Power, Sexuality and The Gods
Studies in philosophical paganism
Dr Jalalul Haq
Rs : 395
Qazi Publishers, New Delhi - 110013
It is an illuminating study of the matrix of human sexuality, power and the “gods” within the pagan format. That the three are related in many interesting ways is widely known, but what Prof. Jalalul Haq seeks to do is to put it in a larger philosophical (including ontological and existential) perspective. This makes certain opaque, abstruse notions and concepts crystal clear. Prof. Haq brings his formidable learning to the project of explaining these extremely significant philosophical issues that continue to influence contemporary attitudes in our personal, social and political life.
Human sexuality, power and divinity are so intricately woven together and so pervasive that few of us notice how ideas related to them, originating and nourished in pagan communities, have permeated even Islam and Christianity, faiths that originated within the Abrahamic tradition, the putative antithesis of paganism.
Sexuality is an important component of one’s identity. An impotent or frigid person does not see himself/herself as a complete human being just because a significant constituent of identity is missing in that case. On the contrary, the severe asceticism of paganism sometimes holds the denial of this vital constituent of human identity as the ideal. Hence we have Jain rishis who “seal” their sexual organ, or Naga sadhus who tie heavy weights to their sexual organ and let it hang for years till the last traces of virility are destroyed. This face of paganism holds sexuality as an evil to be crushed at any cost.
That Greco-Roman paganism entered the warp and woof of Christian doctrine right in the early years of its contact with Rome is evident in many ways. This explains why St. Origen of the early medieval church castrated himself to get rid of the “evil” of sexuality. The special circumstances of the birth of Jesus Christ (PBUH), writes Prof. Haq, could have reinforced such ideas.
However, the extreme asceticism and self-denial of paganism has a paradoxical side too: gods and priests are also seen to be overindulging in sex, most of the time without any regard for ethical constraints. Thus we have Greco-Roman and Indian gods conducting illicit affairs with each other’s wives and daughters without the slightest regard for normal human moral values. These gods are “supra-ethical”, or metaethical, as the author calls them. That means they are above normal moral restraints. Even incest is normal at godly level.
As priests are especially close to the gods, they are extremely powerful, as well as above ethical consideration, like the gods they represent and are friends with. Not only the priests, but the religious elite too is above normal ethical rules by virtue of observing certain rituals and chanting certain mantras to propitiate the gods.
This extreme of asceticism and the concomitant permissiveness are part of all kinds of paganism, from the Greco-Roman to Indian. Platonism shunned carnal desire and preferred celibacy even within marriage. Plato’s disciple Socrates is said to have fovoured young men's company, conferring spiritual merit on such relationship.
Iranians too imbibed this Greco-Roman preference for falling in love with people of the same sex and sublimated it in high literature. Iranian spiritualism thus had imbibed the pagan preferences. In India a major example is Mahatma Gandhi, who shunned sex even within marriage because he believed that “controlling” sex confers spiritual greatness on the practitioners. In ripe old age he used to sleep nude with his young grand nieces to “experiment” whether he had been able to kill his sexuality or not.
Ved Mehta writes that one night he had a sexual arousal. On coming to know about all this, two sub-editors of his newspaper, The Harijan, resigned in horror and disgust. This is one example of the extremes of asceticism and sexual experimentation in paganism.
Prof. Haq argues that the condition described above is not an aberration or “fall” from high moral standards, but the “norm” as suggested by phallus worship in paganism, or as depicted in frescos on temples where all kinds of sexual acts are shown, “including the perversities”. This “metaethical” stance is also evident in the system of Devdasis (literally, god’s slave). Devdasis are young women who dance before gods to please them and also fulfill the sexual needs of priests.
That sexuality is a power device here is evident. The Devdasis is under the power and control of gods as well as at the beck and call of the priests, who by virtue of their proximity to gods, are above normal ethical laws. The priests (and the religious elite in pagan communities) control common humanity, who are bound by moral laws and are subservient to the priestly class. This explains Brahminism's unrelenting control over India’s Hindu society. This also explain why under Manu’s Law (that confers demigodhood on Brahmins and reduces Shudras to a subhuman status) when a Brahmin cohabits with a Shudra woman, he is doing a great favour to the Shudra –– a virtuous act that honours the Shudra. However, if a Shudra man cohabits with a Brahmin woman, he must be wrapped in cotton and burnt alive as a punishment for the “sinful act”!
Prof. Haq has quite a few startling things to say by way of illustrating his theory. For instance, to explain how paganism tends to swing between the two extremes of asceticism and sexual indulgence, he says that the America-based guru Jiddu Krishnamurthy, who held sway over spiritual gurudom for half of the 20th century, was sodomised by a senior European spiritual guru of Theosophical Society as part of his training. Krishnamurthy never married, but had a daughter from his friend’s wife. The daughter did not carry Krishnamurthy’s name, but described Krishnamurthy’s liaison with her mother.
There are quite a few illuminating insights here. Human civilisation has always been trying to strike a balance between extreme stances. The ancient Greeks called it via media (the middle path), common people call it “sense of proportion”. Islam calls it adl and ausat.. Paganism has invariably failed to achieve it.
Four thinkers of the “pagan” mould are considered here. Plato for his failed quest for balance; St Augustine for his blending the Hellenic with the Hebraic, Nietzche as the embodiment of the European mind’s penchant for paganism despite a notional adherence to a Semitic faith, and Sri Aurobindo for his philosophical and spiritual experiments with Aryan paganism.
All said, it is a remarkable study and an engrossing reading. The only fly in the ointment is the author’s (or, the editor’s?) penchant for indiscriminate use of the definite article. Occasional grammatical lapses like “indulgence into” could have been avoided. These small irritants should be removed from the next edition of this extraordinary work.