Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Sex and Salvation

Margaret Bhatty

There was a time when we depended on little green men from Mars for a world-view. After Mars probes debunked them, we now have ETs - ­computerised caricatures of ourselves. If these voyagers from outer space are as perceptive as Martians were, they too must marvel that as a species we call ourselves Homo sapiens - homo: men, and sapiens: wise. The truth is we are very close to primates and a tiny shift in their genetic make-up would oblige us to offer chimps seats at the UNO. Homo sapiens thinks that intelligence is the natural culmination of the evolutionary process. Yet so manic is he in his passions and beliefs that at the top of the ladder we all jostle for space with eminent mon­sters like Caligula, Nero, Hitler and Mussolini.

A lunatic irrational streak runs through entire cultures, shaping mores and moral values. Consider just two aspects of humankind which ought to afford us most joy - sex and food. The apes take both where they can find it without any drastic consequences. But humans, with their super-intelligence, have devised complex systems of morality around both systems which clearly indicate where we can end up in the afterworld if we fail to measure up. It is possible, in some religi­ons, for the pious to earn “salvation” for their souls by never inges­ting taboo foods, never indulging in taboo sex, never committing stra­nge crimes like “blasphemy” and “sacrilege”, yet never doing a single deed of kindness to their fellowmen.
An erotic sculpture in Khajuraho

Since ETs traverse space we might assume they know its layout and can locate that Never-Never land all good people set their hearts on. Our icons and paintings, assuming the world is flat, depict it  as a place directly “above” which can be reached by chariots drawn by fiery horses, ladders and stairways. However, even astronauts know that in space there is no Up nor Down. There is only outwards or Inwards. It is unlikely that ETs have ever happened upon massed choirs of sexless winged creatures playing harps, or fabulous gardens and orchards with streams, along with beautiful women waiting to serve the deserving. Yet so strong a hold do these myths have on earthlings that all their actions are influenced by other-worldly considerations.

How is it that Homo sapiens, who so arrogantly squanders his environmental inheritance in the belief that he is lord of creation, sho­uld in his turn think it necessary to grovel before the gods? Desmond Morris, behavioural scientist, believes that the whole idea of an aft­erlife is a defence mechanism against extinction. As self-conscious beings we cannot visualise our own deaths. So we find it immensely comforting to believe that a part of us - the soul - survives into another world, or returns again to subsequent existences. From the impulse for self-preservation, humans see God as a super-parent and his priests as super-leaders directing us in the paths of righteousness. “A God that offers an afterlife in another world, that protects his ‘children’ regardless of their age, and that offers them devotion to a grand cause of a socially unifying purpose, triggers off powerful reactions in the human animal” (Manwatching).

Apes might consider themselves fortunate in not having evolved to such profundity. Sexually, they are beasts. Human primates are self-aware and know what modesty is. Their sexuality is of immense social significance to them. Regrettably, most religious cultures of today lay greater emphasis on anti-sex elements in their morality. Pro-sex cultures are denounced as decadent and sinful.

Adam and Eve
No other religion has waged as relentless a war against human sex­uality as the Christian religion. Early Christians believed Eden was the Garden of Innocence. Only after Adam and Eve ate taboo food and were evicted did they indulge in sex. The early Christian Fathers advocated complete sexual abstinence and chastity for anyone who wished to go to heaven. Many believers emasculated themselves rather than forego the promise of eternal life. They followed the Biblical message given by Christ in St Mathew 19:12 – “For there are some - eunuchs which were born so from their mother’s womb; and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs by men; and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it let him receive it”.

Eunuch cults were widespread in the Middle East and Asia long be­fore Christianity. The Mahabharata mentions the eunuch Sikhandi. Indian Hijras claim that Arjun and Bhishma were also eunuchs. Pagan worshippers of Cybele held rites in which novices were initiated. They went into frenzied dancing, slashed off their genitals and hurled them at a statue of the goddess. They were easily recognizable in the str­eets of Rome dressed as women, wearing their perfumed hair long and dancing to the accompaniment of flutes, cymbals, tambourines and castanets.

Bahuchara Mata: Patroness of the Hijra community
Eunuchs are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Book of Daniel tells of the Jews exiled in Babylonia where Daniel and his three friends rose to eminence because of his ability to inter­pret correctly the dreams that troubled Nebuchadnezzar the King (605 - ­562 BC). The four captives were looked after by Aspernaz “the prince of eunuchs”.

In India eunuchs once held high office as confidantes and spies for rulers. Today the Hindu and Muslim cults have combined and members of both religions live together in families. Their patron goddess goes by different names in various temples around the country. While there are natural hermaphrodites among them, the majority have chosen emascu­lation for other-worldly reasons. Impotent males sacrifice their sex to Bahuchara Mata to be assured of virility in the next seven existen­ces. Others, though potent, say the shadow of the goddess fell upon them. All look for reward in the Hereafter.

The Skoptsi Christian sect in Russia, following the verse in Mat­hew's gospel, emasculated themselves down to the 18th and 19th centur­ies. Young male singers in the Vatican choir chose emasculation so that their voices remained a clear soprano in the glory of God for the rest of their lives. The last castrato in the choir died in 1903. From Church writings we know that eunuchs were ordained as bishops and pri­ests in the early church. Origen (185-254 AD), an eminent theologian, emasculated himself. And Tertullian (160-220 AD) another Bible scholar wrote that “the kingdom of Heaven is thrown open to all Eunuchs.” This worthy thinker also said of women: “Thou art the Devil's gate!” With neutering so essential to a man's hope for Heaven it followed that all women were a hindrance sent by Satan.

All religions claim their scriptures were written or revealed by amorphous Super-beings given different names and identities by each faith. Their preoccupation with human sexuality and the need to curb women is evident in the personal laws practised by all faiths today. It is therefore somewhat puzzling why the Creator located woman's cen­tre of virtue not in her mind but in that part of her anatomy where it is most at risk - in a small triangular fold of tissue called the hymen. Its presence or absence in young unmarried females of the human species decided on whether they are upright, chaste and virtuous, or contemptible as “fallen women.” Virginity is a perilous condition and must be guarded jealously by the males in a family because their honour is bound into its presence, until such time as it is legitimately yielded up in marriage. Christian nuns are described as “brides of Christ” and they must be virgin to qualify for this status.

In 1985 a sensational news story appeared in our papers about how upper-class girls from rich families in the Middle East were being treated by Bombay doctors before their forthcoming marriages to men of orthodox belief who placed a high premium on virginity. Having lost their virginity through frivolous misadventure, they were paying Rupees twenty thousand for hymenoplasty. Thus have humans with their superior intelligence now been able to restore chastity and good character in females through surgical means - though we cannot know if this ensures them access to Heaven.

Christian theologians of medieval times conceded that while woman is totally evil, man is a “creation of the Devil only from the waist down.” The church therefore regulated all sexual activity for those who couldn't resist getting married thereby spoiling somewhat their chances of salvation. Abstention was mandatory on Thursdays (in memory of Christ's arrest), on Fridays (in memory of his death), on Saturdays (in honour of the Virgin Mary), on Sundays (because of the Resurrec­tion), and on Mondays (to commemorate the dead.). This left just Tuesdays and Wednesdays for sex - unless the Church was observing the for­ty-day fast before Easter, or the feast of Pentecost and Christmas, or seven, five or three days before communion. A husband keen on achiev­ing eternal life in the hereafter could consult this theological calendar if he wished to have sex with his wife - not for fun but for procreation.

Contraception was a sin, in case it made a woman think that she might possibly enjoy sex safely. Coitus interruptus and oral sex inv­ited sentences from three to fifteen years. And those men who committed these "abomination joyfully" could be publicly whipped, put on fasts of bread and water for years, or have their bottoms exposed to public ridicu1e in the market-place.

"The Anchorite" by Teodor Axentowicz.
Since sex depends heavily on the chemistry of sex appeal, those anxious for their souls rendered themselves as unattractive as possi­ble. Adornment and finery was of the Devil, bathing was a sin. Anch­orites, fleeing temptation by women, lived in the wilderness unwashed for the rest of their lives. St.Abraham, "a man of singular beauty”, fled on his wedding night and never washed for the next fifty years. The dirt on his person "reflected the purity of his soul." Body odour was called "the odour of sanctity" and lice the "pearls of God." Those celibates who couldn't live in the wilderness climbed to the top of tall columns and were called stylites. Up there they were assured of being free from contact with women which could put their souls at risk.

Women who yearned for Heaven had to cancel out their sexual sel­ves by being rigorously filthy. One famous virgin, Sylvia, suffered extreme1y poor health by the age of sixty because she washed only the tip of her fingers. An anchorite in the desert believed he was having a vision of Satan himself when he saw a naked creature, black with filth, and white hair floating behind. It was the once beautiful St Mary of Egypt who had expiated for her sins for 47 years. Today pious women can achieve Heaven more healthfully, but they must cover those parts of their anatomy which men have decided are sinful by dressing in long garments and hiding their hair, going clean-shaven or plucking it out one by one.

Western ascetism promoted celibacy for reward in Heaven. Eastern asceticism uses tapasya, rigorous piety and sexual abstinence to enhance a person's intellectual powers. It endows yogis with supernatural power over other humans and Nature. This sublimation of the sexual impulse has given rise to bizarre folklore in our country which would fill volumes. Hatha Yoga has the Vajroli Mudra which enables a man to suck mil, water and mercury through the penis. This mix taken in reverse makes a man immortal. Ancient texts say that those whose sperm travels upwards are like gods. Semen ejaculated into a woman and drawn back also ensures immortality. Women cannot perform these remarkable feats because they are defectively designed.

Celibacy in all Indian religions is seen as a pious necessity and many practitioners even screen themselves off from the sight of women. Asceticism has a long tradition in India. Among the Jews the Essene sect regarded sexualintercourse as impure and sinful. Some scholars believe Christ was an Essene. Stoicism abhorred sex. St Paul preached celibacy (and possibly emasculation) as the best way to Salvation. He found it regrettable that men needed to marry at all. The neo-Platon­ists were as ascetic as the Christians, and Manicheism, which saw good and evil as a conflict between darkness and light, spread from Persia to influence European thought. Manes (215-275 AD) preached strict asceticism, including abstinence from all kinds of flesh. Even St Au­gustine was one of his followers.

The use and abuse of sex in religion is found the world over - in "civilized" cultures as in "primitive" tribal ones. From the cults of ancient fertility goddesses, phallic worship and orgies surrounding procreative gods like Priapus, vestal virgins dedicated to deities, temple prostitution and our own devadasi system in which credulous wo­men believe they are serving Yellamma when sold into Bombay brothels,  down to weird superstitions surrounding the magical properties of semen hymeneal blood and menstruation. One need not be a traveller from outer space to note and marvel at the manner in which Homo sapiens wallows in laughable mix of infantilism regarding his sexuality and an astonishing arrogance. Cosmic significance is attached to the act of copulation in tantrik cults of ecstasy, but a suitable abhorrence of it is a sure way to salvation in religions which claim to be highly moral.

Undoubtedly, the religious emphasis on celibacy, and the male chauvinism of the anti-sex element in the practice of piety, is largely responsible for the traditional denigration of women, with odium attached to their bodies.

Primitive superstition still survives in our personal laws which deny women sexual equality, control of their own fertility, the right to contraception, the right to join the priesthood, and all those laws binding marriage and divorce which victimize them.

If our simian cousins got a small hint of what awaits them were they to cross the small genetic divide that sets them apart from humans, they would not care to opt even for observer status at the United Nations. Being human is far too perilous a proposition.

Courtesy: Indian Skeptic, September 1995


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