“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.” —Dr. Kevin B. Skinner in Treating Pornography Addiction
Last December, the horrifying gang-rape of a young physiotherapy student in a private bus in Delhi 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 seeming insensitivity of the Prime Minister all added fuel to the fire.
Before addressing this issue, I offer my sincere prayers for the departed soul of the victim and my heartfelt condolences to her bereaved and traumatized family. Gita wisdom teaches us that all of us are relatives, connected in God’s all-encompassing family. So we are all together in getting over this tragedy.
The Delhi horror underscores undeniably that India’s female citizens absolutely require much better security. 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 female 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; sociologists include anger, power, and sadism among its causes. Here, I will focus on one important aspect largely overlooked by the media but illumined by Vedic wisdom.
The Little-Discussed Shurpanakha Factor
In the Vedic tradition, the demon Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana, is the emblem of lust. Lust so dominated Ravana that he abducted beautiful 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 woman. So, when he abducted Sita to enjoy 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 rape and commit other types of horrible violence against women. He finally met his just end when Lord Rama administered capital punishment.
We all know of Ravana’s perversity, but a crucial detail underlying his perversity is less known. The Ramayana describes that though thoughts of possessing Sita initially allured Ravana, he gave up his evil intentions when he heard of Rama’s unmatchable power. However, when his malicious sister Shurpanakha incited him by describing Sita’s beauty explicitly and provocatively, he lost all sense and courted self-destruction. Shurpanakha had her own scores to settle, and she used Ravana as her pawn by inciting him.
The Ramayana, in addition to being an ancient history, features characters who are prototypes for perennial themes. In our current context, Ravana obviously symbolizes sexual perverts like the Delhi rapists. What does Shurpanakha symbolize? She symbolizes the forces that incite people sexually and make them behave in Ravana-like ways.
The Modern Shurpanakha
Today’s primary sexual inciter, the modern Shurpanakha, 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 Shurpanakha is at its blatant worst as the pornography industry, where sex, even brutal sex, is the only product on sale. Commercial porn websites, magazines, books, videos, DVDs, cable television, and so on, 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.
The Deadly Consequence of Liberalization
The modern Shurpanakha incites in a much more insidious way than the Ramayana Shurpanakha. It fools us into believing that becoming its pawn—that is, becoming sexually incited—is a sign of sexual liberalization. To understand how such liberalization can entrap us, let’s first look at the rationale for sexual restraint.
The Bhagavad-gita (7.11) offers us insight into the sanctity of sex: When 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 sex divorced from this divine perspective and purpose becomes motivated by a deadly force that impels people into perversity. In the Bhagavad-gita (3.36), Arjuna asks Krishna, “What makes people act sinfully, even against their will?” This eternally relevant question resonates at the moment. 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 inviolable covenant of marriage regulated the sexual force. The modern Shurpanakha has persuaded us that this covenant 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 (3.39) states that lust is like an insatiable fire. Indulgence acts as the fuel that aggravates the fire. 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 trapping us. What we might have thought of as unconscionable before we released lust may over time become acceptable, then enjoyable, and finally irresistible. This is how the modern Shurpanakha turns many people into sexual perverts.
The English satirist Alexander Pope in An Essay on Man echoes how vice—the modern Shurpanakha in our context—inverts our sensibilities:
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.
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 release in the name of liberalization is the same force that in a later stage impels such fiendish crimes.
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. The purpose of this analysis is to point out that their barbarism is not an anomaly that can be rectified just by stronger legal measures; it is a detestable but natural consequence of the feverish sexualization that has permeated our culture.
How the Unconscionable Can Become the Real
We may doubt: “Most commercial depictions of sex in the media portray romantic and consensual sex. How can that lead to such perversity?”
Not all commercial sexual depictions are consensual; the reprehensible glamorizing of violent sex in extreme forms of pornography is a significant exception. But even if we set aside this exception, the fact remains that the commercial depiction of sex is designed to trigger lust. And once aroused, this hideous monster can become blind to the difference between sanctified sex and profane sex. It can become blinder still so as to see no difference 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 this blinding nature of lust, the Bhagavad-gita cautions us that it is “the destroyer of knowledge and self-realization” (3.41) and “our eternal enemy” (3.39).
Those who give a free rein to this monster become modern Ravanas. In fact, they end up becoming worse than the Ramayana Ravana; the barbarous violence of the Delhi rapists exceeded what Ravana did to anyone. These perverts need to be swiftly and visibly meted out the necessary severe punishment, as was done by Lord Rama to Ravana.
But we also need to remember that the Shurpanakha that incited them is inciting everyone, including us. Of course, the savagery of the Delhi rapists is unthinkable for any civilized person. 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 naòve and simplistic to demonize these perpetrators alone and give a clean chit to everyone else, including ourselves.
Perhaps this revolting gang-rape is the jolt necessary to drive home the reality that self-serving interests are manipulating us, exploiting our sexuality to fill their bank accounts while propelling us on a self-destructive track of increasingly aggressive lust. Liberalization is the ploy that is deceiving us to willingly, even eagerly, play into the hands of the modern Shurpanakha.
If we don’t curb the modern Shurpanakha, then just as the knowledge of Rama’s power couldn’t deter the lust-maddened Ravana, the knowledge of severe legal punishments won’t deter the modern lust-maddened Ravanas.
The Fetish for Political Correctness
Today speaking against sexual liberalization is widely considered politically incorrect. Severe political backlash silences anyone with the audacity to suggest that anything might be wrong with liberalization.
Pertinently, the Ramayana depicts the results of a fetish for political correctness. Soon after Ravana played into the hands of Shurpanakha 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 meeting of his ministers. In that council, saying that the demon-king 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.
Despite the differences between this Ramayana situation and the gang-rape aftermath, the central point of the parallel is valid and vital: Will we choose political correctness or corrective reform?
Towards a Liberalizing Respiritualization
If we choose reform, then each one of us can make a tangible contribution. All of us have the power to stop being puppets of the modern Shurpanakha; 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: “I will no longer be a pawn in the hands of those who exploit my 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 accelerate 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 Him. By redirecting our love towards Him, 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 to redirect our love towards Krishna. Devotional culture naturally focuses on Krishna and minimizes all distractions. That’s why in such a culture neither men nor women highlight or aggravate their sexuality. 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 strive undistractedly for inner fulfillment. The more we become spiritually fulfilled, the more we become liberated from the constant craving for sex. When sexual fantasies no longer dissipate our mental energy, we become free to fully use 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 twofold solution to the grave problem of sexual violence.