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Desire or dharma: Dilemma that is as old as the vedas*

The Author refers to Tarun Tejpal, editor of a prominent Indian News Magazine who was arrested over sexual assault allegations.

Over the past few weeks we have been mesmerized by the tragic story of Tarun Tejpal. He was a moral voice to a whole generation, looked up to for courageous and uncompromising journalism. The evidence of sexual assault against the founder editor of Tehelka suggests that he not only failed a young colleague but collectively all journalists, workingwomen, and his legion of admirers. Millions of words have been written on this story but no one has explained why men in positions of power behave badly. We need to try and understand the nature of human desire in a patriarchic society where male narcissism is an ever-present reality and men believe they are more attractive than they really are.

Desire is instinctual energy deriving from primal biological urges. The Rigveda says, “The cosmos emerged from the seed of kama, ‘desire’, in the mind of the One”. A primordial sexual act of incest populated the earth, according to the Aitareya Brahmana when Prajapati, the primeval creator, desired his daughter. She ran away and took the form of a doe. He turned into a stag, copulated with her, and deer were created. Then she turned into a cow, he became a bull, and cows come into being… and so on. The gods said, “Prajapati is doing what is not done”. A serial act of rape, sinful and violent, was the “origin of species”—a somewhat more colourful version than Darwin’s.

Human beings are not only governed by instinct. Desire travels from our senses to our imagination, and often gets focused onto a specific person. Society exploited this idea by creating the institution of marriage for the purpose of social harmony. Hence, the Dharmashastras insist that sex is only for procreation. But men and women found a way to communicate their fantasies, and this gave rise to romantic love and the art of seduction. By the Epic period when the first kingdoms were formed, kama also meant ‘pleasure’ and in fact became a trivarga, one of the three aims of life, along with artha and dharma. The elite embraced the courtly ideal of the nagaraka, ‘man-about-town’. Kamasutra taught us the sixty-four arts, wherein Vatsyayana instructs, “If you are kissed, kiss back!” Patriarchy ruled, however, and Draupadi’s disrobing in the Mahabharata is the most celebrated display of male power, and it led to a ghastly war.

Sexual desire did not sit well with the ascetic, however. In the earlier Upanishadic period, our society’s idea of the good life was challenged by the “renouncer”. Rishis like Agastya suffered sexual anxiety over losing hard earned spiritual energy through tapas, which is reflected in the many myths of tempting apsaras who bring about the involuntary ejaculation of semen. The renouncer countered by speaking adeptly of the loathsome nature of a woman’s body. The object of desire becomes an object of revulsion in the Buddhacharita, for example, which demonizes the feminine ‘other’. The tension between the householder’s act of desire and the ascetic’s conquest of desire reflects the dual nature of human beings—the erotic and the ascetic in all of us—but it did not disturb the unhappy male domination of society.

To try and understand Tarun Tejpal’s actions in the historical context of male power in society is not to excuse his wrongdoing. In a patriarchal society men want to control the reproductive body of women. The man’s viewpoint pervades the Vedas, the epics, and Sanskrit love poetry.  But all our texts also warn against the dangerous nature of human desire and remind us of boundaries. Even Vatsayana cautions in the Kamasutra that kama must be governed by dharma.

Sexual assault is a crime and it has less to do with sex than with power and male domination. All societies have been patriarchal and it is a tribute to the global women’s movement that the world has begun to change its old paradigm. Governments around the world are instituting legal changes. In India, the new anti-rape law and the Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace are part of this global trend. They must be quickly implemented and we must keep trying to make relations between men and women more equal and less hierarchical. The prize too is a big one—a safer and more civilized India.

Gurcharan Das December 17th 2013

*: (The Vedas are Hindu religious texts from ancient India. Written as long ago as 1500 BCE. In Hinduism Dharma signifies behaviors that are considered to be in accordance with the natural order)

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