From effeminate Hindus to virile men

Abhik Roy

British colonial discourse was replete with images of Hindus as being weak and ineffectual who were devoid of any form of masculinity. Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote about the effeminacy of Hindus in dealing with Muslims in blatantly racist terms: “The dark, slender, and timid Hindoo (sic) shrank from a conflict with the strong muscle and resolute spirit of the fair race, which dwelt beyond the passes.”

Macaulay described the Bengalis thus:

“Whatever the Bengali does he does languidly. His favourite pursuits are sedentary. He shrinks from bodily exertion; and though voluble in dispute, and singularly pertinacious in the war of chicane he seldom engages in personal conflict, and scarcely ever enlists as a soldier. There never perhaps existed a people so thoroughly fitted by habit for a foreign yoke.”

Very much akin to Macaulay, George Warrington Steevens depicted Bengalis in the most denigrating ways:

“By his legs you shall know the Bengali… The Bengali’s leg is either skin and bone, the same size all the way down, with knobs for knees, or else it is very fat and globular, also turning in at the knees, with round thighs like a woman’s. The Bengali’s leg is a leg of a slave.”

Within these examples, one can begin to see the emergence of a common narrative form. The British colonial discourse begins with the establishment of the Hindu male as a weak, lazy, cowardly slave. But not only does the colonial discourse establish a negative construction of Indian males’ character and physicality, it also — as further seen below — links this negative construction to military inaction.

For example, Colonel JSE Western described Hindus as “as the non-fighting classes (who) never possessed the desirable virtue of courage”. And James Mill wrote: Hindus “possess(ed) a certain softness both in their persons and in their address that distinguished them from the manlier races of Europe”. Connecting the negative construction of character (non-fighting, soft, effeminate, cowardly) with a narrative of inaction completes the British colonial rhetoric of the effeminate Indian who was destined to be colonized.

Importantly, we see the colonial discourse of the effeminate Hindu operated even when the colonialists were confronted with potentially contrary examples. Specifically, it is important to note that representations of effeminate Indian men were created on the basis of complex ethnic classifications. These classifications allowed for the identification of particular “groups” of Indian men who were not effeminate without negating the overall anecdote. For example, Sir George MacMunn, the author of The Martial Races of India, ridiculed Gandhi, wondering how some Hindus, namely Rajputs Sikhs and Marathas turned out to be brave Indian warriors when Hindus in general were such weaklings: “Who and what are the martial races of India, how do they come, and in what crucible, on what anvil’s (sic) hot with pain spring the soldiers of India, whom surely Baba Ghandi (sic) never fathered?”

In response to British colonial rule and the racist discourse it generated concerning Hindus, Swami Vivekananda’s rhetoric emphasized a form of Hindu masculinity that was grounded in spiritual principles and bodily discipline. In nation-building efforts, for Vivekananda, there was no room for weaklings. He believed that Hindus needed to overcome their weakness, which was identified as effeminacy and become strong, virile men to combat the colonialists. To his fellow citizens he underscored the need for having bold, courageous Hindus to fight the British and prove their worth by being men:

“I will go into a thousand hells cheerfully if I can rouse my countrymen,

Immersed in tamas, to stand on their own feet and be men inspired with the spirit of Karma yoga, or: … the older I grow, the more everything seems to me to lie in manliness. This is my new gospel. Do even evil like a man! Be wicked if you must, on a grand scale, or: No more weeping, but stand on your feet and be men. It is a man-making religion that we want. It is man-making theories that we want. I want the strength, manhood, kshatravirya, or the virility of the warrior.

“Vivekananda reminded his countrymen that they could serve their religious and spiritual needs more effectively if they only disciplined their corporeal body better:

“You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger … You will understand the Upanishads better and the glory of Atman when your body stands firm upon your feet, and you feel yourselves as men.”

Vivekananda’s commitment to the warrior as a model of manhood could also be seen in his criticism of the Vaishnavas for their belief in nonviolence, which he perceived as being a feminine quality. He believed that it was this kind of thinking that made the Bengalis effeminate. He once commented to his friend, “Through the preaching of that love broadcast, the nation has become effeminate –– a race of women! The whole of Orissa has been turned into a land of cowards, and Bengal … has almost lost all sense of manliness.”

One can see a potential tension within Vivekananda’s rhetoric surrounding nonviolence as it relates to masculinity. On the one hand, Vivekananda’s writings frequently condemned the West for its irresponsible and often barbaric use of physical aggression and military power; on the other hand, he rejected nonviolence as incompatible with Hindu masculinity. However, if one considers Vivekananda’s rhetorical project in light of his emphasis on spiritual masculinity as a means for nation-building it is possible to reconcile this tension productively. Spiritual masculinity has to reject absolute nonviolence to the extent that this principle might be equated with passivity and inaction and therefore, contribute to the colonial threat of emasculation. However, rejecting certain articulations of nonviolence is not necessarily the same as embracing violence as a preferred mode of action. While proponents of nonviolence, such as the Vaishnavas might emphasize principles such as universal love, for Vivekananda, the emphasis had to be on courage and spiritually grounded action.

Vivekananda’s conception of manliness was linked to celibacy and asceticism. In fact, he was a life-long sanyasi who practiced brahmacharya. Thus, Vivekananda’s version of manhood was based not only on traditional notions of physicality, but also on the Hindu principle of asceticism. In his construction of Hindu masculinity, he sought to strike a balance between the militant aspects of the Kshatriya and the austere, disciplined and self-sacrificing dimensions of Hindu asceticism.

This is probably why Vivekananda was a strong advocate of celibacy in order to regain one’s manhood and virility; he often urged Hindu youth to accept celibacy as a way of life in order to conserve their strength. In a letter to one of his disciples, Vivekananda wrote the following: “every fool is married. Marriage! Marriage! Marriage! … the way our boys are married nowadays!” By incorporating some aspects of Western masculinity with its emphasis on physical power, strength, and militarism, and fusing it with Hindu spiritualism that calls for renunciation, self-control, and discipline of the body Vivekananda provided a counter discourse to oppose the colonial construction of Hindu effeteness. His emphasis on asceticism and celibacy made it possible to reclaim a version of masculinity for both Hindu men and for India.

Vivekananda defined Hindu masculinity as spiritually pure with a powerful core; he regarded spiritual strength not only as an appropriate but ideal form of manhood. Clearly, Vivekananda’s rhetoric of Hindu masculinity strove to break away from overemphasizing the physical body as the primary site of strength and power as was the case with the West. He did so by advocating the disciplining of the body to attain the purity of spirit. While Vivekananda’s rhetoric rejected certain articulations of nonviolence as being incompatible with Hindu masculinity, his emphasis on the importance of the spiritual aspects of power suggests that his was not a masculinity of unbridled aggression any more than it was a masculinity of passivity and inaction. Although Vivekananda used the term “Hindu” quite often in his discourse, which many Hindu nationalists have exploited to render Indian Muslims and Christians as foreigners in India, Vivekananda used the term Hindu in a broader sense that included all minorities. As historian Amiya P. Sen has explained, Vivekananda used the term Hindu in an “expansive, geo-cultural sense rather than the narrowly religious or communal” meaning of many Hindu nationalists.

Vivekananda’s rhetoric of spiritual masculinity that urges us to cease from unleashing violence and, instead, use a higher form of power that is grounded in spiritualism is of special relevance in contemporary India where we find religious extremist groups embroiled in violent conflicts. In these challenging times when Indian nationalism is often constructed in hypermasculine and nativistic terms that often ends up in unspeakable violence and terror, it is not too late to embrace Vivekananda’s notion of masculinity that exhorts us to tap into our spiritual qualities. It is only by upholding the spiritual can we eschew the negative, destructive attributes of the traditional notion of masculinity that is often linked with violence and bloodshed.


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