The Indian Culture Tamasha


A couple kissing inside a police van while they were being taken away by the police from the protest site in Kochi. Photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

Recently after the vandalising of a restaurant in Kozhikode (Kerala) by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth-wing of the BJP) people in cities across India have taken to protesting moral policing, with protests being titled ‘Kiss of Love’ (it even has its own Wikipedia page!). From there on what came about was a competition between the progressives and the conservatives of this country regarding who knows the Indian culture best. A similar competition erupts every time the religious right in our country declares homosexuality or short dresses as against Indian culture. Progressives try to reason with Kamasutra and the temples in Konark and Khajuraho. But what they do not understand is that every time they fall back on that mythical creature  called the Indian culture to validate actions of people living in modern societies, we lose and we lose big. This Tamasha, this charade, that the progressives and conservatives play is dangerous and does more harm than good.

In the case of trying to rationalise LGBT rights in India, Devdutt Pattanaik asks two questions that liberals and progressives need to answer before we begin educating the cultural vanguards about liberated sexuality in ancient India.

… how does attitudes towards homosexuals in ancient India affect modern-day attitudes? Is our approval or disapproval of same-sex affection and intercourse dependent on ancient values?

And further adds a note of warning:

… we must remind ourselves that the ancient sources that censure homosexual conduct, also institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.

While we accuse the conservatives of cherry picking from the scriptures to forward their parochial agenda, we often ignore the part where we cherry pick from the same set of scriptures to justify our rights. The intentions might be different, but the consequences of both are the same. It affirms the status quo.

Let me make it clear about what I think of those citing religious texts and mythologies. You endorse one quote, you endorse everything that comes with it. So for instance, those who cite the Kama Sutra for the different techniques of kissing to validate people’s right to display affection in public are also, in my eyes, endorsing the fact that the work was written by Vatsyayana primarily for savarna men. They are endorsing the fact that women were, except for young brides for the sake of their husbands’ pleasure, were considered unworthy by Vatsyayana to read and learn Kama Sutra. And also regressive and horrible prescriptions like the one on how the wife of one’s enemy is to be used as a tool for revenge, or Vatsyayana’s admonishment of homosexuality, or his categorisation of non-vaginal sex as the job of a kliba (eunuch) or a prostitute. So my dear progressives and liberals take it on the chin and accept the fact that when they say something like “not our culture”, it probably is true.

We need to realise the fundamental flaw in justifying human rights with texts and philosophy written thousands of years ago. It doesn’t help in anyway to bring in change, instead it strengthens and affirms the status quo. This reminds me of that one tweet by a Muslim feminist in response to those claiming that one doesn’t need feminism when there is Islam: I know Islam gave women rights a thousand years ago, but can we please have them now (paraphrased). Human rights cannot be reasoned on the grounds of an outdated idea. It needs to be justified on the grounds that the beneficiary of these rights is a human being and hence totally deserve to enjoy it. Anything else is just not good enough.

P.S.: For those who still feel the need to validate their public display of affection with Indian culture, here is what a friend of mine has to say: “Since I’m Indian, anything I do becomes a part of Indian culture.”


  1. says

    These two fallacies are well known:

    1) Naturalistic fallacy: what is found in nature has to be good

    2) Moralistic fallacy: what we consider as good must also necessarily be found in nature

    And we Indians have given a third one:

    3) Indian fallacy: whatever is found in the wonderland of “ancient India” is good- may it be a progressive or conservative idea.

  2. the eddy says

    One should also rationalize against the very idea of “Indian Culture”. Rather there were cultures on the basis of our ethnicity ,languages ,regions & most importantly jaatis. These parameters worked as coordinates to locate a community & worked as preponderant influences that shaped the ethics , notions of sexuality , morality etc of any community much more than any Sanskrit shastra (religious or non-religious) did . These notions held by each group also underwent metamorphosis over ages ,for good at times or bad at other times. So how could ideas(liberal in some ways & archaic in other ways) or writings of a Brahmin logician (Vatsayan 300 AD Bihar represent a Kirat in Bihar or a Gurjar in Kashmir or a Jat in Rajasthan or a Lohana of Kuttch , that too as they lived in different times ??
    The misnomer implies the idea of “Assumed Cultural Homogenity” across the South Asia & “Assumed Cultural Stagnancy” across times.

  3. Rohit Mehra says

    While I agree fully with what you have written, the dilemma is that to fight the religious right one sometimes has to use their own weapon (the scriptures) selectively.
    When we straight away espouse ideas fit for modern times and tell the religious right clearly that the scriptures are probably not relevant any more we run into the problem of getting branded as a woolly minded liberal. It is much more prudent in my view to take the pieces of scriptures/ ancient practices and customs etc. which make sense and showcase them to at-least start a dialogue with the closed religious mind. Then gradually, parallels can be drawn between good ancient/ medieval ideas and modern ideas, culminating in espousing and spreading those modern ideas which have no parallel in ancient texts.

    When we go on espousing modern ideas without this intermediate “strategy” we are ignoring the unfounded but real attachment that the religious mind has to its scriptures (and to the imagined “historic glory” of the religion that it follows). This attachment manifests itself as anger and further entrenchment of illogical religious thinking when confronted with logical modern ideas – i.e. we end up worsening what we sought to cure.
    I think it is much more prudent to start from some sort of a common base (no matter how distasteful or silly that base might be to us) and build from there.

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