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Stealing My Affections!

Indian puritanism, the fault of foreigners? Oh, in that case, I apologise, profusely.

Stealing My Affections!
Stealing My Affections!
Love and Lust: An anthology of erotic literature from ancient and medieval India

Edited By Pavan K. Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani
HarperCollins Rs: 500, Pages: 344

This review is being written by someone who should not be writing it. Yes, there are at least three reasons why my opinion of this book should not be taken seriously.
Reason #1: I have grounds for litigation against the authors and publisher of the book.

Delighted to receive this wonderful anthology of Indian writings about erotic love, I was thumbing through the book, flipping back and forth over a wide range of sources (from the ancient magical fertility chants of the Rig Veda to the tenderly racy 18th-century Telugu love lyrics of the Thanjavur courtesan Muddupalani), 61 excerpts from texts translated from Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Apabhramsha, Tamil, and from Oriya, Gujarati, Braj, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Sindhi and other vernaculars, sundry passages from a wide variety of genres (Puranic, Shastric, and Tantric)—there's love poetry, erotic tale and dramatic scene, sexology, aesthetics and folk lore. Right in the middle of the book I happened to notice a line: "In summer afternoons that are hot and calm/Women anoint their bodies with sandal balm." It sounded familiar. A stanza from the eighth century Amarushataka. Yes, very familiar, familiar because, I realised, I was the translator of that and nine other poems in the book. I was dismayed to note that I had neither been asked for permission to publish the poems nor even acknowledged as the translator. And so, even though I like the great range of selections and the translations of them (especially those of Amaru), I can't be trusted not to say a few negative things about the book.

Reason #2: As a professor of Indian religions and literatures, I feel moderately constrained to take history seriously.

That the introductory comments to the selections from the Rig Veda explains that those texts were "written during the millennium between 5000 BC and 4000 BC" (when no reasonable Indologist would place even the oldest portions earlier than 1500 BC), undermines the credibility of the editorial commentaries. Call me stodgy, but a few thousand years make a big difference to me. While the dating of the Mahabharata is also off by a couple of thousand years, the good news is that the dating of the Ramayana is off by mere five or six hundred. So even though I, as an aficionado of Sanskrit erotic literature, genuinely admire the choice of enchantingly sexy texts for this anthology, as a scholar, I can't help but have a few reservations.

Reason #3: I am an American Jew who partakes of the field of "love and lust" in India only as an ever-fascinated, if not often bewildered, voyeur—an outsider looking in.

According to the dust jacket of this attractive volume, "the philosophical acceptance of desire and the erotic sentiment has" in modern and contemporary India "been asphyxiated by a hypocritical morality that has for much too long equated sex with sin and desire with guilt. The purpose of this anthology is to provide enough evidence of an alternate vision, so that readers can get a glimpse of the sense of maturity and honesty that animated our ancestors". Do modern Indian readers really need to read ancient and medieval Indian descriptions of human beings and gods making love, tales of ecstatic lovers and descriptions of voluptuous courtesans, to realise that sexual love is pleasurable and good, that it is one of the most divine of human experiences (not to mention one of the most wonderful things money can buy)? I don't think so.But maybe that's just because I was raised in California and my ancestors were not Indian. And it may just be because I went to university in England that I have trouble with the conviction, articulated in the introduction to the book, that sexual repression and prudishness in India are British imports: "The ascendancy of the British in the nineteenth century. .. dealt a mortal blow to a vision of the world that accommodated desire with...intensity and dignity". The dust jacket elaborates the premise and argument of the book: "It was basically the evangelical fervour of the Victorian era that imposed severe strictures...on the Indian people by propagating Western 'morality' and 'values'." If Indian puritanism is in fact the fault of foreigners, I'd like to apologise. But I must confess that I believe that, in a culture as rich and complex as India's, asceticism and puritanism, idealisations of chastity and austere deprecations of sexuality, have ever and always been as complementarily blatant as any of the idealisations of sensuality collected in this book. And so even though I do truly admire the sumptuous spirit of this collection, I cannot, given its professed purpose for an audience of which I am not a member, be trusted to appreciate its assumptions. 

(Lee Siegel is a Sanskrit scholar and professor of Indian Religions at the University of Hawaii. His books include Laughing Matters: Comic Traditions in India and Love in a Dead Language.)


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