The Body


From the Internet

From the Internet

It was while studying Gender Identity Disorder [GID] that I came across in a psychology book the concept of the human body as an expression of a culture.  My Christian upbringing had taught me in my childhood that the body is an obnoxious thing and that only the soul mattered.  I was taught stories of saints who mortified their bodies with dreadful measures of discipline.  The saints lacerated themselves, wore sack clothes, put on steel wires with thorns below their clothes… the list mortifications is endless in my memory even four decades after I was told about them.  Such saints were the only ideal persons to be imitated. 

As I look back I realise how many ridiculous lessons were taught to us by people whose natural wisdom was blinded by their religious learning.   But a generation later, did morality itself vanish from the child’s curriculum?  How else would I be able to explain the absolute emancipation of the human body from the lacerations and mutilations imposed on it by the religious teachers of my generation?  How would I explain, that is, the vulgar display of the human body on the TV screen and other places where even little children have easy access to?  I’m not forgetting the recent intervention by the govt when a Hindi TV channel wanted to telecast two times on the same day the movie, The Dirty Picture.  The channel was told to shelve its plan and telecast such movies only after 11 pm.  [I was disappointed initially since I was waiting to watch the movie.] Is the govt taking over from the Church and the Mosque the mantle of the moralist?

Well, I’m really not in favour of displaying the naked human body anywhere and everywhere.  The theme I want to pursue is the body as an expression of the culture. 

The human body is indeed an expression of a culture.  People have always used the body as an expression of a culture.  For example, the Indian women have decorated their bodies in different ways according to the culture of the region.  People anywhere in the world used to wear clothes as well as adorn their bodies according to their cultures.  For a specific example, the indigenous Australians used body decoration for many purposes including “camouflage in hunting, for protection in fights, for repelling mosquitoes in the tropical zones, for magical purposes, for attracting a woman or a man as a lover…” []. 

What is the culture that the human body is expressing in the globalised world?  This is what struck me as I was reading about GID.  This is beyond the purview of my psychology textbook which deals with gender as a social construct, among other things. 

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto implies in his brilliant work, Civilizations that Evolution did not really take us, the human species, toward any level of the sublime.  He thinks that “our sense of beauty and kindness” as well as “our intelligence” “got frozen long ago…” [page 544, Pan Books, Paperback edition].  He thinks that “Science proved more efficient in equipping evil than in serving good.”  Even when science did serve us well, its successes have been equivocal. “The motor car and the contraceptive pill did wonders for individual freedom, but they also threatened health and challenged morals….”

I think the Prof [Fernandez-Armesto is an eminent historian] gives me a clue to my quest about the human body.  The car as a metaphor for machines and the contraceptive pill as a metaphor for sensuality give me an answer on how the human body has come to acquire the superstar status it has now.  The machines made life easy for us.  They do most of our work.  Most of them work automatically too – for example, washing machine, dish washer.  They help us save a lot of time, apart from pampering our body by relieving it of much labour.   We use some of this spare time for lavishing sensual delights on ourselves.  On our bodies.  Too much luxury [of anything, in fact] is a bad thing.  When people faced hardships they created wonderful poems, songs, paintings, and other forms of art.  When people have too much luxury they ignore that inner world of the mind.  They focus on the body.  On the sensual.

If we analyse the advertisements on the TV and other media we’ll find that far too many of them are promoting things meant for the body: food items, cosmetics, jewellery, etc.  It’s a celebration of the body.  That’s the culture or civilisation [the borders between them are vanishing] we, the globalised humanity, have created. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong in celebrating the body.  But excess of even amrit is poison, as a proverb in Malayalam says.  The problem, I think, is we have forgotten that there is an inner world which demands equal attention as the body.  We can ignore that inner world only at our own peril.  At the peril of our little daughters, to cite one concrete example.  Read the newspapers thoroughly to find out how many little girls are sexually abused every day.  The rage for bodily gratification with absolute neglect of the inner world is likely to create a world of mindless beasts.  This is my problem with the worship of the body.  [The problem is certainly not confined to man; women are very much part of it. I shall not elaborate on it, however.]

To conclude recapitulating my theme, the body is indeed an expression of a culture.  It cannot be otherwise.  The problem is not with the body.  The problem is with the culture we have created.  There’s pretty much wrong with our culture.

Do I sound like a Puritan of the 16th century?  Maybe, the Christian whip has not yet fallen off my Freudian superego.


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18 Responses to The Body

  1. avibration says:

    Overall Absolute!
    Well directed..

  2. Venky says:

    Loved this piece. Discovered your blog by serendipity. I think the issue we are dealing with concerns the way we have repressed human sexuality for several centuries. In our culture, firstly, we never dissociated body from the mind. This divide became prominent with the introduction of the western thought. This divide became even more pronounced after the Cartesian divide which helped humans conjure an idea of themselves based on the perception of the mind. Our unhealthy relationship, corrupted by moralism and other factors, with human sexuality has led to this perversion where our repression finds expression in every popular art. Explore Osho’s works on these if you are interested. He lucidly explains how this perversion occurred. Later, during the 50s, it was Freud, with his popular theories about subconscious mind and sexuality, influenced marketing ( and politics of power) for several decades and we still see the impact of it.

    • matheikal says:

      Thanks, Venky, for adding more to the blog. The Christian (Western) morality is more about repressing instincts than exploring them creatively. This led to the Cartesian bifurcation, I think. For Descartes, only thinking made him BE: “I think, therefore I exist,” he said. That was the starting point of his philosophy, of all western philosophy thereafter. Why not “I feel”? Of course, feeling cannot be the starting point of philosophy or science – because by definition feelings are ruled out! Who makes the definition? [Let me not answer that until the question sinks in!]

      • Venky says:

        On a divergent note, it occurred to me while I was thinking about it on the occasion of labour day was, although body continues to remain the cynosure of popular art and imagery, physical work is never valued. We seem to have built an invisible hierarchy starting from the physical at the bottom most to the extremely intellectual at the top most. Why should a carpenter be treated with disdain as compared to some one, say, consultant or a software engineer?

      • matheikal says:

        Who makes the hierarchy? The intellectuals. So obviously they will remain on top. Remember how the religious people placed themselves above the king in the olden days. The first estate in France and the Brahmins in India are just two examples. Today, religion is displaced by a different kind of policy makers. It is the traders who will bring in a new hierarchy. Slowly you will find those owning the capital topping the hierarchy. Aren’t we already obsessed with the world’s richest lists?

  3. mak says:

    Sir, i do not agree when you say there is something wrong with our culture. I think it is our adaptation to other culture which went wrong, terribly.
    Our culture, in its purity, doesn’t dictate us to sell our body to sell anything and everything under the sun. Never it did.
    You have defunitely held the nerve on the subject in this post. Aopreciate your thoughts.

    • matheikal says:

      Mak, I think what you mean by “our culture” is being subsumed by the global culture today. When I blamed the culture, it was this global culture that I blamed. The dominant trait of the global culture is profit-making. The body also has been converted into a commodity by that culture for the sake of profit.

      • mak says:

        Agree with you that the global absurd culture is at blame. We have become its slaves sir.

  4. Pavan says:

    Completely agree with you..Awesome post..

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  6. I can’t say much about the cultural aspect of body but we are over-indulging in something which is bound to decay. We must seek inner happiness and indulge in something which has values attached to it.

    • matheikal says:

      Right, Saru. You’ve paraphrased me in very simple words. Thanks.

      About the body-culture relation, just think of how the very size of the body has been redefined. Kalidas found fleshy women beautiful, as described in his writings. That flesh was a sign of health. But today’s culture makes “size zero” the standard because of which many young women are becoming anemic! This is only one example.

  7. Raghuram Ekambaram says:


    I am pretty much lost on this post. To my mind, the kiind of shift, through culture, you have discerned is not instantaneous, in anthropoligical time frames (I find strong implications of this in the post as well as the comments). Indeed, if a culture does not shift, can we say it exists? Culture is always a comparative that demands change. I am not sure there were no such lamentations say 200, 500, 1000, 2000 years ago.

    By the way, it was good that you did not see “The Dirty Picture” on TV, with more cuts and all that. As far as I can remember the titilometer of the movie was very low. The movie recalled my experience watching the Jodie Foster starring “The Accused”. The fanatstic trick to bring about the nastiness of the act of rape was to show explicitly the event, AFTER it had been no less explicitly described in a courtroom scene. The courtroom scene prepared one for the revulsion that the visual depiction was planned to evoke and did evoke. All that promotion tour by Balan did was to demystify the glamour / sex quotient of the movie.

    By the way, I am not sure gender is a social construct. Gender is a grammatical construct. It is sex that differentiates woman from a man.

    “Science proved more efficient in equipping evil than in serving good.” – I take severe exception to this, not because I am arguing for science. My criticism is that science obtains characteristics of good or evil only thorugh the use it is put to and that is a sociological phenomenon, not intrinsic to the endeavor of science. (I am separating science from technology / applied science).

    If the good professor had siad, “Society found it easier to use science for evil rather than good,” I may have agreed, after carrying out a comprehensive / exhaustive analysis.


    • matheikal says:

      Culture changes, Raghuram. I have no doubt about that. To take a concrete example, the culture of Kerala which was once dominated by the Brahmninical edicts changed; but what emerged was a better culture, one in which people in general had more liberty, equality and fraternity (though the change in Kerala had nothing to do with the French Revolution). Such changes are good. What I’m speaking of in this blog is the so-called global culture that has emerged, a culture which is dominated by certain standards decided by global traders rather than global thinkers. It is that culture which has made the body a mere commodity.

      Isn’t gender a social construct too? The group (classified by psychologists) called Naturalists or Essentialists think there are only two genders: Male of Female, and these cannot be interchanged. The Social Constructivists think that sex and gender can only be considered as part of a social interaction; i.e., sex and gender are a “construction” assigned by society. Gender Performance Theorists argue that gender is determined by such performances of a person as posture, gesture, facial expression, voice modulation, and so on.

      But I think I must add what the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology says in order to make this more clear; Strictly speaking, says the dictionary, gender is a grammatical term used for classifying nouns. However, because of the many denotative and connotative difficulties with the term sex, it has gradually emerged as the term of choice in discussion of male/female differences, identity, societal roles and the like. I’m writing with this knowledge in mind.

      About science, you have reformulated the Prof more scientifically. The Prof and me are people who think less rigorously than you, it seems.

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