Years ago, a young doctor, practising in a district town of West Bengal, amazed me with the disclosure that a newly-wed couple came to him, wanting to know how a baby was born and how could they have one. They were not familiar with the human reproductive system and felt embarrassed to ask anybody. I wondered if a puritanical upbringing could breed such ignorance about biological facts. The attitude still prevails in certain conservative Bengali homes where the mention of intercourse and female nudity outside the bed and bathrooms are taboo subjects. The naïve couple has been to school and college but how could they not learn the basics of mating and conception from their friends?
A similar situation prevailed in early 19th century (late Victorian) England against which D H Lawrence (1885 -1930) had written in several novels and essays, notably in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Women in love. The Old Testament (Genesis 3) narrates the creation of man on the seventh day by God ~ “And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. He placed man in the Garden of Eden and to give him a companion, put him to sleep and took one of his ribs, from which He created the first woman, Eve.
“And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” but ‘beguiled’ by the serpent, Eve ate a fruit (apple) of the tree of knowledge, made Adam eat it too, ignoring God’s warning and knew that they were naked ~ “They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons”. From then onwards, Biblical human beings began to be ashamed of their sex organs and erotic zones, to which ‘civilization’ added a veneer through an amazing variety of clothes that pushed mankind into a cocoon.
A few religions forbid human nakedness but civilization taught mankind to do so. Even now, aboriginals in secluded islands live and roam naked; only their females hide the pelvis and the breasts with leaves. Judaism does not subscribe to the Christian association of nakedness with original sin; Islam lays down that man and woman should wear clothes, for “nudity is shameful”.
It says, “Before parents, children and siblings, women could bare but not the torso, i.e., from the chest to the thighs.”
Sharia law in some Islamic countries enjoins women to use the purdah to cover their entire bodies, including the face. Hesiod in his poem Theogony suggested that farmers should “sow naked, and plough naked, and harvest naked”. In ancient India, asceticism prescribed full nudity. Its phlosophical basis arose from the concept of Purushartha (four ends of human life) ~ Kama (enjoyment), Artha (wealth), Dharma (virtue) and Moksha (liberation), which impelled a man to remain nude for spiritual compulsioins or for enjoyment.
To Hindus, nudity symbolizes renunciation of the highest level. A nude person or deity (e.g., Kali and Naga monks) denotes one who is devoid of Maya or attachment to the body. Digambara Jain monks and nuns are ‘skyclad’, i.e., fully naked; they build their divinity statues naked too.
Nudity is considered an art, as Sri Aurobindo explained in his book, The Renaissance in India. Apart from draperies, what are the other veneers that civilisation bestowed on mankind? It weaned away man from Nature; gradual alienation of the human body from Nature through millions of years for creature comforts made mankind susceptible to diseases and indisposition.
The oldest medical treatise, the Hindu Ayurveda identified three causes of illness and found their correctives in sundry herbs, fruit, flowers, roots and metals that abound in Nature. For example, quinine plants grow automatically wherever malaria rages in the hills. Women in the Andamans collect leaves or roots of a local herb to prevent conception or miscarriage.
How did civilisation distance mankind from Nature? A revolution occurred in the modes of communication.
Trained pigeons were replaced by horses and post offices and later by communication satellites which upload and download messages in letter, audio and video data from one end of the earth to another, to billions of computers, mobile phones and television sets within seconds. Society has dispensed with the drawing-room pleasure of face-to-face communication; letters have become antedeluvian, and there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of social visits. Letter-writing is a dying art; the smartphone is a fashion statement. Such changes in the mode of interaction have weakened the command over the written language. The childlike wonder at Nature’s bounty no longer bemuses the human mind.
Nearly a century ago, in November 1922, T S Eliot reported in a despatch to Dial on the demise of the legendary musichall singer, Marie Lloyd ~ “When every theatre has been replaced by 100 cinemas, when every musical instrument has been replaced by 100 gramophones, when every horse has been replaced by 100 cheap motor cars, when electrical ingenuity has made it possible for every child to hear its bed-time stories through a wireless receiver attached to both ears, when applied science has done everything possible with the materials on this earth to make life as interesting as possible, it will not be surprising if the population of the entire civilized world rapidly follows the fate of the Melanesians (who died of ennui following civilisation ‘thrust’ on them).
‘Back to Nature’has become a movement in developed countries but not yet significantly in India. Only in agriculture, certain crops are being grown with organic manure and pesticide, i.e., cow-dung, humus, neem leaves etc.. No doctor of any system tells a patient to try nature cure, even though they are familiar to him and to the patient since childhood. Mahatma Gandhi believed in, and practised, hydropathy, i.e., treatment by water, mud, steam baths etc.
Pranayama increases the intake of oxygen and gives relief in neurological and breath-related disorders; yogic exercises tone up the body, aiding cure of chronic diseases but few physicians prescribe Yoga and Pranayama when his medicines fail, or leave unbearable side-effects. Dr BC Roy cured a dyspepsia patient by advising him to keep the headside window of his bedroom open at night and a psoriasis patient by asking him to bathe in the Ganga every day.
Two great writers preached the virtues of living in harmony with Nature ~ Rabindranath Tagore and the British poet, novelist and essayist, D H Lawrence. Tagore founded Visva-Bharati within Santiniketan to rear up and educate children in the midst of Nature, inspired by the Upanishads and the experiment in California University’s sea-side open-air Santa Barbara campus.
D H Lawrence (1885-1930)was a ‘nature mystic’; he used to sit beneath trees to write. His second wife, Frieda observed, “It was as if the tree itself helped him to write his book, and poured its sap into it”. No wonder, he wrote: “I lose myself among the trees. I am so glad to be with them in their silent, intent passion, and their great lust.
They feel my soul”. Those who knew him personally testified to his sensory awareness of the natural world. An academic study has drawn parallels between his somewhat animistic views with oriental traditions and philosophies. It was like the Buddhist awakening, which leads to a sense of ‘oneness with life and its environment’. This deep feeling of a nexus with Nature was not limited to only trees or plants. As Aldous Huxley noted, Lawrence did not just feel an affinity with Nature, but was also able to ‘get inside the skin of an animal and tell you in the most convincing detail how it felt and how it thought’.
“The young corn waved and was silken, and the lustre slid along the limbs of the men who saw it. They took the udder of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. They mounted their horses, and held life between the grip of their knees, they harnessed their horses at the wagon, and with hand on the bridle-rings, drew the heaving of the horses after their will.’’ This is how he described life on the Brangwens’ farm in the novel, ‘The Rainbow’. He believed that Western industrialism was breaking down and bourgeois Christianity was dead; to him, salvation lay in a return to the life of the loins and the instincts.
William Blake (1757 -1827) wrote similarly more than a century before him, and he too had been a kind of pastoral proletarian. It is not possible to shed the veneers of civilization, or go back to a pagan age in a time-machine; but if mankind consciously tries to weave Nature into the fabric of mechanised existence, he will be more at peace with himself.
(The writer, belonging to the Indian Information Service, retired as the Registrar of Newspapers)