Where is Don Juan?
Don Juan and Donjuanismo in India

Notes on the Text
Works Cited


What is Don Juan, and more specifically, what is donjuanismo?  From the earliest manifestations of the literary paradigm in the theatre of Seville, there have been various interpretations of the universal facets of this trans-national character and how it came into being.  J. Douglas Canfield, in his article The Classical Treatment of Don Juan in Tirso, Moliere, and Mozart: What Cultural Work Does it Perform, proposes the thesis that Don Juan is fundamentally a representation of rebellion against the patriarchal system of reproductive control that reigned across Europe at the time.  Don Juan is the symbol of “free love” and a violation of the “word as bond” code that defined feudal society (Canfield).  Meanwhile, Ramiro de Maeztu discusses, in his work Don Juan o el poder, the idea that “el don Juan de los pueblos del Norte y aun Italia, [es] el Don Juan enamorado, y el Don Juan de España, el de Tirso y el de Zorrilla, [es] el Burlador.”  Essentially, “el Don Juan de los españoles no busca la felicidad, sino el placer de la hora; no es enamorado, sino soberbio y sensual, y ésta es la causa de su consistencia y de su fuerza (Maeztu: pages 72 y 73).”  Miguel de Unamuno, in the prologue to El hermano Juan adds to the debate about Don Juan when he writes, “El legítimo, el genuino, el castizo Don Juan parece no darse a la caza de hembras sino para contarlo y para jactarse de ello (Unamuno: page 859).”  Finally, Valle-Inclán advances the theory that the archetype of Don Juan has three fundamental components: impiety through violation of divine law, bravado in the form of trickery and fighting, and pleasure in women (Dougherty: pages 48 and 49).

As these interpretations reveal, there is not universal agreement over the exact nature of Don Juan and donjuanismo, but all of the above authors include the notion of Don Juan as the sexual agent in all of their conceptions.  For Canfield, Don Juan uses his sexuality to violate the rules of the feudal order and its preoccupation with reproductive control.  Maeztu proposes that Don Juan, or at least the very least, the Spanish Don Juan, is very interested in “el placer de la hora” that is derived from women.  Similarly, Unamuno finds that Don Juan roams the countryside in search of opportunities to add women to his list of conquests while Valle-Incláan theorizes that one of the essential components of Don Juan is the pleasure of women.  With this base in masculine sexuality, then, there is an explanation of Don Juan’s absence in the East: Don Juan is a fundamentally western paradigm in that the idea of masculine agency in sexual relations, which forms the basis of donjuanism in the West, runs against the normative ideas of eastern sexuality.  In western culture, men have sexual agency, meaning that the He experiences desire and has the propulsion to satisfy it.  Eastern culture, meanwhile, operates through an opposite process in which the feminine has sexual agency, desire, and the mechanisms of fulfilling that desire.  The literatures of both cultural frameworks, Spain for the west and India for the east, demonstrate the functioning of their respective paradigms.  Western literature, from the Greek myths and Latin poetry through the modern works of American and European writers, exhibits a propensity for masculine sexuality and sexual desire.  To the contrary, eastern literature, from the ancient Sanskrit epics and law books through modern film, prefers the feminine as the site of sexuality and sexual desire.

In the West, Man desiring Woman exists in the first examples of the literary tradition: the epics and myths of the Greek world.  In the Iliad, for example, the base plot for the entire story is Paris’ desire for Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.  The son of Priam had the task of choosing the most beautiful goddess from amongst Hera, Minerva, and Aphrodite and each goddess promised him some prize for the honor of winning the contest.  It was the possibility of possessing the most beautiful woman in the world, however, that most tempted Paris, forcing him to choose Aphrodite and launching Troy into the ultimately fatal war with the rest of Greece.(1)

Greek myths, too, provide examples of masculine sexual desire.  The story of Persephone and Hades, for example, tells of how the king of the underworld desires the beautiful daughter of Demeter so greatly that he leaves his throne to capture her from the fields of the Earth.  The myths about Zeus provide a similar example of the masculine as agentive in sexual relations.  There are countless stories of Zeus’ desire for beautiful young women who can satisfy his divine desires.  Thus, Europa, Ito, Leto, and others are chased through the Greek world regularly until their form changes or Zeus is able to overcome them.

Ovid, the great Latin poet and contemporary of Caesar, however, writes of men who do not stop when the woman they desire has changed form.  In the Metamorphases, for example, the poet describes Apollo’s unflinching desire for the Daphne: “Apollo, you will remember, was smitten with love for Daphne, the beautiful daughter of Peneus (Slavitt, page 13).”  Apollo, “smitten with love for Daphne,” chases the nymph in search of fulfilling his desire:

She runs away, as fast as the wind itself, and he follows and calls her name, but she does not stop or even look back.  [Apollo says] ‘O nymph, daughter of Peneus, I am no enemy!  I am…but a lover, a friend…He followed, running as fast as he could and seemed to catch up…So it was with them, the girl and the god behind her.  Fear gave her a strength she’d never had, but he was driven by love…Crazed, he followed, his heart pounding loud in his ears (Slavitt, page 14).

Here, there is a real chase in which the god Apollo pursues Daphne because he has a sexual desire for her brought on by Cupid.  She tries to avoid the end of her virginity, promised to her by Peneus, and he tries to cause such an end.  His intent is evident at the end of the poem when Daphne, now a tree, is still the object of Apollo’s desire:

Her toes took root where she stood, as she was changed to a tree, a beautiful tree—her beauty was all that remained, a constant, and this beauty Apollo still loved.  His hand he placed on the trunk and felt the heart of the girl yet beating.  He stroked her branch like forearms and pressed his lips to the wood, which shrank from his kisses still  (Slavitt, page 15).

Even as a tree, then, Daphne is the object of divine love.

 The scene between Apollo and Daphne is replicated by Garcilaso de la Vega centuries later in his own poetry.  In the seventeenth century, as in the days of the Roman Empire, Woman is again the object of Man’s desire.  In this poem, however, the feminine passiveness is further underscored by the fact that Daphne is already a tree and by Garcilaso’s much more explicit vocabulary:

  Aquel que fe la causa de tal daño,
a fuerza de llorar, crecer hacía
este árbol, que con lágrimas regaba (Garcilaso, page 55).

If “llorar” is understand not in the sense of tears falling from the eyes, but as ejaculation and the “lágrimas” are considered to be exclusively masculine “lágrimas,” then Garcilaso’s Apollo is, as before, the agent of sexual desire and the great chase for women.  Here, it is manifested as Apollo’s “lágrimas (Diccionario de Autoridades, page 426).”

The image of the man as sexual agent and the women as recipient of that agency is not limited to Garcilaso, however.  In the Spanish tradition, specifically, authors both preceding and succeeding him have employed a similar paradigm to express the relationship between men and women.  In the works of el Marqués de Santillana, a Spanish medieval poet, woman is described as angels.  She is essentially on a pedestal and it is the man who desires her.  The woman does not have a desire of her own, only the ability to accept the man’s advances or reject them:

  Quando yo veo la gentil criatura
qu’el cielo, acorde con naturaleza
formaron, loo mi buena ventura,
el punto e hora que tanta belleza
  me demostraron, e su fermosura,
ca sola de loor es la pureza;
mas luego torno con ygual tristura
e plango e quéxome de su crueza.
  Ca non fue tanta la del mal Thereo,
nin fizo la de Achila e de Potino,
falsos ministros de ti, Ptholomeo.
  Assí que lloro mi servicio indigno (Santillano, página 51).

In this poem, the masculine speaker sees the feminine “gentil criatura” that “el cielo” created.  She, however, does not have an active love for the speaker.  She is an emotional agentive only in the sense of her “crueza” for causing the “tristeza e plango” of the poetic speaker.  In this paradigm, then, the man desires but the woman decides if he is worthy.(2)

Such pattern of relations between the masculine and feminine can also be found in later works.  The figures of Don Quijote and Dulcinea in the great Spanish class El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha are examples.  In the world and mind of Quijote, Duclinea does not have a fault.  She is modest, nice, beautiful and faithful.  What she is not, however, is desirous.  Even the fictitious Dulcinea does not display desire, she only receives it from Quijote while he must prove his worth to her.  Another example in this work of masculine desire is the figure of Gristóstomo and his dulcinea, Marcela.  Both have dressed themselves in fashion of the pastoral mode, but it is Gristóstomo who has taken on the pastoral pass-time of love.  He has come to have a great yearning desire for the beautiful for Marcela, but when she refuses him he has no choice but to kill himself for his desire can be quenched in no other way.  She does not display desire; rather, her agency is limited to accepting or declining the masculine advances (Cervantes, pages 167-189).

This basic pattern of masculine desire and feminine acceptance or rejection of that desire can be seen in El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, the first literary manifestation of Don Juan and work of Cervantes’ contemporary Tirso de Molina.  Don Juan begins each new conquest by desiring some beauty and she is simply the recipient of that desire, with the ability to reject or accept it.  In fact, the feminine desire is only triggered after Don Juan has forced his own desire onto some new victim.  Although Tirso does not describe how Don Juan came to seduce Isabela, the reader can assume that it was the machinations of Don Juan that led the couple into the bedroom of the king.  If Isabela had desired Don Juan there would be no need for Don Juan to claim the identity of Isabela’s fiance because she would have desired Don Juan for who he is.  It is only by using the cover of darkness to assume Octavio’s identity, however, that Don Juan is able to begin seducing the duchess as is apparent in the opening scene when Isabela still assumes that Don Juan is the Duke.  When she discovers that he is not the duke, the farce has ended and the desire that Don Juan had cultivated in her for Octavio is lost, as exemplified in her willingness to allow her fiance to face the wrath of the king for dishonoring his chamber (Tirso, pages 39-45).  Similarly, Don Juan desires Tisbea and Aminta.  Their emotional agency to reciprocate Don Juan’s desire, however, is only possible after they have accepted Don Juan’s advances just as the woman in Santillana’s poetry is only given the emotional agency to cause “crueza” after she had rejected the advances of the poetic speaker.(3)

Moliere, in his representation of Don Juan follows a similar paradigm of masculine desire, feminine approval of that desire, and then a feminine emotional agency that is dependent on the masculine.  The perfect example is Doña Elvira, who Don Juan lures from the convent in order to satisfy his own desires.  While she comes to display desire in the beginning of the play, that emotion is dependent on her previous acceptance of Don Juan’s desire and, ultimately, his departure from their marital bed, causing her to yern for him (Moliere: pages 3-13).

Don Giovanni, the Mozart musical of eighteenth century Italy, also displays such a sensibility.  Giovanni has exclusive agency in desiring women.  Donna Elivira reveals how the Don Juan figure came to seduce her with promises of marriage while Donna Anna is nearly raped, forced against her will, to succumb to the sexual desires of Don Giovanni.  Zerlina provides a full and explicit example of this paradigm.  Don Giovanni sees the peasant girl and immediately desires her.  He relentlessly pursues her until she flees from his party; then, Don Giovanni turns his attention onto Donna Elvira’s maid.  While Elvira and Zerlina ultimately do show a desire for Don Giovanni, it is only the product of Giovanni’s own advancements.  Elvira only wants Giovanni to fulfill his promises and return to him as a loyal husband; Zerlina only begins to succumb voluntarily to Giovanni and desire him, as it were, when he promises to lift her from the ranks of the peasantry.  (Mozart: pages 8,9,10-13, 16-17)

Outside of the specific Don Juan texts, however, the basic paradigm of man desiring and woman receiving that desire can be seen throughout western literature and into later literary modes and styles.  In Voltaire’s Candide, for example, the main character’s troubles begin when sexual desire leads him to “experiment” with his own cousin (Voltaire: pages 19-21).  In English literature, too, the normalized Man desires and the woman is only the recipient of that sexual desire.  In the case of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy desires Elizabeth Bennett without her even knowing it.  While she displays disgust and revile for him, her own emotions do not turn to love and friendship until after she has been confronted with his desire (Austen).(4)

In 18th and 19th century Spain, too, masculine sexual agency continued to define the literary relationship between men and women.  Even in the romantic movement, for example, the man is the subject of desire while woman is the object.  A poignant example is José Cadalso’s Noches lúgubres in which the main character, a man, pursues his beloved despite the fact that she is buried beneath the Earth.  The reader never sees or experiences her except as the object of Tediato’s desire (Cadalso).  José de Espronceda has a similar conception of men’s and women’s sexuality.  In El estudiante de Salamanca, Don Felix is clearly the donjuanesque figure chasing after skirts, particularly that of Elvira.  She has no particular desire for men, and in the face of his donjuanism she dies.  The only inkling of feminine desire, in the form of la dama blanca, appears as a direct result of Felix’s donjuanism, leading the sinful man down into the depths of a horrible world where he must live out his marriage promises for all eternity (Espronceda).

Modern American writers even follow the pattern of masculine agency in terms of sexuality.  Alice Walker, in her novel The Color Purple clearly grants man sexual agency.  Her man character, Celie, is almost completely devoid of any sexuality, including sexual desire.  In fact, she only learns how to enjoy sex when another woman forces her to examine her anatomy.  It is the man, in the figure of Mister, Celie’s violent husband, that sexuality finds its full manifestation.  He desires most of the adult woman in the novel, including Celie’s sister Nellie (Walker).

Two English writers, however, have conceived of Don Juan and masculine desire in quite a different way.  Lord Byron, in his re-writing of the Don Juan paradigm, completely breaks the notion of masculine desire as the driving force of sexual relations.  Rather, the author accords to women a much greater sense of sexual agency.  Julia, for example, shares the culpability for creating her love affair with the young Juan because her own desires lead the way to love:

She thought of her own strength and Juan’s youth
And of the folly of all prudish fears,
Victorious virtue and domestic truth,
And then of Don Alfonso’s fifty years.

Her internal thought is converted action when confronted with Juan face-to-face:

The hand which still held Juan’s, by degrees
Gently but palpably confirmed its grasp,
As if it said, ‘Detain me, if you please.’

Julia isn’t detained, however, she chooses to stay on her own accord:

And Julia sate with Juan, half embraced
And half retiring from the glowing arm,
Which trembled like the bosom where ‘twas placed.
Yet she still must have thought there was no harm,
Or else ‘twere easy to withdraw her waist.
But then the situation had its charm,
And then—God knows what next—I can’t go on;
I’m almost sorry that I e’er begun (Byron: pages 73 and 74).

Lord Byron draws a similar paradigm in the figure of Haideé, who is the subject of desire, Don Juan being the object.  After the young Spaniard lands ashore she not only protects and feeds him, but falls in love with him without any active intervention by Don Juan himself to force the onset of desire in the feminine (Byron).

Bernard Shaw, in writing Man and Superman, also re-writes the Don Juan paradigm while according to women a greater agency in desire.  The clear symbol of this new conception is Ann Whitefield, who began laying a trap for Jack Tanner her childhood.  Jack, meanwhile, does not display any desire for Ann while mocking the Ocatvius’ and the traditional manifestation of masculine agency which places the woman on an angelic pedestal.

The reversal of roles, however, represented by Shaw and Byron are not completely surprising considering the unique position that they, as English writers, occupy.  While the masculine as agentive can be charted through the annals of western literature, England, and its culture, stood at the center of a new cultural discourse that was the product of the colonial experience in India, where conceptions about sexuality are reversed.  There, too, sexuality can be seen as a product of feminine agency in literature and artistic production.

As in the western world, eastern literature, and specifically Indian literature, has its origins in a great corpus of myths and epics.  The oldest Sanskrit composition, the Rg Veda, in addition to being a repository for ritual hymns, is also a rich collection of heroic tales.  Among those tales is the story of Agastya and Lopamudra, a married couple which, at the insistence of the husband, Agastya, has maintained a non-sexual relationship.  His wife Lopamudra, however, greatly desires the consummation, even at the cost of violating Agastya’s ritual power:

  [Lopamudra:] ‘For many autumns past I have toiled, night and day, and each dawn has brought old age closer, age that distorts the glory of bodies.  Virile men should go to their wives.
  ‘For even the men of the past, who acted according to the Law and talked about the Law with the gods, broke off when they did not find the end.  Women should unit with virile men.
  [Agastya:] ‘Not in vain is all this toil, which the gods encourage.  We two must always strive against each other, and by this we will win the race that is won by a hundred means, when we merge together as a couple.
  [Lopamudra:] ‘Desire has come upon me for the bull who roars and is held back, desire engulfing me from this side, that side, all sides.’
  [The poet:] Lopamudra draws out the virile bull: the foolish woman sucks dry the panting wise man.
[Agastya:] ‘By this Soma which I have drunk, in my innermost heart I say: Let him forgive us if we have sinned, for a mortal is full of many desires.’
  [The poet:] Agastya, digging with spades, wishing for children, progeny, and strength, nourished the ways, for he was a powerful sage.  He found fulfillment of his real hopes among the gods (Doniger: pages 250 and 251).

In this passage from one of the oldest books of what is, in fact, the oldest composition in an Indo-European language, Lopamudra, the woman is the sexual agent.  She has the desire “for the bull who roars” and she is the “foolish woman” who “sucks dry the panting wise man.”  Her desire is not a reaction or result of masculine agency, as in western literature.  Rather, she desires her husband because “women should unite with virile men.”

The episode of Yama and Yami, a divine pair of twins, provides a similar example.  Yami, the woman, desires her brother, possessing the sexual agency in the relationship:

  [Yami:] ‘Would that I might draw my friend into intimate friendship, now that he has gone far across the ocean.  A man of foresight should receive a grandson from the father, thinking of what lies ahed on earth.’
  [Yama:] ‘Your friend does not desire this friendship, in which a woman of his kind would behave like a stranger.  The heroes, the songs of the great spirit, supporters of the sky, see far and wide.
  [Yami:] ‘The immortals desire this, that offspring should be left by the one mortal.  Let your mind unite with my mind; as a husband, enter the body of your wife.’
  [Yama:] ‘Shall we do now what he have not done before?  Shall we who spoke truth out loud now whisper falsehood?  The divine youth in the waters and the woman of the waters—such is our source, our highest birth.
  [Yami:] ‘The god Tvastr, the creator and impeller, shaper of all forms, made us man and wife even when we were still in the womb.  No one disobeys his commands; earth and sky are our witnesses for this.
  [Yama:] ‘Who was witness of that first day?  Who has seen it?  Who can proclaim it here?  The law of Mitra and Varuna is high.  Yet what will you say to men, wanton woman, to seduce them?’
  [Yami:] ‘Desire for Yama has come upon me, Yami, the desire to lie with him upon the same bed.  Let me open my body to him asa wife to her husband.  Let us roll about together like the two wheels of a chariot.’
  [Yama:] ‘These spies of the gods, who wander about here below, do not stand still, nor do they blink their eyes.  Wanton woman, go away fast with another man, not with me.  Roll about with him like the two wheels of a chariot.’
  [Yami:] ‘She would do what he wished in the nights and in the days; she would deceive the eye of the sun for the instant of the blink of an eye. We twins are related in the same way as sky and earth (an incestuous pair). Let Yami behave towards Yama as if she were not his sister.’
  [Yama:] ‘Later ages will come, indeed, when blood-relatives will act as if they were not related.  Make a pillow of your arm for some bull of a man.  Seek another husband, lovely lady, not me.’
  [Yami:] ‘What good is a brother, when there is no protector?  What good is a sister, when destruction breaks out?  Overcome with desire, I whisper this again and again: mingle your body with my body.’
  [Yama:] ‘Never will I mingle my body with your body. They call a man who unites with his sister a sinner.  Arrange your lustful pleasures with some other man, not with me, lovely lady.  Your brother does not want this (Doniger: pages 247-250).’

While Yama does not succumb to Yami’s sexual desire, the implication is clear: the woman holds sexual agency in this relationship.  Yami desires her brother and attempts to seduce him with her words just as Don Juan seduces women with his words.

The eastern relationship between Man and Woman is also present in the literature nad philosophy of the late-Vedic period, just before the beginning of the common era.  The Laws of Manu, for example, a foundational text for Hindu moral codes, clearly articulates the Hindu and Indian conception of women and their relationship to men.  Manu writes that women, to avoid setting their sexuality lose upon society should be bottled up:

A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in (her own) house. In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons’.  She should not have independence (Manu: page 115).

The notion of women as sexual agent is made more explicit:

It is the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth; for that reason, circumspect men do not get careless and wanton among wanton women.  It is not just an ignorant man, but even a learned man of the world, too, that a wanton woman can lead astray when he is in the control of lust and anger.  No one should sit in a deserted place with his mother, sister, or daughter; for the strong cluster of the sensory powers drags away even a learned man (Manu: pages 38 and 39).

For Manu, then, it is “the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth” because women, the incarnate of “lust and anger,” can lead away “even a learned man.”  Such a conception of women, as “careless and wanton” requires the presence of sexuality in their very composition.  Women, in effect, hold sexuality and sexual desire, leaving them to be the sinful agents of men’s deviance from normative behavior.  This is, of course, the exact opposite of the western paradigm where men, such as Don Juan, seduce women and help them to violate normative sexual behavior by participating in sexual relationships before marriage.

This pattern of female sexual agency can also be traced through the next phase of Indian literature: the epic period.  While both of the great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, contain plot lines that unify the larger story, the poems are also full of stories that do not serve to further the story-line, but do provide interesting insights into Indian culture.  One of those stories is about the young boy Rsyasrnga, a horned hermit, who had never seen a girl because of the extreme isolation induced by his disfiguration.  Rsyasrnga, however, was needed in the Anga country where his presence alone would allow the rains to fall again after a long drought.  In order to bring the boy out of his hermitage and into the parched country, the king, realizing the agency of women in sexuality, sent a beautiful courtesan to fetch the hermit.  She used her beauty and charm to seduce the child, demonstrating an agency for wielding the powers of the body, and bring him to the Anga where the rains could flow again (van Nooten: page 22).

Following the epics, the tradition of women as sexual agents and men as the objects of that agency flourished.  This continuity is best encapsulated in the Puranas, a series of various texts that essentially inscribe oral traditions floating around Northern India into a series of popular volumes written in easy language.  Perhaps the most classical tale from this collection is that of Siva and Parvati, the Hindu god of destruction and his consort. Siva’s origins can be traced as far back as the Rg Veda, and perhaps into the Indus River Valley civilization that existed before the Indo-Aryan migration.  There, in the form of Rudra, he is considered a malevolent and ascetic god invoked as the cause of misfortune who should be bribed into staying away.  This form evolves through the epic period and into the puranic period where Siva has come to be a complete ascetic while retaining his fierce aspects, including his position as the destroyer god (O’Flaherty: page 116).  It is this ascetic-destroyer god that is the object of desire in the Siva Purana, where Parvati, in her previous form as Sati, desires the god as her husband, despite his ascetic life-style.  Her desire for Siva is manifested in tapas, or asceticism, which, in the Indian tradition brings divine power.  She uses her tapas to gain power and bring that power to bear upon Siva, forcing him to marry her:

All this is the truth I speak and not a lie.  Yet I realize my purpose is most difficult to obtain. How am I to succeed?  In any case, it is because of my heart’s desire that I am now practicing tapas.  Disregarding all the other gods who are headed by Indra, leaving aside even Visnu and Brahma, I want in truth to win for my husband only the one who holds the Pinaka [Siva] (Dimmitt: page 240).

In this conception of sexuality, then, Parvati, the mother goddess, holds the power and agency of sexuality and desire, using it to induce Siva to become her husband.    This is a direct contrast to the western paradigm where the masculine figure employs his own sexuality to induce, or seduce in the case of Don Juan, a feminine reciprocal desire.

This opposition to the western mode of sexual agency does not end in the Puranas, however.  In south Indian devotional poetry, as well, the notion of the desiring woman exists.  For example, Mahadeviyakka, a twelfth century poet born in the southern town of Udutadi, uses her womanhood to express her personal devotion to the god Siva.  In the process, she demonstrates sexual agency to be a province of the feminine:

Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow,
and dying
in her body’s threads
winding tight, round
and round,
I burn
desiring what the heart desires

Cut through, O Lord,
my heart’s greed,
and show me
your way out,

O lord white as jasmine (Ramanujan: page 116)

Mahadeviyakka declares that she burns “desiring what the heart desires,” or a devotional sexual union with Siva.  Thus, here there is a woman who is employing her own desire and sexual agency to find the love of a man.

In modern Indian film, too, the attentive viewer can find women “desiring what the heart desires.”  In the 1994 film Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (We are travelers on the road to love), for example, the female main character comes to fall in love with her male counterpart while living in his home as governess.  In the beginning, her desire is unexpressed, an internal discourse that only the omnipresent eye of the viewer can detect.  Over time, however, her desire begins to manifest itself in increasingly external ways.  At first, a wayward glance or prolonged contact reveals her desire.  At the climax, however, she takes on a false identity to prevent the possibility of her lover’s marriage to a rival.  While the male main character also begins to demonstrate desire for her, it only comes after she has expressed her own interest in a relationship, coming as a reaction, perhaps, of her desire.  Nevertheless, his desire never comes to bear upon his actions outside of the home that the two main characters share.  This, of course, contrasts with the western paradigm where the larger masculine desire triggers a smaller feminine reaction.

Nonetheless, all Indian films do not share in this paradigm.  Choti Bahu (Young Daughter), for example, follows the more western paradigm in which the main male character desires the main female character.  In fact, his advances are initially rejected and she only begins to desire him when she has acknowledged and accepted his wish to marry her.  This diversion from the Indian paradigm, however, is not surprising considering the unique position that India, like Britain, possesses in the colonial discourse.  As a colony of Great Britain for the greater part of two centuries, South Asia absorbed much in the way of British and European modes of thinking and this is manifested in a reversed paradigms such as that of Choti Bahu.  Thus, this film’s diversion from the standard eastern paradigm is similar to Lord Byron and Bernard Shaw in that they are the products of a cultural mixing made possible by the colonial experience.

Beyond the expected diversion in British and Indian cultural works, there is also a fair number of exceptions to the respective paradigms in both the East and West.  While these exceptions suggests that the paradigm is not universal, the preponderance of masculine agency in the West and feminine agency in the East does, in fact, suggest a propensity in both regions.  Nevertheless, there is perhaps another explanation for some of the exceptions in both traditions: marginal characters have the ability to violate the sexual norms of their respective traditions.  In essence, literary characters not normalized into the greater society show a propensity for violating the paradigms that define sexual relations in both India and Europe.  The great demon Ravana, for example, is the sexual agent in the Ramayana when he desires Sita, the wife of the god Rama.  Ravana is, by definition, a marginal character because he neither fits into the normal human society nor does he serve as a divine exemplar of normalized human behavior.  In the West, too, marginal characters can take on a reversed sexual role.  In Aura by Carlos Fuentes, for example, the old grandmother and the character Aura, herself, conspire to seduce Felipe Montero into loving Aura, an incarnation of the grandmother, in order to turn the young Montero into the deceased General Llorente.  Aura and her grandmother are clearly marginal characters.  They live in a boarded-up old house which has not seen daylight in years and the very figure of the characters, an old woman and her incarnate granddaughter, are beyond the normal personalities of human society in the west (Fuentes).

If the lack of normalization is also a cause of reversed sexual roles in both the East and the West, it is ironic, then, that the ultimate manifestations of both paradigms are, in fact, extremely marginal characters whose life-styles are based on violating cultural norms.  In western literature this figure is, of course, Don Juan.  At the root of the sexual libertine is the notion of the marginal character who, while unable to placate his sexual desire, also violates the rules of human society, whether imposed by man or god.  From Tirso de Molina in the seventeenth century to Valle-Inclán in the twentieth, the mainstay of the Don Juan paradigm, aside from sexual desire gone amok, is the social bore who fails to be a normalized member of human culture.  As discussed earlier, Canfield finds all three classical Don Juans reaffirming the feudal system of reproductive control while proving that noble society can police itself.  In the texts themselves, however, Don Juan is depicted as the supreme transgressor of divine law as demonstrated by the final scenes of Tirso, Moliere, and Mozart in which el Comendador delivers Don Juan to hell in punishment for his life on Earth.  José Zorrilla follows a similar pattern in his rendition of Don Juan, except that in his work Don Juan is saved from divine retribution by Doña Inés despite his years of roaming western Europe in search of new conquests.  In more modern interpretations of Don Juan, too, the sexual libertine takes on the roll of social transgressor through actions that fall out of society’s mainstream.  Unamuno’s Don Juan, for example, is blasphemous to the end.  He, however, faces no retribution within the text beyond constant reincarnation.  Valle-Inclán, too, draws his Don Juan as the social transgressor who violates social boundaries.  In the case of the esperpento version, specifically, Don Juan not only seeks out prostitutes, but disturbs a dead man’s grave in order to find his clothes.

In Indian literature, Kali presents a parallel of Don Juan.  Beyond embodying the Indian sexual paradigm, the destructive and fierce goddess also transgresses social norms in her appearance and manner.  Kali is another form of Parvati or Durga, the mother goddess who, as discussed earlier, exemplifies female sexual agency in the East by her relentless pursuit of the ascetic god Siva.  Thus, she not only carries the connotations of female sexuality discussed earlier in the context of Parvati, but her character traits also imply a further sense of sexual indiscretion.  While Parvati induces Siva into the house-holder sage through her sexual agency, Kali’s raging desire for Siva takes on a destructive aspect:

Iconographic representations of Kali and Siva nearly always show Kali as dominant.  She is usually standing or dancing on Siva’s prone body, when the two are depicted in sexual intercourse, she is shown above him.  Although Siva is said to have tamed Kali in the myth of the dance contest, it seems clear that she was never finally subdued by him and is more popularly represented as a being who is uncontrollable and more apt to provoke Siva to dangerous activity than to be controlled by him (Kinsley: page 120).

Her desire for the destroyer goddess itself is a threat to the universe because it is so fierce and intense.  Furthermore, while Parvati’s sexual desire can be controlled by Siva’s reciprocal desire, no god can placate Kali in her frenzied state.  She is sexuality gone mad, a dark figure roaming the night in search of Siva, whose own great sexual power is totally unable to resolve the goddess’ sexual desires.  Thus, like Don Juan in the West, Kali demonstrates an extreme example of sexual agency.  She not only possesses desire and the means to induce that desire in others, but her desire can never be placated (Kinsley: page 130).

Kali is also similar to the Don Juan figure in that she is an essentially marginal character.  This is particularly the case in descriptions of her characteristics.  David Kinsely, in writing about Kali begins his analysis with:

The goddess Kali is almost always described as having a terrible, frightening appearance.  She is always black or dark, is usually naked, and has long, disheveled hair.  She is adorned with several arms as a girdle, freshly cut heads as a necklace, children’s corpses as earrings, and serpents as bracelets.  She has long, sharp fangs, is often depicted as having clawlike hands with long nails, and is often said to have blood smeared on her lips (Kinsley: page 116).

This description most certainly does not describe a normalized figure in Indian society.  Kali’s “terrible, frightening appearance,” naked body, “long, disheveled hair,” and ornamentation of “freshly cut heads as neclace, children’s corpses as earings, and serpents as bracelets” all set her apart from the figure of womanhood in any culture.  Furthermore, her association with the cremation ground and infants, as the mother figure of Parvati, set her and her devotees apart from normalized society:

Both the dead and infants have a limited nature.  Neither has a complete social identity.  Neither fits neatly or at all into the niches and structures of normal society.  To approach Kali it is well to assume the identity of a corpse or an infant.  Having no stake in the orderly structures of society, the devotee as corpse or infant is free to step out of society into the liminal environment of the goddess (Kinsley: page 131).

Kali, then, is the ultimate figure of liminalality, representing a fierce woman whose blood-soaked lips and claws are just as out of place in normalized society as the dead or an infant.  This marginal figure of Kali strikes a similarity with Don Juan.  While European conceptions of the sexual libertine who violates social norms is certainly not as fierce or disgusting as those of the destructive goddess, both Don Juan and Kali represent the ultimate manifestations of sexual agency, as conceived in their respective cultures, while also serving as the ultimate transgressors of normalized society by breaking social boundaries.  In the case of Don Juan it varies according to the author and the time.  For the figure of Kali, social transgression is primarily focused in a terrible appearance and an association with the dead and the infant.

An interesting facet of both the Kali and Don Juan paradigms is the social and cultural affect of sexual agency in India and Europe.  Although the East is more inclined to give the feminine sexual agency, women, in general, were not much more empowered socially.  In the West, the resolution to the problems of masculine sexuality, of men wandering around desiring women, has been to place the feminine gender under lock and key to prevent potential violations of social sexual norms.  For example, many of the female characters from Tirso, Moliere, and Zorrilla live in relative isolation from the rest of society.  This, of course, makes for great drama because Don Juan must overcome this isolation to get to his women and so the world finds Don Juan reaching the sanctum of a convent for Doña Inés, the Spanish embassy in Lisbon for Doña Ana, and another convent for Moliere’s Donna Elvira.  The solution in the East to female sexual agency, however, is also to place women under lock and key, perhaps even more strictly, to guarantee that their sexuality is not let loose upon the world.  As quoted before, Manu is explicit in how women should be treated because of their agency in sexuality and desire:

A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in (her own) house. In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons’.  She should not have independence (Manu: page 115).

The parallel constructions of Kali and Don Juan, in which both are the ultimate figures of their sexuality, but also transgressors of social norms, might suggest that women have the same freedom of action that men did in the traditional conception of the west.  Manu makes clear, however, that women pay the price of their own sexual agency through isolation and lack of social freedom in India just as they pay the price of masculine sexual agency in the West.

The actual figure of Kali may, in fact, explain some of the social rationale behind the Indian practice of isolating women to protect their sexuality.  While Don Juan and his unending masculine sexuality pose a threat to the virginal women whose reproductive power is only harnessed in the marriage bed, the actual figure of Don Juan is controllable in the western cultural tradition.  In all of the classic conceptions of the archetype, for example, Don Juan ultimately ends his parade of masculine desire and conquest.  In Tirso, Moliere, and Mozart it is at the hands of a vengeful god who sends Juan unto hell.  For Zorrilla, the end of donjuanismo comes at the hands of Doña Inés, who, according to David Gies, turns the sexual libertine into a normalized husband of Bourgeois society (Zorrilla: page 49).  Kali, however, poses a radically different problem.  The extremely sexual goddess cannot be conquered or subdued, even by her husband.  Thus, there is no social control mechanism whereby female sexuality, when let loose upon society, can be brought to bear.  While god may reign Don Juan in, no such figure in the Indian pantheon can bring Kali into normalized society.  In the social discourse on sexuality, then, this literary and mythological figure may impose on women a forced isolation for fear that they, too, will enter a stage of enraged and fierce sexual desire that no man can quench.

The greater of question of why, however, Kali, a female, appears as the sexual agent and social transgressor in the East while Don Juan, her masculine counterpart, appears in the West is far too complicated to fully treat in this analysis.  Nevertheless, the striking differences in the structure of the paradigm, and the similarity with which they manifest themselves in the greater social context, pose interesting questions about social and literary development in both the Indian and the European context.  If the Rg Veda forms the basis of Indian literature and Greek myths have the same function in Europe, then both traditions are part of a larger Indo-European context, drawing from a common mythology that unites India to Greece and much of western Europe.  Why the common mythology of Zeus (Dyaus-Pitar in India) and the divine twins, Yama and Yami, swerved in such different ways in the East and the West remains unclear (Doniger: page 247).  What is clear, however, is the fact that different conceptions of men and women have made for interesting diversions in both India and Europe, giving the modern reader the figure of the preying women in Bernard Shaw and the desiring man in Choti Bahu.  Perhaps one day the ultimate manifestations of sexual agency in both cultures will be transmitted in the greater cultural discourse between the orient and the occident and western readers will be able to enjoy the blood-thirsty Kali roaming the hills and dales of Europe in search of a man who can satisfy her desire while and Indian readers, or perhaps movie-goers, will experience a Don Juan who chases saris across India until Siva brings moral to bear, or better yet, until some Hindu beauty induces him to settle down to the new Indian middle-class lifestyle.

Last Updated 15 March 2005.
Copyright 2005-2007 by Rishi Sharma.
All Rights Reserved.