We live in a sexually pluralistic world and whatever our conviction, sex is here to stay. No use decrying it. It is a fact of daily life and provides humankind with significant components of meaning. Through the realities of sex and sexual experience we can gauge a person’s innermost truth, his/her consciousness.
But how sad, despite global interaction and expansion in awareness, most people still tend to conceal bodily experience; they do not recognize wisdom of the body, which is worth loving for its grace, truth and reality.
Painters, photographers and poets view the human body with all its senses, emotions and intellect as a repository of actual pleasure, pain and ecstasy. They express it with imagination and philosophical intuition, making us conscious of our varied realities. They are not inhibited by false shame. They know human sexuality, if presented and used properly, should help us fuse the primordial male-female polarity into energy which could then make life in harmony with the original source, bring the individual and humanity closer, and promote stable sexual relations. If used unwisely it may degenerate into a diffracted and miserable world.
Sex: A metaphor
Artists do not question the cult of pleasure or the reverence for abstinence as they explore the naked physicality in all its dimensions. They do not create a work for the sake of casual stimulation. Rather, they know that sexual symbolism becomes devalued and inexpressive if it loses the wealth of its actual sexual experience and fails to illumine one’s inner landscape; they seek to illuminate the realities of life through body-images.
Sex is a metaphor: the encounter of man and woman, woman and woman, man and man to express feelings, to feel valued or loved, to explore relationships, concerns, roles, to react against false ethical and cultural values, against stereotypes and prejudices, against hypocrisy and dubious social standards that enchain, and debase honest aspirations as lust or vulgarity.
Against a gnawing sense of loss of meaning and purpose in the computerized, simulation-filled emptiness of our life today, including gimmicks, imitations, romantic overtures, and even plain silliness that are often noticed, sex serves as an antidote to the fast dehumanizing existence: Its expression is a means of defying the disgusting sociopolitical world without; it’s a form of active resistance to political manipulation day in and day out.
No Narrow View
With their erotic presentation, artists and poets seek to create what is physically balanced and confident, and elevating to the senses. They know that the naked body is a pretext for a work of art and it can be made expressive of a far wider and more civilizing experience. As Kenneth Clark observes in The Nude (1956), “It is ourselves, and arouses memories of all the things we wish to do with ourselves.”
There is, therefore, a sense of purpose in a poet or artist’s eroticism or sexuality— love of the self through exploration of the body, or naked physicality leading to love, or libidinal sublimation, or sexual union of two consenting adults.
It cannot be objectionable to express the real human needs and experiences, the physical body artistically re-formed or sex acts re-enacted with a sense of shared delight. The sexual imagery indeed conveys a mixture of memories and sensations, a desire to perpetuate ourselves in the complex of living.
Octavio Paz writes in The Double Flame (1995) that eroticism is a social form of sexuality, which is transfigured by our dreams. I see it as a means to rediscover the original magic of life just as sex is the mainspring of one’s psyche and constitutes the sensory experience besides being the balance point of various beings.
It is in no way being “low,” “vulgar,” or “obscene.” In fact, in ancient Indian writings love and eroticism carried the same connotation or concept: the pursuit of its language and emotion in various forms is art. In the Atharva Veda there are a lot of ashleela Suktas—obscene only according to a narrow view of morality.
Sexpression: Indian Heritage
Many of our thousand-year-old temple sculptures are an undisguised exaltation of physical desire; the sensuous friezes of the temples at Khajuraho and the figures carved on the stone walls of the Sun Temple at Konark are great works of art because their eroticism is part of the Indian philosophy; it is our cultural heritage.
We should be able to appreciate the purity of intention, the desire to distill from the smallest experience the largest, most universal insights, something which unites us all.
The process of erotic creation, like Kama-adhyatma, pursuing sex to spiritual height, is something positive in Hindu ethos; it is an important psychological fact of life, a sort of libidinal sublimation if one also performs with an awareness of the rich and ennobling pluralistic dimensions of the Hindu culture. Love and celebration of womanhood, as part of erotic experience through a process of exhilaration, stimulation and relaxation—swimming through the river of heavenly happiness, uniting the eye, mind and imagination, and losing ignorance—is both physical and spiritual. This is what keeps an artist going, giving birth to new works, one after the other, reaching a height to feel silence through spirit in the body.
But somehow, in recent years, largely due to lack of the spirit of enquiry and appreciation of the Hindu culture, tradition and values, discussion and expression of sex in public seems to have been denigrated. Authors and artists have been frequently subjected to violence of the orthodox right wing which seeks to ban honest sexual selfexpression and is intolerant of recreational and non-procreative sex acts.
There was a time when even prostitutes in India were an integral and respectable part of the Hindu society. There was no social tension due to unsatisfied lust. Sex practice was not looked down upon just as men and women enjoyed healthy emotional relationships both within marital and larger societal contexts. The writers of the ancient Sanskrit manuals like Kamasutra, Panchasakya, Smara Pradit, Ratimanjari, Kokashastra, Ratirahasya, Ananga Ranga, etcetera, educated men and women in the art of courtship, foreplay, actual intercourse (including various postures of union), and post-coital activities; they treated love not only as a matter of giving and receiving pleasure, but also as a means of access to the realm where human and divine meet.
Emotional lyrics of poets like Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bhartrhari, Amaru, Yashovarman, Jayadeva and others reflect frank eroticism but create a transcending spiritual effect and meaning with their expression of the primordial pursuh-prakriti, or what the Chinese call Yin-Yang interplay.
God Created Sex
I do not know how many people would disagree with the view that the taste of the forbidden fruit in Eden was actually the awareness of physical attraction between man and woman: The tree of knowledge was actually the knowledge of the process of creation, of love, of sex.
The Bible, like the ancient Hindu scriptures, does not decry sex. In fact celebration of physical union is God-ordained; man and woman are expected to stay together, love each other as their own flesh.
Because God created human beings as male and female, He created sex and ordained sexual union (in a socially acceptable form) to bind man and woman together, to make them dear to each other as husband and wife, to lead a healthy emotional life through love and sex, and thus ensure personal and social stability.
As I see it, it is God’s design that we enjoy life, be happy, be one flesh in coitus, and thus glorify Him in body. In the Vedas and Upanishads, too, sex is the source of happiness in equality, in oneness of man and woman, in love.
The search for love, or desire for sex, even if erotic, is essentially the aspiration for entering into another to know, to understand. It is rather a search for the ‘whole’ in daily living and giving. It is the search for a bridge between the uncontrollable external events and the often impulsive, subjective, or internal responses.
Body as Soul
In brief, depiction of sex in art and literature has been metaphysically serious in India, just as sexual desire and fulfillment is an action of the spirit in body, leading to pleasure and harmony. The body images illuminate the realities of life; sexual metaphors in art make it possible for artists to convey what it feels like to be filled with desire, transmuting and transmitting memories of experience.
Artists visualize the human body as a picture of the human soul; they celebrate it to understand the world and the self. If they glorify nudity, it is to explore the consciousness, in conflict with the muddling external chaos.
As a poet, I realize humans are flesh in sensuality and there is divinity in it. The fleshly unity is the reality, the passage to experience divinity, and its expression should not be repressed through governmental interference in the name of morality and all that.
Sexual self-expression should be treated as one’s fundamental right just as personal freedom of choice, sexual privacy rights, and tolerance for diversity are the hallmarks of a liberated enlightened society.
First published in Triveni (Hyderabad), Vol. 68, No.1, January-March 1999, pp. 28-31