Published on 14th February, 2021, in Mumbai Mirror.
Valentine’s Day upsets Hindutva, that valorises men over women, celibacy over sensuality, politics over arts, and lets saffron eclipse the rainbow. They want to save India’s culture but this does not include the vast tradition of love festivals, the Madan-utsava, and at springtime, Vasant-utsava.
Hindutva prefers to mimic the Victorian British, who they claim to oppose, when they mock the great Indian tradition of Kama-shastra (sensual delights), full of shringara-bhaav (mood of romance) and madhurya-rasa (mood of sweetness) as they go about encouraging vibhitsa-bhaav (mood of disgust) and vira-bhaav (mood of triumph). Even the Mughal kings welcomed musicians and dancers and songs of love in their courts, much to the irritation of the puritanical ulema.
Long before books and pens were worshipped as symbols of Saraswathi, people worshipped musical instruments, for India was an oral culture before it became a written culture. The goddess of knowledge was goddess of lyrics (Rig Veda) and melodies (Sama Veda) and performance (Yajur Veda) which gave rise to the art of theatre (Natyashastra) closely linked with art of pleasure (Kama-shastra) that aroused a flood of aesthetic juices (rasa) and emotions (bhava) in the hearts (hridaya) of lovers.
Spring festivals were love festivals, celebrations of music and poetry, spearheaded by courtesans, who through Saraswati, goddess of the arts, venerated Kama, god of desire. Love and longing inspired these women to compose lyrics and melodies, a tradition that still survives secretly in Bollywood love songs.
The courtesans were trained in 64 skills of indulging the five senses. These ranged from music, dance and painting to interior decoration and culinary skills to great conversations. Dressed in yellow robes, they would present their works in gardens to the delight of lovers. Temples were adorned with images of these talented and independent women who garnished life with beauty and made life worth living. One reason why Hinduism was more successful than Buddhism was because Hindu temples patronised devadasis, who loved singing, dancing and every sensual pleasures of life, unlike Buddhist chaityas where there was preference for silence, solitude and serenity.
Right from the Rig Veda, Hindus have realised the value of desire. It is said that creation happens because the first conscious being experienced desire. He experienced loneliness and so sought companionship. He felt incomplete. He experienced hunger, so he sought nourishment from the outside world. He was terrified; thus, he sought the embrace of someone who would take care of him. Hence, all creation emerges from desire or Kama. When Shiva stopped Brahma from chasing the deer of desire, Shakti took the form of Kameshwari, filled Shiva’s art with emotion, so that he became the god of theatre (Nataraja) dancing on the back of goblins who separate lovers.
The earliest love poetries can be found in Gathasaptasati, composed in Prakrit, probably in Maharashtra, and in Tamil Sangam poetry where every emotion related to love was metaphorically mapped to landscapes: mountains for lovers who elope, pastures for lovers who wait, fields for lovers who are jealous, seashore for lovers who are anxious and desert for lovers who are separated.
In the Gupta period, Kamadeva was visualised as a handsome god who holds a juicy sugarcane bow. Even today the thicket of sugarcane holds the promise of clandestine meetings of young boys and girls in rural India, eager to explore desire, away from prying eyes of the elders. Kama’s bowstring was made of restless bees and butterflies, who long for the honey of love. Kama’s wives were the romantic Preeti and the erotic Rati. Kama rode a parrot, while his wives rode the mynah and the pigeon. His best friend was Vasanta – spring. Apsaras and gandharvas danced and sang around him. When this army of Kama attacked, all obstacles collapsed. Winter turned into spring. Summer gave way to monsoon. The cloudy nights give way to the autumn moon.
Later, in Puranic and Tantric literature, this role of Kama-Rati was taken up by Shiva and Shakti, and Krishna and Radha in works such as Kumara-sambhava and Gita-Govinda. Their joyful union created the world. Their moods created the seasons. When separated, it was summer. When united, it was the rains. In the post coital bliss was autumn, until a quarrel made it all cold.
This celebration of desire, the arts, culture, music and love is found in the Ramayana: when Bharat returns home, as his father is dying, he realises there are no lovers or music in the gardens of Ayodhya. This indicated misfortune for him. So different from the puritanical forces that chase lovers out of parks in the name of morality, and strip gardens of Madan as well as Saraswati.