Terrorized By The Past: Janaki Nair

Kafila normally does not carry guest posts that have appeared elsewhere, but I think JANAKI NAIR’s article from The Telegraph needs to be read widely – a scholarly, lively, feminist take on sexuality in Hindu traditions.

It is our good fortune that our knowledge of Hinduism does not come from the authorized versions that Dina Nath Batra and his Shiksha Bachao Andolan wish to propagate. Neither does our collective imagination remain reined in by his fantasies about the Indian past. This large and luxuriantly complex society, even when all else has been brutally taken from its wretched millions, has its imagination intact. And, we fervently hope, for some time to come. Therein lies the challenge to our desperately needed “historical temper”.

As an 18-year-old, I had read the sexually frank passages of the Rig Veda with wonder and amazement. In a small village called Sanehalli, Karnataka, where the performing arts have been vigorously patronized by Swami Panditaradhya, I recently watched, along with the people from surrounding villages, the Kathakali performance at the annual theatre festival, in which Shakuntala incrementally raised the decibel level and shouted “Anarya!” at Dushyanta, violating all norms of womanly behaviour and appropriate performance voice. There was thunderous appreciative clapping at the end. I have filed past, with lots of ardent devotees of Krishna, the brilliant murals at the Cochin Palace at Mattancherry, where Krishna does not waste a single digital extremity of his eight hands and two feet in pleasing his gopis (his two flute playing hands excepted). Ditto the Guruvayur Temple, whose sexually explicit murals are now, alas, being modestly covered in (NRI-sponsored) gold plate. The erotic sculptures at the Nellaiappar Temple at Tirunelveli, the great Chalukyan temples at Aihole Pattadakkal and Badami, all visited daily by hundreds of chattering and irreverent school children, continue to stand as testimony to what our illustrious forebears were also preoccupied with. One could go onad nauseum, about the little and great traditions of Indian mythology which are not only sexually explicit but bloodstained to boot. It is Wendy Doniger’s triumph that she brings us these complexities in just one book.

To be fair to Dina Nath Batra, he does not deny that the luxuriant growth called Hinduism has yielded many embarrassing fruits: indeed he even admits that there is much that is shameful in Hinduism up to the present day. This is among the many charges Batra made against Wendy Doniger: “That the entire list of the books authored by YOU NOTICEE shows that YOU NOTICEE concentrate, focus and write on the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism.

Therefore, his argument is that we should shield our young/vulnerable/women from such knowledge. Therefore, genuine terror about the Indian past underlies Batra’s recent campaign, and his success in getting Penguin to pulp the remaining copies of the 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History. What if this text actually reveals to the deracinated urban school child or NRI reader that there is much shameful ambiguity in “ancient Indian culture” to which we should be reverently and unquestionably wedded? What if women learn that contemporary Indian sexuality has deep roots in, not the Wicked West but our own ancient Indian culture?

So, in the laziest and most predictable way, Doniger’s gender and race identities are used to trump her formidable language skills, scholarly acumen, and academic experience. This is an ironic echo of the proscriptions against certain genders and castes that Doniger herself has highlighted as a central feature of centuries of Indian “censorship”. Doniger’s “crime” is not her preoccupation with sex and sexuality as “ancient Indians” knew and practised it: it is rather her unwillingness to participate in eliminating these aspects from our collective memory. What the AIDS epidemic, the review of Section 377, and the December 16, 2012 incident all brought into the public sphere was an unprecedented focus on sex/violence/sexuality that ripped open what for so long had been strenuously denied and brushed under the subcontinental mattress. Now Dina Nath Batra wants to put this ungovernable sexuality back into the toothpaste tube.

In his insightful work on the “formations of the secular”, the anthropologist, Talal Asad, rightly highlights a particular problem posed by claims of sacredness (and therefore, in our current context, the luxuriant claims of “hurt sentiment” that ensue): is a book inherently “religious”? Or is it inherently malleable? In short, can it be read as both a literary and a religious text? If not, it raises the further question: is it the book, or the reader, whose religiosity is at stake?

The Shiksha Bachao Andolan seems to be claiming a bit of both, like many current protests. Of late, we have been continuously enjoined to delete, ban, boycott or abstain from certain representations/practices, not because the bearer of the “hurt” asserts the “believer’s right” that “I must not see it” (that is much easier achieved, by self-imposed abstinence). Rather, we are continuously told that “It must not be seen/ heard/taught/thought”, and therefore, the text/sculpture/painting/ movie must, if necessary, be violently removed from the public sphere.

Unfortunately, the list of books/artifacts/movies/paintings that Batra and his shock troops, (including the ardent long-distance Hindu nationalists of the United States of America), will have to censor/delete/destroy/alter will be a long one indeed, beginning with the Rig Veda itself. Although this will be an arduous task, we have too many uncomfortable historical reminders of the extent to which zealots will go to cleanse and rewrite public memory. This claim of “hurt sentiment”, it must be pointed out, is quite different from the democratic demands for collective reflection on truly disabling “historical wounds” arising from statements and representations on the underprivileged/oppressed. But it will not do to rely on the inherent wiles and cunning of those inhabiting the subcontinent, or on private memory, to survive and resist such public onslaughts of a dominant political, religious and social majority. Our demand to remember, hear, see, know, and above all be heard, be seen and be known must be vociferously defended from such infringements by beginning an urgent and long overdue discussion on the lineaments of a new civility, and a thoroughly revised “historical temper”.

The author is Professor of History, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU

16 thoughts on “Terrorized By The Past: Janaki Nair”

  1. A superb article! Sexuality is embedded in our collective psyche and the ancient Hindu consciousness (I’d hate to restrict it to a mere ‘ism’) nurtured the erotic sentiment. This is something unacceptable and unpalatable to ill-educated, neo-Hindus, who’re deracinated from their sexually vibrant past.

    Sumit Paul, Poona


  2. a religion should be so holy that it preaches love, quality, equality and compassion and there is no place for any vulgarity against woman or animosity against asuras and the like. whether mr d.n.batra denies evil practices in hinduism or wants the author to ignore them.


  3. @ Sumit Paul, Indians were open about sexuality before the Colonizers imposed their Victorian Morality on us. The females of clan that I, Janaki Nair and Nivedita Menon belongs to had even the right to get rid of their “Nairs” (read Hubbys) rather than Hubbys giving them divorce!! My maternal grandfather’s two sisters re-married after having one child each from their first marriage and then had five children each from the subsequent marriages!!


  4. Excellent article indeed! I particularly liked: “This claim of “hurt sentiment”, it must be pointed out, is quite different from the democratic demands for collective reflection on truly disabling “historical wounds” arising from statements and representations on the underprivileged/oppressed. But it will not do to rely on the inherent wiles and cunning of those inhabiting the subcontinent, or on private memory, to survive and resist such public onslaughts of a dominant political, religious and social majority”.


  5. “Ad nauseam”, surely? A possible alternative title for this piece is “The Believer as Censor”.


  6. In this context: RSS man demands ban on ancient Hindu texts that “offend millions”:
    Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member and Shiksha Bhagao Andolan Samiti activist Dinanath Misra today sparked uproar by demanding a ban on ancient Indian texts that he said “denigrate and insult the religious sentiments of millions of practicing Hindus”.

    Misra defended this controversial stance by highlighting “heresies and factual inaccuracies” in the Rig Veda that undermine traditional family values, such as descriptions of Yami’s attempt to seduce her brother Yama (10.7-10.9) and of Pusan’s exhortation to his sister Surya to enjoy the “pleasures and embraces” of her husband Soma (85.37).

    The former school principal singled out the Brihadâranyaka Upanishad (6.4.1-6.4.12) for vulgarity with its rich descriptions of sexual congress that give the impression that women in ancient India were, as he put it, “hungry of sex”: “Do we really need to be told three times that Prajâpati’s member entered a woman and that they were joined mouth to mouth?”

    He also criticized the clear endorsement of male oral sex in chapter 9 of the Kama Sutra, the 2nd century BE treatise on love: “I don’t know about you but I no longer feel comfortable sucking a mango. Homosexuality is against the order of nature and personally I want to thank Thomas Babington Macaulay for standing up for Hindu dharma and introducing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1861.” (Satire)


  7. While I do agree that Janaki Nair’s analysis is one of the more nuanced ones – especially as she bring forth the “terror of the past” inscribed in the accusation against Wendy – I feel it would help that we also are made aware of the “long history” of these charges, esp. against Wendy (“hungry for sex” etc) before bemoaning all kinds of things in our country.

    DN Batra and his ilk have been waging this war for a while now, esp. against Western academics, and more specifically against WD (all those RISA lila episodes…) – so really, this is nothing new – these are old scores to settle. But of course what is also worth mentioning is that such witch-hunt really knows no boundaries and attacks all and sundry: Ramanujam, NCERT, DN Jha etc.

    Also, a corollary to the “(private) hurt sentiment” calls for ‘It should not be seen etc’ is the ‘It must not be shown/made-heard etc,’ especially by those considered inimical to the cause. There is an awareness among such people as Batra that there are villains out there who are hell-bent on misrepresenting Hinduism – and they must be taken down, one after the other. It is the same philosophy of “heen bhavna” – one of psychological scaredness (not sacredness) – that tried to hit back with its jingoistic rallying cry of “Garv se Kaho…”

    I am, however, a little tired of the framing of most such arguments – the initial expression of shock over the banning/pulping, then the trotting out of various instances of the presence of a celebratory aspect of sexuality in and a legacy of critical appraisal of the tradition followed by some sort of an abstruse conclusion which talks, rather hurriedly, of (the need for) new historical “tempers” or “civilities” without any grounding in specifics.

    I am not sure how a discussion of all these strands of morality and readings of Indian “culture” can be made without a reference to, well, the trends to create a certain form of Hinduism by our friends from right-wing camps. The arguments must be isolated for what they are. While not just a “lunatic fringe” concern, we must also take heart from the fact, as many have pointed out, that there were no mass protests or condemnations against the book in India…obviously the aam aurats and admis have other things on their minds too…


  8. >>>As an 18-year-old, I had read the sexually frank passages of the Rig Veda with wonder>> so far as I know, the Shudran Nairs were not allowed to read the Vedas.


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