Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 29, 2005

First published August 28, 2005

Return of the Love-God

Last year around February 14, there were a group of people who attacked shops selling Valentine’s Day trinkets denouncing them for pressuring Indian youths with Western ideas like `going on dates’ and encouraging pre-marital romance (hence sex).

We Indians – and I guess many citizens of planet Earth – are generally squeamish with the idea of romantic love, especially one that does not manifest itself between a man and a woman bound by marriage. If love has to be accepted in Indian society, it must be between an older man and a younger woman, both unmarried, and it must culminate in marriage. For other forms of love there are myths and epics, even novels and films, but no place in society.

But the problem with `love’ is that it refuses to respect the law of the land. A man can fall in love with a married woman. A woman can fall in love with a married man. A married man can fall in love with a married woman who is not is wife. And vice versa. A man can fall in love with a man. A woman with a woman. People can fall in love despite disparities in their social and economic status. Older women can fall in love with younger men. There can be love between people who are not adults. Between an adult and a child. There can be love that is not reciprocated. There can be love that cannot be expressed.

Little wonder then that in Greece, the love-god was visualized as a childlike mischief-maker called Eros. The Romans called him Cupid. An avid archer, he carried two kinds of arrows – one tipped with gold, the other with lead. Gold-tipped arrows made people fall in love; leaden ones made them hate. This explained why some people loved each other, why some people hated each other, why sometimes love went unrequited and why sometimes people of the same gender fell hopelessly in love with each other. This son of Venus, goddess of beauty and fertility, did not care for social rules, much to irritation of Apollo – the god of organizations and order, and much to delight of Dionysus – the god of creative chaos.

In India, the love-god was also an archer. His name was Manmatha, he who churns the mind. Popularly known as Kama-dev, he entered every one’s life riding a parrot, holding aloft his fish-banner, raising his sugarcane bow and drawing his bowstring of bees to shoot flowers-arrows that stirred the senses, excited the heart and filled the mind with yearnings that often refused to align themselves with the rules of good conduct.

In the Rig Veda it is said that the world came into existence because desire for creation arose in the heart of the creator. In the Atharva Veda therefore, Kama-dev is described as the one who existed even before the gods. According to Brihadaryanka Upanishad, desire of the primal father for his first creation, the daughter, led to the creation of all creatures big and small. While the `result’ was good, the incestuous nature of the `cause’ made sages and seers wary of Kama-dev’s capabilities. In the Puranas, therefore, Kama-dev is reduced to dust by the supreme-ascetic Shiva. The gods had enlisted the help of the love-god to make Shiva abandon his acetic ways, embrace a woman and father a child who would be a great warrior, a killer of demons. They had never anticipated such a violent response. In the violence response of Shiva lies the eternal conflict of all religions – that between the monastic ideal that offers spiritual bliss and the pleasure principle that offers material joys: Sex – the most tangible expression of union – was essential to rotate the cycle of life, yet yearning – the emotional component of union – was an obstacle to spiritual bliss.

For Buddha, Kama-deva was Mara, the demon of desire, the one to be conquered in one’s quest for liberation from the miseries of the material world. For Jain munis, their leaders who had conquered the senses and subjugated emotions were Maha-viras, great heroes, conquerors of the senses, greater than men of war and violence. Hindu Siddhas and Nathas were all celibate men who believed in the magical powers of retained semen. To them all women were temptations, daughters of Kama-dev, who forced them to shed seed and anchored them to earth.

If the plays of Kalidasa, Shudraka and Harsha are to be believed, there was a time in India when images of Kama-dev were worshipped in gardens during spring in festivals such as Vasant-utsava and Madan-utsava. At that time, there was no conscious effort to distinguish fertility from sensuality. Women were encouraged to bedeck themselves and walk on the streets, exciting the gods, enticing them to share their heavenly delights with mortals. During festivals, women danced and sang in orchards. Trees were said to burst into bloom on hearing the laughter of lusty women. Plants embraced by beautiful maidens were said to express their delight by producing nectar and shedding pollen. The bejewelled heavy breasted `nayika’ was auspicious. Temples were said to be incomplete unless their walls depicted beautiful and happy couples indulging in love-sports. Poets described with great delight the trumpeting of elephants in heat and the mating songs heard through the night. But with the rise of monastic ideas, this erotic and romantic mindset had to be curbed. Spring festivals were stripped of their erotic charm. Kama-dev became Ananga, the bodiless one. It was hoped that by denying his form, the ideas associated with him would not corrupt the youth.

Suddenly, nearly 2000 years after the heritage of sensual delights gave way to monastic ideals, we find that Kama-dev striking back through Valentine’s Day: a day when the deluge of advertisements and television programs force us to think of romantic potentials and possibilities.

Only the vocabulary is Western.

February 14 was first set aside to honor St. Valentine by Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. He did so in an attempt to outlaw the pagan festival of Lupercalia. In Rome at the time, February 14 was a holiday at which Romans honored Juno, the Queen of the Roman gods, goddesses, women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia. Priests (luperci) of two colleges (Quintilii and Fabii) met at the cave where the she-wolf supposedly nursed Rome’s founding twins Romulus and Remus. Vestal Virgins offered their holy salt cakes. Priests sacrificed a dog and a goat, and smeared the animal blood on two boys who, clad only in a bit of goatskin, later led a band of revelers (luperci) whose antics included whipping bystanders with a goatskin strip (februa). Women so whipped — even barren ones — were thought to become fertile. The priests also have paired up youth of both sexes who were to stay paired up for the remainder of the year.

Another widely believed origin of Valentine’s Day is one involving Claudius the Cruel. This legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emporer Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men who were his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death on the 14th day of February, about the year 270.

Some believe that Valentine actually sent the first valentine greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that this Saint Valentine fell in love with a girl, possibly his jailer’s daughter; who visited him during his confinement. Before he was killed, he allegedly wrote her a letter, which he signed “From your Valentine.”

Still other historians say there is no link between the Roman festivals and Valentine’s Day, and that before the poet Chaucer’s time, there wasn’t any link between the day of St. Valentine and courting; but after him, the link became established. This theory suggests that Chaucer was responsible for inventing the modern traditions of Valentine’s Day. It was based on an old belief that birds begin to mate on this day, as he relates in “The Parlement of Fowles”: “For this was on seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.”

During the medieval days of chivalry, the names of English maidens and bachelors were put into the box and drawn out in pairs. Each couple exchanged gifts. The girl became the man’s valentine for that year. On his sleeve he wore her name and it was his bounded duty to attend and protect her. Hence the expression, `He wore his heart on his sleeve.’

History tells us the first modern valentines date from the early years of the fifteenth century. The Young French Duc d’Orleans was captured at the battle of Agincourt and kept a prisoner in the Tower of London for a number of years. The duke wrote a series poems to his wife from captivity. About sixty of them remain. They can be seen among the royal papers in the British Museum. Flowers as valentines appear nearly two hundred years later. A daughter of Henry IV of France gave a party in honor of St. Valentine. Each lady received a bouquet of flowers from the man chosen as her valentine.

There is no denying that Valentine’s Day has its roots in the West. There is no denying that Greeting Card and gift manufactures of the world have made it popular in recent times to exploit the commercial opportunity it offers. Granted that `going on dates’ seems to be a very MTV-planted thought in the Indian psyche. Granted that `arranged’ marriages are still very much the norm in India. But the idea of celebrating love and fertility when winter is giving way to spring is hardly alien to Indian culture. The timing of Valentine’s Day matches the timing of the ancient spring- and love-festivals such as Vasant-utsav and Madan-utsav. And it is no coincidence that festivals such as Lohri, Makara-Sankranti, Shiva-ratri and Holi are celebrated around this time.

Both Lohri and Holi are associated with bonfires, reminding us of the burning Kama-dev. Lohri is associated with harvest and fertility. It is the Pongal of the North. A time to worship the sun who enters the House of Capricorn (Makara). Capricorn a creature which is part fish and part goat in the Western tradition and part fish and part elephant in the Indian tradition is the emblem of Kama-dev. Holi is a festival charged with sexual energy as ribald jokes are cracked and men and women throw colour on each other. A fortnight before Holi, one celebrates Shiva-ratri, the night of Shiva, when the ascetic renounced his ascetic ways and agreed to marry the Goddess so that the cycle of life continues to rotate.

Today Kama-dev is no longer worshipped. But he exists. His symbols have been taken up by other gods such as the sun and moon whose rays are supposed to heat the body with passion. In the Bhakti period, Kama-dev was visualized as the son of Vishnu and Lakshmi. Like Kama-dev, Vishnu is associated with parrots, bees, Capricorn, butterflies, flowers, sugarcane, fragrance, beauty and an alluring mischievous smile. One of Vishnu’s forms is Mohini, the enchantress. As Krishna, Vishnu becomes Madan-mohan, he who enchants even Cupid. This winsome lover plays the flute and invites Radha to dance with him on the banks of the Yamuna in the bower known as Vrindavana. There romance is rediscovered. But it is a celebration outside the village, at night, in secret, reminding us all that love, howsoever true, is often at odds with the demands of society.

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