Thursday, 12 June 2014

Polyamory and the Indian Saint


Legends can be informative as much by what they leave out as they include. Sexual relations are usually idealised or ignored or turned into allegory.

However, an unusual legend from Southern India (and not an obscure one by any means) suggests that some 'saints' had to cope with the complexities of sexuality just like the rest of us.

For Christian saints, sex was temptation and so could be exiled to the margins of the story or presented as an evil incursion. Not so twelfth century South India. The text in question is in Tamil - the Periya Puranum written by one Sekkizhar

It contains the lives of 63 saints, all worshippers of Shiva and as likely to be historical figures as their Celtic analogues - and closer to them in time than the text since Sekkizhar was probably writing about figures who lived in late Saxon or early Norman times.

A principal figure was Saint Sundarar who (given the acceptance of reincarnation) was previously an attendant of Shiva's on the sacred Mount Kailasa.

There, he fancied two heavenly maidens and Siva promised that, if Sundarar consented to go down a notch in the cycle of existence and be re-born on earth but sing his praises there, he could marry both. Clearly Lord Siva, like the Christian God, found praise on earth fruitful enough to cut such a deal.

Whether they liked it or not the two 'girls' were reincarnated on earth to meet the promise to Sundarar. Choice is not a big thing in medieval Hindu story - the saint is granted a boon and others are ordered into place.

On earth, Sundarar is 'born' into an upper class family and, as was the custom, a marriage was arranged. The Saint has no memory of his destiny or his deal and so goes ahead with the wedding.

Shiva turns up but disguised as an old man. He brings documentary proof of the deal - a written contract. The wedding is stopped. Sundarar is not very happy - presumably the earthly deal was a good one.

He reacts badly at first but then recognises that he had got it wrong and that Shiva was doing him some sort of favour. And off he goes to be a saint ... travelling from temple to temple.

No doubt, in the real world, our hero just had a moment of blind panic at the altar and scuttled but this is not how it reads in the story. So where are the girls?

The heavenly Kamalini is a dancing girl called Paravaiyar. Anintitai, now Cankiliyar, is a more pious creature who has some inkling of her destiny in turning away all suitors on the basis that she would marry only her Lord.

Sundarar first meets Paravaiyar on his travels, falls for her and marries - one down. But he stays on the road. Shiva apparently appears to Cankiliyar and tells her to marry Sundarar despite his being married, an instruction she readily accepts.

This is obviously code for her passion for the man despite the rival - and a classically polyamorous situation ensues. The man loves both. Both love him. But both do not love each other. It is perhaps to his credit that Sundarar does not just dump the dancing girl for the more pious Cankiliyar.

Cankiliyar tries to pull a fast one by extracting a promise from Lord Shiva to order Sundarar to swear to be faithful only to her which is not a logically possible deal to strike given the first bargain. Shiva fiddles the result by making the oath non-binding.

Whatever this meant 'in the real world' (probably that the 'saint' would never honour emotional blackmail or allow himself to be bullied by cunning and passive-aggression), Cankiliyar is given the choice - the man shared or no man. She goes for man shared and marries him too.

Paravaiyar, back at home, is not too pleased when Sundarar delivers the news that he has also married her heavenly 'sister'. She threatens the deal by claiming to prefer to die than share - though she cannot assume that her reincarnation will be to heaven rather than lower down the social pecking order.

Perhaps, like many dancing girls, she has her feet firmly on the ground and sees the Shiva boon story, no doubt related to both girls as a consistent narrative, as a nice bit of verbal legerdemain to try to explain the simpler fact that Sundarar loves both and thinks it is his rightful condition to have both.

Remember at all times that the two girls have choices. They can accept the situation or kick him out.

It may not have been quite so simple in the social conditions of the period but we should not assume that they could not be independent, not be socially supported and not make his life hell for the rest of his earthly existence.

Sundarar has a problem so he appeals back to Shiva who spends an inordinate amount of time (considering he is a God) working on Paravaiyar. This not only works but Paravaiyar is welcoming.

Her heart speaks for acceptance. So we have two women, both giving way to the man, but both now accepting the situation. This is not to the taste of all 'saints'.

Hinduism has its curmudgeons and Saint Kalikkaman was not too pleased with the conduct of Lord Shiva who thinks he is letting Sundarar get away with far too much (Kalikkam would feel well at home in Christian Europe).

Shiva will not be brooked. Kalikkaman becomes seriously ill and Sundarar is sent to cure him. Kalikaman is right pissed off and would prefer to die than be humiliated in being cured by someone who considered the Lord Shiva in the way that he interpreted Sundarar to do.

Sundarar forces his way into his house and Kalikkaman kills himself.  The code behind this is the classic one betwen a 'gnostic' and a 'catholic' approach to deity. Sundara follows his heart and Lord Shiva is there to support him in that.

For Kalikkaman, Shiva represents the right order of society which Sundarar has treated with contempt. It is a struggle played out wherever there is religion underpinning social order but, in medieval Tamil society, the argument goes with the heart as it might today.

This is not a libertarian Shiva - the whole situation arises because of a command following a feudal boon granted but this is perhaps only an articulation derived from the culture.

In essence, the Lord Shiva is reflecting the saint's inner desires as commands and, though some might think him a rascal, there is no force and only persuasion involved in a deal that stops him from marrying against his heart and then marrying two in accord with his heart.

Against this is the initial dog in the manger attitude of two women who want exclusivity at the expense of the other (so much for sisterly solidarity) but who both make a free choice (not an arranged marriage) that accommodates the other by agreement.

The representative of order is horrified - better that two be miserable (the losing heavenly hand-maiden and, in part, the Saint) than that right order be upset and three persons negotiate deals outside the 'proper forms'.

It is a story that encapsulates the struggle between authoritarian demand and libertarian calculation. Sundarar is not without moral sense of the tragedy of Kallikkaman killing himself.

This is an unncessary death to the 'gnostic' mind and he considers suicide himself in recompense in a surge of high emotion but then, Lord Shiva (now established as the promptings of his heart) restores the other to life and the two become friends.

This last bit is the most unrealistic - alongside other tales of parting waters and retrieving dead children from the bellies of crocodiles - and it sounds like wishful thinking.

The heart that is Lord Shiva says that the authoritarian should ease up, come to life and be a good pal to the libertarian. The waters parting is more likely, given authoritarian character traits.

Most stories from the Hindu tradition that have a sexual content would be recognisable in a Christian context - in essence, the merging of the person into the divine as consort and perhaps calling for tolerance by earthly lovers for worshippers' preference for the ghost of a God over their flesh.

But this story is interesting because Sundarar is by no means a saint by any Western understanding and, clearly, conventional morality, represented by Kallikkaman would share that perspective.

But here, in medieval South India, is another view where the promptings of the heart undertaken in good faith can be read as 'good'. His sanctity is unquestioned. And no-one gets terminally harmed in this story except by their own hand.

Of the three women, two end up in a negotiated settlement in which they are effective participants and the first (arranged marriage partner) may be culturally harmed and even unintentionally humiliated but the settlement was arranged and not negotiated through the promptings of the heart.

The psychology of at least part of South India appears to be closer to that of the world of Southern France at the same time.

But, whereas in the latter, the 'arrangement' is to permit arranged marriages (in effect) alongside a desexualised love for others - the famous courtly love - a strand in Tamil culture appears to be saying, in a very modern way, that sexual love, expressed with integrity, can stand aside from institutional arrangements - whether arranged or exclusive.

In the West, this idea that a saint may be sexualised would not be countenanced. That anyone might abandon form and follow the promptings of God in his or her heart towards a sexual end would be impossible.

The cold miserabilism of Roman authority is brought into focus by this contrast especially when one realises that the Gnostic turn in the West at that time was represented by the Cathars whose attitude to sexual expression was even more drastic than the Catholic priesthood.

Of course, this was South India in one period of history and was clearly contested ideology. But it stands in the legendary record.

Today, Hindu culture is one of the most sexually puritanical in a puritanical world and, in the countryside, perhaps one of the most sexually brutal but, once, a Saint stood for polyamorous sexual love and that, in itself, is interesting.