The celebrated guru Ravi Shankar recently spoke about sexuality in a way that shocked even his ardent supporters. Assumed to be a supporter of LGBTIQ rights, he referred to sexuality as a transitory tendency: gay people can become “normal or straight” and vice versa. In doing so, he tacitly, intentionally or accidentally legitimised the unscientific conversion therapy used by quacks around the world to torture gay and lesbian people to fit the heteronormative mould.
He went on to advise a victim of homophobic abuse to consider rising above sexual tendencies and seek his true identity, by which he meant the true self beyond the ego: the atma or brahman. He was referring to the Vedanta doctrine that views the flesh and all things physical and material as transitory, hence inferior to true permanent transcendental identity.
If sexuality offers an inferior identity, where does one locate gender, caste, religious and national identities? Is the transitory pursuit of fame, wealth, power and glamour (artha) not as base as the pursuit of transitory pleasure (kama)? Why then are rich industrialists, powerful politicians and Bollywood stars not treated with the same disdain reserved for people demanding LGBTIQ rights?
Ravi Shankar’s comments need to be assessed in the context of 21st century gurus who show effortless comfort with wealth and power, but distinct discomfort with matters of gender and sexuality, sex scandals notwithstanding. This needs to be explored historically and doctrinally.
Monasticism in India
It all started 2,500 years ago. Gautama of the Sakya clan, disgusted by death and decay, abandoned his wife and newborn son, walked out on his palace and his kingdom, went to the forest to be a hermit and eventually became Buddha, the awakened one. He proceeded to establish a monastic order which preached that “desire is the cause of suffering”. In the rules for monks, men were warned against all forms of temptation, especially women. Buddhism valorised the rejection of women, and family life, by placing monks on a pedestal. Buddhism was among the first religions to frame rules explicitly prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals, who were seen as having excessive uncontrollable lust, even more than women.
This model of the world, with the celibate monk at the top, is found in Jainism too – though Jains insist their doctrine is eternal (sanatan) – with Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, being the last of the last set of 24 Tirthankaras, who appear in each of the infinite world cycles (kalpa). In Jain cosmogony, the Tirthankaras sit high above in the highest heaven of Siddha-loka, having achieved isolation (kaivalya) from all impurities born of desire, attachment, and action (karma). Below them are lesser beings, in various degrees of desire and attachment. Above are the shramanas, or hermits, who strive for freedom from the material and the sensory. Below are the shravakas, or householders, who cannot break free from the material or sensory but increase chances of liberation in a future life by serving hermits. The lowest are the demons most foul, in Naraka or hell, most material and least spiritual.
Early Hindus resisted this monastic model. Marriage was a key rite of passage (samskara) in Dharmashastras, Hindu scriptures that are contemporaneous with the Buddhist Dhammapada. But eventually monasticism became mainstream about 1,200 years ago, following the rise of Adi Shankaracharya.
In popular lore, Shankara was responsible for overthrowing Buddhism in India. In reality, according to critics, he was a crypto-Buddhist who appropriated Buddhist ideas into Hinduism, cleverly turning the doctrine of emptiness (shunya-vada) into the doctrine of delusion (maya-vada), and eventually assimilated Buddhist monastic practices into Hinduism. Shankara’s defenders will argue that he rectified Buddhist distortion of the Vedic view that the world is real and permanent (sat) but appears unreal and transitory (asat) owing to ignorance (avidya), and that monasticism was always there in Hinduism. That Shankara defeated Mandana Mishra, a much married householder and upholder of the old form of Vedic query (purva-mimansa), and made him a hermit and champion of his new school of Vedic query (uttara-mimansa, or Vedanta) suggests monasticism was a later development.
Buddha said everything is transitory. Adi Shankara also said that everything is transitory except the soul (brahman). The notion of the permanent cosmic soul, which Hindus call God, distinguishes Hindu monasticism from Buddhist monasticism. This soul is visualised as male as Vishnu and Shiva, and is seen as superior to the body and the world, imagined as female as Lakshmi or Shakti. The relative importance of soul over flesh, of God over Goddess, distinguish Vedanta from Tantra, a parallel school that challenges monastic Hinduism.
In various Hindu monastic orders (matha, akhara) since Adi Shankaracharya, great value is placed on the male celibate ascetic who shuns women and family life, encourages his disciples to rise above all desire and worldliness, and just does seva as Hanuman, the celibate monkey, served Ram – divine hero of the epic Ramayana, moral form of Vishnu on earth – without seeking anything in return. Ram, in turn, creates Ram-rajya, serving the people unconditionally.
But while Hanuman is celibate, Ram is not. In temples, Ram is always with Sita. In chants, it is always Siya Ram. They form the divine pair, thus complete (purna). Contrast this with the RSS, which valorises celibacy and so shuns from showing Ram with Sita. Even Adityanath, the celibate yogi chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, speaks of erecting a statute of Ram, representing the single warrior, rather than of Sita-Ram, the divine couple in conjugal bliss. This importance to wife, to family, to worldliness, to wealth and power and pleasure, is part of the Tantrik worldview, not the monastic Vedantic worldview.
In Buddhist and Jain shrines, the male-female couple (maithuna) is always present as yaksha-yakshi, but in an inferior position to the celibate Buddha or Tirthankara. By contrast, in Hindu shrines, the male-female couple is in a dominant position. God is divine because of the Goddess. So Ram has Sita, Shiva has Parvati, Vishnu has Lakshmi, and Krishna has Radha or Rukmini. The marriage of God and Goddess is a major festival in temples, for example Brahmotsavam in Tirupati Balaji, Andhra Pradesh, or Gan-gaur in Rajasthan. This, along with erotic images on temple walls, was a Hindu challenge to the Buddhist-Jain monastic orders.
Temple-based Hinduism, or Agama Hinduism, clearly celebrated the desire and the senses. Buddha may have destroyed Mara, the demon of desire, but Shiva, who destroyed Kama, the god of desire, ended up marrying Kamakshi, the goddess of desire. Be that as it may, in the last thousand years, we see a shift: celibate monks, who either do not enter family life like Shankara and Madhva or renounce it like Ramanuja and Chaitanya, came to wield greater influence over mainstream society and temple complexes. The support of Vijayanagar kings who ruled South India from 14th to 17th centuries for celibate monk-gurus ensured their place in the political scheme of things. Like Brahmins and Buddhists of yore, they legitimised kingship.
When the British ruled India, they gave greater value to the celibate Hindu monks, who reminded them of Jesuit missionaries, than to libertine temple traditions where gods “get married” and go on boat rides with their lovers. Christian missionaries found temple rituals vulgar. In 1862, Sir Mathew Sausse, a British judge of the Bombay high court, even pronounced Krishna guilty of encouraging licentiousness and adultery through the performance of Raas Leela at the Krishna temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
Naturally, 19th century Hindu reform movements, from Brahmo Samaj to Arya Samaj, went out of their way to show “real Hinduism” had nothing to do with the body, or with sex, but it was all about the soul (atma). Thus, Vedanta triumphed over Tantra with a little help from the British.
Body and soul
What distinguishes Indian thought from Western thought is the belief in rebirth. You don’t live one life, you live many lives. Present life is influenced by past deeds. Present deeds influence future lives.
In Western mythology, when you die, your ghost outlives you. And this ghost goes to either heaven or hell. Science rejects this concept of ghost; body is seen as a chemical complex and the notion of self a trick of the mind that ceases to exist after death. But ghost remains a key concept in religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, spirituality originally meant communicating with ghosts of ancestors. Later, it meant accessing the “ghost within us”.
But this idea of ghost is complex in Hinduism, owing to the idea of rebirth. In the Gita, we learn the soul wears the body as a fresh garment at the time of birth and discards it as a worn out garment at death. But the quality of the garment is not random, it depends on karma.
So what dies? The body or the soul? Who are we, the body (deha) or the soul that resides in the body (dehi)? And what exactly is the body? Is it the flesh or the mind? What about the social body – our caste, religion, wealth, status, power? What matters really, the social or physical body that can be seen, or the psychological body that cannot be seen? How do we separate “who we are” from “what we have”? Vedanta says that which is permanent is “who we are” and that which is impermanent is “what we have”.
Yogasutra of Patanjali assumes existence of these various concentric bodies (kosha). Through the eight fold path (astha-anga-yoga), it systematically seeks the liberation of “who we are” from “what we have”. Thus, Yama is about our relationship with the outer world; niyama about our behaviour; asana about the body; pranayama about the breath; pratyahara about senses; dharana about using volition to expand the mind to gain perspective; dhyana about using volition to contract and focus the mind; samadhi about enabling intelligence (buddhi) to outgrow ego (aham).
This ego obscures our true identity. It is the crumpled mind, frightened of death and so hungry for life. Animals fear death of the body, hence seek food. Humans fear death of identity, so cling to property, relationships and status. We crave name and fame and wealth and glamour as we yearn for immortality. We know we will die but we delude ourselves that our possessions, including our children, and our legacy and family name, will outlive us. Fear makes us cling to our sexuality and our gender, as much as it makes us cling to our caste and religion. The hermit gave up his clothes and became the naked sky-clad ascetic (digambara) symbolically rejecting his entire body – his social body that includes caste, religion, wealth, power; his physical body that includes gender and sexuality; his psychological body that includes desires and insecurities. The akash purusha, embodiment of the true self, is what is left behind – the soul or the ghost, defined in Vedanta by negation (neti-neti, not this and not that).
Buddha saw clinging to deha as the cause of suffering. He felt through meditation we can un-crumple our mind and break free from the tyranny of identity. When all fears, desires and ideas end, so does our identity. There is no dehi, just emptiness (shunya). The Vedantins argued that when ego ceases to be, there is completeness (purna) and infinity (ananta), which is dehi, which is God, which poets visualised as Vishnu and Shiva. This was the ocean of the divine (param-atma) in which we individual drops (jiva-atma) can merge into. So, while Buddhists spoke of oblivion (nirvana) of the self and Jains of isolation (kaivalya) of the ghost (jiva) from all impurities, Hindus spoke of liberation (moksha) of the ghost from the flesh, and then the union (yoga) of the ghost with God.
The vocabulary of all these liberation-seeking monastic traditions is masculine. Buddha abandons his wife. Shankara or Madhva does not get married. Ramanuja or Chaitanya chooses celibacy over marriage. Shiva and Vishnu, both male, embody param-atma, or cosmic soul. Where are the women?
Women were seen as embodiments of desire. They were linked to the flesh, to matter, and so were seen as inferior to the male, both metaphorically and socially. Women in iconography make their presence felt in Tantra. In Tantrik Buddhism, we see Tara engaging in coitus with Buddha, awakening him, making him aware of the desire of other people, even if he outgrows his own desire. In Tantrik Hinduism, God acknowledges the desires of the Goddess and merges with her to become Ardhanareshwara and Gopi-Krishna.
Tantra acknowledges human desire for control (siddhi) over the world: the power to fly, change shape and size, control things, attract things, dominate people. It does not dismiss sensations (rasa) and emotions (bhava). It is the world of aesthetic delight. It is the world of diversity and hierarchy. Of love and heartbreak. Of power and prestige, of sex and violence. It is the world of the courtesan and the wife, of the marketplace and the crematorium. It is the world where Vishnu has no problem becoming Mohini to make Lakshmi happy, or to enchant Shiva. Here, the Goddess is enshrined with a female companion, not a male consort, as Tara-Tarini or Chamunda-Chotila. Here gender is fluid. Sexuality is fluid. There is no desire to control, and fix the fluid.
The compromise between Buddhist monasticism and Hindu worldliness, between Vedanta and Tantra, is reached when a split is made between the self (sva-jiva) and the other (para-jiva). You are asked to give up desires for the self, but not the world of others. This creates the householder-hermit (raja-rishi) like Janaka, Ram, Krishna, Vikramaditya or Chudala of Yoga Vasistha, who gives but does not seek, and seeks only the control of self, not others.
To seek, or to control the other, is to be dependent. The householder-hermit is independent. He is simultaneously dependable, helping others seek, helping others outgrow their yearning to control others. He does not encourage dependence. Such a raja-rishi is a true guru; he enables others to be raja-rishi too, not dependent but independent and dependable.
Guru as shepherd
Gurus of the 21st century tell followers to be wary of the “trickster mind” and trust the word of the guru. This is not about enabling independence, it is about encouraging dependence. All talk of fluidity of body and desires comes when awkward questions about queer identities and desires are raised. These points are not raised before Bollywood stars, rich industrialists and politicians whose hunger for wealth, power and glamour is visibly insatiable. Rebellion is trivialised. Submission is valorised. Fixed oppressive structures of gender, caste and religion are never rendered fluid. Indian philosophy is fine-tuned to pacify traditional middle-class guilt associated with wealth and power while amplifying guilt over all things pleasurable and desirable that can disrupt social norms.
The guru becomes the shepherd and his followers give up all wolf-like and goat-like aggression and autonomy to become passive submissive sheep, ready to donate wealth and provide free service (seva) to a vast institution that the guru does not own (hence detached), but certainly enjoys (hence engaged). In the shelter of the shepherd, the sheep feel secure. Any criticism of the guru, even for making irresponsible comments in a society hostile to the LGBTIQ community, becomes a threat to that security. Then the hive awakens, and the bees strike.
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