History of sex in India  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
History of sex, India, Kama Sutra, Indian erotica

Human sexual behaviour in India has been influenced by different attitudes and opinions over time.

Contents

Overview

The first evidence of attitudes towards sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the first of which are perhaps the oldest surviving literature in the world. These most ancient texts, the Vedas, reveal moral perspectives on sexuality, marriage and fertility prayers. Sex magic featured in a number of Vedic rituals, most significantly in the Asvamedha Yajna, where the ritual culminated with the chief queen lying with the dead horse in a simulated sexual act; clearly a fertility rite intended to safeguard and increase the kingdom's productivity and martial prowess. The epics of ancient India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which may have been first composed as early as 1400 BCE, had a huge effect on the culture of Asia, influencing later Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and South East Asian culture. These texts support the view that in ancient India, sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple, where husband and wife pleasured each other equally, but where sex was considered a private affair, at least by followers of the aforementioned Indian religions. It seems that polygamy was allowed during ancient times. In practice, this seems to have only been practiced by rulers, with common people maintaining a monogomous marriage. It is common in many cultures for a ruling class to practice polygamy as a way of preserving dynastic succession.

India as a whole has as diverse a set of sexual 'behaviors' as any other society, such as adultery, homosexuality, transgenderism, exhibitionism, prostitution, sadism/masochism, zoophilia, and necrophilia, even though modern India society places greater taboo and emphasis of privacy on sex.

The most publicly known sexual literature of India are the texts of the sixty-four arts. These texts were written for and kept by the philosopher, warrior and nobility castes, their servants and concubines, and those in certain religious orders. These were people that could also read and write and had instruction and education. The sixty four arts of love-passion-pleasure began in India. There are many different versions of the arts which began in Sanskrit and were translated into other languages, such as Persian or Tibetan. Many of the original texts are missing and the only clue to their existence is in other texts. Kama Sutra, the version by Vatsyayana, is one of the well-known survivors and was first translated into English by Sir Richard Burton and F. F. Arbuthnot. The Kama Sutra is now perhaps the most prolific secular text in the world. It details ways in which partners should pleasure each other within a marital relationship.

When the Islamic and Victorian English culture arrived in India, they generally had an adverse impact on sexual liberalism in India. Within the context of the Indian religions, or dharmas, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, sex is generally either seen as a moral duty of each partner in a long term marriage relationship to the other, or is seen as a desire which hinders spiritual detachment, and so must be renounced. In modern India, a renaissance of sexual liberalism has occurred amongst the well educated urban population, but there is still discrimination and forced marriage incidents amongst the poor.

Within certain schools of Indian philosophy, such as Tantra, the emphasis in sex as a sacred duty, or even a path to spiritual enlightenment or yogic balance is greatly emphasized. Actual sexual intercourse is not a part of every form of tantric practice, but it is the definitive feature of left-hand Tantra. Contrary to popular belief, "Tantric sex" is not always slow and sustained, and may end in orgasm. For example, the Yoni Tantra states: "there should be vigorous copulation". However, all tantra states that there were certain groups of personalities who were not fit for certain practices. Tantra was personality specific and insisted that those with pashu-bhava (animal disposition), which are people of dishonest, promiscuous, greedy or violent natures who ate meat and indulged in intoxication, would only incur bad karma by following Tantric paths without the aid of a Guru who could instruct them on the correct path. In Buddhist tantra, actual ejaculation is very much a taboo, as the main goal of the sexual practice is to use the sexual energy towards achieving full enlightenment, rather than ordinary pleasure. Tantric sex is considered to be a pleasurable experience in Tantra philosophy.


History

The seeming contradictions of Indian attitudes towards sex can be best explained through the context of history. India played a significant role in the history of sex, from writing the first literature that treated sexual intercourse as a science, to in modern times being the origin of the philosophical focus of new-age groups' attitudes on sex. It may be argued that India pioneered the use of sexual education through art and literature. As in all societies, there was a difference in sexual practices in India between common people and powerful rulers, with people in power often indulging in hedonistic lifestyles that were not representative of common moral attitudes.

Ancient times

Indian civilization can be considered amongst the most ancient with the ancient Indus Valley civilization being contemporary to ancient Egypt and Sumer, spreading across modern India and Pakistan at its peak, 4000 years ago. During this period, not much is known about social attitudes toward sex. One thing that has been observed about sexuality in the Indus Valley civilization is the practice of fertility rituals. Early philosophy and theology related to sexuality may have developed during this time.

The first evidence of attitudes towards sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the first of which are perhaps the oldest surviving literature in the world. These most ancient texts, the Vedas, reveal moral perspectives on sexuality, marriage and fertility prayers. The epics of ancient India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which may have been first composed as early as 1400 BCE, had a huge effect on the culture of Asia, influencing later Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and South East Asian culture. These texts support the view that in ancient India, sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple, where husband and wife pleasured each other equally, but where sex was considered a private affair, at least by followers of the aforementioned Indian religions. It seems that polygamy was allowed during ancient times. In practice, this seems to have only been practiced by rulers, with common people maintaining a monogomous marriage. It is common in many cultures for a ruling class to practice polygamy as a way of preserving dynastic succession.

It is likely that as in most countries with tropical climates, Indians from some regions did not need to wear clothes, and other than for fashion, there was no practical need to cover the upper half of the body. This is supported by historical evidence, which shows that men and women in many parts of ancient India mostly dressed only the lower half of their bodies. Whilst this has changed in modern times, it is likely that taboo against nudity was not present in many Asian, African and South American civilisations and the taboo in Europe is a matter of climatic necessity.

As Indian civilisation further developed over the 1500 years after the births of Buddha and Mahavira, and the writing of the Upanishads around 500 BCE, further historical evidence, art, and literature shows that ancient Indian society was perhaps as sexually tolerant as many modern European and East Asian countries. It was somewhere between the 1st and 6th centuries that the Kama Sutra, originally known as Vatsyayana Kamasutram ('Vatsyayana's Aphorisms on Love'), was written. This philosophical work on kama shastra, or 'love science', was intended as both an exploration of human desire, including seduction and infidelity, and a technical guide to pleasing a sexual partner within a marriage. This is not the only example of such a work in ancient India, but is the most widely known in modern times. It is probably during this period that the text spread to ancient China, along with Buddhist scriptures, where Chinese versions were written.

The Tantric school of Indic/Hindu philosophy formed at some point in this period, and part of the philosophical system was the idea that sex, as a basic and powerful desire experienced by all humans, could be utilised as a way of achieving enlightenment. Some ardent devotees of this system for example might deliberately break sexual taboos that were ridiculed, such as extramarital sex, to master human nature and achieve greater understanding of the universe, their soul. The Tantric tradition spread throughout Asia as far as Japan.

It is also during this period that some of India's most famous ancient works of art were produced, often freely depicting nudity, romantic themes or sexual situations. Examples of this include the depiction of Apsarases, roughly equivalent to nymphs or sirens in European and Arabic mythology, on some ancient temples, which were used to remind people of the romantic duty that married couples should perform as part of dharma. The best and most famous example of this can be seen at the Khajuraho temple complex in central India. Other examples of this classical art include the ancient frescos of various cave temples, such as those at Ajanta.


Colonial era

At the end of the medieval period in India and Europe, colonial powers such as the Portuguese, British and French were seeking ways of circumventing the Muslim controlled lands of western Asia, and re-opening ancient Greek and Roman trade routes with the fabled rich lands of India, resulting in the first attempts to sail around Africa, and circumnavigate the globe. Various European powers eventually found ways of reaching India, where they allied with various post-Mughal Indian kings, and later managed to annex India.

Although the Portuguese and French had managed to set up some small enclaves in India, such as Goa, where the Catholic inquisition forcibly converted some of the population of the small town to Catholicism, it was the arrival of the British, who managed to annex the entire Indian subcontinent through alliances with various monarchs, that had the largest effect on the culture of India and its attitudes to sex. Early British exposure to India occurred at a time when Europe was entering the Age of Reason, and so, whilst there was a lot of Protestant discrimination of Hindu beliefs and Indian society along the lines of early Muslim invaders, there was also a significant number of orientalists who saw India as a great civilization, and invented the field of Indology.

However the main moral influence that led to stigmatisation of Indian sexual liberalism by Indians within India itself was the effect of the ideas of the Victorian era, in which other cultures, from European view, were seen as primitive if they did not conform to the ideas of European culture. The pluralism of Hinduism, and its liberal attitudes were condemned as 'barbaric' by a colonial Europe and proof of inferiority of the East. The effects of British education, administration, scholarship of Indian history and biased literature all led to the effective 'colonization' of the Indian mind with European values. This led some Indians wanting to conform their religious practices and moral values to Victorian ideas of "high" civilization.

A number of movements were set up by prominent citizens, such as the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay Presidency, to work for the 'reform' of Indian private and public life. Paradoxically while this new consciousness led to the promotion of education for women and (eventually) a raise in the age of consent and reluctant acceptance of remarriage for widows, it also produced a puritanical attitude to sex even within marriage and the home. The liberality of precolonial India had allowed individuals sexual latitude within the home while imposing strict seclusion from public life. This hid sexual abuses such as intimidating relatives into incest and the rape of spouses from public view, but it also left individuals comparatively free to explore their sexual identities. With the influence of colonial morality, women were comparatively freer to mix with men not related to them, but the rules for what could or could not be done in their presence were far harsher. These new ideas of 'temperance' and good conduct overlay and reinforced ancient ideas of asceticism and yogic self-containment, the 'brahmacharya' of ancient tradition.

Countries such as India became more conservative after being influenced by European ideas. At the same time, translations of the Kama Sutra and other 'exotic' texts became available in Europe, where they gained notorious status, and ironically may have triggered early foundations of the sexual revolution in the west.

Modern India

Conservative views of sexuality are now the norm in the modern republic of India, and South Asia in general. This is partly related to the effect of European occupation of the Indian subcontinent, as well as to the puritanical elements of Islam (e.g. the new Islamic fundamentalist Wahabi movement, which has influenced many Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and also many Muslim organisations within India). While during the 1960s and 1970s in the west, many people discovered the ancient culture of sexual liberalism in India as a source for western free love movements, and neo-Tantric philosophy, India itself is currently the more prudish culture, embodying Victorian sensibilities that were abandoned decades ago in their country of origin. However, with increased exposure to world culture due to globalisation, and the proliferation of progressive ideas due to greater education and wealth, India is beginning to ironically go through a western-style sexual revolution

Current issues

Modern issues that affect India, as part of the sexual revolution, have become points of argument between conservative and liberal forces, such as political parties and religious pressure groups. Many sexual issues are used as ways of political parties garnering votes amongst conservative Indians. These issues are also matters of ethical importance in a nation where freedom and equality are guaranteed in the constitution.

Sexuality in popular entertainment

The entertainment industry is an important part of modern India, and is expressive of Indian society in general. Historically, Indian television and film has lacked the frank depiction of sex; until recently, even kissing scenes were considered taboo. Currently, some Indian states show soft-core sexual scenes and nudity in films, whilst other areas don't. Mainstream films are still largely catered for the masses of India, however art films and foreign films containing sexuality are watched by middle-class Indians. Because of the same process of glamourisation of film entertainment that occurred in Hollywood, Indian cinema, mainly the Hindi speaking Bollywood industry, which is the largest film industry in the worldTemplate:Fact, is also beginning to add sexual overtones to films.

Sex industry

While trade in sex was frowned upon in ancient India, it was tolerated and regulated so as to reduce the damage that it could do. However, stigmatisation in modern times has left the many poor sex workers with problems of exploitation and rampant infection, including AIDS, and has allowed a huge people-trafficking industry like that of Eastern Europe to take hold. Many poor young women are kidnapped from villages and sold into sexual slavery. There have been some recent efforts to regulate the Indian sex industry.

AIDS

India, like China, has a modern AIDS problem, which is partly to do with its immense population, but also a product of poor sexual health education, stigmatisation, and general ignorance. The first case of AIDS in India was reported in 1986, and since then, around 2.5 million people have become infected, most of them without any access to proper care, and many of them unaware they are carrying the disease and infecting others. This is a major problem in India.

See also





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