How sex became frowned upon in India of Kamasutra

[Book extract] Manusmriti stuck with the British because Manu’s prudish values resonated with the Victorian culture.

 |  12-minute read |   05-03-2018
  • ---
    Total Shares

Sex is a dirty word in India, but our population numbers are still booming. In the land of the Kamasutra, most Indians deem it inappropriate to teach children about sex at home or at school. In a country where family, the government and various institutions have stifled the subject, we continue to make babies and are all set to overtake China by 2030 to become the most populous country in the world.

The list of ironies around our attitude to sex is long and extremely baffling. Here are some more. We are shy about discussing sex with our spouses, but we worship with gusto the lingam, which is God’s phallus. We expect our women to produce babies but often do not offer them pleasurable sex — only 32 per cent of Indian women achieve orgasm, which is half as many as the men who said they do.

In fact, we have been hypocrites on this topic for a while, because a part of India’s sexual history is not very different from the present. The Rig Veda says that the vaginal blood from the bride’s deflowering is highly dangerous. If clothes are stained with this blood, they must be given away to a priest, or anybody who touches them will be destroyed. The Arthashastra provides guidelines on what must be done if a girl loses her virginity, and it also declares that a marriage is invalid if the girl is not a virgin. The girl is not a virgin, according to the Arthashastra, if blood is not seen on the sheets after the wedding night. The Manusmriti, an ancient legal text, imposes large fines on men who destroy the virginity of a girl outside marriage. An entire book written in India around 2000 years ago, as part of the seven-volume Kamasutra — otherwise a fascinating source of progressive erotic commentary — is devoted to the kanya or the virgin. This book also mentions, or rather assumes, that a girl is a virgin on her wedding night and so the man must make her content, or he will ensure the girl’s marital life is unhappy.

Due to this age-old emphasis on chastity, a woman is not allowed to experience sexual pleasure until she marries, and when she does, she is only allowed to have sex with one man and bear his children. Unfortunately, these extreme views on sex in Indian history are the only ones that have survived, and the more liberal ones — which I will elaborate upon in this essay — have been erased. This has led to lies and deceit in millions of relationships and marriages in India, which could otherwise have been healthy and transparent. Young girls, unable to seek guidance from their parents, get abortions done under dangerous conditions on the sly, even though abortions before twelve weeks of pregnancy have been legal in India since 1972. And devastatingly, we implant guilt, contradictions, timidity, and shame in the minds of millions of our women for their sexuality.

The earliest lesson at my home was when I turned thirteen and was told that being in a temple while menstruating was sacrilegious. It was an invasion of my newly acquired sense of sexual privacy to have it whispered within the family that I was menstruating and therefore prohibited to enter the temple we had at home — not that I wished to enter it anyway.

As I grappled with irregular menstrual cycles and discomfort every month, I would also feel I was doing something wrong. It sowed the seeds of the notion that my sexuality was unholy and “bad”. I had understood correctly, just as every little girl does in India, that everything related to sex is profane. I later discovered that millions of those who mistrust anything sexual worship the Goddess’s vagina at the temple of Kamakhya in Guwahati, Assam, which is considered one of the most sacred sites in India. I found it even more incongruous that the holiest time at the Kamakhya temple is the four-day annual festival when Kamakhya Devi, the Goddess, is believed to be menstruating.

indian-instincts_030518064024.jpgIndian Instincts, by Miniya Chatterji; Penguin Random House India Private Limited

Manusmriti, the discourse of Svayambhuva, the spiritual son of Brahma, was written around the third century AD, and it is merely one among the many Hindu dharmashastras. Today, however, it is considered an important text governing Hindu culture, including marriage, relationships and sex. This text receives as much reverence as criticism. Many consider it to have sounded the death knell for the liberal world of the Vedic age, while others respect it as the ultimate guide to one’s rights and duties. Dr BR Ambedkar held the Manusmriti responsible for the caste system in India. Mahatma Gandhi, however, opposed Ambedkar’s view. Gandhi recommended that one must read the entire text of the Manusmriti, accept those parts that are consistent with truth and non-violence, and reject the other parts.

However, before the primacy of the Manusmriti, it was the Kamasutra, written by Vatsyayana in Sanskrit, which dictated human sexual behaviour in India. Kama, meaning desire, is one of the four goals of Hindu life, the other three being dharma (duty), artha (purpose) and moksha (freedom). Sutra means a thread that holds things together. The Kamasutra presents itself as a guide to living gracefully, and discusses the nature of love, family life and other aspects pertaining to the faculty of pleasure. It discusses the philosophy and theory of love, what triggers desire and what to do to sustain it. The Kamasutra was passed on in the oral tradition for over 2,000 years, subject to many interpretations, until around the second century ad when Vatsyayana, a lesser-known philosopher of the Vedic tradition, wrote it out, largely in prose, with a few verses of poetry inserted.

Vatsyayana’s and Manu’s attitudes to sex were in some ways polar opposites. Manu saw sex as a strictly procreative, monogamous activity, as opposed to the pleasure-giving experience Vatsyayana wrote about. The Kamasutra emphasises that a woman who is not pleasured might hate her man and leave him for another, while Manu’s laws say that “a virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust, and is devoid of any good qualities”.

The Kamasutra has an entire chapter on “Other Men’s Wives”, whereas the Manusmriti warns that “if men persist in seeking intimate contact with other men’s wives, the king should brand them with punishments that inspire terror, and banish them”. Vatsyayana saw adultery as a means of providing pleasure, while Manu worried about the violation of the caste system should a woman bear a child with an unknown man of the wrong caste.

khajuraho-x_inside_030518071148.jpg

There were also other texts that opposed the erotic perspective of the Kamasutra. The Bhagavad Gita, which is believed to have been composed before the Kamasutra, also denounced our indulgence in the senses. It admonished that doing so is evil. Incidentally, the Bhagavad Gita was a discourse given by the grown-up Krishna, who once romanced the cowgirls of Vrindavan for pleasure.

Even though Islam has had its ups and downs as far as its attitude towards sex and sexuality is concerned, during most periods of the Mughal rule from 1526 to 1857 in India, sex was not frowned upon. The Mughal period showed a playful sensuality in its explicit art and a more balanced view on sex and sexuality than the era that had preceded it.

India’s rich sexual history has, therefore, been chequered. From the time of the Rig Veda to the age of the Kamasutra, and then at the courts of the Mughal emperors much later, sex — most of the time — was not a bad thing. It was discussed openly in literature, conversation and art. Many Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as apsaras or heavenly nymphs, were depicted romantically in ancient Indian temples such as in Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, and in the cave drawings of Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra.

However, of all the diverse phases and texts in India’s sexual history, it was the Manusmriti that stuck with the British. One reason was perhaps that Manu’s prudish values resonated with the Victorian culture of that time. Secondly, the Manusmriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied and translated into English by the British, and so they hastily borrowed from it to create the legal and administrative systems for India. The rest of the texts — the more liberal parts of the Rig Veda and the Kamasutra — were largely ignored. Manu, for the British, became the ultimate authority on India’s societal structure.

Manu’s laws, however, have several confusing contradictions related to women’s rights. Verses 9.72–9.81 allow the man as well as the woman to get out of a fraudulent or abusive marriage and remarry. They even provide legal sanction for a woman to remarry when her husband has been missing or has abandoned her. But it is also restrictive for women in verses 3.13–3.14, opposing her marriage to someone outside her own social class. It preaches chastity to widows, such as in verses 5.158–5.160. In verses 5.147–5.148, the Manusmriti declares that “a woman must never seek to live independently”. In other verses, such as 2.67–2.69 and 5.148–5.155, the Manusmriti preaches that a girl should obey and seek the protection of her father, a young woman must do the same of her husband, and a widow must do so of her son. While it states that a woman should always worship her husband as a god, in verses 3.55–3.56, the Manusmriti also insists that “women must be honoured and adorned”, and that “where women are revered, there the gods rejoice, but where they are not, no sacred rite bears fruit”.

The Manusmriti is a complex commentary from a women’s rights perspective, but the British merely picked and emphasised certain aspects that seemed appropriate to them for codifying women’s rights for Hindus in India, while ignoring the other sections.

And so the parts of the Manusmriti that sharply restricted women’s freedom, regulated their behaviour, and reduced their access to social and political power, besides establishing a highly conservative stand on sex in a society that was once fairly liberal, became the values that the British propagated in the subcontinent during their rule.

Actually, it was not the British alone. They were joined by the enthusiastic anglicised Indian elite, who were somewhere between the British and the Indians in their ways, and at times preached the same prudish values to the middle class in the subcontinent.

Here is an example. The Brahmo Samaj was an institution that propagated a new kind of Hinduism, inspired by the Hindu Vedanta, Islamic Sufism and Christian Unitarianism. Its founder, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, had two houses in Kolkata — one was his “Bengali house” and the other his “European house”. In the Bengali house, he lived with his wife and children in the traditional Indian way. The European house, on the other hand, was tastefully done up, with English furniture, and was used to entertain his European friends. Someone teased him by saying that everything in the Bengali house was Bengali except for Ram Mohan Roy, and everything in the European house was European except for Ram Mohan Roy! While celebrated for being an eminent reformer and uplifting women with his anti-sati and anti-child marriage movements, Roy also had a puritan, British-influenced condemnation of non-Brahminical sexual and gender relations.

Mahatma Gandhi also had a conflicted attitude to sex, which is apparent in his memoirs. On the one hand, he declares that he was tormented by sexual passions, which he described as uncontrollable, while on the other hand, he took a vow of chastity at the age of thirty-six and passionately preached chastity to everyone. He said women were the embodiment of sacrifice and non-violence, as also the keepers of purity. During his time in South Africa, when Mahatma Gandhi saw a young man harassing his female followers, instead of confronting the man, he personally cut off the girl’s hair.

The great saint, Swami Vivekananda, had a paradoxical view of sex as well. He revered their maternal instinct, but disliked the erotic.

He preached that the highest love is the love that is sexless — that is perfect unity, while sex differentiates bodies. He confided to his disciple Sarat Chandra Chakravarty that “the American sluts and buggers used to be sexually aroused” after hearing his lectures.

At a lecture in Chennai in 1897, he asserted, “The women of India must grow and develop in the footprints of Sita, and that is the only way.” In the Indian epic Ramayana, Sita, the wife of Ram, is chastity incarnate.

Adding to the confusion created by the hypocritical attitude to sex in India is the matter of role models. Radha is Krishna’s love, Sita is Ram’s wife. Radha and Sita, both mythological figures, are worshipped in India. Radha is sensual, older than Krishna by many years, and some texts say she is married to another man while romancing Krishna. In almost all interpretations of the Radha–Krishna story, their relationship is clandestine. While Sita is an example of a woman in a monogamous, legitimate relationship, Radha is remembered and revered for loving Krishna despite his other flirtations. Sita is a queen, Radha an ordinary village girl focused on her relationship with her lover.

In line with Swami Vivekananda’s counsel, Indians have indeed accepted Sita as the role model for a woman. Sita sets the standard high: A woman must be chaste and monogamous, a romantic relationship must be validated by marriage, husbands must be expected to fight and overcome challenges to be worthy, and the couple must make sacrifices for the sake of society, even if that means forsaking a personal relationship.

But Radha is a role model too-at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from Sita. While Sita is the loyal and chaste wife, Radha is the passionate and adulterous lover. Sita is a public figure due to her political stature as queen, while Radha is the subject of thousands of paintings and statues, and has been established as a goddess in many temples across India. She has also influenced movements in poetry, art and literature, many of which are well known. Who can ignore the fervour of the Bhakti movement and the devotional poems and songs, inspired by Radha and Krishna, written by Mirabai, the legendary princess from Rajasthan?

(Excerpted with permissions of Penguin Random House from Indian Instincts by Miniya Chatterji.)

Also read: What lessons the Tripura elections verdict holds for the Left

Writer

Miniya Chatterji Miniya Chatterji @miniya

Miniya Chatterji is writer and businesswoman. She is the CEO of Sustain Labs Paris. Previously, she was chief sustainability officer for the Jindal Steel and Power Group. She has also worked at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Goldman Sachs in London and in the office of the President of France in Paris.

Like DailyO Facebook page to know what's trending.