Power, pleasure & shame | Book Excerpt — Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History by Alka Pande

A phallus surrounded by four Buddhist monks at the Wat of Wae Hon Son (Photo: Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History)

EXCERPT: Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History

The eroticism associated with the phallus can be broken down into distinct layers, depending on the epoch, region or culture. In the eastern parts of the world, particularly India, there is a very clear relation between exoticism and eroticism, where sex is almost similar to a spiritual experience—the pleasure derived from the act of sex transports one to a higher spiritual realm. In ancient India, sexual intercourse was an act of pleasure and not just a device for procreation. Evidence of this can be found in literary texts from that period as well as in architecture. Several temples and monuments, like the ones in Khajuraho, have elaborate depictions of people in various positions of sexual congress. Due to this emphasis on the value of sex transcending procreation, the phallus was revered for its ability to bring pleasure, a tool essential for a man and a woman to come together in the ultimate act of sensual gratification. Despite being the repository of pleasure—in many ways pleasure forms the backbone of human society—the phallus is also a source of power, pleasure and shame at the same time.

Through the power of the phallus comes yet another manifestation of human nature which is seen in the physical assertion of male supremacy, as seen in rapes of women in times of warfare, particularly in medieval and modern India. It was because of the fear of male aggression that the concepts of jauhar and sati became institutionalized in Rajput societies. In modern societies, honour killings also arose due to the fear amongst communities of the exploitation of women’s sexuality and vandalization of their character.

Phallic symbolism has been one of the oldest and most prevalent phenomenon in religion, culture, literature and art. The earliest known representations go back to the prehistoric times, apparent in cave paintings and megaliths that are found at several sites across the world. Starting off as a symbol of fertility and virility, the phallus has gone through numerous interpretations through the ages. Though the actual organ itself has always been as important—for men, their phallus has always been an indicator of virility and the ability to father offspring that will carry on the strongest genes, while in male animals, it is used as a means to ward off any rivals, sexual as well as territorial.

This obvious connection between the physical and symbolic ensured the phallus featured heavily in cultures. Though the ways of representation are quite distinct between the East and the West, even though in the western part of the world the erotic symbolism of the phallus is emphasized upon whereas in the eastern part of the world, religious symbolism holds dominance. In ancient times, religion played a vital role in phallic imagery, while in the more modern age art and culture have taken over the space of phallic imagery and interpretation. In pre-modern societies, the penis was a tool of magic, potent charms and fecund rituals—from castration to circumcision, from ornamentation to mutilations. As society started evolving, the cult of the penis underwent transformation as well.

In medieval societies, male patriarchy reigned supreme, and the penis became a tool of both power and shame, with this reaching the zenith during the second- half of the nineteenth century when Victorian prudish attitudes came into being. Michel Foucault commented on this in his trail blazing work, History of Sexuality, writing about how notions of male patriarchy came into form against the onset of the undercurrents of female subversive sexuality, like covering piano legs and sandwiches because of how the angles of the piano and the cutoff parts of the sandwiches appeared to resemble the female vulva.

By the advent of modern society, the phallus was taken to another level—it became a symbol of pleasure. Today, the erotic and sexual nature of the phallus has given way to many subcultures that celebrate its sexuality. The modern male became a predator, a man about town, a broad-shouldered, lean-hipped hunter of his own pleasure. At the same time, the penis turned into a dildo—seen as emasculating male power, where new-age feminists rejected and went beyond the male member using a rubber form to simulate the same pleasure earlier only drawn via the penis.

The ‘Oscillating Phallus’ of the twenty-first century, is it truth or imagination? The new-age urban, literate man of the twenty-first century is comparatively more sexually evolved. Going back to the Kamasutra where it was clearly stated that in sexual intercourse the pleasure of the woman was as important as that of a man’s, the urbane man takes delight in being a possessor of a phallus which he uses with empathetic inclusion of feminine pleasure. The phallus then becomes a more embracing tool of pleasure rather than a one-sided penetrating stick of joy.

In that sense, the contemporary male is completely a different kettle of fish. Sometimes hunter, sometimes hunted, the new metrosexual man can be androgynous and bisexual with equal flourish. He is dressed elegantly, often in feminine aesthetics; for same-sex orientations are no longer looked at as orientations of the devil and not hunted with draconian cruelty as it was in early modern Western societies.

Pages 12-15

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins
Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History
Alka Pande
Pp 240, Rs 1,999

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