October 27, 2006

Cultural chauvinism is not really about morality

In Quest Thursday, October 26, 2006 The International Enquirer I noted Mr. Neelakantan’s wry speculations on "why" some ancient temples were decorated with sexual motifs (See the comment section of my last post).
I also read comments on other forums pointing out that only a "small" percentage of all the temples in India have such motifs. Somehow, I’m left feeling that there seems to be more pressure on the Hindu community to justify the appearance of their temples -- than there is on senior academicians to not ask unintelligent questions.
Dr. Kealey’s question "How can a religion be so pornographic?" is an embarrassingly illiterate question undeserving of a literate answer.But his type of question has been asked before. And it has been answered before -- among others, by essayist Mulk Raj Anand and Sri Aurobindo, the passionate and lyrical visionary.
“To bring into the artistic look on an Indian temple Occidental memories or a comparison with the Greek Parthenon or Italian church … or even the great Gothic cathedrals of medieval France…is to intrude a fatally foreign or disturbing element or standard in the mind. But this consciously or else subconsciously is what almost every European mind does to a greater or lesser degree – and it is here a pernicious immixture, for it subjects the work of a vision that saw the immeasurable to the tests of an eye that dwells only on measure.” Sri Aurobindo, Essays on Indian Art and Architecture; A response to British drama critic William Archer’s book “India and the Future” (1917) ; excerpted from the anthology “The Foundations of Indian Culture”, Birth Centenary Edition (1972), Pondicherry
“To be sure, the mental imperialism of the West seems to have succeeded in corrupting and perverting the outlook of the conquered more than the physical empire, now luckily overthrown. It is necessary, therefore, to restate the fundamental postulates behind Hindu erotic art, so that the sexual principles which inform some of the most vital sculptures of Bhuvaneshwar, Konarak and Puri are made explicit, and the return is made towards an internal criticism, in terms of the intentions of the builders, rather than in terms of biased westerners, whether they are Christian missionaries or their conscious and unconscious disciples among the fanatical puritans in our midst." Mulk Raj Anand, “Kama Kala” 1963, Nagel Publishers, Geneva, Switzerland
I would not be surprised if the very same Kealey-an questions resurfaced 25, 50, or 100 years from now. Do narrowly judgmental perspectives spring from a puritanical Judaeo-Christian mindset, as many -- including the luminaries quoted above -- concluded? In my view, that’s only part of it. The way I see it, cultural chauvinism is not really about morality. It is about the serpent in the human psyche that feels its way around with the forked tongue of double standards.We know the words “Greek” and “Civilization” are held to be synonymous in the West, as evident from numerous worshipful made-for-TV documentaries. Well, let’s look at some deities from the Greek pantheon, shall we? Let’s begin with the grotesquely endowed Priapus, a protective fertility deity who supposedly threatens transgressors with sodomy. Here’s a link for you to check out:
The Greeks’ supreme deity, Zeus, or Jupiter, was given to committing adultery with members of both sexes. He is said to have lusted after and pursued a young maiden called Io while his jealous wife Hera did everything in her power to stop him. He fell in love with a beautiful young boy named Ganymede, who became an inseparable companion.The Greeks (not women, but men!) admired the ideal male form. Their Olympian athletes ran in the nude for the viewing pleasure of an all-male audience. As for the status of Greek women, just check this link to see what the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle had to say about women:
But are these the cultural attributes disproportionately played up to the extent that they eclipse our appreciation of Greek art, architecture, literature, drama, philosophy, scientific and mathematical inquiry? Are ancient Greeks described by conservative scholars as misogynistic sexual perverts? Hardly. Ancient Greece is termed the “crucible” of civilization, and the “fountainhead” of philosophy!
As I sat writing, I had this flashback to a scene from Blake Edwards’ hilarious farce “The Party” (1968) in which Peter Sellers plays a bumbling Indian actor. Sellers has an unforgettable line in the movie, when a furious Englishman shouts “Who do you think you are?” inches away from his face. And Sellers’s character spontaneously replies “Mr. So-and-So, we Indians don’t have to think about who we are, we know who we are.” Brilliant ... If only it were true! But then again, conviction brings its own dangers. Here is an observation by the great Greek intellectual, Epictetus, which all scholars ought to heed: “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Posted by Chitra at 5:17 PM 0 comments

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