Does one need a theory to discuss about phenomena?

X says: “Modern prostitution is a very specific institution with the features of pimps, forced sex, kidnapped women, drug addicted women, immigrants lured to foreign shores on false pretences, and so on. If we insist on precision in ideas, then it is counterproductive to confuse matters by calling Apsaras prostitutes without first showing that at least some of the above conditions hold true and there is some structural similarity.”

1. Indeed, ‘modern’ prostitution is all these things and more. However, I did not claim anywhere that Apsaras are ‘modern’ prostitutes in any sense of the word. Nor did I suggest that there was ‘institutionalized prostitution’ in India or that our stories suggest that there is such an institution in ‘Swarga’. The whole discussion is about a single sentence and I responded by laying out my reasons to call Apsaras as ‘prostitutes in the court of Indra’. To say today what I thought was evident (‘evident’ because that is what I learned as a child), I do not need to have any kind of a specific theory about ‘modern prostitution’ or even one about what ‘prostitution’ generally is about.

2. While I do insist on precision in ideas, I have no fetishes about precision as such. That is, I do not shut people up simply because they are imprecise in their formulations. Precision is required when the discussion gets derailed because of imprecision, and ‘definitions’, which can define words very precisely, are interesting for me for reasons other than precision. If anything, I insist on ‘knowledge’ about phenomena and believe that theories about phenomena do provide us with knowledge. Even here, because I allow explicitly for kinds of knowledge different from theoretical knowledge, I do not insist that we have theories about everything before we begin a discussion. To the extent I demand precision when we discuss ‘religion’, it is related to the fact that there is a clear theory about it and we can be more productive if we focus on that theory.

3. In the presence of this thread, you see evidence of confusion arising from ‘referring’ to Indian customs as prostitution without a theory about prostitution. Well, that is your appreciation. Mine is different: I am surprised by why people do not want to call apsaras as ‘prostitutes in the court of Indra’, why they are offended by the use of this word, and what they would like to call apsaras instead. I do not know whether there is a substantial problem at hand, or whether a more familiar problem has resurfaced here, and so on. In the process of this discussion, I hope to become clear about what we are discussing. Here, I do not face any problem in bouncing thoughts and ideas around, gropingly go forward in indentifying the reasons of controversy, and do this without possessing any kind of theory about the phenomenon. Besides, it is not clear to me which problems a theory of prostitution should solve. Nor do I know whether we need a sociological theory about the institution or a psychological theory that tells us about motivations or a biological theory about its universality or a combination of all these together with an ethical theory.

4. As I see it, the discussion is about my linguistic decision to use the word ‘prostitutes’ in characterizing apsaras. I have given reasons for my decision to say that it is not entirely arbitrary. One can ask for reasons why one chooses to translate a word one way instead of another (‘why translate ‘Veshya’ as a prostitute and not as a ‘courtesan?’); one can even ask why call apsaras as prostitutes. I have given my reasons. However, neither of the two requires the presence of a theory either about modern prostitution in particular or a theory that tells us what the differences are between ‘prostitution in general’ and its modern variant. If such a condition is advanced, two things happen: (a) we cannot discuss about most phenomena in societies and cultures; (b) one prevents theory-formation about such phenomena as well.

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