Many Indians today think that fair/white skin is beautiful while dark/black skin is ugly.
Is dark skin considered beautiful in Hindu scriptures, and by extension, in ancient India before European colonization?
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Yes, dark complexion is considered beautiful in Hindu scriptures. Like, Draupadi is one of the most beautiful woman and she is of dark complexion. It is mentioned in Mahabharata, Book 1: Adi Parva: Chaitraratha Parva: SECTION CLXIX.
And there arose, after this from the centre of the sacrificial platform, a daughter also, called Panchali, who, blest with great good fortune, was exceedingly handsome. Her eyes were black, and large as lotus-petals, her complexion was dark, and her locks were blue and curly. Her nails were beautifully convex, and bright as burnished copper; her eye-brows were fair, and bosom was deep. Indeed, she resembled the veritable daughter of a celestial born among men.
Her body gave out fragrance like that of a blue lotus, perceivable from a distance of full two miles. Her beauty was such that she had no equal on earth. Like a celestial herself, she could be desired (in marriage) by a celestial, a Danava, or a: Yaksha. When this girl of fair hips was born an incorporeal voice said, 'This dark-complexioned girl will be the first of all women, and she will be the cause of the destruction of many Kshatriyas. This slender-waisted one will, in time, accomplish the purpose of the gods, and along with her many a danger will overtake the Kauravas.'
Also Lord Krishna is of dark complexion and considered handsome as mentioned at many places as in Mahabharata, Book 3: Vana Parva: Draupadi-harana Parva: SECTION CCLXI.
O thou with a complexion dark as the leaves of the blue lotus, and with eyes red as the corolla of the lily, and attired in yellow robes with, besides, the bright Kaustubha gem in thy bosom, thou art the beginning and the end of creation, and the great refuge of all.
According to Śiva Purāṇa, apparently, dark complexion is hated by good men, so women should strive for fair complexion.
Chapter 24 - Śiva’s sports on the Mandara mountain
The goddess said:—
- “If my lord [Lord Śiva] has no pleasure in my complexion how is it that I have been held up here so long.
- Dark complexion is hated by good men. You too disapprove of it. Without wiping it off by dint of penance I am not inclined to stay here.
From the next chapter:
Chapter 25 - The goddess (devī) attains fair complexion
What is being striven for, O goddess, by means of this penance? The benefits of penances are under your control.
The fruit of the penance has been obtained by you in having obtained lord Śiva as your husband, who alone is the lord of all worlds.
Or all this is only a form of your divine sport. But this is surprising how you can bear separation from the lord.
The Goddess (devī) said:—
When at the beginning of creation as mentioned in the Vedas you are born of lord Śiva you are the first of my creation, my first-born son.
When for multiplying the subjects, Śiva was born of your forehead you became my father-in-law and so elder to me.
When the lord of mountains, my father became your son you became my grandfather, O grandfather of the worlds!
How can I inform you, the arranger of worldly existence what happened at the harem with my husband?
Of what avail is this talk? I wish to get rid of my dark complexion through legitimate remedies and obtain white colour.
O goddess, why did you perform a severe penance for this purpose? Was not your wish alone sufficient for that? Indeed this is only your sport
O mother of the universe, your play too benefits the worlds. Hence some benefit pleasing to me may be sought through it.
God Rama, the eldest son of King Dasharatha and Queen Kaushalya, was dark-skinned [Ref: Valmiki Ramayana 2.88; Brahmanda Purana 188.8.131.52; Vayu Purana 2.26.191 as quoted in 'Essence of the Fifth Veda' by Gaurang Damani pgs 2-3].
God Krishna and Goddess Kali being dark-skinned is well known.
These deities are considered beautiful and extensively worshipped.