India’s Lost Cupid

The earliest reference to Kamadeva, whose name kama (desire or longing) and deva (God) literally translates to the ‘God of Desire’ comes from the Rigveda. He is described colourfully, as ‘one who rides a parrot and carries a bow made of sugar-cane stalk strung with a line of humming-bees.’ He is said to shoot arrows tipped with flowers which are akin to shafts of desire that can make any target fall in love!

The similarities in the imagery of Kamadeva and Cupid are striking
The similarities in the imagery of Kamadeva and Cupid are striking|Wikimedia Commons

In imagery and description, the parallels between the Indian Kamadeva, the Greek God Eros and the Roman Cupid are obvious. But what is amazing is how the Kamadeva has little reference apart from the time he is said to have targeted Lord Shiva, while Parvati, the daughter of the king of mountains, was serving him. A livid Shiva, who had been disturbed while meditating, had cursed Kama. The god of love was finally brought back to life only after Shiva and Parvati were happily married.

But it seems that the God of love never really recovered! There are very few other references of him.

Kamadeva shooting his ‘love-arrow’ at Shiva
Kamadeva shooting his ‘love-arrow’ at Shiva|Wikimedia Commons

Kamadeva was cursed by Shiva and was finally brought back to life only after Shiva and Parvati were happily married

This could be because of two things. First, Kamadeva became incorporated into broader Vaishanava tradition as a son of Vishnu and Lakshmi . Later, the role as a perfect lover, was taken over by Krishna. After all the most popular of our gods, Krishna is seen as the eternal lover with Radha and the fair maidens or gopis in tow. In fact at Mathura, there is even evidence of a festival of the local god of love - Madana being subsumed by Krishna worshipers. The Madana Leela, a festival that was celebrated is today Krishna's Raas Leela!

A depiction of Krishna’s <i>Raas Leela </i>showing him with Radha and the<i> gopis</i>
A depiction of Krishna’s Raas Leela showing him with Radha and the gopis|Pinterest

Though Kama was the original God of love and desire, later the role of a perfect lover, was taken over by Krishna

Another reason for Kamadeva’s disappearance from popular religion could also be the fact that kama as a principal became highly 'intellectualised' in Hindu thought. Catherine Benton, who has studied Kamadeva most comprehensively, believes that kama as desire in Indian religious tradition is a paradigm of all forms of desire, wanting, longing and craving.

Historian and philosopher the late B.G Gokhale describes kama as anything which gives pleasure, and cites references of how people in ancient India pursued kama through ‘finery & ornaments, precious stones, ornamented clothing, cosmetics, sandalwood paste, garlands, spiced betel leaf, rich food, liquor & festivals’.

The Kailash Temple at Ellora
The Kailash Temple at Ellora|Wikimedia Commons

Although there are tales and literature around Kamadeva , there are very few surviving visual representations of the god. The Bhuvaneshwar temple in Odisha and the Kailash temple of Ellora have sculpted depictions of Kamadeva on the outer walls. Another magnificent Kamadeva & Rati (his wife) sculpted in wood is on display at Salarjang Museum in Hyderabad.

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