The Sunday Times of India invited me to write something about Hindu attitudes to women for a recent issue, prompted both by the annual problem caused by Valentine's Day in India and by the more specific incident of violence against women that occurred just this past January.
The attack by a vigilante Hindu rightwing group last month, on girls in a pub in Mangalore, and their vow to assault couples marking Valentine's Day (which they identify as an instance of Western sexual license corrupting Hindu women), are examples of a problematic Hindu male attitude to women and sexuality that we can trace back to a fork in the road in the Upanishads, perhaps as early as the 6th century BCE.
There we find the remains of positive Rig Vedic attitudes toward fertility and sexuality, such as passages that offer mantras to make a man's wife love him or to keep her from becoming pregnant, or to destroy the virility of her lover (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.9-11); or that respect even a woman of blatant promiscuity (Chandogya Upanishad 4.4).
Both fertility and eroticism have continued to play a central role throughout Indian history. The exuberant sexuality found in Indian poetry, painting, and sculpture provides evidence of the celebration of women both as mothers and as lovers, in art, religion, and, sometimes, real life.
But we also find in the Upanishads the first seeds of a renunciant movement that rejects the desire for children, wealth, and women, warning that sexuality must be controlled, primarily by controlling women. Some Hindu texts by male authors remove from men entirely the responsibility for the conflict between sexuality and chastity and project it onto women. The dharma text of Manu, in the early centuries CE, even admits that what makes women so dangerous is the fact that men are so weak:
"It is the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth; for that reason, circumspect men do not get careless and wanton among wanton women…No one should sit in a deserted place with his mother, sister, or daughter; for the strong cluster of the sensory powers drags away even a learned man." (2.213-15)
For men who took the option of fertility, therefore, women were revered as wives and mothers, while for those who were tempted by chastity, women were feared as insatiable seductresses. This second, misogynist group produced texts advocating the repression of and, in some cases, violence against women.
The pluralism and tolerance of most Hindus allowed them to accept these tensions as part of a unified world. For the renunciant movements addressed a problem that was also of great concern to worldlier Hindus: addiction.
A profound psychological understanding of addiction to the sensory objects inspired some Hindus to build ascetic dams to hold back the oceanic tides of sensuality. Fasting and vows of chastity were widely accepted, in moderated forms, even among householders. The Hindu appreciation of the value of exquisite pleasure (kama) was balanced by an awareness of the dangers that it posed, when cultivated to the point at which it became an addiction (a danger appreciated even by the Kama-sutra [2.7.33-34]).
A tension therefore runs between the vitality of the Hindu sensual and artistic traditions, on the one hand, and the Puritanism of many Hindu sects, on the other.
The British, too, were divided on this issue. Some of the British, especially in the early colonial period, admired and celebrated the sensuality of Hinduism.
Others, particularly but not only the later Protestant missionaries, despised what they regarded as Hindu excesses. Unfortunately, many educated Hindus took their cues from the second sort of Brit and became ashamed of the sensuous aspects of their own religion, aping the Victorians (who were, after all, very Victorian), becoming more Protestant than thou.
It is not fair to blame the British for the Puritanical strain in Hinduism; it began much earlier. But they certainly made it a lot worse.
More recently, the pro-sexual branch of Hinduism has been amplified, some would say distorted, by the superimposition of imported American and European forms of sexual license, epitomized in the discotheque or "pub culture." This has muddied the issue, adding an element of nationalism and chauvinism to the existing prejudices against native Indian forms of sexual license.
"Pub culture" is indeed no part of classical Indian culture (a fact that does not necessarily mean that it cannot become a useful part of contemporary Indian culture), but both repression of women and respect for women are. And the tension between them has now taken an ugly turn.
For most of Indian history, those Hindus who have perpetrated violence against women have got away with it. It's time for the other Hindus, who have always been appalled by this cruelty and injustice, to stop them.
(c) Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago and has published translations of the Rig Veda and the Laws of Manu. In March 2009, Penguin will publish her new book, 'The Hindus: An Alternative History'.
**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**