Fair-skin complexion - digestion of indian aesthetics?

This post summarizes a discussion of April 2012 initiated by Rajiv Malhotra.

Fair-skin complexion - digestion of indian aesthetics? http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/19/india-fair-skinned-beauty



I am troubled that the second and third articles above blame the fair-skin craze on Hindu prejudices. In Hinduism, Krishna, Shiva, Kali, Durga and several other important deities are dark-skinned, and at the same time there are other deities who are fair skinned. So both skin
tones are appreciated. In the Ajanta Caves (pre-Islamic art), dark-skinned persons are wearing lots of jewelry on par with fair-skinned or even more so - again indicating that dark-skinned was not a mark of being lower strata.

My thesis is that this fair skinned nonsense started under Islamic rule when fair skinned middle eastern invaders kept the natives as slaves. The ashraf caste is fair skinned in islam because they are said to be from Arabia, Turkey, etc. whereas the ajlaf are dark-skinned native muslims.

To upgrade oneself within Islamic caste, Indian muslims still crave for the markers of ashraf - fair skin, urdu language over local Indian language, claims of ancestry from West of the subcontinent, lots of knowledge about Islamic stories and aristocratic customs, etc.

This inferiority complex among Indians who were ruled by Islamic rulers got further worsened under European rule. But the complex began under Muslims. The word "gora" for whites is of Persian origin.

...Many pop stars and media celebs are into the fair-skin cream racket.

When the issue does get raised infrequently, it is common to blame "Hindu caste".

Srinivas disagrees:
"... disagree about fair skin complex coming through islamic route. for ages now we hindus preferred white skin . a darker girl found it difficult to get a bridegroom in the past when there were arranged marriages. for a dark skinned man the divinity is added by saying Krishna was dark ! you can see the ads everyday about fairness cream and it is probably one of the best selling products in this country .

Rajiv comment: You have offered no evidence to back up the above claim. In fact, I once asked an expert of natya shastra (the classical text on aesthetics) to find me statements that regarded fair skin as the mark of beauty. The person came back and said she found none. There are numerous statements in it about beauty defined by other criteria such as symmetry, etc. I am still open to hear any concrete evidence of such a statement in natya shastra. Otherwise, what you say above is mere "opinion" not fact. ...
Words like "gora" are from Persian to urdu, and the preference for fair-skinned marriage partner itself originated in the Islamic era.

Also, please read in "Breaking India" about the Myth of Ham - the biblical history of blaming dark skinned peoples as immoral and how this was used for centuries by the church to defend slavery of Africans.

One of the fall outs of the Aryan invasion theory was to classify "fair-skinned Aryans" as superior foreigners who overcame and ruled over "dark-skinned Dravidians".

....Today you find many good and bad things, but that says nothing about whether these are indigenous.

Nagaraja adds:
".....This wrong perception, if allowed to grow, will again
go back to the mythical Aryans (mythically Fair skinned) dominating over Dravidians (mythically dark skinned), the Aryan-Dravidian divide etc. This wrong and sweeping generalizations against us is what we have to block
effectively with truth and there is nothing wrong in it.

Coming to specifics, if the bias towards fair skin can be ascribed to the historicity of Hindus, there must be some evidence to it. Apart from Natya Shashtra, Samudrika Shasthra that contains definitions of beauty refer to
body proportions and not to skin color
. And in the Kavyas that describe beauty of some of the characters, again the body proportions and expressions are referred to rather than skin color. When this is the case, how can we
accept that the root of fair-skin-bias of past few generations lies in the vedic civilization? This is what we disagree and oppose. And in the process, if one tries to dig the roots and if there are pointers that lead to the Mughals and the British, why not point it out?.."  

Maria responds: 
"... among us ˜'whites' there is a different beauty ideal: we feel we look good if we are as brown as possible. Ok, in English it is called tan, but in German we are proud if we are '˜brown' or have '˜colour'. That is the major reason why tourists walk around skimpily dressed. If they come home they have to show that they became brown.

Now, with so much skin cancer around, the awareness is growing that spending long hours in the sun is not healthy, even though being brown is associated with looking good, healthy and active and the teeth look white. How hard many work to turn brown. To spend a holiday lying in the sun, is a rather boring way, but this sacrifice is made for '˜looking good' afterwards.

In spite of all this, we never get such good shades as Indians have. Our brown is reddish and many in northern Europe, Brits included, never manage to get brown but only pink. So basically we envy you for your good colour. We know that Indians generally look better, brighter and more cheerful than us. A German friend calls India the 'land of beautiful people'.

Rajiv comment: Yes this is true today and well known. But until recent times it was not so.

This has to do with what constitutes the look of the elites - they define beauty. In the famous renaissance paintings displayed across europe's museums, the women used as models are pale skin, indicating that that was the notion of beauty. Models of a given time and place indicate what kind of look was considered beautiful. I have written many times that Mona Lisa would not have got a job on Madison Avenue today as a model, because female beauty is different today in two ways: first its better to be slim now .... Both color and proportions have changed in western notions of beauty.

The reason is economic: in the renaissance days, the rich were lazy and stayed indoors, making the poor work hard in the fields - pre-mechanization. This meant
that the poor were slim and tanned in color, while the rich were not. Since the rich defined the beauty criteria, the good looks meant being plump and pale colored.....


Thats why Jesus, who was dark skinned with Middle Eastern features for many centuries in the christian art, suddenly became a white, blonde man after the Italian renaissance aristocrats started sponsoring such images of him." 

Wadhwa shares:
"....Pl.see the description of handsome appearance of Lord Rama with darker hue - an Arya Putra,  as given in the Ram Rajyam Prashasati in the Shanti Parva of Mahabharata - Chapter 29:

"Rama was dark-skinned and a youthful king.  His eyes had the lustre of the valiant.  He was as strong and confident as the king of elephants.  He had long and powerful arms.  His chest was broad and as strong as a lion's and he had a handsome appearance." (Source: 'Shastra Navanitam' - A Concise study of Hindu Scriptures, pub.by Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, South Africa).

Due to misunderstanding of the poetic and multi-meaning vedic language, the caste differences are often traced by some western scholars and their Indian camp followers  to the Vedas and the symbolic fight between gods and demons found in the Vedas is interpreted by them as fight between fair Aryans and dark Dravadians.  The classic example which can be given here  is that of the word 'Varna' which  has been derived from the root word Vriyn, i.e., to choose broadly out of the four social groups as an occupation in accordance with ones personality traits for which one is most suitable.   Explaining this, Maharishi Dayananda  said  that it is not necessary that a man's varna corresponds with that of his parents. Swamiji vociferously condemned  hereditary caste system ..... However, the imperialist writers of the last century mainly because of their colour-psychology and racial outlook and being obsessed with the superiority of their race, out of context, mis-interpreted varna with its secondary meaning, i.e.,'colour' and jumped upon the Aryan invasion theory.  They haphazardly concluded that Varna distinction was due to colour and the white coloured Aryans introduced it when they conquered darker aborigines called Dasyus.   In Ramayana, Rama is called "Arya Sarvsamshaiva Saddaiva Priyadarshana" i.e, an Arya who looks on everyone alike and is ever pleasant looking. .."  

Arjunshakti shares:
"one just have to go to islamic forums ...going on about tall fair skin muslims and dark faced short hindus which now khalistanis keep defining hindus as..... something that first came through islamic routes then colonial brainwash..."   
Priyadarshi comments:
"As regarding etymology of the word 'Gora' (feminine Gori) it appears to be corrupted from of Sankrit 'Gaur' (from Go - light). Goddess Parvati (a form of Durga) is called Gauri. 'Sharanye trambake Gauri Durga Devi Namastute' appears in the Saptashloki Durga in Durga Saptashati (3rd-4th century AD). Gauri-Shankar is a common name in northern India. It is true that Shiva, like Rama and Krishna, is dark but Parvati is fair. The entwined dark-white principles represents unison of existence-energy biune. An unless I am accused of Japanese digestion of Hindu thought one might call it Yang-Yin principle equivalent.In Yang-Yin white and dark embrace each other and there is a white eye inside dark patch and vice versa. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, medieval era Vaishnav genius, is also referred to as Gaurang (Gora in short).

We may also notice that goddess Saraswati is immaculately white. I am sorry I have not read the original post blaming colour bias to the Vedas, if there was one such. But the original word for caste in Hinduism was 'Varna', which coincidentally also indicate colour....

In Hindu tradition there is no institutionalized bias against dark skinned. But it is difficult to believe that fair skinned women enjoyed no advantage or preference in pre-Islamic period. It is normal human nature. ....No historical phenomenon can become lasting unless there is a sustained appetite for it. Greco-Macedonians were the first 'whites' that Hindus encountered historically. Chandragupta Maurya even married the daughter of Selecus Nikator, even if for diplomatic reason. I am sure Bactrian (Greek) women were favourites in ancient India..."  

Rajiv comment: I still dont have a response to why Ajanta Caves do not depict bias based on skin color, when there are clearly people of many skin colors being depicted there. The present-day tamil bias needs to be traced to a time of origin if you are to posit a cause. It could be something recent. Most societies that got conquered suffer inferiority complex with respect to the rulers - its part of what the rulers must do in order to dominate. In BD this is called "difference anxiety from below". Since India got invaded always from people located West of India, and of fair skins, this complex has crept into society as part of this difference anxiety from below.

If it were "Hindu" per se, there would be: (1) sanskaras/rituals to become whiter skinned, (2) natya shastra references, (3) only fair skinned deities and not dark ones as well.

Regarding the word varna: It has half a dozen meanings just like most sanskrit words, that cannot be conflated. Lingam is another common word whose different meanings must be understood. " 

Nagaraja responds:
"The term 'varna' carries more than 20 meanings all of which are based on the same verb root 'varn' meaning 'visthare' or to 'to expand'. The word color is one of the meanings of the word Varna ... Chanyakya (Kautilya / Vishnu Gupta), for instance was a Brahmana par-excellence, and he was of dark complexion. Lord Krishna, a Kshyatriya par-excellence was of dark
complexion too...."

Srinath adds:
"In Samskrtam there are multiple words for fair - shukla, shweta, lavana, etc. but the predominant word for dark is krishna.  Contrast with western and Islamic societies where numerous slurs are found in their languages for dark skinned people - even as we speak, the slave owning families of Libya are white and the genocides of Sudan perpetrated by Africans claiming Arab descent against native (negro) Muslims.

Islamic trilogy explicitly makes reference to Mohammad being a "white skinned man", and that he preferred the fair maidens of select Arab/Jewish tribes.

Jesus has been transformed from his dark haired, brown skinned Palestinian ethnicity into a blond, blue eyed prophet in the Renaissance art of Europe."
Ravi questions Priyadarshi's hypotheses:
"... merely being like the rest of us, unable to easily separate stereotypes in current society from actual facts....
...There is no evidence for this in our pre Islamic period's history, as so many here have shown. So at best, it is speculative opinion, though taken as "true" by many.

....What historical evidence do we have that "Bactrian women were favorites in India?" . and , more to the point, even if they were, this doesn't automatically translate to giving them any superior status compared to "not-as-fair" people. One can objectify features of another culture &  genuinely "like" those features in isolation.

And in passing, we need to remember the culpability of the English language here too. "Fair" as a characterization for light skin is an English conceit. When one makes the transition to US English, it is no longer typical to say "fair". Calling someone "light skinned" or "white" is more the norm, and arguably more neutral.

Because the opposite to "fair" is naturally "less-fair", tending to "un-fair" ..... investing a whole lot of value judgement into this word.

It is telling indeed to contrast this with the sanskrit word "shyama" for dark, for skin & otherwise ....."
Srinivas2 responds:
"I think the best place to look for on this topic of women's skin color preference in old times is Kama Sutra.

The 4 types of women mentioned in Kama Sutra namely Padmini, Chitrini, Shankini, Hastini are not defined based on skin color as the differentiation. Color is usually mentioned in passing and i think only Padmini is mentioned as not being black. I also think they are equally critical of completely black or completely white women.

Besides all this, Draupadi's complexion was dark and she was believed to be one of the most beautiful women of her times! Which means, skin color wasn't such a big thing in those days as it is now."
Senthil comments: 
".... there are people with both black and fair complexion..  adding to that, khanwa maharishi is black.. and ...we have khanwa gothra, and the people in that gothra are black.. .....people looked at whether the girl is capable enough to manage and run the family..  but today's generation wants only fair skinned beautiful girl..   the reason is influence of cinema, and change of life style from role/responsbility based to consumeric based..  this can be attributed to imposition of western universalism on indian society..

Secondly, the collapse of jathi is also partly responsible..  Within a jathi, a black girl/boy is accepted through family networks, and relations..  there is a collective conscience, and people are looked based on relations..  When this jathi network collapses, we get only Class based society on the lines of european elites..."
Venkat adds:
"Senthil makes some very pertinent points. In traditional marriage, often portrayed as restrictive by the uninformed, appearance itself was secondary to other traits such as character, family traditions, etc. Traditional marriages, unlike the highly exploitative variety one sees in the west and in India today, emphasized the sacred. This is why one would be hard-pressed to find any preference for fair complexion .....one (person as well as region) was evaluated based on virtues. For example, in the Mahabharata (5:39, 12:328), The Vahikas (Central Asians / those from the banks of the Oxus and hence lighter complexioned) are viewed by Vidura and Narada as the scum of the earth as they had abandoned the Veda and vrata and are found to observe no scruples. " 
BNA adds:
"The entire Indian Sub-continant has very similar Genes - a mixture of one male and two types of female genes all over- for 97% of the population. In our ancient books,  this is referred as: Prajapathi had two wives, Dithi and Adithi. So, within the same family, some are fair complexioned and some dark, some tall and some short,..."
Hemachandra reports:
"I checked the Kama Sutra in Devanagari (from the GRETIL collection, see http://sanskritworld.in/unicode-sanskrit-books/, link1 , link2
and searched in Devanagari for 3 applicable synonyms for white from Apte's English-Sanskrit Dict: shweta, shukla, gaura

Surprisingly, there is only one place I noticed white colour (shweta) as in "white cow" and "white calf".
.... Kamasutra does not seem to mention the color aspect wrt women at all. Devadatta Shastri's commentary (in Hindi) refers to Ratirahasya (by Koka) where it is said that a Padmini is white like a jasmine flower... My source of info is Alain Danielou's unabridged ed of Kamasutra (p. 92) that has the Jayamagala tika of Yashodhara and Devadatta's 20th c. commentary (in Hindi)." 
Rohit posts:
""In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact.

As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, "Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul .... Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; ...." Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of
baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.

Everye white will have its blacke And everye sweete its sowre White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the Devil.

Whiteness, moreover, carried a special significance for Elizabethan Englishmen: it was, particularly when complemented by red, the color of perfect human
beauty, especially female beauty. ...

Shakespeare himself found the lilly and the rose a compelling natural coalition: `Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature's own sweet and cunning hand
laid on.

...As Shakespeare wrote apologetically of a black mistress:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask 'd, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks.

Source: http://www.sammustafa.com/Resources/slavery.pdf

Winthrop Jordan, in White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1968), emphasizes sixteenth-century
travel accounts that reveal the English held a deep-seated prejudice toward Africans—on the basis of color as well as religion—before slavery began, and therefore from the very outset the English saw Africans as being particularly
suited to slavery. ....In Jordan's analysis, slavery and racial prejudice were equally a matter of cause and effect; racial prejudice predated slavery and was its crucial prerequisite.

Question then is, is there a cause behind the racial prejudice in the West that catalyzed slavery of the black heathen? Color related prejudice is clear from the English view of color."

Sampath posts:
"gaura is a Sanskrit word, fairly commonly used, and means white/fair.Parvati is Gauri if fair-comlexioned, and Kali, if dark-complexioned. Kalidasa gives Kailasa as the standard of comparison for white,and says Nandin, the bull, was as gaura as Kailasa."

Rohit summarizes the findings so far:
"The discussion so far has established following premises with good reason:

(a) there is no evidence in old Indian traditions (older than 300-400 years) of favoring "fair-colored" skin.

(b) recent times clearly show a big shift in bias to "fair-colored" skin.

(c) Color bias and racism was strong in England and was one of the major drivers of slavery and colonialism. By the start of colonial expansion, Chritianity was a European, white religion.....

To add evidence to (a) in the later part of the time period, one needs to look at poetry in regional languages. Look specifically for features that were described when speaking of feminine beauty. They are distinctly native features. I went to school in Hyderabad and remember a poet Pothana (1600-1700 ?) who writes about beauty of a woman in terms one no longer uses in India. (a) is then a reasonable premise based on what has been said so far on the forum.

As Sri Rajiv explained, shift in bias started during Muslim rule. It likely intensified under overt racism of the English. Finally, as Senthil pointed out, media (both imported and indigenous) is accelerating and furthering these
sentiments. Thus, (b) is a reasonable premise as well. Recent portraits of Hindu religious figures with a very fair skin is a display of how-deep rooted this problem is, unfortunately, this bias can facilitate import of things,
ideas, and beliefs that are from fair-skinned cultures. Import of religious icons that is white skinned with flowing golden hair will worsen the problem. Moves the color preference from aesthetically desirable to superior.

One last question that needs to be addressed is why more of the fair-colored Indians are from upper caste Indians.

Not sure there is a well-documented reason behind this bias..."

Bhattacharya questions Rohit's fair-upper-caste hypothesis:
"Is there any evidence to back up your claim regarding fair skin and upper castes? Your argument appears to be a restatement of Aryan invasion/migration theory. I ask that you carefully re-read Rajivji's comments in this thread (especially message #2595)....
.....You may also want to familiarize yourself with the results and conclusions of recent studies (available on the internet and covered in BI) in which genetic analysis of the Indian population has been performed. Such sources of
information may prove useful as you formulate any hypothesis."

Koti responds:
"There are many belonging to scheduled tribes who are of lighter skin. In Karnataka, Gollas (Yadavas of Karnataka) have more fair complexion than Brahmins.

Jains are typically of lighter skin. That and lighter color among upper castes may also have to do with their vegetarian diet, which is typically low in proteins and copper. You need both copper and tyrosine amino acid for melanin pigment synthesis. I have seen in the US that often our children are of darker complexion than parents. This is attributable to diet. Even vegetarian diet is rich in protein here (cheese, milk,..).."

Vijay shares:
".....Please read below my blog post where I have discussed the book Indika by Megasthenes and how he never mentions any white skinned people in India either in the western region or in any other part

Extract from article - .... travelled extensively around India from 250 BC to 298 BC. In his book Indika Megasthenes
minutely describes the people, customs, traditions, attire, food religion, laws, geography, fauna, flora and all other possible details that he ecounters while travelling around India from Pentapotamia (Greek for land of the five rivers
present day Punjab) to Patalibotra (Patliputra, present day Patna) to Kanyakumari in the south to Serendib (Lanka).

In his description of the people of India he clearly states that they are tall but lightly built (lean) dark skinned with black long hair which they tie in a bun on top of their head and wear turbans with twisted cloth. All men have beards and shaving is not known among the Indians. Nowhere in his entire narration has he alluded to fair skinned Indians either in the North west, North or in the South lording over dark skinned people.

In fact in Megasthenes description of Chandragupta Maurya he notes the Emperors dark skin, medium build and pock marked face. He also goes into great detail
about the Brahmanae caste (Brahmins) and their customs and traditions but does not make a remark on their skin colour as being lighter than the others and they
lording over the others. In fact he mentions various instances where the Brahmins have been out casted for having broken a vow, law or tradition.

This description of India goes counter to the AIT theory of large, blue eyed, blonde haired white skinned Aryans lording over dark skinned natives. The description of the people of India by Megasthenes is around 1250 years after the supposed arrival of the Aryans i.e. 1500 BC and given that in the intervening period there may have been some intermingling of the people causing some of these racial attributes to be diluted but at any rate fair skinned people should have been present in some numbers and complete absence of any such mention in the text is a clear indicator that no such fair skinned invasion or migration of Aryans occurred. "

Alex has the last word in this thread:
"If you want a "European" reference to "black being the
perfection of beauty" in Pre-Islamic India, you can see in The Travels of Marco Polo, Chapter 18, last para: "In this province the natives, although black, are not born of so deep a dye as they afterwards attain by artificial means,
esteeming blackness the perfection of beauty. For this purpose, three times every day, they rub the children over with oil of sesame. The images of their deities they represent black, but the devil they paint white, and assert that all the demons are of that colour".
The Travels of Marco Polo, Translated by Manuel Komroff, The Modern Library, New
York, NY, 1953., p.291

Note: Marco Polo here is visiting the South western coast of India. Perhaps, one can then argue that esteeming blackness as perfection of beauty was mostly in
the South of India since the Sangam literature in Tamil also praises "ebony skin, teeth like pearl and lips like coral..." etc as attributes of feminine beauty."

1 comment:

  1. http://centreright.in/2013/04/the-indian-conception-of-skin-color/ The Indian Conception of Skin Color - by Sandeep B.