Many Americans have been outraged over violent rapes reported out of India. Many Indians have been outraged by them too. A particularly shocking one occurred not too long ago, resulting in an Indian court sentencing to death four men involved.
There may be some religious sects in India that possibly indirectly contribute to sexual violence. Hinduism speaks of a Trimurti of three main gods, Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer. Both Vishnu and Shiva are said to have manifestations or avatars. For Vishnu some of the chief ones are Rama and Krishna, and these have many devotees, seeing that in Hinduism worshipers can pick their favorite one and erect images to him and perform the pertinent rituals in devotion and live a style of life appropriate to the character of that god.
Risks arise when it comes to the worship of Shiva, the Destroyer, or one of his consorts. The two most notable consorts are Durga and Kali, the latter of whom is usually pictured carrying a scimitar and trident. Interestingly, both of these female divinities portray female violence. In pictures and statues Kali is portrayed with fangs and a tongue hanging out, often with blood on her victims.
Many temples dedicated to the worship of Shiva or one of his consorts have symbols that are quite obviously sexual in nature, since they show a lingam and yoni (yoni means vagina), which are quite undisguised portrayals of male and female genitals, often shown in the act of copulation. My wife and I saw such a shrine in Malibu, Calif., in 1990. Some Hindus deny that they see anything sexual or erotic in these objects of devotion, but honest scholarship in the history of religions identifies the underlying meaning of this symbolism.
Also among the many beliefs and practices of Hinduism is one practice called tantra. It too has its symbolic and physical aspects, the physical being a male-female copulation in which the respective partners learn to forego an orgasm in favor of a higher experience of ecstasy.
To put the best interpretation on them, these beliefs and practices of Hinduism are intended to recognize an honest reflection of the human sexual drive. And it should be noted that they are a minority of Hinduism’s many religious branches. But for some Hindus they become a permission or excuse for sex and perhaps violent sex. Though Hinduism speaks of the need of enlightenment, it has no basic doctrine of a “fall” of humankind, or of a human depravity that must be addressed by a call to redemption or transformation of mind and life.
The Judeo-Christian tradition does have its candid recognition of sex in the erotic poems of the Song of Solomon. These, according to the best interpretation I have come across, were songs to be sung to each other by the bride and groom at ancient Near Eastern weddings. The bride, whose chastity had been strictly guarded, was now to be released into marital relations, and the perhaps week-long wedding celebrations provided the social permission, even encouragement, of this transition.
In some forms of Hinduism we may have a case of what students of religions observe, that there seems to be a reciprocal relationship in which people reflect the behavior of their gods, or their gods reflect the behavior of their worshipers. Whatever the case, there is a streak of sex and violence in Indian religion. But then we also have a streak of sex and violence in modern American society, don’t we?
Marlin Jeschke is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.