The accusation of sexual abuse leveled against Tarun Tejpal, former Tehelka editor in India, highlights the dangerous riot of sexual energy in today’s culture. Irrespective of the truth of the allegation, the undeniable tragic truth is that sexual abuse, even if under-reported, is widespread in our society. But as long as such abuses happen in remote villages, mainstream India tends to ascribe it to the backwardness of those people.
However, as happened in the Nirbhaya gangrape case, when sexual abuse happens in the heart of mainstream society, in a bus on the streets of the national capital, and to someone who is very much a part of the forward-looking society – a medical student returning after watching a movie, that makes India sit up in alarm and take notice, in fact, march up in anger and demand action. The Nirbhaya case provoked national outrage and rightly so.
But how does one respond to an accusation wherein not only is the victim a member of mainstream society but the victimizer is a popular leader of that same society, a person widely considered by contemporary standards a shining success story?
One response is typical of the paparazzi: flesh out every juicy tidbit, aggravate the pitch of the scandal and exploit reader interest to make a merry business. Due to such sensationlization, the author of The Alchemy of Desire finds himself at the receiving end of a reverse alchemy. The person who had been treated like a golden boy, admired for uncovering sleaze among the high and the mighty, is now reviled as the alleged sleaze on him is reported extensively in the media. It’s possible that due to a few moments of lethal weakness during an elevator ride, the person who was declared one of the 50 most powerful Indians in 2009 may well have to endure a lifetime of disgrace. No doubt, justice must be done and whatever wrong has been done must be penalized. But the frenzied demand for the head of one hero-devolved-to-villain with the sensationalist media acting as plaintiff, judge and jury isn’t going to uncover the truth even in this case, leave alone resolve the bigger issues raised by the case.
More serious media pieces have addressed the issue of the sexual pressure that women face in the workplace and the inadequacy of the present safeguards. This is certainly an important issue with implications much bigger than the specific scandal.
Addressing such grave issues requires us to probe deeper. The problem stems from the sexually volatile atmosphere that pervades today’s culture. Consequently, unfettered sexual energy can go on a riot at slight provocation, wherein temptation seduces people into imagining perversity to be an opportunity. The usage ‘sexual energy on the riot’ may seem unusual, but it conveys in current idiom what is happening inside the minds of people today. A riot essentially involves a dangerous force going on a destructive rampage. When the sex drive impels people into deleterious deeds, those instances comprise sexual energy on the riot. The Bhagavad-gita (03.36-37) cautions that sexual energy can act as a deadly enemy, impelling one to grievous misdeeds, and in the process devouring one’s spirituality, morality and integrity.
Unmanaged sexual energy has always been a threat to humanity throughout the ages. Many wars have had at their root unmanaged sexual energy in political leaders, often in the form of a depraved craze to conquer the opposite sex or the deprived rage at failure in such a conquest. The lives of rulers like Cleopatra contained festering sexual problems that contributed to the violent conflicts characterizing their lives. Even in post-monarchic times, several prominent democratic leaders have been guilty of sexual misdemeanor with the whole nation having to bear the consequences. The trial of Bill Clinton for sexual malpractice cost the American taxpayer 50 million dollars.
The riot of sexual energy has not spared the religious establishment either. During the centuries before the European Renaissance, several popes led debauched lives, even fathering many illegitimate children. Railing against such travesties by those professing to be monks, Protestantism reacted by rejecting monkhood itself. Martin Luther, an erstwhile monk, married a nun and penned a scathing diatribe against monkhood.
Sadly however, marriage alone hasn’t been enough to check the onslaught of sexual energy. Several famous Christian evangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart who preached passionately for marital fidelity were caught having extra-marital affairs.
Worse still, the Catholic Church has been rocked by child abuse charges – all the more so because of its attempts to cover up, and delay or deny justice. In India too, several spiritual teachers have been guilty of sexual misconduct. Regrettably, ISKCON too has seen some of its leaders falling from the expected standards of sexual morality.
The point is that everyone, secular or religious, is at threat due to the rampage of sexual energy. The Bhagavad-gita goes to the heart of the matter when it issues a call (18.66) to go beyond ritual religiosity to substantial spirituality. Such serious spirituality centers on training to harness sexual energy. As long as sexual energy remains un-integrated, it can impel anyone to grievous misdeeds.
Vedic wisdom is candid in acknowledging the power of sexual energy. The Vedic literatures depict even powerful gods and renounced sages falling prey to the libido. For example, Indra’s extra-marital dallying with a sage’s wife earned him a curse that covered his body with his unmentionables – only after desperate begging for forgiveness was the covering converted into eyes, thereby getting him the name sahasra-aksha (the hundred-eyed one). Or Saubhari Muni, impelled by desire, went from monkhood to polygamy, going to the extent of marrying fifty princesses
Such stories would have been gorged down by today’s scandal-hunting paparazzi. In sobering contrast, the Vedic literatures don’t dwell on the lurid details. Instead, they focus on the fearsome power of misdirected sexual energy that can fell the high and mighty. And more importantly they describe how the power of spiritual devotion can combat and conquer this degrading energy. Thus, the Srimad Bhagavatam describes in its ninth canto how Saubhari Muni over time returned to his spiritual senses, and by tapping spiritual power reinstated himself in a position of integrity and respectability.
Of course, not everyone wants to be reformed – a sad truth that the Vedic literatures acknowledge. In addition to describing how even the virtuous can fall, those literature also depict villainous characters habitually given to vice. Ravana, for example, abducted Sita, and Dushasana dishonored Draupadi. And the Vedic literatures explain in detail how in those times the virtuous leaders like Rama or the Pandavas took great pains to punish such incorrigible criminals, even to the point of capital punishment where warranted.
Yet even while describing the depravities of such villainous characters, Vedic wisdom doesn’t miss the bigger picture. It reminds us that these people are dancing as if puppets under the control of a larger power – unregulated sexual energy. Therefore, Vedic wisdom focuses on delineating purificatory methods of yoga that check the destructive flow of sexual energy and redirect it along more constructive channels.
This purification centers on living in harmony with our complete being. In our original pure state we are spiritual beings, while our present existence is two-dimensional: spiritual and material. Sexual energy, when imbalanced, causes people to obsess compulsively on just one dimension – the material, wherein fantasies of sexual gratification, consensual and forcible, are played and replayed in an endless auto-mode. This compulsive obsession with the material tends to give one a distorted view of others as merely bodies who exist only for one’s own gratification at one’s own whim.
“When a woman says no, she means no,” reads one protest slogan, exhorting men to recognize the physical autonomy of women – no one should touch a woman’s body without her consent. Undisciplined sexual energy incites people to violate that right, sometimes discreetly, sometimes brazenly. But that energy also goads us all to violate another right – our right to our own souls. When sexual energy overruns our consciousness, it deprives us of our spiritual awareness and thereby strips us of our right to the devotional happiness that is a part of our nature.
We have an eternal loving relationship with the all-attractive Supreme Being known by various names in various traditions and as Krishna in the Vedic tradition. In our pure state, the spiritual energy that flows in this divine relationship surcharges our heart with the ecstasy of love – the supreme happiness. When we forget our relationship with Krishna and seek pleasure in matter, that spiritual energy becomes misdirected as sexual energy. The Vedic texts offer a systematic program of bhakti-yoga for harnessing sexual energy and reverting it to its sublime spiritual state.
This bhakti program centers on purifying our consciousness so that we can through our inner meditation connect ourselves, along with the things we do, with our source – Krishna. Illustrating this, the Bhagavad-gita (07.11) asserts that sex life harmonious with the principles of religion is a manifestation of the divine. Sex can thus offer us the sublime pleasure of becoming co-creators with God and assist him in bringing beautiful new life into the world.
However, unidimensional obsession with the material divorces sex from its divine aspect, thereby removing the control valves on the surge of sexual energy. Imbalanced sexual energy threatens not only our spiritual recovery but also our material well-being, as we discussed earlier.
While this threat has always been present, today’s culture has aggravated it and made it dominant. Hardly ever before in world history has there been such a pervasive sexualization of the entire culture. Today, vested commercial interests have made sex their central tool for capturing people’s minds. With magazines and movies and websites depicting tons of sexually provocative material, with ads featuring sexual double-entendres, with the ubiquity of sexually suggestive or explicit images, our culture has veritably issued a standing invitation to sexual energy to go on riot.
By no means is the riot metaphor meant to absolve the guilty of responsibility. We are all accountable for our individual actions and whoever does wrong must be punished. But a sustainable social corrective requires much more than that – just as when riots occur, restoration of law requires both punishing the individual wrongdoers and calming the volatile social atmosphere that facilitated the riot. The fact is that in today’s sexually surcharged atmosphere everyone is vulnerable – everyone is a potential victim, even those who later transmogrify into victimizers.
Certainly women who are the prime targets of sexual abuse deserve special protection. We need stronger laws, sharper vigilance and stricter enforcement. But along with those things we also need to collectively combat the onslaught of sexual energy by devising appropriate socio-cultural strategies that help restore a balance between the material and the spiritual.
Today’s liberals like to bash India’s traditional culture as sexually prohibitive, but it was in many ways pre-emptive – pre-emptive in recognizing the danger of unrestrained sexual energy and equipping people to keep that power at bay. As the French philosopher Auguste Comte “To control the sexual impulse efficiently has always been and ever will be regarded as the highest test of human wisdom.”
Today, as the culture is already surcharged with sexual tension, the time for pre-emptive measures is long past. But thankfully the time for redemptive measures isn’t.
Adopting redemptive measures doesn’t mean that we turn back the clock; rather, it means that we turn on the compass. We all have within us an inner compass that can not only show us the right way but also empower us to move forward on that way. Being parts of God, as the Gita (15.07) indicates, we are all godly. We are at our core pure, beyond the reach of the strongest of evil passions.
Once we get caught in their clutches, as we are presently, we can’t break free on our own. But we aren’t alone; Krishna is with us, always. We have an intrinsic loving connection with the omnipotent Supreme Being who out of his love for us grants us access to his omnipotence. We can tap that power by reviving our dormant love for Krishna.
As Krishna is the loving parent of all living beings, love for him helps us develop a loving connection with everyone. This sublime connection redefines our relationships with others – we no longer need to see them as bodies meant for our sensual gratification. It becomes easier to see them as persons in their own right, as precious parts of God. With this holistic vision as the foundation for our relationships, our interactions can symbiotically help in accelerating our spiritual evolution.
Each one of us has the power to become an agent of positive change. We can re-spiritualize our own consciousness and thereby contribute towards the balancing of the broader culture. If we choose to take up the challenge of re-spiritualization, Vedic wisdom stands ready to empower us. It can provide us time-honored insights and techniques: philosophical insights that help us perceive the spiritual underlying the material, and devotional yogic techniques of meditation that help us relish the spiritual. The more we learn to delight in higher inner happiness, the more we gain the strength to curb the riot of sexual energy, and channelize it for individual and social well-being.
The courts will in due course of time give the verdict in the Tejpal case. But we don’t have to wait till then to do our part in constructively harnessing sexual energy. And even if we wait, that verdict won’t make much lasting difference unless we take individual initiative. The verdict that will make the ultimate difference rests with each one of us: will we continue to be puppets of sexual energy or will we rise to the challenge of becoming its masters?[ lust ] [ sex-scandal ]