Interpreting Erotic Sculptures in Ancient Temples the 'Liberal' Way

A response to Saikat Majumdar’s 'Dreaming of a Hindu Left'.

Taken aside by a male tour guide who was embarrassed by the famous erotic sculptures on the Sun Temple at Konark, Saikat Majumdar writes in “Dreaming of a Hindu Left”, published in the Hindu on September 1, 2018, that the guide told him in hushed tones, “All those things that are there in Khajuraho, none of it is real. It’s all made up…”

When Majumdar asks him what he meant, the guide explains:

“None of these things — none of those acts,” he swallowed bravely, “ever happened anywhere. They were made up by the sculptors because they were away from home for a long time and were, you know,” his voice hushed again, “were missing their wives.”

Majumdar writes: “What is the modern, liberal, bourgeois urban subject to do in the eerie twilight of ancient temples, before the whispers of the possessed but crafty souls who sculpted these? When he has to listen to someone explaining these away as mere imaginings?” He answers his own question: “Nothing. Just listen to the stories. And if blessed enough by madness, tell a few of one’s own.”

A ‘kama’ scene on the walls of the Sun Temple. Credit: Wikipedia

What are his readers to make of Majumdar’s response? That they must encounter the Sun Temple’s erotica as “modern, liberal, bourgeois urban” subjects? Even if they don’t necessarily identify themselves as such, must they accept that there are no better and worse truth-claims and that they can therefore only make up more mad stories of their own? And that such counter-fictions amount to “doing nothing”?

Answering any of these questions in the affirmative begs further questions of why: why should the normative viewer of such temple erotica be liberal, bourgeois and urban (as for modernity, we could grant at least its chronological and post-colonial reality)? Why should Majumdar suggest that liberalism – a common sense of which is a commitment to individual liberty against the oppressions of religion, community and state – characterises him alone in this situation and not his tour guide, who says nothing to suggest he is opposed to such individual liberty? Is the guide’s embarrassment at the public display of sexuality on the temple not as bourgeois as Majumdar? As for urbanity, nothing in Majumdar’s account suggests the guide wasn’t urban too; or that his attitudes might not be common in Indian cities.

Let us consider another possible answer to Majumdar’s question about what to do when faced “in the eerie twilight of ancient temples” with their erotic sculptures. We could insist, against national and international cultures of anti-intellectualism, that we cannot treat all truth-claims as equal. Indeed, Majumdar hints at this when he calls the guide’s knowledge “amateur scholarship”. But by calling for doing nothing in response except telling stories “of one’s own” Majumdar is choosing to ignore publicly accessible scholarship.

In a series of essays that have been key to a scholarly reassessment (in English and thus accessible to Majumdar) of the arts of kama or pleasure in ancient and late ancient India, Daud Ali has argued that these sculpted temple erotica were intended as illustrations for the devotee of worldly follies to be encountered on the temple’s outer walls and mocked before being progressively abandoned as the devotee entered the sanctum.

In a sense, then, the tour guide was right to say that the sculptors made them up, even if his speculations about their sexual frustration were baseless. It’s admittedly difficult to persuade someone wholly oblivious of any scholarly culture and thus of criteria for truth-claims that Daud Ali is worthier of being taken seriously than the guide’s “amateur scholarship”. But to abandon the attempt altogether in favour of stories of one’s own is to lapse into the very anti-intellectualism that Majumdar’s article goes on to attribute (citing Ruth Vanita) to the Hindu Right and secular Left.

Secularisation and disenchantment

The next section of Majumdar’s article rehearses a narrative of secularisation familiar from the sociologist Max Weber, a narrative Majumdar sums up in his phrase: “modernity is disenchantment”. The narrative runs something like this: the waning of sacrality opens up texts other than religious scripture for scriptural analysis, thus giving rise to the secular discipline of literary criticism; and valorises the idea of a worldly vocation that Calvinists then turned into a worldly asceticism, giving rise to proto-capitalist mercantilism. Weber himself drew the idea from the 18th century German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller who had argued that the theatre was all that was left of religion. On Majumdar’s reading, then, the rest of the world can only ever retrace Europe’s apparently secularising or disenchanted grasp of reality.

Indeed, Majumdar’s article shows no sign of any awareness of the demographically and politically massive reality of North Indian non-atheist socialism that had its origins in Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s (1889 -1950) Hindi language writings on and activism for Brahman caste reform and then peasant rights.

But as anyone familiar with a contemporary Hindu domestic puja shrine would know, calendar or poster print gods and goddesses form the objects of the same rituals of worship as ones made of the traditionally stipulated metal or wood. And as anyone familiar with most post-colonial nationalisms (the Indian one being a case in point) knows, nationalism that is dependent on print and other modern mass media also enchants the territory of the nation, Bankim Chandra’s novel Anandamath being a canonical formulation of the vision of India as a mother goddess.

Are these not massive cases of the enchantment through capitalist technology of spaces and objects that were not enchanted to begin with? It’s this sort of enchantment that forms the topic of Nile Green’s Bombay Islam: the Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean (2013). It is also the topic of what the discipline of religious studies now considers a major critique of Weber’s thesis, Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences (2017), a book whose many revisionist readings of what have been understood as classic formulations of disenchantment includes this statement by Weber

Now the history of philosophy shows that religious belief which is primarily mystical may very well be compatible with a pronounced sense of reality in the field of empirical fact. . . . Furthermore, mysticism may indirectly even further the interests of rational conduct.

Of this Josephson-Storm writes: “Here we can see Weber working to suture magic and rationality.” Neither contemporary Japan – Josephson-Storm’s non-European case – nor Western Europe and North America come off this book looking especially disenchanted. Why, then, rehearse Eurocentric narratives of worldwide secularisation when not even the original European theorists of secularisation were secular in ways Majumdar claims them to be?

The Hindu Left

Majumdar then raises the important question of a Hindu Left, remarking on its absence as he cites Ruth Vanita’s 2002 essay ‘Whatever Happened to the Hindu Left?’. He specifically cites Vanita’s following assertion: “The number of Indian thinkers today who try to integrate religious and leftist thinking can be counted on the fingers of one hand – Ashis Nandy and Ramachandra Gandhi are among the very few who make this attempt with Hinduism.” But none of either man’s books evince a more than an anecdotal engagement with any tradition of thought or practice that identifies itself as Hindu or some philosophical or theological sub-category thereof.

Sculptures at Khajuraho. Credit: Pixabay

Indeed, Majumdar’s article shows no sign of any awareness of the demographically and politically massive reality of North Indian non-atheist socialism that had its origins in Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s (1889 -1950) Hindi language writings on and activism for Brahman caste reform and then peasant rights. (In this sense, Sahajanand was a Hindu equivalent of his Muslim socialist activist contemporaries, the Maulanas Ubaidullah Sindhi and Hasrat Mohani). Described by Gail Omvedt in 1996 as “an ‘organic intellectual’ of one of the most important mass movements of the third world”, Sahajanand and his legacy of peasant activism led to Ram Manohar Lohia’s non-atheistic socialism and its current political expression in the Samajwadi party. Does Majumdar ignore such long-term and large-scale manifestations of Hindu socialism because they express themselves in Hindi instead of English?

Majumdar writes: “Is it possible today for literature and the arts to engage with religious aesthetic without celebrating the repressive dimensions of religion?” A lot depends on what we understand by “religion” and “religious”. Does a “religious aesthetic” refer to the egalitarian bhakti content of the Tamil and Telugu texts sung in Carnatic performances? Or to the Brahmanised upper caste identities of most of its practitioners? Or to the non-sectarian aesthetics of its performance?

Is Majumdar proposing Arun Kolatkar’s 1976 poem sequence ‘Jejuri’ as a model for how we might relate to what he calls religious aesthetics? If so, it is hard to see how his validation of the tour guide’s incorrect explanation of the temple erotica bears any connection to Kolatkar’s poem since ‘Jejuri’, for all that it directs a modernist de-familiarising gaze at the elements of a bhakti pilgrimage, does not validate irresponsible fictions or ‘alternative facts’ about the past. It is continuous, as Laetitia Zecchini has shown in her book length study – Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India (2014) – with Kolatkar’s own abhang-style Marathi poems in Chirimiri and his decades long musical-textual preoccupation with Tukaram. Indeed, Kolatkar’s ‘Jejuri’, Zecchini points out, takes part in wider efforts by English language poets in India – Dilip Chitre, A.K. Ramanujan and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra among them – to appropriate bhakti ethics and aesthetics into English poetic modes, modernist or otherwise.

What such English-language lyric reformulations of bhakti have to do with a Hindu Left seems imponderable without attention to the regional language life-worlds of caste-, class-, religion- and gender-egalitarian aesthetic practices; and without the belief that academically validated truth-claims about this or that matter are not only possible but also more valuable as scholarship than “amateur scholarship”.

Prashant Keshavmurthy is Associate Professor of Persian Studies in McGill University, Montreal, and the author of Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark(Routledge, 2016).