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Even if often patriarchal in its focus on male pleasure, ancient Indian attitudes to sexuality were far from restrictive. An insightful read.
Having lived in India all my life, I have been befuddled regarding the real attitude of Indian society towards sex, erotica and physical pleasures. However much you may seek to probe or research, you end up with a bundle of contradictions.
Early Indian society’s views on sex are palpable in ancient scriptures, including the Vedas. These volumes contain many details on sexuality, marriage and fertility. According to them, sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple. The husband and wife pleasured each other equally. Polygamy was commonplace among rulers and and the nobility, while common people practiced monogamy.
Ancient Indians highlighted sexuality through art, sculpture and painting; nudity and/or scanty clothing was socially acceptable. Otherwise why would the sculptors and artists of yore portray nudity in the breathakingly beautiful wall sculptures of the Konarak and Khajuraho temples and the murals of the Ajanta caves? After all, art is a reflection of human life. Isn’t it?
Historians and sociologists maintain that the concept of Kama (read erotica) as a science was founded in the subcontinent. Any time between the 1st and the 6th centuries CE, the noted philosopher Vatsyayana wrote his magnum opus the Kama Sutra. This treatise does not consider sex as a mere physical activity, a means to enjoy carnal pleasures. Rather, Sex is one among the four basic tenets of life: Dharma, Artha, Kama (Sex) & Moksha. It further advocates that physical pleasures may eventually lead to spirituality and divine ecstasy.
Wait, there is more.
Though not quite famous as the Kama Sutra, the medieval Koka Shastra is an anthology on sex and erotica. Candidly describing forms of playful love-making, diverse postures of intercourse, and details regarding women’s passionate climaxes, it essentially caters to married males who seek variety and wish to avoid monotony. Again it boils down to one point: Sex is enjoyable, not despicable.
Ramayana is replete with lucid descriptions about the physical beauty and attractiveness of most of its female characters, be they human or demon (rakshas). The details about half clad bodies cleverly concealed by cascading tresses and profusion of jewellery often appear to be titillating. Here, sexuality is portrayed in a subdued form.
The Mahabharata deals with sex in an overt, unabashed manner. The logic it uses is simple: dynasties, family lineages must continue. Male heirs must be begotten, whatever it takes. The objective justifies the means. Even ordinary individuals sought gratification of their whims, fancies and passions, sexual or otherwise.
Young Kunti made a casual pass at Surya the Sun god. And that is how Karna was born. Much earlier, Shantanu, forefather of the Pandavas & Kauravas got enchanted by the fisherwoman princess Satyavati, whom he married after a great deal of histrionics. But Satyavati had an amorous past. As a youthful maiden, she had encountered sage Parashar who was meditating in a nearby forest. Parashar asked her to ferry him across the river Yamuna. During this journey the duo had a sexual union. The contented sage blessed the maiden saying that the child born of their union would be a human being par excellence. This was sage Ved Vyasa (a.k.a.Krishna Dwaipayana) who compiled the Mahabharata. Satyavati bore Santanu two sons, Chitrangada & Vichitravirya, both of whom died young. Vichitravirya who was twice married died without any heir. Therefore Satyavati summoned Vyasa to provide heirs to the royal family. And the rest is history.
Dhritarashtra and Pandu were Vyas’s sons, albeit from different mothers. Through a maid of the royal household Vyas also sired a third son, the wise Vidur. The story of target-oriented sex outside matrimony does not end here. Unfortunately Pandu was rendered infertile by the curse of an infuriated sage. Hence his two wives Kunti & Madri got their progeny fathered by different deities. For instance Arjuna’s father was Indra, while Nakul and Sahdev were sons of the celestial twins Ashwini Kumars, the physicians of gods.
By a quirk of circumstances Draupadi had to cohabit with five husbands. In an era of polygamy, polyandry was a unique experiment so to say. But Draupadi maintained lifelong conjugal relations with all five.
Browsing through the epics, one discovers that where sex was concerned, the major characters had multiple choices which they duly availed of. For instance, in the Mahabharata, long before Draupadi appeared on the scene, Bhima married Hidimba, a demoness (rakshasi) who approached him.The ‘fruit’ of their union was a valiant son Ghatotkacha. Ultimately it turned out that Hidimba was not a nymphomaniac looking for sexual adventures. After the Pandavas departed, she settled down to the life of a lonely, neglected, yet devoted wife. She gave a good upbringing to her offspring. She sent him to participate in the Kurukshetra battle, where he was martyred.
Likewise many years later after the Pandavas had settled into their royal household, Arjuna, during his tour of North Eastern India, meets with, and has a passionate liaison with Uloopi, a snake princes. A son a named Iravan is born to the couple.
However not all females were fortunate in their sexual overtures to human males who enchanted them. Everybody knows how Shoorpanakha, the sister of Ravana (demon king of Lanka), professed her love for Rama, who rejected her forthwith. Worse, when she approached Laxman, not only did he thwart her advances, but also snipped off her nose.
In the entire gamut of Indian legends and mythology, the most flamboyant personality is Sri Krishna’s. The handsome playboy’s antics would send the gopis (milkmaids) into a tizzy. However his paramour was Radhika (a.k.a Radha), who was his aunt (maternal uncle’s wife) and his senior by a few years. As per legends, in his adult life Krishna acquired thousands of wives. However Radha remained his principal love interest.
In this land where an early civilization florished, and where erotica was woven into the social fabric, why did people adopt a hypocritical attitude towards sexuality, aeons later? Why is there such a yawning abyss between the contents of our scriptures and the ground reality? I can wager that a modern day Radha would surely have a case of adultery clamped on her. Her spouse would be hopping mad on being cuckolded. Forget the concept of five concurrent husbands, even today, a widow taking a second husband is not considered an act of the ‘adarsh bharatiya naari’!
Devout women would love to be like the gopis – enjoying the Lord’s blessed company; whereas promiscuous girls are branded as ‘dheela character’. Why so? Married women hobnobbing with men other than their pati devtas suffer a similar fate. While we boast of globalization and modernity, fanatic moral guardians grab every opportunity to unleash their wrath on youngsters holding hands or hugging in public, wearing ‘see-throughs’, and ‘cootie-cooing’ on park benches!
For heaven’s sake what do you want? Sex and physical pleasure only within the ambit of matrimony? Fine, but consider the bizarre aspects:
No proper sex education in schools. Boys and girls seggregated before teenage arrives. So where do they learn about birds & bees from? Parents? Elders? No way! Parents don’t discuss such issues. In late adolscence, a little mingling is permitted provided the girls consider all menfolk as bhaiyas (brothers)!
At the time of matrimony, boys’ families want the prospective bahu to be an immaculate virgin. Post-matrimony she is expected to produce an offspring preferably within the first year. Now, where on earth is the young woman supposed to garner all practical knowledge about sex and its parephernalia, when she grew up amidst restrictions? Without knowing the basics how can she enjoy sexual bliss? It is ludicrous to realise that even sex within marriage is looked down upon. The unschooled folk term it dirty deeds. Well if dirty deeds are not undertaken, where are the babies going to come from? Thin air??
Please give us a break. Let there be no Draconian laws or Ten Commandments governing sex lives of ordinary people. Folks must be allowed to enjoy sex as much as they please. After all, our ancient deities enjoyed sexual passions to the hilt. Didn’t they? Why must we mortals lag behind?
Header image is a composite of By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (Flickr: Le Temple de Lakshmana (Khajurâho)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons and an image from shutterstock
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