Ignorance And Taboo

The Cocoon of Civilisation

Bibekananda Ray

Years ago, a young doctor, practising in a district town of West Bengal told me, a newly-wed couple came to him, wanting to know, how a baby was born and how could they have one! He found out that they did not quite know the human reproductive systems and techniques and felt ashamed to ask anybody. When I dismissed it as a joke, the doctor swore that he was not lying or fabricating an absurd tale and that he was no less surprised at this ignorance of a couple at a time, when so many juvenile rapes and assaults on women are taking place.

Reflecting on it, I wondered, what else but a puritanical upbringing could breed such amazing ignorance about human reproductive biology? Am told, in some conservative Bengali homes mention of sex-act and female nudity outside bed and bath-rooms are taboo. For easing of bowels and urine, members say, they are "going to bathroom". The naïve couple has been to schools and colleges but how could they not learn the basics of human mating and conception from their friends? All juvenile boys and girls are curious about sex and these days, even teen-agers secretly mate.

A similar situation prevailed in early 19th century (late Victorian) in Britain, against which D H Lawrence (1885 -1930) rebelled in several novels and essays, e.g., in 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', and 'Women in Love'. The Old Testament (Genesis 3) thus narrates the creation of man on the seventh day by God: "And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul". He placed man in the Garden of Eden and to give him a companion, put him to sleep and took one of his ribs, from which He created the first woman, Eve. "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed" but 'beguiled' by the serpent, Eve ate a fruit (apple) of the 'tree of knowledge', made Adam eat it too, ignoring God's warning and immediately knew that they were naked and became ashamed; "They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons". From then on, Biblical mankind became ashamed of sex organs and erotic zones, on which 'civilization' added a veneer through an amazing variety of clothes that pushed it into a cocoon.

Few religions forbid human nakedness but civilisation taught mankind to do so. Even now, aboriginals in secluded islands live and roam naked; only their females hide the pelvis and the breasts with leaves. Judaism does not subscribe to the Christian association of nakedness with original sin; the Islam lays down that man and woman should wear clothes, for "nudity is shameful". It adds, "Before parents, children and siblings, women could bare" but not the torso, i.e., from the chest to the thighs. Sharia law in some Islamic countries enjoins women to observe purdah, to cover their entire bodies, including the face.Hesiod in his poem Theogony suggested that farmers should "sow naked, and plough naked, and harvest naked". In ancient India, asceticism prescribed full nudity. Its philosophical basis arose from the concept of 'Purushartha' (four ends of human life)—'Kama' (enjoyment), 'Artha' (wealth), 'Dharma' (virtue) and 'Moksha' (liberation), which enjoined on man to remain nude for spiritual aim, or for enjoyment. To Hindus (Naga monks, particularly), nudity symbolises renunciation of the highest type. A nude person or deity (e.g., Kali and below her, Shiva) denotes one who is devoid of Maya or attachment to the body. Digambara Jain monks and nuns are 'sky-clad', i.e., fully naked; they build their divinity statues naked too.Nudity is considered an art too, as Sri Aurobindo explained in his book The Renaissance in India.

Apart from draperies, what are the other veneers that civilisation bestowed on mankind? It weaned away man from Nature; gradual alienation of the human body from Nature across millions of years for creature comforts made mankind susceptible to diseases and indispositions. Of oldest medical treatises, the Hindu Ayurveda identified three causes (doshas) of illness and found their removal in sundry herbs, fruits, flowers, roots and metals that bound in Nature. For example, quinine plants sprout on their own, wherever malaria rages in the hills. Why do they not grow elsewhere? Females of an Andaman or Nicobar tribe take leaves or roots of a local herb to prevent unwelcome conception, or to miscarry. A pharmaceutical company wooed them to know it and develop a herbal contraceptive but they did not disclose. Homeopathic medicines are prepared from essence of herbs, plants, metals and snake-poison and are therefore, closer to Nature than allopathic drugs.

How did civilisation wean away mankind from Nature? A revolution occurred in modes of communication. Trained pigeons of yore were replaced by post offices and these days, by communication satellites which upload and download messages in digital, audio and video data from one end of the earth to another, to billions of computers, mobile phones and TVs in fractions of second. Gone is the pleasure of face-to-face communication; letters have been outmoded by phone-calls and social visits for physical and verbal communication have reduced. These days, no youngster learns the art of letter-writing to her beloved but speaks to him or her on a smartphone. These have weakened their command over written language. Love of benign and exotic Nature is disappearing; few in a city grotesque roofs, to a wide field or river-side to see a crimson sunrise or set, an ecstatic full-moon night, a lunar eclipse or just have cool breeze soothe the body in a mid-summer night. Most urban people do not walk even a furlong; they would rather use or board a car, a bike or a bi-cycle. The child-like wonder at Nature's bounty no longer beckons human mind. In Satyajit Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), the two 'innocents abroad' pity the war-monger king, Halla and sing: "If he alights from the golden throne and goes to a windy field, he can have peace of mind". Rabindranath Tagore wrote numerous poems, songs and plays in paean of Nature and seasons. His play, Daakghar (The Post Office) is an allegory on human mind's imprisonment by civilisation; in a moving poem, he wrote: "Oh God! Restore to mankind the primordial forest in exchange of the city". He founded Viswa Bharati within Santiniketan to rear up and educate children in the lap of Nature, inspired by the Upanishads and the experiment in California University's sea-side open-air Santa Barbara campus that he saw in 1917.

'Back to Nature'has become a movement in developed countries but not yet significantly in India. Only in agriculture, certain crops are being grown with organic manure and pesticide, i.e., cow-dung, humus, neem leaves etc.. No doctor of any system tells a patient to try nature cure, even though they are familiar to him and to the patient from childhood. Mahatma Gandhi believed in, and practised, hydropathy, i.e., treatment by water, mud, steam baths etc.; he wrote a book on it too. Pranayama increases intake of oxygen and gives relief in neurological and breath-related disorders; yogic exercises tone up the body, aiding cure of chronic diseases but few physicians prescribe Yoga and Pranayama when his medicines fail, or leave unbearable side-effects. Dr B C Roy cured a dyspepsia patient by advising him to keep the head-side window of his bedroom open at night and a psoriasis patient by asking him bathe in the Ganga, every day.

Tagore's call for return to Nature was a reiteration of the Vedantic philosophy. In other countries too, poets and seers gave the same call to save mankind. The British poet, novelist and essayist, D H Lawrence(1885-1930)was a 'nature mystic'; he used to sit beneath trees to write.His wife, Frieda had observed, "it was as if the tree itself helped him to write his book, and poured its sap into it". No wonder, he wrote: "I lose myself among the trees. I am so glad to be with them in their silent, intent passion, and their great lust. They feel my soul".Those who knew him personally underlined his heightened sensory awareness of the natural world.It was parallel to the animistic views of oriental traditions and philosophies and akin to the Buddhist awakening, which leads to a sense of 'oneness with life and its environment'. This deep feeling of nexus with Nature was not limited to only trees or plants. As Aldous Huxley noted, Lawrence did not just feel an affinity with Nature, but was also able to 'get inside the skin of an animal and tell you in the most convincing detail how it felt and how… it thought'.

"The young corn waved and was silken, and the lustre slid along the limbs of the men who saw it. They took the udder of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. They mounted their horses, and held life between the grip of their knees, they harnessed their horses at the wagon, and with hand on the bridle-rings, drew the heaving of the horses after their will.''

This is how he described life on the Brangwens' farm in novel, ''The Rainbow''. He believed that Western industrialism was breaking down and bourgeois Christianity was dead; to him, salvation lay in a return to the life of the loins and the instincts. William Blake (1757-1827) wrote similarly more than a century before him, and he too had been a kind of pastoral proletarian. It is not possible to shed the veneers of civilisation, or go back to a pagan age in a time-machine but if mankind consciously weaves Nature into the enveloping fabric of modern civilisation,he will be more at peace with himself. ooo

[The writer, belonging to the Indian Information Service, retired as the Registrar of Newspapers for India]

Vol. 51, No.29, Jan 20 - 26, 2019