How Shyama and Krishna became 3 shades Fairer: a critical analysis of fair skin obsession in India

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The Indian whitening industry is estimated at nearly 4 billion dollars and growing and whitening products include creams, face washes, whitening deodorants and shamefully even a whitening product for vaginas! In this abridged version of her blog, Preethi Sukumaran talks about India’s obsession with ‘Fairness’, theory surrounding its origins and it’s connect to Ayurveda.

Skin Whitening products: Physical & Psychological Harm

Skin whitening products and the advertising around them leads to color-based shaming and creates deep insecurity and a lack of confidence among the users. The insidious advertising that shows dark skinned Men and Women getting rejected at job interviews, and by prospective partners leads to a deep feeling of shame and insecurity about our own skin color. Such advertising only feeds the fair skin obsession in India, leading a large majority of the population to look at their own genetic heritage with disdain and shame. Across the world, Cosmetics and skin care products are found to be toxic, full of dangerous materials and can have highly dangerous impact on health. So, we have 2 problems with skin whitening products: heavy psychological damage and actual physical harm. It is likely that many consumers are aware of the psychological damage; only few may be aware of the physical harm because ingredients like Mercury are not supposed to be a part of these products, neither are they declared or advertised to customers. But despite this obvious harm which customers may not be aware of, why do we persist with these products?

Fair skin obsession in India: Some theories

We have put forth 4 possible theories to explain the origins of the fair skin obsession in India. We then deconstruct each theory as viable or not.

  • Is it an ancient , Indian bias for fair skin , that valued fair skin as being superior or more desirable that is consistently seen in our culture through references in art, literature, poetry , scriptures , painting etc ?

If we take these accounts as true, then India and Indian Men and women should have had a long-standing and widespread interest in fair skin. We should easily find examples reflected across art, poetry, songs, music, etc. Similarly, we should see countless references to the benefits and methods of producing fair skinned progeny or at least advice on transforming skin colour of adults in our Medical texts from Ayurveda as well.

  • Is it due to inherent racial differences in Indian skin types wherein the more successful or high status groups of people also had fair skin ? 

India’s traditional Varnashrama classification, based traditionally on occupation and heavily distorted and misused by the British as “Jati” has also been blamed for this obsession with fair skin in India. So, unverified reports quote that India’s entrenched caste system where “brahmins have light skin” is to blame for the obsession with fair skin in India. To hold this view, we must present solid evidence of melanin differences that are stark, and clearly seen across varshashramas or jatis.

  • Is it a deep-seated cultural bias, driven by European colonial rule that equated fair- skin with superiority?

Are we victims of a colonial hangover of racism , consistently built over the last 300- 400 years of European invasions into India by primarily British colonizers and to some extent the Dutch , French & Portuguese etc. & further reinforced by such European colonisation across Asia & Africa as well ?

The Fairness Creams Industry is a recent 40 year phenomenon driven by opportunistic brands to create a new industry , by targeted TV campaigns and through subtle messaging across print, TV serials and films to create a new craze for fair skin.

Is it really possible for brands to create such deep seated longing for fair skin and bias against darker skin by just TV campaigns in one generation, in the complete absence of any such bias already present in society? Was there a craze for fair skin in India well before the TV industry took off in the 80’s ?

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Indic Civilizational references to beauty

We will start with seeing a few descriptions of our Indic Gods and Goddesses and then go onto see if we can get more examples of fair skin across Indian culture. We start with a description of Lord Maha Vishnu as found in the Thiruppavai composed by the poetess Andaal. In a Paasuram, she says that the colour of the rain clouds are dark and gleaming like the Thirumeni (Divine Form) of Lord MahaVishnu. So here we start by seeing that the Lord is described as dark and majestic. In the Shrimad Ramayana, Sage Valmiki describes the birth of Lord Rama thus: ‘Kausalya glowed with the undiminished lustre of Her Son. So, we can see that the lustre of Lord Rama was so great that it reflected off his skin and increased the lustre and radiance of his Mother’s face as she held him. But is this lustre supposed to mean fairness or white skin? Lord Rama’s skin is also described as dark, so dark that it has a bluish aspect: “Megha shyama”. Now let us see a description of Lord Krishna. In the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Lord Brahma describes the beauty of Lord Krishna thus: ‘Oh, son of the King of Cowherds, Your beautiful body is dark blue like a rich rain cloud.’ So, this is a description of two Male Gods. Maybe Indian Goddesses are fair! In the shloka, Mooka Panchashati, a devotional composition by Mukha Kavi , the poet describes Goddess Kamakshi’s skin complexion as ‘saffron in colour like the Kumkum stamen.’ So here too, there is no mention of fairness of skin. If you look at other famous women in Ancient India, Devi Draupadi, in the Mahabharata, is described as “Krishnaa”– or she who is a beautiful bluish -black colour much like Lord Krishna himself. Goddess Kali is of a dark swarthy hue. In ancient Indianliterature, beauty is richly described and gloriously celebrated using similes, descriptions of nature and beautiful flowers, animals, trees, and other objects. While there is no dearth of descriptions of beauty – it simply does not seem to be centered on skin color. So, we can conclude that ancient India did not seem to be obsessed with fair skin. Instead they seemed to celebrate skin of various hues and were more interested in the overall features, radiance and spirit of men and women, all of which together made up an idea of beauty.

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What does Ayurveda say about skin colour?

Ayurveda is a divine, deep rooted, holistic and ethical Science with strong emphasis on the interplay between the Human being, the Universe around him / her. Health and Disease in Ayurveda is linked to a complex interplay between the human being’ Mind, Body and Psyche and the way these 3 parts of the human being interacts with the entire cosmos. Great emphasis is paid in Ayurveda to conservation of flora, fauna, careful harvesting of these species according to need and the need to respect and preserve natural resources.In this context, we may get a clue that Ayurveda Science will not propagate un-thought- through colourism / racism, especially when it seems to have no basis in Indian art, mythology, spiritual traditions, architecture, poetry or literature.

In Ayurvedic skin care, the Acharyas describe Kanti vardhaka herbs. Now many people mis-interpret this term to mean a “fairness enhancing” set of herbs. But Kanti simply means “lustre” and as we have seen in the examples of Indic Gods and Goddesses and literature, anyone can have Kanti (lustre). It has little to do with skin colour and more to do with the ojas (inner vitality) and tejas (glow) brought on by balanced doshas and a balanced mind that is in harmony with itself and the world around it. Ayurveda lists many Kanti vardhaka herbs. As “Kanti” or lustre is the exclusive area of Bhajaraka Pitta, a sub dosha of Pitta dosha, the set of Kanti vardhaka herbs listed act, by regulating the functioning of Bhajraka Pitta. Most Kanti vardhaka herbs have been mis-used by popular advertising. For example, Kumkuma, or Saffron, is a famous Kantivardhaka herb. This has been used and misused in popular advertising, films, etc as a mysterious Indian herb that instantly makes people fair. While Kumkuma is a good herb , it is incorrectly suggested by many people to pregnant women merely to beget fair skinned children.

Ayurveda is very scientific. The Acharyas have a very deep and through understanding of how the “Sharira” or physical body develops. Long before Mendel’s genetic theory based on experiments with sweet peas, Acharya Charaka said: that “Garbha” or conception occurs in the presence of 6 intrinsic factors:Shukra (male sperm), Shonita (female ovum), Aatma : Soul / Life spark that unites with the zygote, Prakriti – Primordial substance or seed that forms all physical systems in the body of the foetus, Vikara : derivatives of the primordial substance, in the presence of the 6th factor “Matrujadi Garbhakara Bhavas” (subtle mental factors and behaviours derived from Mother and Father) and thus the individual is formed with a unique set of patterns, behaviors, physical attributes, mental qualities, etc. Hence Ayurveda gives great emphasis to the mental , physical and spiritual preparedness of both parents as they understand that these subtle factors greatly influence the qualities of the child. So obviously such a through and deep science will not pass simple “tips” for “fair skin”. 

Let us take Kumkuma, Saffron, which is so badly misused by the fairness lobby. Kumkuma is a katu (pungent) and tikta (bitter) herb which is Ushna (hot) in its potency and is a tridosha hara (balances all 3 doshas). It is an excellent kanti vardhaka (glow enhancing) herb as it balances Bhajraka Pitta. It is also a very good “medhya” drug,boosting memory power and immunity. When given post partum, it greatly improves the strength of the uterine muscles which are weakened after delivery. It is also a vrana shodhana or wound cleansing drug.

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So Kumkuma is a very useful herb when we want to “activate” pitta dosha, when we want to add lustre / brighten the existing complexion. It is also a very good herb for children and the elderly because of its memory enhancing and strength giving properties. For post partum mothers, where vata is very aggravated, because of its tridosha hara and ushna guna and pitta balancing properties, it is a very good strength giving and vata reducing drug.

For reasons of vrana shodana (wound healing), to balance excess pitta and skin clogging as seen in acne, and for enhancing lustre, Kumkuma forms a important dravya in Kumkumadi tailam. But nowhere do the Acharyas mention that it “lightens” or “bleaches” skin. Here we can see that the truth has been stretched and distorted by people for their own selfish purpose.

In similar ways, we can analyse other Kanti vardhaka herbs like Haridra, Daruharidra, Manjishta, Ananthamoola, Ela, etc. These are wonderful skin health improving and lustre giving herbs. We extensively use these herbs in our Skin care formulations. For example a Krya skin product called Vyoma, which is formulated for Melasma and photoaging uses many of these lustre improving herbs. Consumers also report seeing good clearing up of skin and skin becomes inherent brighter and has a unique glow. But here these Herbs simply uncover the skin’s natural glow which comes from balanced doshas. In no way do these herbs or any Krya formulation claim / even suggest that skin should be or can be bleached. Why would we make such a spurious claim? Skin cannot be called beautiful simply because it is fair. Ayurveda teaches us that Skin is a functioning organ system. When it functions at its most optimal level, it looks its best. This is why Ayurveda emphasizes so much on functional science.Skin care and even hair care is approached from the lens of functionality first and its relationship with the overall body. The lens used is not cosmetic, external or simply aesthetic. 

Is there any reference in Ayurveda to obtaining children with fair skin?

We saw above how Ayurvedic acharyas emphasize many subtle points on what all affect the conception, quality of conception and life and strength of the foetus. So when they speak about planning conception, the Acharyas ask the Mother to firmly fix her thoughts on the physical mental and spiritual attributes of the child she seeks. The Acharyas also ask the mother to cultivate a sattvic frame of Mind by engaging in good uplifting thoughts and by consistent application of Sattvic and Prana positive herbs both externally and internally. So here among the list of physical attributes, skin colour is also mentioned. But interestingly the Kashyapa Samhita clearly mentions in a shloka that the shades of “fair” (gaura), “dark” (shyama) and “black” (Krishna) are the 3 desired skin shades in children. The Acharya mentions that any other colours are not desirable and are to be condemned! So here too, we see 2 shades of dark skin and only a single shade of fair skin in the aspirational list – dark and black skin appears to be much more preferred over fair skin. Suffice to say, Ayurveda is not at all for exclusively producing Fair skinned babies , as we saw above! We must not be confused with terms like Eugenics and selective breeding and misinterpret Indic Science using a racially changed Western lens. Dark and Black are extremely preferable shades in Ayurveda for skin colour.

Where do we go from here? An Indic revival / renaissance is needed

From a, land where ancient prose and poetry celebrated the beauty of women focusing on their 

qualities, their similarities with rivers and lands, we have moved to a simplistic homogenous definition of beauty. We have been brain washed with images of fair skin, straight hair and homogenous looking people. No matter that our ancestral art and culture celebrated the thick, jet black, bee like curly, and straight hair of our women and their dark, glowing skin and almond shaped eyes. Today we all want to have pale, Asian skin which is not even a part of our genotype. Some of it is driven by Multinational corporations which are famous in sending out mass , cookie-cutter advertising to a wide audience. Let us shake ourselves free from this colonial driven obsession with fair skin in India. It was never a part of our ancient Indian civilisation. It is not “deep rooted”. On the other hand, this behavior is very shallow rooted and recent – just under 400 years or so. So, it is easier to rip out and throw far away.

Note : This is an abridged version of Preethi  Sukumaran’s interesting blog with the same title. Here is the link

Author – Preethi Sukumaran 

Preethi Sukumaran is a Dharmic entrepreneur and co-founder of Kyra, an Indian company that creates completely natural, skin, hair and home care products based on ayurvedic principles