Published on 28th February, 2017, in The Times of India.
Fantasy frightens us, especially female fantasy. How do we regulate it? We can control a woman’s body, lock her in the house, cover her face with a veil, but how do we control her mind. For in her mind, she can imagine a better man, a perfect man, which renders the real men in her life inadequate. Her body can be invaded and violated, but can her mind ever be truly domesticated?
These questions emerge as we hear of censor boards denying certificates to films celebrating female fantasy, and of policemen and politicians physically attacking women, against all norms of civilised conduct, arguing that surely if women want to ‘fantasise’ about being equal to men, surely they can handle a punch or two.
One way of regulating fantasy has been by propagating stories where women who pursue their desires are viewed as dangerous, hence need to be restrained for social good. For example, in Japanese mythology, the first man and woman are called Izanagi and Izanami.
When the woman invites the man to bed, the children born of the union turn out to be the demons, but when the man invites the woman to bed, the children born are the gods.
In modern retellings, despite all talk of feminism, we shy away from describing erotic fantasies of Draupadi: does she compare and contrast the lovemaking styles of her five husbands?
In Abrahamic mythology, we learn how before Eve there was another woman in Eden called Lilith. She refuses to be subservient to Adam, and rejects the missionary position prescribed by the patriarchs. So she is cast out, and she becomes the mother of demons, of the succubi and incubi, who seduce men and women into sexual activity, and thereby pollute the soul. When even Eve defies God, and eats the Forbidden Fruit, submitting to the possibilities offered by the Devil, she is punished and made answerable to Adam for all eternity.
All of womankind is redeemed by Mary, who quietly accepts the news that even though she is not married, and has never been with a man, she is pregnant with Jesus Christ. She will be the Virgin Mother of the son sent by God to save all sinners.
In Hindu mythology, we hear the story of Renuka, who is beheaded on her husband Rishi Jamadagni’s orders because of harbouring an adulterous thought for but a moment on seeing a beautiful man bathing in the river as she was fetching water. How does he gain knowledge of her fantasy? Because he notices she has lost her ‘sati’ powers.
Sati is a mythic term referring to women who are so chaste that they obtain magical powers such as the ability to withstand the heat of fire. In the case of Renuka, she had the ability to collect water from unbaked pots made from clay from the riverbank. She loses this ability as soon as she desires the handsome man, and so is punished brutally by her husband.
That being said, Hinduism is rather ambiguous in its view of female sexuality; seeking control over it while acknowledging simultaneously that it cannot be controlled. And so the head of Renuka, separated from her body, is an object of worship in many parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. It is taken around in processions, attached to the rim of a pot or a wicker basket, a reminder of female fantasy, and sexuality.
Renuka is viewed not as the fallen woman but as the mother-goddess, beyond the control of patriarchal society. She is simultaneously the chaste, domesticated farm as well as the wild, unchaste forest, unrestrained by the rules of the farmer, the patriarch. Of course, when her tale is retold today, Renuka’s desires are whitewashed, and focus is given to the restoration of her status as sati, pure and chaste.
Cultural tales, repeated over generations, fix themselves in our soul and become real. We start assuming they reveal an objective truth of the universe, rather than the subjective truth of a culture.
Through stories we try to defy nature, and deny imagination. We are told repeatedly that women should be desirable, but they cannot desire. Women who desire are punished, like Surpanakha, whose nose is cut, and Ahalya who is turned into stone. We are told that Ahalya was ‘innocent’, duped by Indra who took the form of her husband.
We are not allowed to consider alternate narratives that maybe, just maybe, she recognised and wanted the virile skygod, bored of her stiff, intellectual old husband.
In modern retellings, despite all talk of feminism, we shy away from describing erotic fantasies of Draupadi: does she compare and contrast the lovemaking styles of her five husbands? We avoid giving too much importance to apsaras who are great seductresses but lack all maternal instincts, like Menaka who leaves Shakuntala on the forest floor, after vanquishing Vishwamitra’s celibate will. We want goddesses to be virginal and chaste. We fear the yoginis who encircle and entrap young nath-yogis with their charms; we declare them insatiable witches.
Hindu mythology is unique in that it exists in a paradigm where nothing is perfect or permanent. All things change. And there is always a story suitable for every age. Time to reject our colonial puritanical past and dig out ancient tales where Shakti approaches Shiva and demands he satisfy her, and he — ironically known as Kamantaka, the killer of desire — dutifully complies.