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Garbha Sanskar and the Politics of Masculinity in West Bengal

Sayantani Sur (sayantani2006@yahoo.com) is a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (Kolkata).

Garbha sanskar is a politico-cultural project to create ideal Hindu, male babies towards the creation of a strong nation abetted by a superior progeny who are mentally, physically, and spiritually strong. This political design of the Sangh Parivar seeks to establish Hindu hegemonic masculinity, by disrupting existing forms of intellect-based masculinity in Bengal.

[R]ashtra ko samartha banana hai, to hume uske bachhe se hi sochna hoga…

(If you want a strong nation, you have to start with strong children)

[B]achhe ka immunity power kaisa hona chahiye, sense of humour kaisa ho, brain kaisa ho, awaj kaisa ho, character, memory, piousness ye sab hum pehle se plan kar sakte hai. Jaise bhi chahe us tarah ki quality hum next generation mein la sakte hai...Upanishad me likha hai rashtra ko agar samartha banana hai to bachhe ko smartha banana parega.

(Everything about a child can be planned before hand—immunity, sense of humour, intelligence, voice, character, memory, and piousness. Parents can choose all these qualities for the next generation. The Upanishad says that in order to create a strong nation, one has to produce strong children.)

The above quotes are from the “Garbha Sanskar1 aur Dampati Samikshan” workshop2 organised by Arogya Bharati, the medical wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),3 for married couples on 6 May 2017 in Kolkata, West Bengal. This workshop discussed the various ways of practising garbha sanskar, a set of medico-cultural and religious practices, which when adopted during conception and pregnancy claims to produce su-santan or uttam santan, that is a superior child or perfect child. The perfect child would possess all the qualities desired by the parents, grow up to be an ideal child in the eyes of society and state, and make the nation proud. Garbha sanskar involves certain correctional methods in diet and daily activities which supposedly regulates the mind and body of the mother, so as to give birth to a child who is mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually superior to the rest.

The Workshop: An Overview

The workshop pointed out that garbha sanskar is aimed at the greater idea of creating a samartha Bharat4 (strong India) by creating a superior progeny who is mentally, physically, and spiritually strong. This workshop in Kolkata was imported from Gujarat’s Garbha Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra which conducts research and development on Ayurvedic antenatal care. Garbha sanskar is allegedly based on garbha vigyan or “science of the womb” and is popularised as an Ayurvedic formulation. The project of garbha vigyan was launched more than a decade ago in Gujarat and brought to the national level in 2015. The project claims to have given birth, through garbha sanskar, to 450 babies that are holistically superior.

Garbha sanskar occupies an ambiguous position in the sphere of reproduction. What apparently looks like pregnancy planning is actually a confluence of sexology, eugenics, cultural practices, and maternal and child health. Garbha sanskar aims at producing genetically superior children by performing certain rituals and practices within the body and outside it. Garbha sanskar, therefore, occupies an in-between status between medicine and sociocultural practices; it is corporeal as well as spiritual. Garbha sanskar is stretched through four reproductive stages: first, through preconception measures; second, through impregnation, third; through antenatal care; and lastly, by taking care of the foetus through the mother’s body.

The workshop started off by advocating atulya gotra (unbroken family line)5 and went on to advise certain preconception methods to invite achhi atma (good soul)6 into the mother’s womb. Once the achhi atma is placed in the mother’s womb, it has to be taken care of by eating the right kind of food and practising the right attitude. Besides food, garbha sanskar lays emphasis on daily activities like listening to stotras (hymns) and chanting mantras, doing yoga and feeding the gau mata (mother cow).7 Such practises, apparently, help in producing a spiritually developed child with strong character. Garbha sanskar also advises knowledge transmission from the mother to the foetus by making the mother practise mental arithmetic, sudokus, and puzzles at a particular time during pregnancy, so that the child turns out to be intelligent and smart. However, it is not enough to take care only through diet and daily activities; certain precautionary measures need to be taken for protecting the achhi atma inside the womb. It is only by performing yagnas (a ritual sacrifice) and keeping the cosmic energies happy, that holistic development of the child can be ensured, thereby producing the “perfect” child.

Sangh Parivar in West Bengal

In recent times, the Sangh Parivar8 has been trying to make headway in West Bengal. While the political reverberations of the Parivar are prominent in garbha sanskar through idioms of achhi atma, gau mata and sanskar, in a bid to make their presence felt, the Parivar has mostly taken up sociocultural and religious agendas to make and mark a difference. In 2017, West Bengal has celebrated Hanuman Jayanti like never before. Simultaneously, processions during Ram Navami celebrations in the state have seen an unabashed show of arms, where boys and girls took to the streets in large numbers in various cities and rural areas, shouting the name of Lord Rama (Bhattacharya 2017; Telegraph 2017).

The Sangh Parivar, through such public displays of masculine clout and devotion, is seeking to re-masculinise a so-called effeminate and “emasculated” race (Sinha 1995) in hardcore Hindu ways. At this stage, it is trying to manufacture a certain brand of masculinity in Bengal which celebrates physical strength and power but at the same time encourages being in control. The Sangh Parivar in Bengal has, therefore, undertaken an effort to cultivate a generation of reactionary Hindus, if not “angry Hindus”9 (Chakraborty 2011: 168–96). Chandrima Chakraborty (2011: 190) further observes,

The Hindu male body, always “under control,” is posited as heroic, unlike Muslim and Western male bodies that are assumed to be “out of control.”

The agenda is to transform a “weak,” “emasculated” body politic into physically strong and spiritually motivated men who are ready to act for the nation. Masculinity, thus, becomes a bio-moral discourse of asceticism, celibacy, spirituality, strength, and vigour.

Garbha sanskar is very much a part of this project, an effort to establish Hindu hegemonic masculinity. Like any other project of the Sangh Parivar, it is also founded on ideas of a glorious, ancient past and a present-day crisis followed by claims of revival. Interestingly, this sense of crises does not simply hail from crises of ancient literature, culture, and spirituality, but additionally points to a crisis in masculinity. By continuously harping on the idea, evident from the workshop, that it is imperative to cultivate certain specific characteristics in the future generation, a sense of lack is cultivated. This sense of lack emanates from a perceived crisis in the idea of Hindu hegemonic masculinity.

The Sangh Parivar through garbha sanskar has, thus, selectively appropriated certain myths, incorporated history, and evoked mythic–historical characters to make sense of this crisis of masculinity in Bengal, to be rescued through the project of garbha sanskar. The workshop referred repeatedly to personalities like Swami Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Shivaji as exemplary of su-santans. Through a haphazard mix of history and myth, garbha sanskar tries to organise and regulate the idea of what it is to be a su-santan. By pointing out specific physical and spiritual characteristics (fair skinned, intelligent, smart, and pious) and contextualising those characteristics within the bodies and morale of Indian heroes, garbha sanskar produces a metanarrative of maleness. It inspires the image of perfect male children. Normatively feminised characteristic features like beauty, poise and courtesy are ignored; instead strength, leadership, spirituality, and intelligence are highlighted. Garbha sanskar is, therefore, a project to create ideal Hindu, male babies and thereafter, to establish Hindu hegemonic masculinity in Bengal and elsewhere.

Bengali Masculinity vs National Masculinity

Since the early 19th century, the Indian Hindu male was regarded by the British as effeminate and weak; the Bengalis found themselves enumerated fifth in the category of all physical types (Chowdhury 2001: 53). Cynthia H Enloe (1980) and Mrinalini Sinha (1995) have pointed out that two distinct Indian masculine identities were marked—one was martial (Gurkhas, Rajputs, Pathans, and Sikhs) and the other non-martial (Bengalis). Feminisation of the native Bengali male has been an ensuing theme in the works of scholars like John Roselli (1980), Sinha (1995) and Indira Chowdhury (2001). Although such stereotyping found resistance, during the Swadeshi movement in the form of a physical culture of bodybuilding and in violent attacks on Britishers, it was short-lived and failed to make an impact.

In the mid-20th century, a form of “compensatory masculinity” developed in Bengal which was based on the strength of the intellect or buddhibal rather than bahubal (physical power) (Chattopadhyay 2011: 275). Thereafter, in Bengal, masculine capital has always been derived out of intellect rather than the body.

The political design of the Sangh Parivar disrupts and contradicts with this form of intellect-based masculinity in Bengal. It is in stark opposition with the Sangh Parivar’s masculine agendas which are directly corporeal or are articulated in corporeal ways. The Parivar, in line with its homogeneous Hindu politics, is striving to take Bengali masculinity within the folds of a national masculinity, as an intrinsic part of Hindi–Hindu–Hindustan. Garbha sanskar is one of the Parivar’s projects of manufacturing such a brand of masculinity among Bengalis; something which Bengali masculinity has rejected with its own form of “compensatory masculinity” based on “buddhi” rather than “bahu” (Chattopadhyay 2011: 275).

At present, with the “emergence of political will” (Gwatkin 1979: 29–59) in propelling Hindu socio-religious and cultural projects, the Sangh Parivar is attempting to establish itself as an alternative political party in Bengal. This has spawned an interesting power politics as the Parivar struggles to occupy the position, not of the ruling party, but of the primary opposition party replacing leftist politics. The question is—in contrast to the liberal, progressive, and intellectual masculinist tradition of the left, will the politics of the Sangh Parivar based on articulations of hardcore corporeal masculinity, asserting the vision of a martial, Hindu India find feet in Bengal? Only time will tell.

Notes

1 Garbha sanskar is a Sanskrit term which means education in the womb. It is composed of certain rites and rituals related to the womb through which the foetus is said to connect with the outer world.

2 This workshop was attended by the author, and details presented on garbha sanskar in this article have been drawn from lectures and discussions at the workshop.

3 The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is part of the Sangh Parivar—a Hindu nationalist cluster organisation. The RSS is a political organisation founded in 1925 by H B Hedgewar, inspired by V D Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva. The RSS, along with its branch organisations, advocates Hindu nationalist agendas in sociocultural and political spheres.

4 Samartha Bharat is a project aimed at nation-building. It pledges to transform Bharat (India) by building a sustainable, strong society through meaningful social and cultural initiatives. It works through a series of campaigns like Vivek Band, organised to mark the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda to spread the message of character-building, nationalism, and nation-building among the youth.

5 The word “gotra” suggests lineage systems and broadly refers to an unbroken family line. Atulya gotra means unequalled or different clan or family line which is, as prescribed in Ayurveda, imperative for a healthy progeny.

6 The phrase “achhi atma” connotes a good soul. However, in present circumstances, it also has a political connotation. “Achhe din” or good days are coming was the Hindi slogan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections, after winning which Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India. The slogan was immensely popular and at present, any word which is associated with “achhe/achha/achhi” (good) is readily identified as being associated with the BJP government. Reiteration of the word “achhi atma” is to confirm and establish the ideology of the party within the current context.

7 In Hinduism, the cow is considered a sacred animal as well as a maternal figure, often referred to as gau mata. It is also considered auspicious to feed the cow.

8 Sangh Parivar refers to the conglomeration of Hindu nationalist organisations and draws its name from the RSS. This conglomerate works in favour of Hindu rights, towards its goal of transforming India into a Hindu rashtra (nation).

9 Chandrima Chakraborty (2011) has explained how the image of an “angry Hindu” is exploited by Hindu nationalist organisations. An angry Hindu is an “awakened” Hindu, one who retaliates in self-defence and is righteously angry because of Muslim misrule. Acts of violence and aggression by Hindu right-wing groups can be, thus, justified by the angry Hindu’s quest for justice and for transforming India into a Hindu rashtra.

References

Bhattacharya, Ravik (2017): “Hanuman Jayanti Celebrations Hits the Heart of Kolkata, VHP Leaders Express Trust in Modi–Yogi Combine to Construct Ram Temple,” Hindustan Times, 12 April, https://www.hindustantimes.com/kolkata/hanuman-jayanti-celebrations-hits....

Chakraborty, Chandrima (2011): Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imagining of India, Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

Chattopadhyay, Saayan (2011): “Bengali Masculinity and the National-Masculine: Some Conjectures for Interpretation,” South Asia Research, Vol 31, No 3, pp 265–79.

Chowdhury, Indira (2001): The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Enloe, Cynthia H (1980): Ethnic Soldiers: State Security in Divided Societies, Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Gwatkin, Davidson R (1979): “Political Will and Family Planning: The Implications of India’s Emergency Experience,” Population and Development Review, Vol 5, No 1, pp 29–59.

Rosselli, John (1980): “The Self Image of Effeteness: Physical Education and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Past and Present, No 86, pp 121–48.

Sinha, Mrinalini (1995): Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Telegraph (2017): “Hanuman Jayanti Show of Strength in Bengal,” 11 April, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170412/jsp/bengal/story_145919.jsp.

Updated On : 5th Feb, 2018

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