How we came to genocide

AT ITS CORE, Sex And Power is an indictment of a brutally patriarchal society “backed by two millennia of religious sanctions”, but it is also a thoughtful exploration of how and why we came to be here. With Nietzsche’s slave-master morality theory as its premise, this book looks at the ways in which religion has shaped morality — and therefore, attitudes towards sex, sexuality and women — through our history.

Nietzsche’s theory holds that a society’s mainstream morals are determined by the factions in power at the time. This is enforced through religious institutions and filtered down to social philosophies, customs and social practices. In a panoramic sweep, this book studies five successive ages in this context, beginning with the Vedic period and moving through the Buddhist, Golden and Colonial ages to finish at modern-day India. Touching on the key political developments, religious institutions and social movements of each period, Rita Banerji demonstrates how morality was shaped by priests, kings and kingmakers, spiritual or political leaders, or the rebelling ‘slave’ classes in each age. Sexual mores are contextualised in terms of invasions, economic upheavals, artistic movements and collective insecurities to paint a comprehensive (though not exhaustive) picture of each period. And while there are many digs at misogyny and prudery, Banerji’s gaze is nuanced enough to interpret and analyse motives.

For example, she points out how in the Vedic age, an aggressive social order was closely linked to the concept of virility. Semen was considered precious and women, receptacles and ‘stealers’ of it. Or how the Buddhist emphasis on celibacy also included a deep distrust of the womb, “a foul place” of “unbearable stench”. Most interesting is her description of the Golden period when the new morality erupted in many strains of expression — the Bhakti movement, the Shakta and Tantric cults, the Kama Sutras, the privileges enjoyed by devadasis. She makes the point that while the British had a significant, constructive effect on the social position of Indian women, the chief aim was to make them fitter domestic consorts.

Many of the broad facts are familiar but there is enough that engages interest, particularly because she critiques what official versions tiptoe around. She is less than forgiving of Gandhi’s views on sex, for example, which she exposes as confused and misguided. As a leader of godlike proportions, his influence on generations of Indians cannot be underestimated, and Banerji points out that his views about menstruating women, prostitutes and rape victims bolstered a culture of commoditising women.

The detached narrative tone gives way to one of chilling immediacy in the last section, which deals with post- Independence India. It is here that one realises what the book has been building towards: the question of where we go from here. Banerji’s prognosis is bleak. She reminds us that while a handful of liberal elites espouse certain freedoms, the vast conservative majority is deeply patriarchal, steeped in attitudes that reflect the worst of our cultural history. She plunges into some of the most severe problems that blight India today — population explosion, AIDS and female genocide — as examples of a society gone terribly wrong in the way it views sex and women. She looks at India’s “schizophrenic vision”, its “socialised dichotomy of men and women and sex and the sacred”, through a variety of lenses including Tantric philosophy and Jungian theory. As in the other sections, she looks at the economic and political factors at play. Her statement that India is participating in “one of the largest, silently ongoing, genocides in human history” echoes many women’s rights activists working in the field today — and her assertion that all of us are complicit in some way is an important one. This book raises some tough, urgent questions that we all need to think about.

This article was first published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 2, dated January 17, 2009.