Happy Valentine’s Day! If I had my way, I’d be wishing you ‘Happy Kama Deva Divas!’ today — an impish suggestion by the irrepressible Shashi Tharoor. Since no one is quite sure about the origins of Valentine’s Day, countries around the world celebrate this festival of love in their own way. The Chinese call it Qixi, remembering a 2,000-year-old story of star-crossed lovers from the Han Dynasty. They look to the heavens at night to watch the stars, as Vega and Altair come close, symbolising the lovers’ annual reunion. In Korea, those who are unlucky in love, mourn their solitary status by eating dark bowls of jajangmyeon, ‘black bean-paste noodle’. In the Philippines, it’s a day of mass weddings as thousands of couples gather in public areas to get married or renew their vows.
The purpose in changing its name in India is not to set the cat among the pigeons; nor is it to Hinduise the good St Valentine. It is to give content to a festival that has no content — to open young Indian minds to a treasure of charming, romantic mythology of the love god, Kama, while reassuring the Hindutva mind that romance is as Indian as the Ganga. Since kama, ‘desire’, is the source of creation, of procreation, and of all action, our ancients elevated it to a goal of life, a purushartha. In the Rig Veda, kama creates the cosmos from the first seed of desire in the mind of the One. It is the source of the life instinct and the sexual drive. Hence, our poets honoured kama in love poetry, especially in the classical Gupta Age, culminating in the Kamasutra, an erotic text of manners, not a sex manual as wrongly believed but a charming, surprisingly modern guide to the art of living.
Given this cheerful, exuberant past, why have Indians turned prudish today? We blame the English and their ‘Victorian middle-class morality’. But the truth is that lurking deep in the Indian psyche is also pessimism about kama. More than 2,500 years ago in the forests of north India, yogis and renouncers like the Buddha, were struck by kama’s unsatisfactory nature. They sought ways to quiet the endless, futile striving of desire.
Patanjali taught chitta vriti nirodha to still the fluctuations of the mind.
The Bhagavad Gita also teaches to act without desire. Ascetic Shiva burned the god Kama when the latter disturbed his thousand-year meditation; hence, desire exists ananga, ‘bodiless’, in the mind. In the clash between optimists and pessimists emerged kama realists, who offered a compromise in the dharma texts, stating that sex is fine as long as it’s within marriage.
Today’s Victorians are Hindu nationalists, who freak out at the mention of Valentine’s Day, ready to jump in with their moral police. They behave no better than 19th century Christian missionaries, who either denied sexual desire or associated it with sin, leaving everyone feeling guilty and ashamed. A few years ago, the BJP government in Rajasthan, believing mistakenly that romantic love is un-Indian, went and changed Valentine’s Day officially to ‘Matra-Pitra Pujan Diwas’. This didn’t go too well with the young. When the Congress government returned to power, it withdrew the order in 2019, declaring that it was inappropriate to dedicate only one day to honour parents when they should be honoured every day. It is ironical: Victorians reacted with unhealthy prudishness in dealing with desire while pre-modern Indians were more relaxed, as one can see in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Today, it’s the reverse. Whereas the West has grown more relaxed and liberated in its attitudes, the Hindu Right has grown more prudish and intolerant of harmless festivals like Valentine’s Day.
Kama is an appropriate name for Valentine’s Day because the Sanskrit word also means pleasure. In their harried day-to-day lives, ordinary Indian citizens deserve some pleasure and joy to enter their lives. Kama’s rich tradition teaches that love and desire are products of culture. You’re supposed to cultivate desire, not suppress it, for then you are in charge, not the other way around. India is in transition from tradition to modernity and it is just as important to speak and act freely about our emotional life as our economic and political lives. For too long we have repressed emotions and lived with patriarchal stereotypes. Secrecy is unhealthy for a wholesome society. Let’s rename Valentine’s Day to also remind us that it’s not romantic love but conspiracies like love jihad that are alien to our culture.