I was in conversation with theology and culture-expert Devdutt Pattanaik, author of several bestselling books on mythology and culture. Excerpts.
How has sexuality of women been discussed in Hindu mythological texts? Were women described or presented as sexual beings?
Kama, or desire, and Rati, erotics, has been a key theme in Hindu mythology. The desire of men and women has been seen in various ways: as producing children, as a commodity in the market, as a source of great pleasure, as well as a pathway to mystical ideas. There are stories of women who approach men for sex, stories where men are told it is their duty to make women happy, and women getting offended when their advances are rejected.
Was monogamy ever the prescribed way of living as suggested in religious texts and sub-texts? If not, how was monogamy seen and described?
Monogamy was meant for the housewife, not the apsara. Fidelity was seen as critical to the household, not per se. It was supposed to give women magical powers; turned her into a Sati who could withstand the blaze of fire. Widowhood was seen resulting from a woman’s infidelity. Thus it was not a divine ‘rule’ but rather an enforced ‘recommendation’. But it was accepted that being faithful is tough and both women and men are sexual beings who cannot restrict their desire to one person. A faithful wife, however, was celebrated. And Ram, the only faithful husband in mythology, was venerated.
What were the ways in which adultery has been described and seen in these texts? Are there any references to married women practicing adultery?
When Rishi Gotama returned to his house, he found his wife, Ahalya, in the arms of Indra, king of the devas. Furious, he cursed his wife Ahalya to turn into stone and Indra to be covered with sores. This story is found in the first chapter of the Ramayana, the Balkanda, which deals with the childhood and education of Ram, prince of Ayodhya. The sage Vishwamitra takes Ram to the hermitage of Gotama and shows him the stone that was once Ahalya. She has been condemned to be trodden upon by bird, beast and stranger.
Vishwamitra asks Ram to touch the stone with his feet and liberate Ahalya so that she can rejoin her husband. In the different versions of the Ramayana, the story of Ahalya is told differently. In some versions, she is the guilty adulteress, who gets caught in the act. In other versions, she is innocent, duped by the wily Indra who takes the form of her husband. There are versions where Ahalya is the bored and tortured wife who finds solace in the arms of Indra. The narrators struggle to explain why Ram forgives Ahalya. It makes sense for Ram to forgive someone wrongfully accused than someone who is truly guilty.
Perhaps compassion is also the lesson Vishwamitra was trying to teach Ram.
Do you see a drift in ways women’s sexuality was perceived in ancient times, and modern times? What could be the reason for change in the perception?
With the rise of Buddhism and monastic orders, women were increasingly seen as temptations who had to be avoided. Their sexuality had to be controlled. Celibacy was admired in men and chastity in women. With this, the fluidity of sexuality, that was present in Indian society, became more rigid.
What do you think of the modern urban man? Do you think they are being able to play up to their new roles well?
Every generation has to struggle with sexual rules of its times. Modern western society may be sexually liberated but in the process it has to sacrifice commitment. People grow up in families with multiple fathers and mothers as divorce becomes a norm. There is less domestic abuse. There is also a lot of uncertainty, less inter-dependence and more independence. Everything has a price. Today’s men are suddenly confronted with women who are apparently comfortable with sex, but have to deal with men discomforted with the idea that they are not the ‘one,’ that they are not ‘pati parmeshwar’ material, that they are just gandharvas, for entertainment. That can be a blow to their self-esteem.