Cherubic Cupid, winging his way with bow and arrows to shoot at hearts, graces countless valentines. The little Roman god of love has proved more durable than the Roman empire. What explains his lasting appeal when another god of love languishes in relative obscurity?
Think of Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love. Haven’t heard of him for a long time? Not surprising – he is not high up in the Hindu pantheon like Siva or Krishna, Narayan or Ganesh, Rama or Hanuman. He does not figure in daily rituals and prayers. Hindus feel no need to place him on the household altar when they have Krishna playing the flute and consorting with Radha.
But Krishna is not only the god of love. “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds,” he says in the Bhagavad Gita. Kamadeva is a lesser god with neither the power of Krishna nor the popularity of Cupid.
The son of Vishnu and Lakshmi, Kamadeva is represented as a green-skinned handsome young man. His bow is made of sugarcane with a string of honeybees and his arrows are decorated with flowers.
Legend has it that the gods asked him to break the meditation of Siva so Siva could be seduced by Parvati. For only a child born to Siva and Parvati could help the gods defeat the demon Tarakasura. A flowered arrow shot by Kamadeva roused Siva from meditation, but Siva was so incensed he turned his third eye on Kamadeva, burning him to ashes. Grief-stricken, Parvati and Kamadeva’s wife Rati begged Siva to bring him back to life. Siva relented and brought him back to life – but in a disembodied form.
Krishna and Radha
It is said the springtime Hindu Holi festival originally celebrated Kamadeva’s return to life but later came to be associated with Krishna and Radha.
The love of Krishna and Radha is celebrated in popular lore — and in religion, too, by the Vaishnavites – but the flute-playing cowherd lover is only one aspect of Krishna. He reveals his true self to Arjuna at the battle of Kurukshetra where he tells Arjuna:
Although I am unborn, deathless,
the infinite Lord of all beings,
through my own wondrous power
I come into finite form.
Whenever righteousness falters
and chaos threatens to prevail,
I take on a human body
and manifest myself on earth.
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, The Yoga of Wisdom, Translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Krishna is worshipped as the Supreme Being, not just as the god of love.
Love among Hindus
Love was celebrated in all its sensuality in the ancient Hindu world. From the sculptures of Khajuraho to the poetry of Kalidasa, there is ample evidence of how deeply erotic, romantic and sensual ancient Hindus could be.
But their religion and culture guarded against complete hedonism. Even the Kama Sutra, the famous ancient Sanskrit text on the art of love, is not just about lovemaking. It also says, “Man … should practise Dharma, Artha and Kama at different times and in such a manner that they may harmonise together and not clash in any way.”
There is a notable difference, though, between India and Europe when it comes to art. From the Renaissance onwards, there is a profusion of nudes in Western art. No such continuity marks the transition from the ancient erotic Hindu sculptures to the decorous Mughal miniatures.
Voluptuaries no doubt abounded in mediaeval as in ancient India, but art acquired a certain reticence. Sensuality found an expression elsewhere. Seraglios, courtesans and “nautch girls” remained a fixture well into the Raj and beyond.
Love was celebrated in both poetry and songs, but sensuality of the kind articulated by Keats in Bright Star where he yearned to be “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast/ To feel forever its soft fall and swell,/Awake forever in a sweet unrest” was rare. The poets tended to be more circumspect like Ben Jonson in his song To Celia: “Drink to me only with thine eyes,/ And I will pledge with mine”.
The ecstasy of love, of Radha and Krishna, or the devotee yearning for God, found passionate expression in devotional songs, but the secular love songs and poems of Tagore and other Bengali poets and even the ghazals – of which this writer has only limited knowledge – seem more romantic than sensual. There may be cultural reasons for that as well as for there being nothing quite like Valentine’s Day in India. Or is there?
Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in England since the 14th century at least when Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned it in his poem, The Parlement of Foules, where he wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”.
Now celebrated the world over, it is still frowned upon by some Hindu activists, who share the same reservations as some in Pakistan, where the vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, has proposed it be celebrated as Sister’s Day instead to promote “Islamic traditions”.
But is a celebration of love like Valentine’s Day really alien to Indian culture?
What about Holi? It is said to be associated with Krishna and Radha. According to legend, Krishna feared Radha might not love him because he was dark-skinned. His mother Yashoda then playfully suggested he could apply any colour he wanted on the face of Radha. Which he did. And that was the beginning of Holi, goes the legend.
Holi is still a festival of love, but not just a special day for lovers. Entire families and friends come together instead, splashing colour on one another in an effusive display of love and affection during Holi. That is Hinduism in all its eclecticism which countenances no special day for lovers but expects love to be shared by one and all.