Christian theology and linguistic intuitions: prostitute


1. In so far as the suggestion is that the English word ‘prostitute’ does not capture the connotations of the earlier uses of ‘Veshya’, as I said, I agree with all of you. In this sense, if you further suggest that ‘Apsara’ should not be considered as a synonym for ‘prostitute’, I would also agree. I do not suggest that ‘apsara’ and ‘prostitute’ are synonyms: for two words to be synonymous in this context, we need that both words refer to one and the same set of objects. This cannot be the case here because ‘apsara’ picks out only non-human entities, whereas ‘prostitute’ can also refer to human beings. I would also be grateful if anyone has a better suggestion for translating ‘Veshya’. As I said in an earlier post,’courtesan’ is an alternative. However, a ‘courtesan’ is also a prostitute, whatever else she is. On this, linguistic part, there are no disagreements.

2. I do not know whether a more substantial point is being made on this issue. In the hope of becoming clearer about that implicit point, let me provide some additional reasons why I prefer to call ‘apsaras’ as “prostitutes in the court of Indra”.

3. When we say that someone is a ‘vidwan’ in the court of a king, we call such a person a “courtly vidwan” (‘asthana vidwan’); someone who is a jester in a court is called the ‘courtly jester’ and so on. In exactly the same sense, calling ‘apsaras’ as “prostitutes in the court of Indra” is to say that they are (a) courtly prostitutes and (b) the court under consideration is that of Indra. Indra, according to our stories, holds court in one of the three worlds, ‘swarga’, with earth and ‘naraka’ being the other two worlds.

4. ‘Apsaras’, apparently, are a different kind of species than humans are. Rambha, Urvashi and Menaka are the most-well known among them: well-known not only for their beauty but also for their mastery of arts and for being the instruments of Indra’s wishes. Whenever a human being (or even some Rakshasas) undertake(s) ‘tapas’ that is construed by Indra as a threat to his kingship, he sends the apsaras down to earth in order to distract such an individual. By all accounts, he invariably succeeds in his goal. It is unclear whether the apsaras retain their physical form when they come down to earth or assume a human form. (Often, their assumption of a human form is used to explain their lack of ‘fidelity’: in each human form the apsaras assume, they remain ‘loyal’ to the individual with whom they live and produce children.) While it is clear that the ‘apsaras’ entertain the court through music and dance, it is unclear what else they do in Indra’s court apart from following his biddings. However, when one speaks of ‘swarga sukha’, one speaks of enjoying the bodies of the ‘apsaras’ in that world. Being ‘Gandharvas’, they have their own way of marrying (recognized by the Indian traditions as ‘Gandharva marriage’) and also their own conception of marriage. However, it is unclear what their conception of marriage is, even though, on some accounts, these ‘apasras’ have their own husbands in ‘swarga’ as well . In any case, the suggestion is that these Gandharvas could marry multiple times, become progenitors of children from multiple beings, fall deeply in love with many people, and yet retain their ‘purity’ (‘pavitrya’). [I also vaguely recollect reading somewhere that they are also ‘cold’ and ‘unfeeling’, never really fall in love with any human being and that they are susceptible to this ‘weakness’ only when they come down to earth.]

5. I have not studied the Indian literature where ‘apsaras’ have figured in order to find out what else they are, but the above is my memory of what I have read in my younger days (while in India). Included in this memory are (a) the conviction that they are courtly prostitutes and (b) coming across a variation of the verse ‘karyeshu dasi, karaneshu mantri…’ Instead of ‘Shayaneshu Veshya’, I have also come across the variation that says ‘Shayaneshu Rambha’. This variation suggests that ‘Veshya’ and ‘Rambha’ can switch places without affecting the meaning of the verse. (The variation does not say ‘Rupeshu Rambha’ but ‘Shayaneshu Rambha’.)

6. Of course, the question is: are they prostitutes or not? This decision will have to be partly based on what the contrast set is or whether there is one. Is ‘wife’ the contrast set of ‘prostitute’? Is ‘marrying for love’ the contrast set? Is ‘sexual fidelity towards one partner’ the contrast set? Is ‘having sex for reasons other than money’ the contrast set? Is ‘mistress’ the contrast set?  Is it the case that the contrast set for ‘prostitute’ has to be sought elsewhere, namely, in professions like doctors, engineers and lawyers or in such functions as priests? Is ‘prostitute’ a legal term, defined by laws and statutes or a moral term that expresses moral approval or moral disapproval? Or is it the case that there is no contrast set for ‘Veshya’? In Christianity, say, there is both a contrast set and it is fairly simple: a rigid one between the wedded wife (wedded before God and the Christian community) and prostitute, and a milder one between wife, mistress and a prostitute. All the European languages have incorporated this distinction in their languages. Even after the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 60’s, this linguistic intuition has remained; as Jakob put it beautifully once, this ‘sexual liberation’ has merely put a “serial monogamy” in place of mere monogamy.

7. You see, what puzzles me about the Indian traditions is their almost uncanny insight into human sexual behavior, amongst other things. Though many communities in India practice polygamy and treatises like the Kamasutra consider that ‘adultery’, under some conditions, was ethically praiseworthy, they do not look down on monogamy either: Rama being the case in point. Yet, Rama followed ‘eka patni vrata’, i.e., it was a ‘vrata’ to be monogamous. It could have been a ‘vrata’ to him because he was a king (and kings were permitted to have multiple wives for ‘reasons of state’) and that it was a part of ‘Raja Dharma’ to be polygamous. But the thing is this: they do not appear to have considered multiple expressions of human sexual instinct as ‘perversions’, the way Christianity has done. Instead of banning them, they seem to have focused their intellectual energies on guiding and forming such expressions into cultured and civilized forms. Prostitution is one such expression.

8. As I have said before, I have never been to a prostitute nor will I ever go to one. I am against women being forced and coerced into prostitution because of economic and social reasons. But, deep inside me, something balks at calling them ‘immoral’ and ‘unethical’; so, I do not. In my own mind, because of my research no doubt, the word ‘prostitute’ carries no negative, ethical connotations. Because I also believe that my research results need to be formulated in our twenty first-century language, I use the English word instead of Sanskrit words. I am aware of the risks but I take them willingly. May be, I often think, one of the contributions of Indian culture (today) consists of stretching the English language so much that it breaks the theological confines it is trapped in, and finally yields to conveying meanings other than those required by Christian theology alone. ‘Prostitute’ is one such word.

3 thoughts on “Christian theology and linguistic intuitions: prostitute

  1. Umang Dixit

    I wish Balu you were more of a public intellectual, that your writings appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, n+1 and the like. There is an urgent need for these ideas to reach a wide audience. There is no point publishing in Seminar and Economic and Political Weekly because they are mere merely re-producing obsolete Western themes.

    Indians will only take note of such ideas once they appear in popular Western journals. Such a pity. There is so much insight here but it is restricted to a tiny audience who is forced through a tremendous journey before it finds its way here.

  2. Umang Dixit

    Balu, you teach us how to be Indian again. You make us realise that our impulses and thoughts are not “immoral” or “wrong” but thinking in such terms is an assault on Indianness itself. I wish you had time to write many, many more books.

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