Colonial Consciousness and Victorian Morality

1. You suggest that calling Apsaras as “prostitutes in the court of Indra” is an extreme statement. Of course, you would be right if you mean that the English word does not carry all the connotations of ‘Veshya’ or even that our current usage of the word ‘Veshya’ is not as rich as the earlier uses of the same word were. You are right too when you point out that the word ‘Kama’, as a pursushartha, embraces a bigger set than sexual pleasure or romantic love. Perhaps, one might prefer the word ‘courtesan’ to ‘prostitute’ but that distorts the Indian ‘Veshya’ too: a courtesan was either a mistress of the wealthy or a prostitute who entertained only the rich. However, I am not sure whether my claim is really that extreme (with the proviso that we keep in mind the current-day changes in the meanings of the words in both English and Indian languages). Let me explain why.

When we read, say, Kamasutra, we discover that prostitutes had to be cultured and learned human beings; they were supposed to be proficient in multiple arts including music, poetry, dance, handicrafts and so on. ‘Treating the prostitutes humanely’ includes teaching these skills to them: after all, many of the arts they practiced to entertain men requires teaching and learning. This suggests that a teacher could take prostitutes as his/her students and that the society did not disapprove. Instead, it countenanced such teaching. However, this is not all there is to the story. Consider the fact that a prostitute is also called ‘nitya sumangali’: one who can never become a widow. As you know, the word ‘sumangali’ is not usedlightly in India and it carries a very positive connotation as is also indexed by the use of ‘su’. (Of course, one uses this term also sarcastically in colloquial language but such use does not take away the positive connotation.) Even though the prostitute never marries, our traditions did not withhold the appellation ‘sumangali’ from her. Consider too, in this context, the ‘good qualities’ of a wife: ‘Karyeshu dasi, Karaneshu mantri….’ As this verse (I have forgotten both its source and how it ends) continues, it appears that a wife should also be ‘shayaneshu veshya’ (a prostitute in bed). Quite independent of the conjectures we can make about its anti-feministic character or whatever, think about what this verse is suggesting: the wife should behave like a prostitute in the bedroom. What does that mean? Whether or not it also means that she should entertain her husband through music, recitation of poetry, dance and such like, one thing is clear: she must be well-versed in sexual matters. Step back for a moment and ask yourself how any girl could be well-versed (better than her husband, in fact) in sexual matters. There are only two possibilities: either the girl had a lot of experience in sex before marriage (there goes the idea of virginity of one’s wife) or she was trained and educated in the art of sex in her family. Irrespective of which of the possibilities is true, this verse indicates at least two things: being a prostitute did not make one immoral anymore than visiting a prostitute made one immoral. The prostitute had qualities which a ‘good wife’ should emulate. Note that these qualities are not those that prostitutes also have; the wife is supposed to have those qualities that make a woman into a prostitute (‘shayaneshu veshya’).  Furthermore, in so far as women were taught the ‘art of loving’ (kama-sutra) in their families, surely, it tells us that the reaction of the middle class in India today is anything but Indian: it is an inherited prudishness drawn from the Victorian morality. It is in this sense that I suggested that the Indians are not prudes in matters of sexuality. In this sense too, in this Indian sense, Apsaras, I claim, are “prostitutes in the court of Indra”.

2.      You are right too when you point out that the word ‘Kama’, as a pursushartha, embraces a bigger set than sexual pleasure or romantic love. Perhaps, I did not make myself clear in my earlier post: I use the word kama, in the context of specifying the end-goal of human life, as a synonym for ‘sensual pleasure’. Indeed, I use it much the same way you do: ‘that which pleases the senses’. However, my point remains: how can you expect to teach about this end-goal in human life to your kids, if you react indignantly to phenomena like prostitution and adultery? How could you call these ‘immoral’ and yet say that ‘sensual pleasure’ can also be an end-goal of human striving? One pursues music, the other poetry, and someone else pursues women; surely, all three pursue ‘sensual pleasure’, do they not? How, then, is it possible to call the first two ‘great moral beings’ and castigate the last one as a ‘lecherous and immoral’ human being? I really do believe that the Indian thinkers were consistent in their thinking and that is something which many Indian parents sadly lack today. They lack this because we have made a particular species of Christian morality our own. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; but permit me to draw your attention to the fact that there are consequences attached to this moral attitude. One such is that you cannot any more claim that Dharma, Artha and Kama (add moksha too, if you feel like) are all on par as human end-goals.

3. According to the majority of the Indian traditions, ‘Vamachara’ is an indulgence in excesses; they flout morality of a society and, if they spread deeply and widely in a society, they undercut its ethics and thus lead to its collapse. This criticism is indigenous and is not based on prudishness. And that those who are adulterous (or, at least, those who do not find adultery objectionable) are the ‘vamacharins’ and that (most, many, the majority of) Indian traditions have taken objections to such a morality. Because these criticisms are native to India and some of her traditions, the indignant responses of the NRI’s in the US could also have an Indian origin, unconnected with Victorian morality.

Consider a Buddha, a Shankara, an Allama Prabhu, a Ramakrishna or even a Ramana Maharishi. Suppose that all Indians follow them and imitate their lives. Those who are married renounce their families and those who are not, do not marry. What would happen to the Indian society? It would cease to exist in two generations, at the most. What follows from this consideration? Does it follow that the people named above and many like them are a danger to society and that our society would collapse if their lives became models for us to follow? Do we consider becoming a sanyasin or joining the Buddhist Sangha a danger to society? Quite obviously not; but why not? That is because these people (their lives, their teachings, etc) are not normative: they do not prescribe what ‘ought’ to be done by every human being. Most people marry and have family (grihastha); some take to ‘sanyasa’; yet others become Bhikkus. The beauty of Indian traditions lies precisely in this absence of normativity: one does not tell the human race what it ‘ought’ to be doing; one recognizes the variety inhuman makeup (hence the three or four purusharthas) and strives to help the pursuer pursue his/her goal-in-life. In this sense, the ‘vamacharins’ too pursue their end-goal, using the means they do use. To say that society would collapse if everyone became a ‘vamacharin’ is akin to saying that if everyone became a Shankara, the society would collapse. Such criticisms have no teeth.

However, there is something else too. And that is the recognition (often very implicit in all the traditions I know) that the ‘enlightened’ people are a danger to society. They are that because they challenge the very notion of ‘ethics’ and the required distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In many places in India, including my own family, people have a double attitude towards Gurus, sanyasins, enlightened, and ‘rishis’: there is a combination of awe and fear. As I grew up, I was told that seeing a sanyasin the first
thing in the morning, or enroute to an auspicious event, was a bad omen; people were ‘afraid’ to let a sanyasin or a guru stay in the house. The reason, my mother told me, was that such people were ‘unpredictable’; they could do anything and, no matter what they would do, they were beyond ethical reproach. So, we might admire a Shankara or a Vasistha; we are also ‘scared’ of them. Such people are capable of doing anything and everything and society cannot judge them. (This was my experience while growing up in India; I do not know how much of this is still prevalent.)

4. Does this mean that I find prostitution or adultery ‘good’? This is the question I repeatedly confront. The problem is this: this question arises from precisely the same normative framework that my criticism deals with. If the argument is that one cannot suggest that phenomena like these are ‘immoral’ (i.e. what all human beings are ‘forbidden’ from doing) from the point of view of Indian traditions (which know of no normativity), then I am supposed to be arguing that it is ‘morally good’ (i.e. what ll human beings are ‘obliged’ to do). My whole point is this: this way of talking about ethics, as ‘morally good’ or ‘morally bad’ for all human beings at all times is the problem of morality as religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) formulate them. To these religions, there are a set of ‘moral laws’, which God has given to humanity and instructed them to keep to these laws. The so-called Secular ethics today continues an unbroken line with these religious ethics. However, in India, there has been a recognition that ethics is a human invention; consequently, it does not have the status of ‘laws’ that ‘ought to’ hold universally. I agree that I still have to write that book on ethics which is long overdue. But this problem will not simply go away just because I might write a book about it one day. One still needs to figure out how the Indians have understood normative ethics and what role the ‘colonial consciousness’ plays in their understanding; and that I have not yet done.