Saturday, August 08, 2015

Porn, prudes and the parampara of optimism

The state has a duty to protect me from others but not from myself. This is the premise behind our Constitution, which reposes trust in me as a responsible citizen and gives me freedom to pursue my life in peace without interference from the state. Hence, the government was wrong in banning 857 pornography sites last weekend. To its credit, it realized its mistake by Tuesday and reversed its stand: it unbanned adult sites while rightly retaining the ban on child pornography.

In defending its ban, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad appealed to India’s culture and tradition. This was also a mistake. India’s cultural history is almost unique in recognizing sexual desire as a highly positive quality in human beings and celebrates it. If creation begins with light in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West (when God says “let there be light”), in India it begins with kama, ‘desire’. “Kama is the seed of desire in the mind of the One, which gave birth to the cosmos” (Rig Veda, 10.129).

Early on, ancient Indians understood that kama is the source of creation, procreation and, indeed, all action. They elevated it to trivarga, one of the three goals of the human life. They even created an intoxicating deity in its name and built a charming mythology around it. Kama optimism reached its zenith in the classical period of Indian history, culminating in Sanskrit love poetry, the Kamasutra, and a culture of erotic sringara rasa in the courtly life of the Gupta Empire and of Harsha. The erotic temple sculptures at Khajuraho and Konark logically followed.

How did the once open-minded, optimistic Indians become today’s prudes? We tend to blame Muslim and British invaders (and they did have something to do with it — particularly, prissy Victorians of the British Raj). But Hindus were also pessimistic about kama. The attack against kama came from renouncers and ascetics who worried about its power to undermine spiritual progress. The Upanishads, Buddha, and sundry sanyasis denounced it and Shiva, the erotic ascetic, even burned the god of love.

Caught between optimists and pessimists, the ordinary person was confused. While desire was a source of joy, he realized that it could easily get out of hand. The dharma texts came to his rescue and offered a compromise. They accepted kama’s positive qualities but decreed that it must be confined to procreation within marriage. Thus, monogamy became the norm. But human beings are not governed by instinct alone. Desire travels from our senses to our imagination, creating a fantasy around a specific person. This gave rise to sexual love, which was expressed first as sringara rasa in Sanskrit and Prakrit love poetry and later as romantic love in bhakti, finding its greatest expression in Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda.

Instead of feeling ashamed about kama or focusing solely on its pessimistic side or turning super-prudish like the English Victorians, Minister Prasad and the Sangh Parivar should celebrate our rich kama heritage. When it comes to pornography, however, there are three legitimate concerns — sexual violence, addiction, and protecting children. As to the first, no link has been found in studies between sexual crimes and pornography. Second, porn is addictive but so is alcohol. The answer to the third lies not in curbing the freedom of adults but in exercising parental caution.

Hence, Chief Justice H L Dattu refused last month to censor internet sites, saying, “Somebody can come to the court, and say, ‘Look, I am an adult and how can you stop me from watching it within the four walls of my room?'” It violates Article 21 of the Constitution, he added, and personal liberty is integral to the fundamental right to life.

To be civilized is to be able to say: I do not eat beef but I do not object to you eating it. I do not watch porn but I do not object to your watching it. In a free, civilized country we learn to respect those who differ from us and give them plenty of breathing space. Instead of censoring and banning, let us learn from our open, exuberant parampara, which not only created a civilized space for kama but encouraged great poetry and art about love and sex. By trusting the average citizen, we shall also be true to the spirit of our Constitution.

1 comment:

Tacky said...

Thanks to the chief justice another freedom is protected. Thanks for your comments.