What does the Lord of Sabarimala have to do with desire?

Ayyappan beckons us to a history of desire that actively resists heterosexuality, writes Madhavi Menon in her book Infinite Variety: The History of Desire in India. An extract:

Interestingly, south Indian versions of the Shiva-Vishnu/Mohini tale tend to highlight the intensity of the erotic desire between Shiva and Vishnu, while tales emanating from the rest of the country tend to be rather more timid, even dour. Nonetheless, no version is able to deny the facts of a physical coupling between Shiva and Vishnu, and the birth of Ayyappan from that union. Ayyappan is the son of two men, and himself the boo companion of one man.

Such a lineage is unparalleled in the history of Indian Hinduism. Ayyappan is the god of men. The legends and rituals surrounding him might come across as misogynistic because of their insistence on male-male bonding. But despite this insistence on the company of men, Ayyappan beckons us to a history of desire that actively resists heterosexuality. And this resistance is not only to heterosexual union but also to the rules within which heterosexuality seems to be trapped these days in the Indian subcontinent. I refer to the insistence by the enforcers of heterosexuality on the issue of issue: a man and a woman should get married in order to have children. But before we get to a discussion of reproduction and children, we first need to take a detour.

Hitting heterosexuality where it hurts the most, the god proposed doing away with both death and birth. This is an idea that seems shocking now, especially in the Indian context in which the injunction to have children is almost a sacred mantra

The geographical layout of the temple at Sabarimala puts Vavar’s shrine en route to Ayyappan’s, and Malikappuram’s nearby so that she does not have far to travel in order to get proof of her thwarted desires. This layout has been dispensed with in Ayyappan temples in the rest of the country and, one presumes, the world. In the temple in Delhi that I visited recently, and to which my grandfather used to take me often when I was a child, there is only one main shrine to Ayyappan, and an adjacent shrine to Shiva, one of his two fathers. Malikappuram is dispensed with entirely, as is Vavar, with the result that the Ayyappan temples outside Sabarimala present a denuded picture of the rich desires in which the Ayyappan legend is steeped. As I contemplated this picture of denuded desire—no evidence of male-male parentage, no proof of a male companion, no suggestion of rejected female desire—I was approached by a devotee at the temple in Delhi. She looked at me suspiciously and asked me if I was there as a believer or because I was ‘just curious’. I said I was certainly curious, to which she replied that there was no place for curiosity in the Ayyappan temple, only for belief. By this point I had mustered up enough courage to say that I was not a believer, and that just as I would not tell her what she should be, she too should not tell me what I should or should not be. She marched off to the temple authorities to check with them. To their credit, the authorities told her that Ayyappan temples, unlike many other Hindu temples, are open to everyone, regardless of caste, religion or belief (the Ayyappan temple in Delhi is also open to all genders). She came back to tell me that apparently now I could stay with a good conscience, but her disdain of curiosity got me thinking about another legend surrounding Ayyappan

Madhavi Menon’s Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India

Apparently once his shrine was built on Sabarimala—some date this to the 11th century, some say it is later—Ayyappan entered the sanctum sanctorum and promptly disappeared. The common belief is that he ascended to heaven, where he went to take his rightful place alongside the other gods, leaving behind a token that could be worshipped in his stead. Soon he became such a powerful god that he replaced Brahma as the Creator of the world. With his two fathers occupying the other pre-eminent positions as the Preserver (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva), this arrangement must have appeared to some of the gods as a family dynasty ruling the heavens. So even as Ayyappan ascended to the heights of power, envy started brewing among the gods. The reason for this, we are told in a popular Kannada song about Ayyappan, was not so much the power amassed by the god as what he planned to do with it. In this song, Ayyappan proposes with his power to put an end to the power of the gods. Perhaps predictably, the gods decide to mount a rebellion against him.

The startling idea that Ayyappan wanted to put into practice was that henceforth, human beings would not die. This was a decree not only about death, but also about birth. After all, as Ruth Vanita has pointed out in Same-Sex Love in India, the reason why goddesses in the Hindu pantheon do not give birth to children is because reproduction sets the stage for the replacement of the self. Reproductive sex is closely related to the idea of the imminent death of the self; having children produces one’s own replacements. If we reverse this train of thought, then it becomes apparent that if birth is meant to ward off death, then the promise of no death would in turn ward off birth. The order of the world as we know it would change were we to get rid of both death and birth.

But having children is also the basis of heterosexuality. Or rather, the biologically deterministic argument goes that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ because a man and a woman can produce children through their sexual union. Quite apart from the fact that such sex is described in terms of necessity rather than pleasure, one could also point out that reproduction actually finds no place in relation to sexual pleasure in either ancient Hindu or medieval Islamic texts. The injunction to reproduce, for instance, does not exist in the Kamasutra’s treatise on erotics, which specifically uncouples desire from reproduction. Several medieval Sufi mystics refused to have children because for them the prescribed path was an ecstatic union with god, not a biological reproduction of the self. The emphasis on sex for the sake of reproduction exists in the Bible, which enjoins us to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ but it does not occur in the Vedic marriage rituals, for example, which do not mention procreation even once. Ayyappan’s plan, then, tapped into a deep vein of religious and spiritual mysticism in India, while being utterly distant from our current obsession with biological reproduction. Hitting heterosexuality where it hurts the most, the god proposed doing away with both death and birth. This is an idea that seems shocking now, especially in the Indian context in which the injunction to have children is almost a sacred mantra. We now have blessings that extol a woman to be the mother of a hundred sons, but that blessing certainly does not come from Ayyappan.

(Published from Infinite Variety: The History of Desire in India by Madhavi Menon with permission from Speaking Tiger)
(Lead photo: By Daderot - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons/47888160)

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