Dec 17, 2012

The Wonder that was India

During the 1960s, we didn't learn anything about India in school, except maybe a reference to Gandhi in a lesson on civil disobedience.  The impression we got came from boys' adventure stories, My Village in India, Kipling's Jungle Book (left), and the infinite variety of white-Indian companions: Jonny Quest and Hadji in cartoons, Terry and Raji on tv, Corentin and Kim (right) in comics, Sabu and Jon Hall in the movies.

I thought of India as a vast, steaming jungle studded with ruined temples and lost civilizations, like Tarzan's Pellucidar or the Hyperborea of Conan the Barbarian   A magical place, where tigers could talk and carpets could fly. A savage place, unhindered by heterosexist constraints of civilization, where boys could walk hand-in-hand and men could marry.

When I was a little older, I began reading children's books about India and Hinduism.  There was nearly as much beefcake among the gods and warriors in the Vedas, The Mahabharata, and The Ramayana as in Greek myth.

The stories were slow-going, all about the loves of kings and courtesans, faithful wives, and heroes searching for the woman of their dreams.  But there were a few hints:

Mitra and Varuna are Sky Gods who fly through the heavens on a golden chariot. They are so closely linked that they have a son together,

Agni, the God of Fire, and Soma, the God of the Moon, also have a son together: Karttikeya (left), god of male beauty.

Later I visited India with my friend Viju, and learned about Ashoka, the Guptas, Varanasi, Nehru, the British Raj, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Sikhs, the Jains, the poetry of Tagore. The heterosexism and homophobia: India didn't repeal its sodomy laws until 2009, and then in 2013 it reinstated them.  But in my memories, India remains a site of freedom.

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