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Covers of the two Penguin classics
Covers of the two Penguin classics

Lounge Loves | Sanskrit classics

Two just-out translations of Sanskrit texts explore love and sexuality in ancient India

History lessons

Dinanath Batra and his fellow champions of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti recently took scholar Wendy Doniger to task for focusing too closely on what they felt were the unsavoury aspects of Hinduism in her 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Her approach, they claimed, “is that of a woman hungry for sex". After defending her for several years, Doniger’s publisher in India, Penguin, agreed to an out-of-court settlement that involves withdrawing copies of the work from the market and getting them pulped.

Around the time the controversy erupted, Penguin also published two titles in its Classics series that celebrate the rich tradition of erotic writing from secular as well as religious canons of Indian literature. The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life And Love ( 399) and The Courtesan’s Keeper ( 299) have been rendered into English from Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar, acclaimed translator of The Kama Sutra, among other texts.

The first is an anthology of excerpts from the epics, Puranas, and other treatises that dwell on amorous encounters of every conceivable nature. The other one—a translation of Samaya Matrika, by the 11th century Kashmiri writer Kshemendra—is a colourful work of satire, pitched as a handbook for women in the profession hoping to get ahead in life.

As the title suggests, gods give in to temptation by their own kind or lesser mortals in The Seduction of Shiva. Shiva is deranged by lust for Mohini, Vishnu’s feminine avatar, but unable to satiate his desire in spite of forcing himself on her. In tale after tale, love and sexual desire assume intense and insidious forms—pleasure becomes intertwined with pain, volition and violence are conflated, and moral codes of behaviour are rewritten.

Men and women indulge in their passions recklessly, even at the risk of being cursed, ostracized or doomed. Urvashi, the nymph, damns Arjun, the Pandava prince, into being a eunuch for spurning her advances. We get a glimpse of Bodhisattva, before he became the Buddha. King Bhangasvana is blessed with 200 sons—first as a father and later (after his metamorphosis) as a mother—only to lose them all. When the god Indra decides to restore one set of his progeny to life, Bhangasvana chooses the ones that were born to him as a woman, preferring the feminine gender over “manhood". “Indra, in the intercourse between man and woman, it is always the woman who obtains the greater pleasure," he says. “That is the reason why I choose womanhood."

Compared to the sophistication and enlightenment of the ancients, the prissy moralism of Batra and his ilk appears shamefully bigoted and against the spirit of Indian culture.

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