Sexual Mores in Ancient India
Continued from Part XXXIII
Since the ancient age, the sex was neither considered sinful nor dirty in Hinduism. Instead, sexual intercourse was considered blissful and divine, and the basis of procreation and preservation of mankind and other life forms. Philosophically, the manifested world itself is an outcome of the fusion or synthesis of the male and female fraction of the Supreme Being in the universe. Therefore, it was an integral part of life rather than a taboo as considered by many in the present age. In fact, the sex is the integral component of Kama which is one of the four Purushartha in life as enumerated in Hindu texts. The four components Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha have been dealt with reasonable detail in pervious parts (Part IV) where Kama would mean all worldly activities that are pleasurable – the sex being an essential act among these activities.
In ancient Hindu texts, Kama virtually means desires in man for the enjoyment and gratification of senses through various available means including sexual activities. Thus Kama is the basic instinct of living beings to participate in sexual and other pleasurable acts; however, in common parlance many people tend to interpret Kama in a narrow sense of sex. On the contrary, the Artha and Kama in a balanced combination with Dharma show true path of temporal bliss and spiritual salvation. Hindu way of life takes Kama as a natural means of happiness and liberation in the overall progressive events of life but at the same time it could be a hindrance too and cause suffering through over-indulgence and in going against Dharma. This is the reason why Hinduism advises restraint and self-imposed celibacy at certain stages of life. In this part, the author proposes to explore aspects of Hinduism since ancient times in the context of sexuality.
Desire Driven Sexuality
Hinduism holds sexual desire as the most dominant instinct among various desires to control and unless it is restrained, a man is likely to commit sin impeding spiritual pursuit even at later stages. Hence texts prescribe two different ways to control and channelize sexual desire; one is the Vedanta way of suppression of the sexual desire and the other is Tantra through expression wherein the sexual energy is sublimated and transformed into a higher form of energy. Hinduism also considers “desire” as the root cause of human sufferings that hinders salvation by inducing delusion and bondage in repeat cycles of birth and death. One could win over desires through detachment by regularly practicing yoga and meditation and performing regular sacrificial offerings to God. Hinduism permits sexual activity for all Grihastha men within the limit of pleasure and procreation and so long it is not in conflict with the Dharma established by tradition and social norms.
Not many people know that Hinduism acknowledges the centrality of sex in continuation of creation. As such Hinduism is represented by many sects and traditions and under one tradition the creation itself is symbolized in the Shiva Lingam as a continuous sexual union between Purusha and Prakriti. Shiva represents manifested god as part of famous Trimurti (Trinity) and shaivites consider him manifestation of Brahman (unmanifested God). The Tantra tradition of Hinduism affirms that the human body and the mind cannot be separated from spirituality in the course of achieving liberation. Even the majority Hindus are not familiar with these facts because many ancient traditions including those on sex were abjured and forgotten over a period due to the subjugation of India first by the Islamic invaders and later by the British, under which the Christian education and values flourished suppressing the native languages, traditions and values.
As among the desires, sex is the most dominant and difficult to restrain, the Hindu texts have laid down laws and principle for individuals on the subject clearly elaborating that while sexual activity is one of the obligatory duties of a householder, if it is misused for mere enjoyment it would lead to attachment, delusion and downfall. In Hinduism, the marriage is regarded as a sacred institution for both the husband and wife wherein mutual energies and destinies join together for pleasure and procreation; the sexual relationship outside marriage is not permitted except on limited occasions in special circumstances, such as Niyoga, as laid down in some Dharmashastras. In essence, sex is considered as an important aspect of human life but lust is considered as sinful and enemy of man. The Upanishads even suggest that the pleasure arising from sexual union is a sublime reflection of the blissful nature of the Supreme Self.
The Land of Kama Sutra
During the current age, Hindustan and Hindus (India and majority Indians) are known world over for their conservatism in sex related matters but it is also a fact that the world’s most authenticated treaty Kama Sutra originated and belongs to this land. Vatsayana was an ancient Indian philosopher who is known world over for writing the Kama Sutra, the most authenticated book on human sexuality. There is no unanimity about his exact span and date of composition of Kama Sutra. Historians variously put it between 400 BCE to 300 CE with many agreeing that he lived in India during the second and third century CE perhaps in Pataliputra (modern day Patna). The legend is that his efforts largely made many Himalayan hill tribes of India to abjure the pagan cult of sacrifices and popularized Tara as the tantric goddess. In due course, Tara worship spread to the Garo hills in east and the goddess manifest of a 'yoni' goddess Kamakhya came in practice. Vatsayana’s treatise Kama Sutra represents his interest and knowledge of human sexual behaviour as a medium of attaining spirituality which is evident from his concluding remarks in the book that an intelligent and knowing person attending to Dharma, Artha and Kama, without becoming the slave of his passions, will attain his spiritual goal in life.
The Kama Sutra is an ancient Indian Sanskrit text on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life. Contrary to the common interpretation or notion, it is neither exclusively nor predominantly a sex manual on sex positions, instead it is a textual writing as guide of the art-of-living well, finding a life partner, the nature of love, sustain and preserve one's love life along with other aspects relating to pleasure-oriented faculties of life. On date, Kama Sutra is the oldest known Hindu text comprising of prose and anustubh-meter (four-liner) verses on erotic love that has survived into the modern era with several exposition and commentaries. Acknowledging the Hindu concept of Purushartha, the text recognizes desire, sexuality and emotional fulfillment as one of the targeted goals of life. Its various chapters are dedicated to the methods for courtship, arts of social engagement, finding a suitable partner, flirting, maintaining power and pleasure among married people, including a wide range of other subjects like flirting, adultery, sexual positions, and so on. The Kama Sutra had a wide inspirational influence on many subsequent secondary texts, Indian arts and sculptures; the most notable among them being Hindu temples in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.
The Vatsayana's illustrated work suggests how sex was viewed in ancient India more as an aesthetic and pleasurable exercise rather than a dirty or nasty act not to be spoken or expressed in public as is the case in the modern age. Instead of treating sex an evil and secret exercise, the ancient Indian texts suggest that gods, demons and humans equally engaged in sex within and outside matrimony but with different intentions and aims. The ancient code of conduct recognized the role of sex in regulating and sustaining the world but the laws also existed to ensure that it did not lead to immoral behaviour, disorder and degradation of society and individual families. Thus ancient India had a different view of sex and laws to regulate it, and the texts also prescribed punishment for the men and women engaged in sex outside their marriage. It was during the last few centuries that the puritanism of invading Abrahamic religions severely influenced Hinduism and changed people’s attitude and outlook towards sex.
What Scriptures Say about Sex
The Upanishads mostly contain expanded commentaries on philosophical and spiritual truths as explained in four Vedas. However, the Principal Scriptures like Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads also deal with the wisdom and ritual details about sex and some even contain sexually explicit information. For instance, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Part VI Chapter 4) described conception and birth as socio-religious rites at length. Some such references are so explicit that some scholars have even tried to create its analogy with the Kama Sutra. The aforesaid texts do not ascribe any negativity with the sexual acts and largely represent the sexual mores of the ages in which they were composed with no inhibition in explaining the sexual organs or stating the any relevant facts about them. According to these texts, the sexual desire, like many other desires, merely for pleasure and enjoyment binds the souls to the physical world, whereas such acts performed as one's duty towards God, ancestors and for the purpose of procreation are pious and obligatory.
Few verses in the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads narrate as to how a man could make a woman agreeable for sexual intercourse for procreation through certain rituals. They even suggest (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4) as to how and in what manner the woman could be pressurized or made to agree for the conjugal union. These Upanishads relate sexual intercourse to a sacrifice and the organs used in the intercourse as the tools and materials for the sacrifice. They attach predominantly three themes with the sexual intercourse as follows:
1) Sexual intercourse as a religious duty and obligation;
2) Sexual intercourse as a ritual offering; and
3) Methodology for facilitation or interruption of sexual conjugation.
Sexual Intercourse as a Duty:
Verses in the aforesaid Upanishads consider the sexual intercourse as primary duty or part of Dharma which along with Artha, Kama and Moksha completes Purushartha. It is the duty of householders to indulge in sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation as they are expected to produce children as their obligation towards the family, ancestors, society and God. By having a family and bringing up his children by educating and helping them to settle, the person ensures the continuity of his lineage, and in turn the order and regularity of the society and world at large.
Sexual intercourse as an Offering:
Sexual union is referred to as a sacrifice or sacred offering in certain verses of Upanishads (Chandogya Upanishad Ch. 5.8.1-2, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Ch. 6.2.13 and 6.4.2-3). The analogy of the sexual organs is created with certain components of the sacrifice: For instance, sexual intercourse is compared to Vajapeya sacrifice and semen as the oblation poured into the fire symbolized with the female body. The fetus coming as the natural consequence of this sacrifice is treated as the fruit of the sacrifice. These verses also underline that the man must know the sacrificial nature of sexual union. These Upanishads also suggest that the woman is complimentary to man and the two together complete the cycle of creation.
Methods and Mores of Conjugal Union:
Like some other known civilizations, the sexual and/or conjugal customs and traditions of the Vedic times as also far long in post-Vedic period are quite different from those of the present age in Hinduism. For instance, in the ancient times both polygamy and polyandry were practiced and was quite common. People used to enter into all kinds of conjugal relations, both lawful and unlawful. Occurrence of polygamy was quite common in men who also enjoyed many social and sexual privileges including sexual relationships with women outside their marriage in certain cases. Though polyandry was permissible but the same was not so common. We have one well known instance of polyandry from Mahabharata era where Queen Draupadi had five Pandava brothers as her husbands.
The ancient Hindu law books recognized inter-caste marriages between men of upper castes and women of lower castes and vice versa, with some conditions and punitive measures in certain cases. It appears that single motherhood too was not a taboo those days and women indeed had some freedom in this regard. For example, Sage Satyakama’s mother Jabala did not know his father's name since she worked as a maid in her youth in several households and did not know who exactly impregnated her. His story is documented in chapter IV of Chandogya Upanishad. Another practice “Niyoga’ permitted woman to establish sexual relation with close relatives for a limited period till she conceived in the event of her husband being infertile to produce a child.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.4) refers to the sexual mores of Vedic age with reasonable details. The Part 6 contains verses that describe how men should approach women for intimacy, entice them or coerce them to engage in love, caste spells and even engage in intercourse. Some of the verses are also dedicated to recommend methods to facilitate or prevent conception, to ensure the birth of a son with desired qualities and attributes, and even a secret ritual to take revenge from his wife’s illicit love interest by discrediting him with potency and good fortune.
Sex among Householders
As in case of many other things of creation, the sex too is supposed to be of three categories in Hinduism, namely sattvic, rajasic and tamasic. The sattvic sex is considered the best because it in consonance with Dharma in that it brings pleasure, happiness and orderliness to society, without damaging or causing pain by breaching the social and religious norms. Sattvic sex is considered moral and duty bound within the bounds of socio-religious mores; rajasic sex is selfish and lustful and motivated by egoistic considerations; and tamasic sex is coercive, lustful and unlawful against the contemporary social norms.
Thus the sexual pleasure as part of Kama (Purushartha) is one of the main aims of human life. In Hinduism, the students were expected to practice utmost celibacy and self-restraint during the course of their education in ancient times. The idea behind the celibacy and restraint towards worldly pleasure including sex was aimed at remaining focused on the goal of mastering education and conserving sexual energy for the next stage of life as Grihastha. However, during the course of history there have been several institutional changes at various stages of life and many past practices of student life including celibacy are not strictly adhered to now. However, the merits and nobilities if Brahmacharya including the austere measures and practice of celibacy cannot be questioned or disputed even in the modern age.
In ancient times, after successful completion of education the student (Brahmachary) was formally introduced in the Grihastha Ashrama as householder. He was expected to earn living for self and maintain a family. At this stage, the sexual pleasure also had a crucial place among the overall scheme of an orderly and disciplined life and upholding of dharma with ultimate goal of liberation in life. To put it differently, every householder must indulge in sex with the aim of procreation in the larger interests of life and existence, as a part of his duty (Dharma) and obligation to God. While the people ordinarily exercised monogamy, instances of polygamy were not uncommon and several married, householders indulged in sex both within marriage and outside marriage too, subject to certain laws and restrictions.
In fact, polygamy was an accepted practice in Hinduism until modern times in twentieth century and it was abolished only under the Hindu Marriage Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 1955. Until then, men had liberty to marry multiple women and also had the freedom of indulging in sex with willing woman outside their marriage. There are umpteen such cases of relationship of married people with the maids who worked in their households or with other women who exchanged sexual pleasures for love, money, protection, power or some other reason. In the past, women were even sold and bought in certain parts of ancient India which cannot be justified as a good practice by any means. Also the majority of rules and restrictions in regard to sexual norms were applied to women of higher castes or classes in the ancient Hindu society while in all other cases mostly local customs and practices determined their sexual liberty, moral and social ethics and obligation.
Hindu scriptures drew a clear line between the sex and lust while the former was considered a socio-religious duty the latter was treated as a sinful act. The Hindu texts provided that the sex is an essential divine act and the lust as one of the pancha mahapatakas (five main evils). Prostitution was never considered good in upper classes but it was also prevalent in ancient India, and was considered as means of providing pleasure to men by enticing acts, in certain parlance also considered as an art. Such women often enjoyed royal patronage in the society and were sometimes engaged for entertainment, pleasure or even spying against potential rivals and enemies. There are instances to suggest that the unmarried women who consciously chose to live that way had the privilege to stay and/or sleep with the men of their choice. Some such instances of Chitralekha, Amrapali, Jabala, and many others, are well documented in the Vedic and post-Vedic texts. Apart from the woman with infertile husband, even if a widow had no children, the prevailing socio-religious laws in ancient India granted her permission to choose a close relative such as the brother or cousin of the husband for the purpose of procreation.
Sex and Divine People
The stories of the gods and other divine people like sages and ascetics enjoying the pleasure and comfort of the Grihastha and love making are available in many Puranas and ancient historical texts which come only next to the Vedas and Upanishads in order. While the goddesses were mostly chaste and pure, the majority of gods were not immune to the charms of the opposite sex and extra-marital carnal desires. One may find stories of their sexual union with the heavenly nymphs and earthly women in Puranas and historical texts. There are several stories and instances of the Vedic gods like Indra, Agni and Vayu being captivated by the earthly women, including the wives of sages, and in the process even spoiling reputation of the otherwise austere woman. One such well known story of Ahalya, the wife of Sage Gautam, being enticed by Indra through deceit is well documented in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Similarly, though celibacy remained a central theme of the Hindu ascetism, there are many stories of the ancient sages living like a married householder and having entered into sexual liaison with the celestial and earthly women.
Relevance of Male Sexual Energy
While addressing matters about sex and family, the Upanishads attached high value and essence to the nature of male semen not only for the impregnation but also for the continued male energy and spiritual accomplishment. According to ancient texts, the semen represents the highest form of energy among the males. Therefore, the loss of semen was considered the same as the loss of vital energy; hence a lot of importance was attached to conserve it useing only for the purpose of procreation, particularly if the person also happened to be a celibate or ascetic or sattvic householder.
Several verses in the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads deal with the importance of male sexual energy, sexual union and related aspects. For instance, at least two verses in Chandogya Upanishad (Ch. 5.8) describe woman's body parts comparing it to a sacrificial fire and the process how a fetus is born out of that sacrifice. The analogy of woman’s private organs (vagina and womb) is made with the flame and man’s semen as its libation, from which arises the fetus completing the cycle of procreation. Almost a similar verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.13) verbatim reads as under:
“Woman, O Gautama, is fire. In this fire, the gods offer the seed. Out of that offering a man is born. He lives as long as he is destined to live. Then, he dies.”
Woman as fire is considered as the embodiment of all worldly desires. At places her private parts are equated with the fuel, smoke and flame. In this fire, the male semen serves as the oblation. This offering eventually leads to manifestation of a fetus that transforms into a full grown person who lives for the span of life.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad verse 6.4.2-3 describes sexual intercourse as a sacrifice in a symbolic manner. In Vedic age and thereafter, the men were expected to preserve their semen for good reasons of procreation and spiritual progress. Various other texts too prescribed ways to protect and preserve semen for good reason. Specific verses (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.4-9) explicitly provided method to be followed by the person in the event of the unwarranted loss of semen. Male semen was considered vital for the rebirth of soul while the woman was necessary for conception; hence specific verses even described how to approach woman for a consensual intercourse. Also there are verses to suggest how the Vedic men recited mantras to cast spell upon female partners while engaging in active sex. Some people in the modern times have even criticized these writings and interpretations as unscientific and superstitious. Notwithstanding it is evident, sex was not a taboo in the Vedic and post-Vedic ancient Hindu land that later also produced an illustrated and rather authenticated account of the sex for the householders in the form of “Kama Sutra”.
Since ancient time in Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), the sex for the householders was neither a taboo nor the act treated dirty; instead, it was considered a socio-religious duty of person to have pleasure and enjoyment in procreation and attaining higher spiritual freedom. It was during the centuries of attack and oppression of the Hindu culture and religion first under the patronage of the Islamic invaders and later the European colonizers that many evils and distorted vision and practices percolated in Hindu society. Traditionally, ancient Indians considered sex as a divine and essential activity for the creation and procreation to preserve and continue the family lineage and social order as also an opportunity for the people to work for their salvation. For this purpose, the contemporary socio-religious laws in Hinduism granted permission to both men and women to indulge in sexual activities as per prescribed norms.
As an essential norm, it was mandatory for the students to exercise celibacy with chaste and purity till certain age and completion of education but the married householders had complete freedom to engage in sex within matrimony as also outside marriage in certain cases, subject to certain conditions in order to maintain the continuity and regularity of the world. Even polygamy and polyandry was practiced with certain regulatory laws. Rules prohibited ascetics to engage in sexual liaison, barring the exception of the tantric tradition but even some ascetic people and spiritual masters continued to live as householders duly engaged in procreation while simultaneously continuing their spiritual pursuits. However, this was perhaps permitted as an exception because Hinduism traditionally also acknowledged the vulnerability of the human mind to sexual passion and ascetics too were human beings after all.
Continued to Part XXXV