Sex and Hinduism Revisited
(This is a revised and enlarged version of 2008 article titled “Between Ears, Not Legs“)
Her lap is a sacrificial altar; her hairs, the sacrificial grass; her skin, the soma-press. The two labia*(lips) of the vulva are the fire in the middle [Brhad-Âranyaka Upanisad, 6.4.3] (1)
This man (ama) am I; that woman (sâ), thou!
That woman, thou; this man am I!
I am the Sâman; thou, the Rig!
I am the heaven; thou, the earth!
Come, let us two together clasp!
Together let us semen mix,
A male, a son for to procure! [Brhad-Âranyaka Upanisad, 6.4.20]
Whenever the issue of love, nudity, sex and Hinduism comes into picture, we usually get to see one of the following reactionaries: (a) The West in general and its scholars studying South Asia [for example RISA(2)] in particular, and their Indian counterparts who consider Hinduism to be a mix of voodoo and pornography; or (b) The Hindu orthodoxy which thinks sex is taboo.
Now let’s examine how valid these perspectives are.
Human life is considered to be the most advanced of all organisms. The importance of human life has been highlighted repeatedly by our various Acharyas. The difference between Humans and all other animals, birds or plants is the fact that humans have faculty of thinking, faculty of decision and discrimination (viveka), whereas the other animals live life according to their instinct inherent from birth. Hence, it is the ability to discriminate between merit and demerit, good and bad or right and wrong and to exert “Free-Will” to act accordingly is what makes a human life unique and precious. It is because of this ability a person is able to work himself to fulfill his desires and attain goals. These goals or “objectives of human life” are categorized under four headings and collectively termed as Purushartha. They are the canonical ends or aims that serve as pointers in life. The four Purusharthas from the lowest to the highest are: kama – pleasure or desire (3), artha – wealth, dharma – righteousness or morality and moksha – liberation from the cycle of rebirth, with dharma being placed first in the order and Moksha at the last signifying the fact that Dharma is the common element, a general frame-work, a medium through which one must attain kama, artha and moksha.
According to the Kamasutra, “In the beginning, the Lord of beings created men and women and, in the form of commandments in one hundred thousand chapters, laid down rules for regulating their existence with regard to dharma, artha, and kama.”(4) Further, it says, “Man, the period of whose life is one hundred years, should practise dharma, artha and kama at different times and in such a manner that they may harmonise together and not clash in any way. He should acquire learning in his childhood, in his youth and middle age he should attend to artha and kama, and in his old age he should perform (Nivritti) dharma, and thus seek to gain moksha, i.e. release from further transmigration.”(5)
Hence, in the Hindu scheme of things, even though enlightment is the ultimate goal of life, it encourages people to enjoy everything and fulfill all material desires but through rightful means. This it does because, Moksha is a long process and every person is not immediately qualified for it. Only a person who has become dispassionate and has overcome the internal enemies like desire, jealousy, anger, delusion, pride and greed is qualified to practice Moksha-Sadhana and attain Moksha. This is the path of renunciation. But, for those who still have desires for wealth and enjoyment, the path of householders is advised. This is the path in which kama and artha are fulfilled in a dharmic way such that there is neither suppression of desires nor reckless-gratification. A person who indulges only in gratification of his desires be it for wealth or for sex without caring for its righteousness or consequences will end of committing heinous actions like corruption or rape. Instead, the path of householders is a path by which, two people come together to practice dharma, kama and artha together.
It is this harmony of dharma, kama, artha and moksha that is also the foundation of less traversed but more maligned path- the path of the tantras. The tantras does not reject anything as taboo, but it seeks to accept the human desires and passions including the bestial tendencies for what they are and then use them to rise above them. This it does in variety of ways that are suitable for people with different temperaments and competencies.
Hence, a person who wants to overcome his sexual desires can do so by practicing the duties of householder with restraint of his senses. Through this practice of restraining senses called as “Indriya Nigraha”, he would slowly become detached and dispassionate. Or such a person may instead use sex as a tool, as a medium of worship, which would result in satiation of his sexual desires and at the same time making way for spiritual upliftment.
Sex as Yajna:
Yajna or sacrifice is derived from the root, yaj. It means “worship” or “the offering of oblation”. Max Müller defines yajna as “an act by which we surrender something for the sake of gods”(6). Sex is worship, a sacrifice. It is an act by which the partners involved surrender their ego in order to gain pleasure, progeny and, eventually, even enlightment.
Brhad-Âranyaka Upanisad says “Her lap is a sacrificial altar; her hair the sacrificial grass; her skin the soma-press. The two labia of the vulva are the fire in the middle. Verily, indeed, as great as is the world of him who sacrifices with the Vâjapeya [“Strength-libation”, libation is an act of pouring a liquid as a sacrifice (as to a deity)] sacrifice, so great is the world of him who practices sexual intercourse”
These verses clearly show that sex is to be treated as a form of worship, an act to not only to gain pleasure, but also as a sacred act for obtaining progeny (a householder’s duty prescribed by scripture) and spiritual upliftment.
Sex as Meditation:
In Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, during a conversation between Shiva and Shakti, Devi asks: “O Shiva, what is your reality?/ What is this wonder-filled universe?/ What constitutes seed?/ Who center’s the universal wheel?/ What is this life beyond the form pervading forms?/ How may we enter it fully,/ above space and time,/ names and descriptions?/ Let my doubts be cleared!”
Shiva explains her 112 methods of meditation to attain enlightment which includes few sexual meditations. He says: “At the start of sexual union/ Keep attentive on the fire in the beginning,/ And so continuing,/ Avoid the embers in the end./ When in such embrace your senses are shaken as leaves,/ Enter this shaking./ Even remembering union,/ Without the embrace.”
These verses clearly indicate how the sexual act can be utilized for achieving enlightment. There are certain tantric sadhanas called as “Lata Sadhanas”, wherein partners identify themselves with Bhairava-Bhairavi and use sexual union to attain Samadhi. Samadhi is a state where the ego vanishes. In a sexual act, too, when the two partners unite together, when their passions reach their peak, for very brief moments, they both will experience a state of non-ego. If, this state can be harnessed and lengthened, then it can lead one to Samadhi.
But, this does not mean that every person who indulges in sex is a yogi. Kularnava Tantra clearly says- “Beguiled by false knowledge as propagated, certain persons, deprived of the guru-shishya tradition, imagine the nature of the Kuladharma according to their own intellect. If merely by drinking wine, men were to attain fulfillment, all addicted to liquor would reach perfection. If mere partaking of flesh were to lead to the high state, all the carnivores in the world would become eligible to immense merit. If liberation were to be ensured by sexual intercourse with a Shakti, all creatures would become liberated by female companionship (7)”. Hence, every sexual encounter does not lead to Samadhi. Sexual recklessness does not lead to Spiritual progress. But, when a Sexual act is treated as worship, as a meditation and the act is used to still the mind and withdraw the senses, one attains dynamic equilibrium. This dynamic stillness when harnessed will in turn lead to Samadhi. A normal sexual encounter ends when the partners climax and the male ejaculates. But, in a Lata-Sadhana, there is no ejaculation. When, the partners reach the state of highest passion, they instead enter into a state of Samadhi. This is in fact very difficult to achieve for most people. Only a few have competency to practice them. It is the ignorance of such nuances that has led to misunderstanding of tantras.
It is the study of 64 arts(8) like singing, playing musical instruments, dancing, union of dancing, singing, and playing instrumental music, writing and drawing, tattooing, etc. The “art of lovemaking” is only a part of this shastra (discipline). Hence, the attempt of modern scholarship to reduce the whole discipline of Kama that deals with love, sex, marriage, arts and music to only a manual of sexual gymnastics speaks volume about the state of scholarship present in India and the West. This also strengthens the speculations that the scholars who study Hinduism selectively highlight some aspects that suit their agenda and ignore the rest.
This branch of education has been featured throughout the Hindu history. Vatsyayana says, both men and women should learn the Kamashastra(9).
Pre-marital sex and love marriages:
In Hindu society sex was always considered a matter of individual choice. There are many such instances in our history. Scriptures too depict pre-marital sex and love marriages. So, complaining that they are “anti-Hindu” is ill-informed. The Manusmriti recognizes eight kinds of marriages of which “gandharva marriage” is one. It is a voluntary union of a maiden and her lover, which arises from desire and sexual intercourse for its purpose (10). A caveat needs to be added here. The support of scriptures for Love marriages or by extension for pre-marital sex between lovers who eventually marry should not be considered as a support for recent practices of sexual recklessness like one-night stands that has no element of love. The practices of dating multiple people for sex, or visiting prostitutes or one night stands are indeed considered as sexual recklessness and hence are against the basic tenet of Dharma- the Indriya Nigraha. Such actions are considered as transgressions of Dharma. The same is the case of extra-marital affair. It is considered as a sin (11), an adharma because it involves cheating.
If, it be said that, the issue of sex and affair are personal issues and it is wrong for religion to interfere in it, the answer is that Hinduism is not interfering in anybody’s life. It only teaches people to discriminate between Dharma and Adharma, the actions that are right and bring happiness and those actions that are wrong and results in sorrow. But, every person has a free-will to act, to take decisions, to make choices. This freedom to exert free-will was always present in Hindu society and is the very core of human life.
Is Hinduism pornography and tantra a sex manual?
The straight answer is a simple “no”.
The word “Tantra” actually refers to a vast body of literature called the “Agamas” which are practical manuals for meditation. There are many Shaiva, Shakta, Pancharatra Agamas. Using sex for meditation is prescribed in only a few of the many different paths described in the Agamas. The aim here was to turn a sexual union into a meditation, a spiritual union that would ultimately result in Samadhi and not sexual gratification. It is Victorian puritanical authoritarianism which condemns any mention or depiction of sex.
Hinduism on the other hand, recognizes the role of sexual desires in human lives. The sexual depictions in some of the temples were meant to not only educate the people about role sex in householder’s life, but also to help those who were involved in sexual sadhanas (penance) for enlightment. Such, depictions has great value not only for their artistic beauty but also for spiritual significance. There is a difference between nudity, expression of beauty and pornography. What appears in the Hindu Puranas and Itihasas are expressions of genuine beauty and deep philosophy and not pornography as imagined by modern academics.
Hence, sex is neither a taboo nor pornography in Hinduism. Instead it is recognized as a very basic block of life, which must be harnessed in a proper way so that it would lead to both sensual happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
References & Notes:
1 The verses are taken from chapter titled “Incantations and ceremonies for procreation”
2 Religions In South Asia (RISA), a department under the American Academy of Religion (AAR), has been sponsoring studies for years now to deride Hinduism. The Gods and Goddess like Ganesha, KaLi, and saints like Ramakrishna etc. have come under much distasteful sexual connotation and nauseating voyeurism that one begins to wonder if it can at all be called academics. Also read RISA LILA by Rajiv Malhotra- http://creative.sulekha.com/risa-lila-1-wendy-s-child-syndrome_103338_blog
3 Kama in general means material desires and pleasures: physical, emotional, sexual and psychological. According to the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana: “Kama is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul. The ingredient in this is a peculiar contact between the organ of sense and its object, and the consciousness of pleasure which arises from that contact is called Kama.” Part 1, Chapter 2: On the acquisitions of Dharma, Artha and Kama. The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, Translated by Sir Richard Burton,
4 Part 1,Chapter 1:Preface, The Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana, Translated by Sir Richard Burton.
5 Part 1, Chapter 2: On the acquisitions of Dharma, Artha and Kama. The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, Translated by Sir Richard Burton,
6 Max Müller’s Sacred Books of East series (SBE 30), p 315.- http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe30/sbe30119.htm#page_315
7 Kularnava Tantra 2.116-118
8 Part 1, Chapter 3: On the Study of the Sixty-Four Arts, The Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana, Translated by Sir Richard Burton
9 MAN should study the Kama Sutra and the arts and sciences subordinate thereto, in addition to the study of the arts and sciences contained in Dharma and Artha. Even young maids should study this Kama Sutra along with its arts and sciences before marriage, and after it they should continue to do so with the consent of their husbands. Part 1, Chapter 3: On the Study of the Sixty-Four Arts, The Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana, Translated by Sir Richard Burton.
10 Manu Smriti 3.32
11 Manu Smriti 12.7