If not Valentine, then Kama?

Published on 12th February, 2017, in Mid-day

Here it comes. 14th February. The day dreaded by some earnest Indian youth leaders who are convinced that love and desire and sex are foreign contaminations that will destroy the minds of young Indians. Terrified, they would rather spend the day worshipping fathers and mothers, or brutally assaulting lovers on dates.

Surely, a more powerful ‘nationalist’ act would have been to reclaim or reframe Valentine’s Day and call it Kama’s day, or Madan-utsva, the festival of desire and pleasure, so vividly described in ancient Sanskrit plays, when women danced and sang in royal gardens, and celebrated the arrival of spring, when love is in the air, and suitors flit about like butterflies around flowers.

Political leaders would rather establish anti-Romeo vigilantes to save Indian culture. Before we jump to conclusions, and accuse one group of being anti-pleasure and anti-love, we must take note of the fact that Gandhian, as well as RSS discourse, valorise celibacy (an unnatural act, incidentally) over romance. Some liberal activists, I am told, ever ready to march for justice and equality, shy away from kissing festivals on campuses that seek to defy misogynist censorship, segregation and curfew rules.

Muslim radicals believe pleasure is for the next life, not this one. Christian radicals see sex as sin. The media simply assumes single men, who announce their celibacy by wrapping orange robes, are the real spokespersons of Hinduism. The education system and the judiciary views sex, love and pleasure through the lens of rape, abuse, violence, pollution, unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease.

The modern Indian rejection of Valentine’s Day is essentially a symptom. The root cause can be traced to monastic orders — Buddhist, Jain and Hindu — where we find the first rejection of Kama, the god of love, who embodies pleasure and desire. Male hermits saw women as seductresses, symbols of worldly responsibility and pleasure. Buddha called them daughters of Mara, the demon of desire, who causes suffering, one who fetters, one who distracts the spiritual seeker from dhamma. In Tantra, supernatural powers were traced to the act of retaining semen. In folk mythologies of the Nath traditions, the greatest threat to the yogi who gets powers by rejecting sex, is the Tantrik yogini who gets powers by seeking sex.

What we forget is that in ancient lore, unlike today, the force of monasticism was always countered by the equally valid counterforce of pleasure, and love. Even the most austere Jain scriptures spoke of Kamadevas, men who were irresistible to women. The Jain epic Vasudevahindi tells the story Vasudeva, Krishna’s father who was one such Kamadeva. In the Puranas, to counter Shiva who burns Kama to death, Shakti transforms into the alluring Kamakhya, and Vishnu becomes the enchanting Mohini.

As we ponder on the current form of this counterforce, one detail from the Valmiki Ramayana merits mention. When Bharat, unaware of his father’s death and his brother’s exile, is returning from his uncle’s house to Ayodhya, he senses something is wrong in the city as he approaches the gates. Some calamity has befallen. What was the indicator? That young lovers are not to be seen in the gardens around the city.