Hinduism: A Different Beat
from Beatdom Issue 10 (buy here)
by Geetanjali Joshi Mishra and Ravi Mishra
As a religion, Hinduism has been one of the most ancient and generational expressions. These expressions and beliefs are handed down from the past generation to the present. The Hindu religious thought is such that, on one hand it seeks to exclude life and its aspects in its entirety, and, on the other, its beauty is such that it radiates in the full expression of all forms of life…those that have been considered mainstream through the ages and those that have baffled the matrix of the mainstream. Hinduism is naturalistic. A true Hindu does not believe in institutionalized religion; far from it, he/she inherits a doubt in all things institutional and becomes culturally inclined to observe society from a distance whenever he/she finds it imposing upon his spiritual and personal growth.
The Bhagvad Geeta or the Song of the Lord, the greatest-known book to guide conduct and human existence in Hinduism, expects one to play one’s role in the social and the worldly structure while keeping oneself at bay from expectations of societal and worldly gains. Then, there are the ‘Renunciates’ – those that feel that the world and society are obstacles in the way of realization of truth and that to realize truth one has to look beyond and out of the social structures. These men and women earn the distinction of being the ‘Sadhus’. They have held light to the Indian Civilisation from time immemorial. They are the wise. Once, they were also the erudite holders of the scales of moral and social justice in society, though they, themselves, were out of it.
It is a fairly well-documented fact that the Sadhus and Indian religions have cast an impression on the writers of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had travelled extensively across India in 1961-62 and stayed with some very prominent thinkers and writers of the period. One of them was the current president of India, Pratibha Patil (then a girl of nineteen), with whom Ginsberg stayed in Varanasi in 1962. Patil has been known later to have tried psychedelic drugs with the Indian Sadhus – Baba Neem Karoli, in particular. The Beats and the Sadhus meet in the context of Hinduism in many ways. They had very similar philosophies and aims, which in the context of Hinduism make them so akin to each other. They both seek advancement of their souls and spiritual elevation. They look for it beyond the frontiers of common humanity. The world beyond ours’ hosts the road to their ‘unworldly’ and asocial spiritual fulfillment.
In Wandering With Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas, Sondra L. Hausner, writes that the Sadhus do not believe in following the constraints of space and time. They believe in being on the move – as staying in one place restricts their intellectual and spiritual growth. One almost wonders if On the Road could have been written had Kerouac not experienced these brilliant realisations which richen his plot? The knowledge that Hinduism advocates is the knowledge that Kerouac offers his readers in his defining work. It is also the same as what made the Sadhus so venerated and revered: the experience of what lies beyond the common boundaries of Humanity. Dissociation from fixities is not the only common feature among the holy men ofIndia and the Beats. In the context of Hinduism’s infinity, drug use and sex for salvation are other commonalities. Although the latter appears confined to some obscure and secret societies of Sadhus, the former remains readily seen among them.
Lord Shiva, the Supreme God in Hinduism, one of the forms of the Hindu trinity of Brahama, Vishnu and Shiva, is worshiped with the offerings of cannabis and other intoxicants. Considered to be the supreme consciousness who lies outside the human realm he is still found somewhere within each of us. It is He we seek to explore and His energy that we wish to obtain by meditation, prayers and other spiritual means. Having gained the enlightenment and full of benevolence for all, the Sadhu wishes to dispel spiritual strength in the world and guide mankind on the right course. Shiva, the manifestly terrible form of the supreme consciousness, has also been called the most merciful in the ancient Hindi scriptures. It is this secret that the Beats and Sadhus seek. They care not how they appear and the impression that they make on others – as long as they gain the spiritual strength to hold light to a saddening, darkening world. The Beats and the Sadhus are alive in us, in each of us. We have only to explore them to be mature enough to make our lives more meaningful.
In what may be regarded as one of the biggest fares of humanity in the world, the ‘Kumbh’ in the holy town of Allahabad in India, thousands of Indian holy men descend from the Heavens to Earth, in the midst of mortals…to spend a month or thereabouts with them. They are very strange people, or so we think. Some of them exist in utter defiance of humanity, and we can only ask what it is that they hold to be true. Society, social strictures, codes, values, morals as we know them, do not hold with the Indian Sadhus. They epitomize the most truthful essence of one of the most ancient and theologically superior religions of the world.
The one aspect where Hinduism comes closest to the Beat philosophy is the element of queer sexuality prevalent in both. In the vastness of the great Hindu mythology, the queer elements seem to be interspersed through the many religious texts that Hindus follow to understand their philosophical and religious truths. Although the age-old Hindu literature appears, by and large, to be mute on same-sex love and physical attraction, slips in sexuality, erotic same-sex fascination, and intersex or third gender characters are not very infrequent in the religious narratives of the Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas and lore of the regions of the ancient land. In the words of Devaddata Pattanaik, a prominent speaker on mythology: queer manifestations of sexuality, though repressed socially, squeeze their way into the myths, legends and lore of the land.
To begin with, the compendium of Hindu mythology refers extensively to change of gender in the deities and their embodiment of different genders at different times. It also alludes to the combining forms of androgynous or hermaphroditic beings. The Gods participate too. They change sex or manifest themselves as Avatars of the opposite sex to facilitate sexual congress. Their influence on humans is such that the mortals also undergo sex-change through their actions, fructifying the curses or blessings, or as the natural reincarnates.
In addition, it may be said noted that Hindu mythology delves deep into incidents where sexual interactions serve a non-sexual, divine purpose; in some cases, these are same-sex interactions. Ambiguity in judgment of the Gods is revealed when the Gods sometimes condemn these inter-actions, but on the other hand, they occur with their blessing. These mythological interactions have been expressions both of male and female characteristics in the Gods as well as the mortals. Not bound by time and place – they may occur at the same or at different times. They might also become manifest with characteristics of both genders at once, such as ‘Ardhanarishvara’, the revered and widely worshipped figure created by the merging of Lord Shiva and his consort ‘Parvati’. The name Ardhanarishvara means ‘The Lord whose half is a woman’ which, in itself, creates sexual ambiguity. It is said that this form of Shiva represents the ‘totality that lies beyond duality’, and is studied in reference with the communication between mortals and gods and between men and women.
One of the most celebrated and written about examples of same-sex love and transgression of gender exists in the pages of the Bhagavata Purana. There, Lord Vishnu as an enchantress, ‘Mohini’ (a form he took in order to befuddle the demons into abandoning ‘amrita’, the elixir of life), charms Shiva, who is so drawn towards her that they have a relationship followed by the birth of a son. The Brahmanda Purana talks of Shiva’s wife Parvati, who ‘hangs her head in shame’ as she sees her husband’s pursuit of Mohini. Some of the stories also mention Shiva asking Vishnu to appear in the Mohini form again so that he can witness the actual transformation for himself.
Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini’s true nature have been interpreted to ‘suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction.’ Philosophers interpret the narrative more profoundly. Pattanaik declares that efforts to focus only on homoeroticism ignore the narrative’s profounder metaphysical significance – Mohini’s femininity stands for the material aspect of reality, and her seduction is another attempt of Vishnu to induce Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. Scholars point to other stories to show that it is only Vishnu’s charm that has the power to enchant Shiva. A demon tries to kill Shiva by taking the form of a woman (placing sharp teeth in ‘his’ vagina). Shiva recognizes the impostor and kills the demon by the placing a ‘thunderbolt’ on his ‘manhood’ during their act of lovemaking.
The later Puranas talk of the origin of God ‘Ayyappa’ . Vishnu, as Mohini, is said to have conceived with the might of Shiva, and borne Ayyappa, whom he/she later abandons in shame. Some scholars dispute this version, arguing that Ayyappa sprang from Shiva’s semen, which was ejaculated upon Shiva’s embrace of Mohini. There are many versions of the Mahabharata wherein Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, also took the form of Mohini and married ‘Aravan’. This was done to let Aravan be given the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed prior to the Kurukshetra War to ensure the Pandavas victory. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan’s death.
It is more among the humans, particularly in the context of the narrative of the Mahabharata, that sexual changes and slips manifest themselves. One such character becomes ‘Shikhandi’, originally born as a girl named ‘Shikhandini’ to ‘Drupada’, the king of ‘Panchala’. The stories tell us that in her previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named ‘Amba’, whom the great and mighty ‘Bhishma’ had rendered unmarriageable. Having been humiliated, Amba moved in search of revenge, undertook great austerities, and the Gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death.
Another such story that talks about queer sexuality is the tale of ‘Ila’, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati to be a man one month and a woman the next, which appears in several traditional Hindu texts. After changing sex, Ila loses the memory of being the other gender. During one such period, Ila marries ‘Budha’ (the God of the planet Mercury). Although Budha knows of Ila’s alternating gender, he doesn’t enlighten the ‘male’ Ila, who remains unaware of his life as a woman. The two live together as man and wife only when Ila is female. In the Ramayana version, Ila bears Budha a son, although in the Mahabharata Ila is called both mother and father of the child. After this birth, the curse is lifted and Ila is totally changed into a man who goes on to father several children with his wife.
It may thus be seen that the Indian mythological world is replete with transgressions of sexuality to prove to man that sexuality is not constructed traditionally and historically – that same-sex love may be a yearning towards a greater fulfillment. In what may be regarded as the oldest surviving documents of man’s intellectual growth and religious stability, sex and its transgressions have only been the means to obtain the higher plane of human conscience, a life where even Gods desires change of form to demonstrate Nature’s instinct and unleashed, hidden desires. Although the Beats and their thoughts did not spring directly from Hinduism, it is no less remarkable a coincidence that the two are so similar to each other. The Beats may be said to be the greater Hindu, a people who sought not institutions but individuals and looked for growth – not of restrictive notions but the advancement of the human soul.