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  • Published 30.01.09


In The History of Sexuality, Vol I: The Will to Knowledge, Michel Foucault makes an interesting observation about the operative mechanism of power in relation to Europe’s ambivalent treatment of sexuality from 18th century onwards. He says that power manifests itself in two major forms. One of them is “juridico-discursive”, which is a prohibitive representation of power operating through stringent laws and punitive measures. The other form Foucault describes is more positive, being immanent in the system of knowledge that it produces in order to perpetuate itself. While the first works on principles of fear and apprehension, the second naturalizes itself into ordinary ways of life.

Foucault’s analysis is undoubtedly culture and age-specific, but like most startling observations, this too has a wider relevance. It is especially applicable to the question of sexual morality in the Indian context. In the book, Erotic Justice: Law and the New Politics of Postcolonialism (2005), Ratna Kapur dealt with the juridico-discursive representation of power as she showed how certain perceived codes of sexual morality rupture the “legal narrative” of sex, culture and nation in India. In Sex and Power, Rita Banerji invites us to explore the inexorable interplay of sex and power— power in its twin Foucauldian manifestations — that marks Indian psyche and society from ancient times. Banerji’s thesis is premised upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of morality, which describes all moral systems as illogical and tyrannical. Banerji is particularly indebted to the Nietzschean postulates of ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality’ in explaining how “paradoxical codes of moralities can arise in the same community over time, and sometimes even coexist”. Banerji argues that whenever a ‘slave class’ comes to power replacing a ‘master class’, it substitutes its own values with those of the disempowered people in order to assert itself.

The symbol of the lingam-yoni (phallus and vulva) runs like a leitmotif through the book. Banerji shows how the sign has survived from pre-Vedic times to the modern age. Banerji plays out Freud’s theory of sexual repression and neurosis against the Jungian concept of archetype. Drawing upon Jason W. Brown’s Mind, Brain, and Consciousness: The Neuropsychology of Cognition, she explains, “Since the archetypal concept cannot transform itself to the language of the culture, it is actualized as a symbol in the hallucinogenic image of the brain’s consciousness.” For Banerji, this symbol is loaded with meaning not only because it celebrates the procreative principle of life and emphasizes equality in gender-relations, but also because it stands out as the supreme emblem of the harmony that dissolves all antinomies in nature.

Banerji studies the evolution of Indian sexual morality in five given periods of history. The first is the Vedic period, which accepted sex as a sacred duty. The second is the Buddhist period, which condemned sex as a hindrance on the path of nirvana or salvation, while the third period, starting around the Gupta era, is hailed as the golden age of sexuality when sex itself came to be viewed as salvation.

The dark age, according to Banerji, started with the arrival of Islam and continued throughout the British colonial period, when a puritanical attitude towards sex encouraged hypocrisy and gender bias. Banerji describes the modern era as the democratic period, which harbours a “sexual paradox”, undecided as it is about whether to embrace the liberal principles of globalization or to adhere to colonial conservatism. Banerji’s proposed way out of this dilemma is to accept the Jungian concept of “individuation”, which entails a complete realization of the self and also “involves an intelligent acknowledgement and embracing of ‘the other’ as a valid entity in a shared world”.

Banerji’s book is not only an extraordinary take on a subject that is still considered a taboo, but it also offers a new interpretation of Indian history. Lucidity of style and clarity of thought make this book eminently readable.