puranas, in Gita Govinda and thousands of regional works composed by poet-saints across India over the past thousand years.
Krishna expresses his independence through eroticism. He is shringar-murthi, the most beautiful one, who loves to be dressed beautifully with flowers and sandal paste, and silks and jewels. He loves music and good food. He loves festivals and dancing. He enjoys life, but he is attached to nothing. He even has no problems in cross-dressing, indicating a gender- sexuality comfort. He is surrounded by hundreds of adoring women. He is equally joyful while giving discourses on war and peace.
This idea of independence through eroticism is best revealed when one explores the Krishna lore through three characters—two historical and one mythological.
The historical characters are Andal from the south, who lived about 1,200 years ago, and Meera from Rajasthan or the north, who lived 500 years ago. The mythological character is Radha, the milkmaid, who is first referred to in Jayadeva’s Sanskrit poem, Gita Govinda.
ANDAL WAS A foundling. The temple priest who found her and raised her as his own daughter used to collect flowers and prepare garlands for the presiding deity of the temple, Vishnu, known in the south as Perumal. Krishna is the mortal earthly form of the celestial Vishnu. In the south, the forms of Vishnu- Perumal and Krishna are not separated, and seen as one.
The tension between the householder and the hermit is evident in the visual representation of Andal as a mortal-bride of the divine and the public discomfort with viewing Andal as a human with desires
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Andal had a habit of wearing the temple garlands before they were offered to the deity. This meant that the flower garlands were contaminated by human touch and not suitable for worship. She was admonished by her father, but the deity appeared in the father’s dream and told him that he preferred those ‘soiled’ garlands given by the daughter, revealing an intimacy between the deity and Andal. In time, Andal became a great poet and wrote many songs about her love for Perumal, and they are sung even today. However, the conservative lobby prefers to focus on songs that are sterile and sanitised, and stripped of eroticism. They ignore some of the best songs of Andal that are rich in eroticism. It embarrasses people that a saint who is almost considered a goddess would speak an erotic language.
In her images, Andal holds a parrot in her hand, the bird being a symbol of eroticism, associated with Kamadeva, the God of Desire, the God who is killed by the Hermit-God Shiva, yet is resurrected on the insistence of Goddess Shakti who calls herself Kamakshi, she whose eyes evoke desire. The tension between the householder and the hermit is evident in the visual representation of Andal as a mortal-bride of the divine, and the public discomfort with viewing Andal as a human with desires, not all transcendental.
This trend is repeated, 700 years later, in north India with Meerabai, a Rajput princess who lived in times of tension between Rajputs and the Mughals. She was given in marriage to a Rajput king, but she never acknowledged him as her real husband. She insisted that she was married to Krishna alone, and when her husband died in battle, she refused to perform sati. Instead, to the horror of her conservative and proud family, she wandered the streets singing of Krishna; and her songs are full of passion, longing and desire. We are told her family tried to stop her, but they couldn’t stop her. Attempts to kill her failed. She just loved wandering the streets of her city and then wandered to Vrajbhumi, Mathura, singing her songs of God before finally disappearing in Dwarka.
In art, she is visualised as a widow with a lute in hand, almost like the abandoned widows of Mathura and Kashi. Yet the metaphors in her songs show that there is a strong physical and sensual component to it. She is not denying the body; the body is very much there, not rejected.
Now, both Andal and Meerabai are imagined as holy and pure and therefore, as per patriarchal code, have to be located outside desire. They need to be virginal. While Andal is dressed as a bride in her imagery, the tendency is to see Meerabai as a widow. Andal, we are told, dresses up for Krishna, not human eyes. Meera abandons her princess finery as she lives on a spiritual plane. A patriarchal ecosystem looks down on desire, views it as a cause of suffering and regulates it through strict rules of matrimony. A woman is allowed only three roles in Indian society—either she is a wife, subservient to a single husband; or a harlot who serves the desires of many men; or a nun who rejects desire completely. All three kinds of women are found in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu literature. The nun is highly regarded in Buddhism and Jainism, the chaste wife is highly regarded in all three, and the harlot is admired so long as she submits to the superiority of the nun and the chaste wife. A woman who desires many men, or one who is open about her desires, is seen as an aberration. It is not seen as freedom; it is seen as debauchery. A man who loves pleasure is a hedonist, the cause of a society’s downfall. Greater preference is for the man who shuns all pleasure and views every woman as his ‘mother’.
Krishna expresses his independence through eroticism. He is shringar-murthi, the most beautiful one. He enjoys life, but is attached to nothing. He is surrounded by hundreds of adoring women
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We are not allowed to see the desire of Andal and Meera as a longing for a perfect man, Purshottama, an expression of a woman’s desire to be loved for who she is, and what she wants. We don’t see in their songs a yearning to live a life of desire rather than one bound by rules and responsibility and regulations, one that is continuously controlled. We refuse to see the yearning for independence in this splendid language of eroticism.
THE MYTHOLOGICAL RADHA, however, embodies this passion and even independence in full glory. Her roots are clearly Tantrik, not the more monastic Vedic, because in folk poetry found in eastern parts of India, Radha is repeatedly visualised as a woman who is married to another man (parakiya), not belonging to Krishna (svakiya). She is older than Krishna, and in some stories, his aunt. Therefore, the relationship between Krishna and Radha is transgressive at many levels, the hallmark of Tantrik ideas that reached their zenith a thousand years ago. This was the time that Buddhism also acknowledged the feminine principle through the Goddess Tara. This was the time when in Odisha we had the circular temple of 64 yoginis built, where women are represented in all their forms—wild and domestic, macabre and sensual, animal-like and wise. There are no men as guardians.
This Tantrik period challenged the sterility and sanitary nature of the monastic orders of Buddhism and Jainism as well as Hinduism. The monastic order, by contrast, venerated the celibacy of Hanuman and of male monks, and looked down on the courtesan cultures of India. It is from this period that India sees the rise of akharas and mahants. The Islamic period followed, and in many ways the flowering of women’s desire in Tantra was blamed for Hinduism’s and Buddhism’s downfall. Those who blamed Muslims and Victorians for India’s puritanism do nothing to encourage female erotic expression in the post-colonial period. Patriarchy thrives even after the end of Muslim and colonial rule. Men may want to be free so long as they can control the desires of women. The fear that a woman may actually choose another man terrifies the patriarch. Hence, the stories of women being tormented for being unfaithful to their spouses. But not in the Krishna lore.
Radha is a woman who desires and consumes her lover as much as her lover consumes her, and her songs show someone who is not submissive but demanding. In the pre-Radha Krishna poetry, milkmaids yearn for Krishna. Radha, however, is a demanding consort. When Krishna has to leave and make his journey out of Vrindavan and go to Mathura, she is angry with him for leaving, but then reconciles with his departure and eventually finds fulfilment in the memories of that union, however brief. Indeed, there are songs where she engages Udhava and calls Krishna a black bee who moves from flower to flower and declares herself to be the flower fixed to the branch of a tree, who enjoys the fact that the bee visited her and indulges her memories of him and uses these to transform herself from flower to fruit. She finds independence in thought and emotion, although bound by social rules. In no song does she resent her husband. Krishna helps her cope with the regulations of the household.
Of course, puritanical versions of the tale, popular among women-hating patronising patriarchs in positions of power, will prefer explanations that claim all talk of clandestine or illicit relationships in sacred literature is delusionary. In truth, Krishna and Radha were married to each other, and faithful to each other like Ram and Sita, all poetic and artistic evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
That being said, we find narratives of independence in Krishna literature that have the voices of the women who adore him. Krishna himself speaks of liberation not from responsibilities or from desire, but from attachment—the attachment to a person or emotion that makes us clingy. Here, heartbreak is appreciated, not feared. I think that is the kind of internal independence that we need to think about this Independence Day.