Mediaeval literature from the U.P.-Haryana region celebrates romantic love. Those putting restrictions on boys and girls to preserve what they think is their culture need only look into the writings from the Krishna Bhakti movement.

The core of the sacred geography of the Mahabharata spreads over what is informally described these days as the Jatland — parts of Western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The famed Braj Pradesh including Govardhan, Vrindavan and Mathura falls in the region, and these places happen to be the most important pilgrimage centres of the Vaishnavaite Krishna cult promoted by great saint-philosophers like Vallabhacharya and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Both of them were active in the last years of the 15th and the first four decades of the 16th Century and were instrumental in creating a powerful socio-religious movement that based itself not on hoary scriptures but on a novel philosophy of love. Radha and Krishna were the cosmic lovers and the devotee was inspired to emulate them in his or her devotion to God. This was an important departure from the ritualistic form of Brahmanical Hinduism.

Even before them, the Krishna Bhakti movement had taken firm root in many parts of the country besides northern India, with great poets like Jayadeva and Vidyapati composing immortal poems to celebrate the love of Krishna for Radha and other gopis in a style that could only be called erotic. They were loyally followed by many Braj Bhasha poets of the 17th-19th centuries whose kavitas celebrate the Radha-Krishna love in no less an erotic manner. And it must be remembered that Krishna and Radha (or for that matter, any of the gopis) were never married to each other. In fact, Radha was already married to somebody else. That’s why their love is known as parakiya and does not conform to the socially accepted moral code. Parallels can be looked for in the Sufi stream of Islam that also places utmost emphasis on the devotee’s love for God.

In the sprawling Hindu pantheon, five women are worshipped as eternal virgins — the Panchkanyas. They are Ahilya, Tara, Mandodari, Kunti and Draupadi, with the last two belonging to the Mahabharata and the first three to the Ramayana. Interestingly, all of them were not only married but also had voluntarily or involuntarily (as is supposed to be the case with Ahilya) intimate relations with more than one man. No Hindu worth his or her salt can ever raise a finger at Krishna, Radha or any of the Panchkanyas, accusing them of immoral behaviour.

Why am I delving into these religious, philosophical and literary traditions of the remote and not-so-remote past? Only to show that the so-called Hindi Belt is no stranger to the celebration of love. The Mahabharata describes Krishna as the closest friend (sakha) of Draupadi but their relationship had no trace of physical attraction. So, our epic tradition places a model of human relationship before us where a man and a woman can be close friends without having any physical intimacy.

But today, tell this to anybody in the region that was once the primary theatre of the Mahabharata events, and you would be looked at with great surprise and disbelief. All kinds of gotra and village kinship restrictions are being placed on marriages with no regard to the example of Arjun and Subhadra (again from the Mahabharata), who were related to each other before their marriage, as she was the half-sister of Arjuna’s cousin Krishna.

In a region with such traditions, it’s really mind boggling to see various Khap panchayats issuing decrees to impose dress code on girls, ostracise those who fall in love and marry, appoint men to keep a watch on girls’ social interaction and order the so-called honour killings of those who defy the prevalent social taboos and regressive values. Love has really become a dirty, four-letter word in a region that was once famous for its celebration. If a girl decides to wed a boy of her choice, it is taken to be a slur on her family’s social prestige and reputation and she is accused of sullying the family’s image.

In such a socially claustrophobic atmosphere, members of the opposite sex can hardly interact with each other in a normal, tension-free, relaxed manner, and distortions are bound to creep into their relationships as they are functioning under tremendous social pressure and sanctions. If the communities living in this region are so proud of their traditions, they should go back a little further and seek inspiration from the Krishna Bhakti movement as well as from the well-known characters of our two epics.