What about the breast?

Being born and brought up in a so-called ‘third – world developing country,’ the kind of debates in the public domain I have witnessed in the supposedly ‘first world developed country’ in the last one year makes me both laugh and cringe.

A case in point is breastfeeding in public. In July 2018, finally, all 50 states in the USA have allowed women to breastfeed in public. Earlier it was illegal; there was a fine for public indecency and women could be charged for that. However, women still need to cover breasts while feeding and yet there is a lot of confusion around it.

Humans are generally breast obsessed, bigger the better. Now that the breast concerns women, it is necessary for the patriarchal society to wrap it in misogyny and hide it in the name of obscenity.

Covering or not covering breasts has been a contentious issue since human civilization discovered clothes.

In the rural parts of my country, especially Odisha and Bengal one can see women wearing saree without a blouse. And yes, women breastfeeding their children is a common sight in public across India.

Wearing a blouse with a saree is a British concept and was popularized by Jnanadanandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, brother of the famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore who was reportedly refused entry to a famous club by Britishers as she was not wearing a blouse. (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30330693)

The Indian society absorbed this foreign concept of breast and modesty at different points in time.

In the nineteenth century, Kerala, women from certain sections of the society did not wear clothes that covered their breasts and bosom.

With the advent of Christianity, they started becoming conscious of their bare upper body and revolted against the prevailing societal norms. Many embraced Christianity and began to wear clothes that covered their breasts. There were statewide protests against it, and the state imposed a breast tax known as mulakkaram on the women if they wanted to cover their breasts in public.

There is a famous village tale around Nangeli, an Ezhava woman who lived in the early 19th century in Kerala who cut off her breasts to protest against breast tax. Here breast symbolized her pride and as a weapon of protest against the practices which were discriminatory.

There are several hymns in Vedas, and other Hindu scriptures on the Goddesses were voluptuous breasts, and shapely hips have been praised and celebrated. Even Vedic Gods had protuberant breasts or chests filled with honey and gold. The breast was considered symbols of progeny and food.

We have Goddesses who have three or multiple breasts. The breast was just another organ for us and was not to be hidden and to be ashamed of.

Hidimba, the flesh-eating dakini who married Bheem (one of the five Pandav brothers) had three breasts when she was born. She worshipped Lord Shiva when she was five years old. Lord Shiva granted her boon that her third breast would disappear when she finds husband fit for her. The legend says that her third breast fell off when she saw Bheem.

There is a similar legend regarding Goddess Minakshi who is seated in Madurai. She is one of the many manifestations of Goddess Parvati. Once, a king and his wife worshipped Lord Shiva for seeking a son. But a three-year-old girl was born to them who had three breasts. Lord Shiva asks parents to bring her up like a son, and when the right time comes, she will lose her third breast. After she grew up, she takes over the reign of the kingdom from her father. She challenges Shiva but eventually marries him as there is a change in her personality once she sees him.

So is the third breast the third eye just like Lord Shiva had? Or it is the male pennies? Or is the sun, moon and the earth. Or is it a sign of abundance and fertility? Though, there could be various interpretations of its symbolism.

But now, it’s a taboo to talk about breast, and breastfeeding has become an issue in urban India. It was quite surprising to see the uproar when a magazine from Kerala published images of a woman breastfeeding on its cover page.

Breastfeeding is an essential part of our culture and tradition. Putana, the female demon tries to kill baby Krishna by breastfeeding him.

We need to rethink as to how did our society become so illiberal and narrow-minded that now there is a need to smash taboos associated with breasts.

Image: Cover page of Malayalam Grihalakshmi Magazine

16 thoughts on “What about the breast?

  1. Nice take! I have loads of questions and thoughts. Though!

    I feel it all boils down to unanswerable question – the element of clothing (we all know that clothing now is not merely for protection. A sense of shy, shame, pride, beauty, everything is attached) and element of ‘inappropriateness’. Who decides these and how!?

    Yea, lot of our literature freely describes breasts and beauty. They also describe genitals and all body parts without hesitation. Yet, they are revered!

    That is why my question above matters!

  2. Sanskrit word for breasts is ‘stana’. The word ‘stana’ means sound, more correctly the sound emanating from the heart. The goddess of expression, vaak has four breasts, two (Svaahaakaara and Vashatkaara) for the deities, one (Svadhaakaara) for the divine Fathers and one (Hantakaara) for human beings. It is told that vaak feeds the milk contained in a ‘word/expression’ (or contained in Her) by Herself to those who follow Her. ‘Stanaitnu’ is the word for the rumble of clouds. Clouds carry the milk or elixir and pours it down upon the earth for us to thrive. There are sacred hymns in Brihadaranyaka and Kuashitaki Upanishads on mother feeding the breasts to the newborn. Here is an extract from 2nd Chapter, 8th hymn of Kaushitaki Upanishad—“Oh the Controller of divinity!
    By the nectar coming out of your seemingly divided breasts founded in the moon, may I never have to cry for my child, may the child be never be in sufferings”. Another extract from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad : ” you adorable Sarasvati (goddess of words-vaak ),
    the breasts of yours which secretes the soma/milk from moon, milk which creates the joy, milk that holds the treasure, milk that sustains every one that exists, the milk that bestows good, the milk by which you nourish all the entities of the universe
    bring the same milk in the breasts of this mother to feed the newborn’ ()

  3. Thanks for responding to my comments. Just wish to mention a thing I forgot:
    stana= sta (stu / praise) +ana/an (praaNa)—the self-praising, self-
    nourishing ‘word’ or ‘goddess vaak’. From ‘stana’ the milk effuses
    to build us. Thus, the breasts are located below the neck, the
    organ of voice.

  4. @ Lahiri Sir, that is a very great insight. I like your intention of going to the Vedic roots and nirukta way of etymologically understanding the word contextually. I would like to add further to your comment, if that is ok:

    The four stana that you pointed for the vak are nothing but the four states of the WORD – Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari Vak. These four form the udder of the cow of Vak or four breasts of the deity of Vak. The milk that they shower is the “meaning” , because the Ksheera is ever germinating agent and thus is never perishes. An uttered word may perish, but not the meaning. In fact, meaning forms soul of the word.

    The problem with English translation is that it looses the rich Sanskrit intuitive ideas of ancient sages. The moon is not moon , but Soma. In the above context that you pointed, I think the sage is extolling of the Soma Rasa, which forms a “delight of existence or bliss of existence”. The goddess saraswati, who is the above Vak, helps a being to communicate with other and thus quenches the thirst of “everything”. Vak does not only mean spoken word, but even the intention of idea exchange ( para, Pasyanti and Madhyama vaks). So, a living being exists because of another being in communication. Not even a virus/bacteria exist alone. So, the very communication forms a delight for the existence of the being and hence the nourishing agent for its evolution. Thus, the milk of Soma is secreted from the Vak.

    Thanks , for pointing in right direction though!!

    @author: do you think creator planned ? If so, how can we understand the way he planned ? To plan, he she have had mind and if so, did he not plan his mind first? To plan, he plans a planning agent ….seems interesting paradox to me …a point to ponder upon! Your last line has a deep thought space to be explored

  5. As the collective consciousness of the society evolves, new ideas, thoughts sprung up. Recently, Smriti Irani chose to be the pallbearer when one of her party workers died. She not only broke the patriarchal taboos but also gave a very positive message regarding the role of our political representatives.

  6. Like I said in the past, women indeed had equal rights in rites and oblations. Kavyakantha Vasishta Ganapati Muni did prove this. He was awarded the title kavyakantha. But society soon forgot such notions. It’s the era that needs a spur. One or two set examples but many need to tread the path of LIgHT for a wholesale upliftment. Let’s see where the nation goes!!

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