By Devdutt Pattanaik
Sex is a natural reality. Marriage is a cultural requirement. And celibacy is simply an assumption. We have to keep these three ideas in mind while exploring the mythology of singlehood. In most mythologies around the world, the sky copulates with the earth to give rise to all living creatures. The firstborn, usually male, separates the two, and establishes dominion over the earth. We find this theme in Greek, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Vedic and even Maori mythology.
However, monotheistic mythologies have a problem with this theme. For, it suggests that creation needs two entities, not just the one. So while polytheistic mythologies are comfortable with the idea of a Father-God and a Mother-Goddess, monotheistic mythologies have just one God, who is either neutralised as ‘beyond gender’ or sexualised as ‘androgynous’, the great He-She.
The dominant monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—of the world have taken the neutral route, though the singular God they refer to as creator is invariably referred to using masculine pronouns, revealing their patriarchal tilt. In Jewish mythology, God and most of his prophets are male, and the prophets have many wives. In Christian mythology, sex is declared sin and the son of God is born of a virgin, and chooses to stay single. In Islamic mythology, the last Prophet has many wives, and refers to heaven as a paradise full of virgins. Clearly celibacy, sex and marriage are major issues in the mythologies of the world.
In India, complex mythologies emerged, some polytheistic, some monotheistic, some atheistic. These were dynamic, mingling and merging with each other. For example, Buddhists and Jains did not believe in one all-powerful God, but believed in the existence of multiple gods. So they were atheistic as well as polytheistic. Hindus spoke of one God who manifests as many, but argued whether that one God was formless (nirguna) or had form (saguna), and if the form was male (Shiva, Vishnu) or female (Devi). A formless god would not be concerned with sex, reproduction or marriage. A god with form could be self-created (swayambhu) or womb-born (yonija), and that affected his status in the sacred hierarchy. In the Gita, Krishna declares he is the origin of all things, and insists, despite his masculine form, that he has two wombs (yoni), substance and spirit.
At the heart of the myriad Indic mythologies was the tension between the hermit and the householder. The hermit shunned family and lived solitary lives in the forest. The householder embraced family life. Who was superior? To answer this question, we have to look at history.
Roughly 2,500 years ago, monastic orders such as Buddhism and Jainism began dominating Indian society. The great teachers were visualised as walking out of their families to pursue higher goals. With this, the single status became very important, even glamorous. All the Buddhas of Buddhist mythologies and Tirthankaras of Jain mythologies are visualised as single monks. However, their single status is post-marriage. They first have to marry, raise a family, and then abandon marriage. There are a few exceptions, such as the Jain sage Neminath who renounces the world on his wedding day after hearing the cries of the animals brought for slaughter for the wedding feast.
In ancient times, producing a child was critical. We hear stories of Agastya and Jaratkaru being tormented by dreams of their ancestors and being forced to take wives, and produce children, before pursuing their intellectual and spiritual goals. More than marriage, producing a child was important, for ensuring the rebirth of dead ancestors. This was a debt to ancestors (pitr-rin) that had to be repaid by those who sought liberation (moksha) or isolation (kaivalya) or oblivion (nirvana).
This tension between hermits and householders can be seen in the Dharmashastras, as well as in the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, that reached their final forms roughly 2,000 years ago. Some students (brahmachari) chose to become hermits (sanyasi) directly while most were encouraged to become householder (grihasthi) before embarking on the forest (vanaprasthi) route.
A millennium ago, tantrik sex became a technology that could be harnessed for spiritual powers. The point was to ‘empower’ semen by moving it in the reverse direction.
In Buddhist monasteries (vihara) and Jain monasteries (vasadi) higher status was given to the unmarried monk over the monk who gave up married life. But in Hindu temples, that started being built on bigger and bigger scales, from around 1,500 years ago, the deities had consorts and enjoyed the pleasures of married life. Thus Vishnu had Shri-devi on his right and Bhu-devi on his left. Shiva had Parvati on his lap, and Ganga on his head. Grand festivals were held to celebrate the marriage of Meenakshi at Madurai to Somasundareshwara, and of Tirupati Balaji to Padmavati. Marriage became the metaphor that bound kings to clans.
Around 1,000 years ago, Tantra became a dominant force. Sex became a technology that could be harnessed for spiritual powers. The point was to engage in sexual activity but release semen outside; instead techniques were created to churn it, empower it, and force it to move in the reverse direction (urdhva-retas). These were ancient esoteric techniques that were now in full public display. Images of Buddha especially in eastern parts of India appeared showing him copulating with a goddess called Tara. This was the age that saw a vast amount of Sanskrit literature talking about chakras and kundalini and siddhis.
A new range of ascetics emerged: the Nath-yogis. They were wild ascetics, who were followers of Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath. In their legends, Gorakhnath liberates Matsyendranath from the land of women (Stri-Rajya). It marks the rejection of the tantrik and sexual way, and women in general, for in their lore, women were yoginis, sorcerers, who stole the power of the yogis, by forcing them to shed semen and produce babies. While in ancient Buddhist lore, we find women being seen as temptresses, who enchant Buddhist sages, in Nath lore, the temptresses are witches who must be avoided at all costs.
Contrast this with the story of Adi Shankaracharya who lived 1,200 years ago. He chose the celibate monastic life, but was chastised by Ubhaya Bharati, wife of Mandana Mishra, for having incomplete knowledge as he had not experienced sexual pleasure. So Shankara uses his tantrik powers to enter the body of a dead king, Amaru of Kashmir, and through him learns about pleasure. Here, he also encounters the Goddess. Does that mean Kama-shastra (manual that elaborates on technology of sexual pleasure) mingled with Tantra-shastra (occult science that uses sex as a tool for spiritual power and liberation)?
The Muslim kings of India embraced India’s positive relationship with sex and saw marriage as part of social responsibility. Kings, both Hindu and Muslim, were expected to marry many women. They all revered monks of every shade—Vedic, tantrik, Buddhist, Jain, Sufi. Two worlds coexisted of the single monk and the married commoner. Sikh gurus gave great importance to marriage, though, over time, the idea of Sikh monks who formed the Udasin Akhara under leadership of Baba Sri Chand.
Bhakti saints were divided into householders and hermits. And often, the householders spoke of the anguish of family life and their preference to immerse themselves in God. Women saints like Akka Mahadevi, Karaikal Ammaiyar and Meera are imagined as abandoning all traces of family life, even all traces of femininity. It reveals a shift in attitudes towards sex. If at one time, sex was seen as necessary for family and desirable for pleasure and power, it gradually was seen as a distraction from higher pursuits. This is the period when Hanuman rises to prominence: he is celibate, he serves Ram, who is a householder, and Hanuman becomes the patron god of warrior-ascetics who serve Hindu and Muslim kings as mercenaries, until they were disbanded by the British.
Did Buddhist monks also do social service along with their meditative practices? One is not sure. But the idea of singlehood and celibacy for social service seems to have to come to India from Catholic missionaries, especially Jesuits who valued education and built schools. In early Christian church, celibacy was a form of penance to find God. But in later Christian churn, celibacy provided the way to shift focus from family to society. If Indians saw celibate monks as mystic mendicants and occult masters, the arrival of European monks changed all that. Suddenly, the monk became the symbol of social service (seva): one who sees the world as his family. It fired the imagination of the Hindu reformers.
This perhaps explains the tortured relationship Mahatma Gandhi had with sex and marriage. And the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari and Sardar Patel chose not to remarry. And the RSS valorised celibacy. And we find the rise of Ramakrishna and Chinmaya ‘missions’ very different from the Vedic mathas of Kanchi, Sringeri and Puri, focussing on religion as well as education.
In many ways, the Hindu monks and single political leaders of India are products of the Hindu Reformation. They tend to get terribly upset if it is even suggested that their founders were inspired by Jesuit missionaries or the glorious Knights Templars of the Crusades, whose courtly celibate love was directed to only one woman, Notre Dame, Our Lady, embodiment of the Church, who belonged to another man (God). Of course, in their case, Notre Dame, was Bharat Mata, or the People of India, depending on party affiliations.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian mythologist and writer known for his work on ancient Indian scriptures.