“The sexual exposure we face is unparalleled in the history of mankind… Because pornography and sex have such a forceful pull on us, if left unchecked our society will erode before our very eyes. We will have millions of people who have sexual addictions.”
– ‘Treating Pornography Addiction’ by Dr. Kevin B. Skinner
The horrifying gang-rape of a young physiotherapy student in a private bus in Delhi has sparked outrage across India. The innocuous-seeming circumstances in which the rape occurred, the bloodcurdling brutality of the perpetrators, the ineptitude of the police and the “Theek hain?” gaffe of the Prime Minister at the end of his address to the nation have all added fuel to the fire of the protests.
Our female citizens definitely require much better security, as the protestors are demanding. We need a more vigilant police force, prompter help-lines, and stronger and swifter punishments for sexual assaulters.
Yet will better security be enough? Might our society be suffering from a more deep-rooted malaise of which this gruesome rape is an intolerably stinking symptom? After all, the news periodically reports incidents of scary sexual violence. School-teacher extracting sexual favors from a girl-student in the classroom, father having incest with his daughter in the presence of his son, mother and daughter hacking to death a man with whom both had an affair – these are the headlines from just a week’s news.
Surely something is terribly wrong in our society, but what is it?
The topic of sexual assault is complex. Here, I will focus on one important aspect that has been largely overlooked by the media but is illumined by Vedic wisdom.
The little-discussed Shurapanakha factor
In the Vedic tradition, the demon Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana, is the emblem of lust. He was so dominated by lust that he would abduct good-looking women wherever he found them and force them to join his harem. He even raped a relative, the celestial nymph Rambha, who was married to his nephew.
Thereafter he was cursed to die if he ever raped any other women again. So, when he abducted Sita for enjoying her sexually, he threatened to kill and eat her if she didn’t voluntarily comply. Thus, for the sake of gratifying his sexual appetite he had a proclivity to not only rape but even do horrible violence against women. He finally met his just end when he was given capital punishment by Lord Rama.
The perversity of Ravana is well-known, but a crucial detail underlying his perversity is less known. The Ramayana describes that though Ravana was initially allured by thoughts of possessing Sita, he gave up his evil intentions when he was told about the unmatchable power of Rama. However, when his malicious sister Shurapanakha incited him by describing Sita’s beauty explicitly and provocatively, he lost all sense and courted self-destruction. Shurapanakha had her own scores to settle and she used Ravana as her pawn by inciting him.
The Ramayana is an ancient history, but it also demonstrates eternal principles that recur throughout history. Ravana obviously represents sexual perverts like the Delhi rapists. What does Shurapanakha represent? She represents the forces that incite people sexually and make them behave in Ravana-like ways.
The modern Shurapanakha
Today’s primary sexual inciter, the modern Shurapanakha, is the commercial world that uses sex to sell its products. The commercial world knows that sex is the best sales tool because nothing catches people’s attention and triggers their imagination as much as sex. So it exploits sex as its ubiquitous marketer and fills our culture with sexually provocative images.
This commercial exploitation of sex is all the more flagrant in the entertainment industry, especially Hollywood and Bollywood, where sex is arguably the most glamorized product on sale. And the modern Shurapanakha is at its blatant worst as the pornography industry, where sex, even brutal sex, is the only product on sale. Commercial porn Web sites, magazines, books, videos, DVDs, cable television, etc. comprise one of the most lucrative global industries. In the United States alone, porn revenue is larger than the combined revenues of all professional football, baseball and basketball franchises.
Due to this massive commercial exploitation, sex is thrust upon us from all directions – TV, theaters, internet, magazines and billboards. Practically wherever we look, sexually provocative images are pushed into our eyes. The way human culture has become sexualized in the last several decades has no precedent in world history, as Dr Skinner’s starting quote testifies.
What is the effect of this unrelenting sexual bombardment on its targets?
People may sometimes resist the temptation to purchase the specific sex-marketed products, but they find it much more difficult to resist the generic sexual over-stimulation. For many people, these sexual desires rumble and swell in the heart till they find a vent for expression. Then like the lava spewed by an erupting volcano, these desires burst forth wreaking havoc on those who unfortunately happen to be in their way. Those controlled by such desires become the modern Ravanas. In fact, they end up becoming worse than the Ramayana Ravana; the brutal violence of the Delhi rapists far exceeded what Ravana did to anyone. These perverts need to be swiftly and visibly meted out the necessary severe punishment, as was meted out by Lord Rama to Ravana.
But we also need to remember that the Shurapanakha which incited them is inciting everyone, including us too. Of course, the savagery of the Delhi rapists is unthinkable for us. Yet, appalling as all incidents of sexual violence are, they happen frequently not just in India but all over the world. So, it would surely be naïve and simplistic to demonize these perpetrators alone and give a clean chit to everyone else, including ourselves.
The Deadly Consequence of Liberalization
In fact, we are all the more vulnerable because the modern Shurapanakha incites in much more insidious ways. It fools us into believing that becoming its pawn, that is, becoming sexually incited, is a sign of liberalization. To understand how liberalization can entrap us, let’s first look at the rationale for sexual restraint.
The Bhagavad-gita (07.10) offers us insight into the sanctity of sex: when it is performed within the precincts of dharma, it offers us an opportunity to experience the divine. Sex enables us to become co-creators with God in bringing new life into the world.
At the same time, Gita wisdom cautions us that when sex is divorced from this divine perspective and purpose, it becomes motivated by a deadly force that impels people into immorality and even bestiality. In the Bhagavad-gita (03.36), Arjuna asks Krishna: what makes people act sinfully, even against their will? This eternally relevant question is presently resonant. Krishna answers (Gita 3.37) that the evil inner impeller is lust which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of the world. Then he outlines how a philosophically informed and devotionally centered culture empowers us to keep lust under control.
Traditionally, the sacred covenant of marriage was the inviolable fence that reined in the sexual force. The modern Shurapanakha has persuaded us that this fence is too regressive and repressive, and so we need to liberate ourselves from it. Being thus taken in, we approve the release of this force from within the fence of covenant each time we delight in sexually explicit imagery, language and music.
However, lust once released can rapidly veer out of control. The Bhagavad-gita (03.39) mentions that lust is like an insatiable fire. Indulgence acts as the fuel that doesn’t douse the fire, but arouses it further. So, when we release the force of lust a bit through indulgence, it becomes that much stronger and demands more release through greater indulgence. When we accede, it becomes stronger still and demands still greater release, thereby perpetuating a vicious circle. What we might have thought of as unconscionable before we released lust may over time become acceptable, then enjoyable and finally irresistible. Many people become sexual perverts due to the modern Shurapanakha.
This same sobering truth is conveyed poetically by English satirist Alexander Pope:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
– English satirist Alexander Pope
(Paraphrase: Vice is such a hideous monster that if we saw her [the author uses the feminine gender to convey the dangerous seductiveness of the monster] even once, we would hate her. But if we keep seeing her regularly, we will fall for her charms and will embrace her.)
Understanding this insidious nature of lust can help us see the link between the generic commercial exploitation of sex and this specific ghastly sexual assault: the force that we are releasing in the name of liberalization is the same force that in a later stage is impelling such bestial crimes.
Most commercial depictions of sex in the media generally portray romantic and consensual sex. The reprehensible glamorization of violent sex in extreme forms of pornography is a significant exception. But even if we set aside this exception, the fact remains that even the commercial depiction of romantic sex triggers the monster of lust. And once this hideous beast is aroused, it can become blind to the difference between sanctified sex and profane sex. It can become blinder still so that it no longer even distinguishes between consensual sex and forcible sex. And at its blindest, it can no longer distinguish between sex alone and sex mixed with violence, torture, maiming, and murder. Due to its blinding nature, the Bhagavad-gita cautions us that lust is “the destroyer of knowledge and intelligence” (Gita 3.41) and is “our eternal enemy” (Gita 3.39).
By no means is this metaphorical analysis of lust as a monster meant to shift the blame away from the rapists; they are responsible for letting the monster pervert them. But this analysis helps us see that their barbarism is not an anomaly that can be rectified just by stronger legal measures; it is a deplorable but natural consequence of the feverish sexualization that has permeated our entire culture.
Perhaps this revolting gang-rape is the wakeup call necessary for us to realize that we are being manipulated by self-serving interests who are exploiting our sexuality to fill their bank accounts while propelling us on a self-destructive tailspin of ever-aggravating lust. Liberalization is the ploy that is deceiving us to willingly, even eagerly, play into the hands of the modern Shurapanakha.
If we don’t curb the modern Shurapanakha, then just as the knowledge of Rama’s power didn’t deter the lust-maddened Ravana, the knowledge of severe legal punishments will not deter the modern lust-maddened Ravanas.
The self-defeating fetish for political correctness
Today speaking against liberalization is widely considered politically incorrect. Those who have the audacity to suggest that anything might be wrong with liberalization are immediately silenced by a deafening political backlash.
Pertinently, the Ramayana depicts how a fetish for political correctness can be self-defeating. Soon after Ravana played into the hands of Shurapanakha and abducted Sita, he started witnessing the consequences of his suicidal folly: Hanuman with his tail-blazing exploits reduced nearly half of Lanka to ashes.
The distraught Ravana called an emergency council meeting of his ministers to devise preventive measures. In that council, saying that Ravana had erred in abducting Sita was politically incorrect. So his bootlicking ministers just recommended better security measures for Lanka as the solution. Hardly anyone dared to go against the canon of political correctness. The only vocal politically incorrect dissident was Vibhishana; he boldly and firmly urged Ravana to give up his lust for Sita and return her to Rama.
Unfortunately, Ravana was too possessed by the monster of lust to even consider this sound advice. He curtly silenced Vibhishana’s dissenting voice and thereby sealed his own pact with death.
Though the parallels of this Ramayana situation with the gang-rape aftermath may be rough, its central point is valid and vital: will we choose political correctness or corrective reform?
Towards a liberalizing respiritualization
If we choose reform, then it is possible for each one of us to make a tangible contribution. All of us have the power to stop being puppets of the modern Shurapanakha; we can individually rebel against the rabid sexualization of our culture. Each time we dress, each time we look at others, each time we respond to sexually overt or covert language, we have the power to make a statement: “We will no longer be pawns in the hands of those who exploit our sexuality.” Every such statement is not just a statement; it is also a contribution to the progressive curing of the sexual fever that is pandemic in our culture.
To aid this healing, Gita wisdom offers us an intellectual foundation and a practical pathway. It helps us understand that we are not our bodies, but are eternal souls. We are beloved parts of Krishna, who is our all-attractive all-loving Lord. Our infatuation with sex is a distorted reflection of our original love for Krishna. By redirecting our love towards Krishna, we can relish a deep inner happiness that helps us regulate and transcend sexual craving.
And the process of devotional service offers us a practical means by which we can redirect our love towards Krishna. Devotional culture naturally focuses on Krishna and minimizes all distractions. That’s why neither men nor women highlight or aggravate their sexuality, but instead both focus on developing their latent spirituality. We see each other not as potential sex objects but as spiritual beings, as fellow travelers on an epic devotional voyage back to Krishna. Such a vision helps us seek inner fulfillment undistractedly. The more we become spiritually fulfilled, the more we become liberated from the constant craving for sex. When our mental energy is no longer perpetually dissipated by sexual fantasies, we become free to fully utilize our abilities and resources for our own and others’ holistic well-being. That is real liberalization indeed.
Decreasing the sexualization of our culture and participating in its re-spiritualization –that is the two-pronged lasting solution to the deep-rooted problem of sexual violence.