The Indian Conception of Skin Color
William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” is a highly significant poem for historical, cultural, social, political, and religious reasons.Very crudely put, the poem is an attempt at course correction, one of the several eye openers–it was written by a White man in Blake’s typically weepy-sissy style, trying to prise open his fellow Whites’ eyes to the fact that slavery was BAD, that treating people endowed with a different skin colour badly was not done. It was written at a time when the anti-slavery movement in the US was still nascent. As laudable as Blake’s efforts were in this direction, he never was able to shake himself off the Bible hangover. And therein lies a tale, the roots and details of which Rajiv Malhotra has brilliantly traced in “Breaking India.” The tale that led to genocide and the justification of colonialism and the cruelties that ensued from such justification. The tale one of the characteristics of which was the now-all-too-familiar “theory” of the superiority of the white skin. Juvenile you’d say, my toy/Bike/dad/house is better than yours, you’d say. Except that this singular instance of juvenile behaviour led to the aforementioned genocides.
Every country and culture has historically taken pride in what it regards as its highest ideals, refinement and so on. By this yardstick, is it reasonable to conclude that skin colour was the highest cultural/civilisational ideal that the White Race could take pride in for over two centuries? Indeed that pride has made a perverse, backdoor entry: the phenomenal sales of skin lightening products in India reveals more than it conceals.
Which brings us to the subject of this piece.
The fundamental question to ask is this: how important was skin colour in ancient Indian thought, philosophy, mythology, and in general, literature. The answer: almost zero. When analyzing questions like this, it is important to take a holistic and wholesome view rather than a reductionist/narrow view of the subject.
The concept of associating colour with specific human traits such as good and evil holds minor, or no significance in Indian thought. Indian philosophy has no place for the (in)famed problem of evil because both good and evil are seen as deriving from the same source, two sides of the same coin. The problem of evil is purely another expression of an immature mind, the consequence of looking at the world from a Dwandva (dual, separate) perspective. The story of Prahlada illustrates this best. When his demonic father, Hiranyakashyipu, asks him where Vishnu is, Prahlada simply says that “he’s within you; I seek him through love while you do the same through hatred.”
The use of skin colour–black and white as character/behavioural attributes is needless to say, a product of White racial superiority theory. In one of his essays on Indian art, Ananda Coomaraswamy severely criticizes Western critics of Indian art for holding the view that Indian sculpture/idols were not artistic because they were “hideously dark/black.” I don’t need to spell it out that black was associated with evil. Also sample the famous phrase, “black magic,” a Christian/Western concept, which only has evil connotations.
Specifically, there’s not a single text in the whole of ancient Indian philosophy/mythology which treats black as evil or inauspicious. Equally, our epics provide valuable insights.
Now why Vyasa or Valmiki chose to portray Rama, Krishna, Draupadi, Arjuna, and Hanuman in their respective colours is best known to them but it certainly has nothing to do with race or the superiority of skin colour.
The Mahabharata like other Indian philosophical/mythological texts and treatises, is replete with symbolism. Krishna and Arjuna both individually and together represent one of the most fantastic symbols we’ve been given. That the word Krishna means black is common knowledge but that’s not all. The Sanskrit language is one of the finest accomplishments of mankind. The word Krishna is derived from the Krush root (dhaatu), which means to attract, to rub (from this root is derived the word, Aakarshana or attraction); it also means the colour black. Therefore, the word Krishna means, one who attracts, who is capable of attracting, and so on. If one examines the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata and the Purana lore, they fit perfectly with Krishna’s character: there was none who escaped his charms.
And the literal meaning of the word, Arjuna is white, clear, (of the) lightning, (of) milk, etc. One of Arjuna’s ten names happens to also be Krishna, an apparent contradiction. But this is understandable if one goes beyond the colour/skin colour framework, and understands it from the perspective of the root, Krush. Vyasa describes Arjuna as an extremely handsome, and attractive warrior. Hence the synonym, Krishna for Arjuna, too.
Symbolically, the characters of Krishna and Arjuna is a stroke of Vyasa’s genius. Interpreted purely in “skin colour” terms, the contrast cannot be more severe: “black” and “white” side-by-side, day and night side by side, close friends and confidants. This is exactly the opposite of Western thought that regards black and white as eternal, irreconcilable foes.
Now the word Black also has connotations of the mysterious, which again is entirely consistent with the conception of the character of Krishna in the epic. His words, deeds and their consequences are unexplainable. To lesser minds like those of Wendy Doniger et al, Krishna is Absolute Evil and the Gita is a dishonest book, a book that advocates war. Yet, as Mahabharata demonstrates, every act of Krishna achieves noble ends.
In the end, basic laws of Physics throw illuminating light: white disperses colours while all colours lose themselves in black. Krishna as the human symbol of the Eternal Cosmic Consciousness symbolizes Black while Arjuna as his friend and disciple, tries to implement what his friend and teacher taught him.
(Image Courtesy – http://esoterium.wikispaces.com/Psychology+of+Slavery)