Thursday, December 12, 2013

ON BODY ODOUR


In Siva: the Siva purana retold, Ramesh Menon tells the story of Matsyagandhi (“Matsyagandha” in some texts), the daughter of a fisherman, whose body emitted the foul odour of fish. One morning sage Parashara arrived at their hut and asked the fisherman to ferry him across the Yamuna. He said he was in a hurry and as the fisherman was having his morning meal, he asked his daughter to ferry the venerable sage. As they walked from the hut to the riverbank, Parashara felt the foul smell coming out of the young girl’s body and was intoxicated by it. The one who had control over his senses lost his sense to that foul smell. Matsyagandhi was Parashara’s first and last love. He desired her with an intensity that left her astounded.

For our present purpose we are not really interested in the story beyond this. Perhaps just a few more words. The girl was frightened. The sage could not be refused, she knew. He might fly into a rage, as sages usually did, and curse her. On the other hand, she couldn’t give herself to him in day time. She knew that day time sex was forbidden, and then she was afraid that her father might see them from the riverbank. There was the possibility of her getting pregnant. Setting aside all these, wasn’t she stinking? Although the purana hasn’t said a word on it, we think it unlikely that the girl was not troubled by the sage’s age. By his yogic powers Parashara freed her from all anxieties that she had told him about: daytime, her father’s seeing them in the forbidden act, fear of pregnancy and foul body ordour. Now a heady fragrance emanated from her: jasmine fragrance mixed with a bit of the smell of fish. Her fragrance could be felt from a jojana (roughly, four miles) – she became jojanagandha. For the readers of The Mahabharata, she is Satyavati.
 All this happened before the sage took her. But we must not take it to mean that she had to smell sweet before the sage would unite with her. Not at all. By changing her body odour he only comforted her. We must not forget that it was her foul smell that had drawn her to him; may be, he still responded to that same lingering smell that was still faintly there, that could not be totally eliminated by the overwhelming fragrance of jasmine! Puranas mention many females, devis, apsaras, rajakanyas (princesses) and queens, who had body ordour. But it was always sweet and for that reason drew attention of the males to them. But the Matsyagandhi episode is the only one in our puranas in which foul smell overwhelmed a male, and that too none other than the sage Parashara! It is in a sense the celebration of the foul smell; in puranic literature, sages are given respect even by the gods.

In some broad sense sage Parashara can be said to be the ancestor of young Brad, the American from Illinois, who admits feeling sexually attracted by windy women, as the news story by Emma Kelly in the London newspaper, “Metro” (Monday, July 29, 2013) tells us. Brad incidentally is a pseudonym; he withholds his name presumably because of fear of societal ridicule. But he asserts that he is not alone, there are, he informs us, quite a few “eproctophiles” really. When the academician Mark Griffith wrote about the sex appeal of the smelly fart of women, a new topic entered the academic world and English became richer with the addition of a new word.  

But there is just one Parashara in the entire puranic literature and there are, and there might have been, perhaps only a few eproctophiles in the world. For that reason alone they could be seen as exceptions. It is different with ordinary people. The anthropologist and hygiene specialist Valerie Curtis, who calls herself a “disgustologist” and by this coinage has enriched the English lexicon, and who studies the response of the humans to foul smell, says that they are repulsed by faeces, pus, urine, vomit and the like, but they do not know that disgust is a feeling that helped our ancestors in their effort to survive, which would surely constitute an interesting assertion about our survival in our evolutionary history. It is because of their disgust instinct that our ancients had avoided disease and death, which are associated with putrid smell of flesh. One might think that it is perhaps this reaction to foul smell that has been the root cause of the cultural attitudes to body discharges. Societies have formulated moral codes that ensure that these substances are not shared with other humans, as Curtis puts it, except of course sexual fluids, which are shared only to a very limited extent. We might add that languages for this reason and similar others have developed a taboo lexicon, containing words for these and for the body parts directly connected with the same, to be excluded from polite use of language. Languages have developed a system, which is called euphemism, to articulate these notions when they become unavoidable in specific contexts of language use. 

Curtis is surely not acquainted with the Brad phenomenon. We do not know how she would deal with it when she gets to know about it. She might say it’s no big deal for her. After all, there is no evidence that the Brads are not repulsed by the smells of other body discharges. She could say that unless one knows more about the Brads of the world, she would simply keep the Brad problem on the shelf. As for us, we could wait for further illumination on the subject from Curtis and Griffiths.

1 comment:

Kakoli Dey said...

Someone once said....foul smells are just a state of mind. It is a psychological realization. We might encounter people who see and smells foul in everything and at the same time there are people who are comfortable with any kind of situation. What I feel that at times if we are in such situations we can divert our mind to something else in stead of exaggerating it. I have also encountered people who by the very thought of fish, say for example, reacts obnoxiously.
I once happen to visit Mathura/Vrindavan (India) and there is a place called Nikunjaban --sacred abode of Radha-Krishna. As I was in communique with a sage trying to know about the origin of the place and other stuff, I inquired why this place is littered with excreta of human and animals around and the pungent smell in the air? To this he got infuriated and said in a strong way, 'everything is clean here' and thus refused to talk to me further.
Thank you for highlighting this topic. I am still confused with the Sage's response and the attitude.