Sexuality in Hinduism is most notable through the observance of kama, one of Hinduism’s catur-purusartha’s (four human aims). Within the Dharma Sastras contain prescriptions for how one should live one’s life, as well as outlining various religious duties (dharma). Kama in this instance refers to fulfilment of sensual and sexual pleasure (Lidke 108). Attainment of kama for males is prescribed in the second of the four asramas (life stages), the grhastha stage. This stage of life is known as the householder stage, and in it Hindus are expected to marry. Sexual relations within a Hindu marriage are meant to be for procreation, however it is expected that couples will be intimate for pleasure also. Sexual indulgence can become a problem that will cause unhappiness for grhasthas and self-restraint is cautioned. Mentioned in various scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita is extramarital sex, considered taboo as marriage is seen as contractual and for life (Mehta 66-67). The catur-purusartha exists within Hinduism’s caste system, and only the upper three classes undergo the rituals that transition from one asrama to the next (Mehta 63).
Rgveda 10.85 begins by telling us that there is a divinity to human marriage, in that it is modeled after the gods, before focusing on more on the humanness of marriage. Simply by being a woman, a bride is seen as having inherent value to not only her husband, but her husband’s family as well. This has to do with the expectation that children will be the result of a marriage (Menski 56). If a husband dies before the woman has conceived, she is not destined to remain a widow, but can be married to another member of her husband’s family in the hopes of conception. Ideally the original marriage will bear children, and so gods are invoked in certain rituals in the context of fertilization; Indra is invoked for strong sons while Agni is invoked for many sons (Menski 56). At the same time that a bride is seen as an asset to her husband and his family, she may also be seen as a danger. On a couples’ wedding night there is an expectation that the hymen will break and a woman will bleed during the act of intercourse. This, of course, will defile the bedding, but it is also seen as a destructive blood in a Vedic marriage. For this reason, a husband may consult a Brahmin to purify the cloth and bring longevity to the marriage (Menski 58).
Some Puranas personify kama as Kamadeva, the god of desire and passion. By contrasting this god with Siva in the Siva Purana, this Purana is full of insight into how Hindus view sexuality. As Siva is sometimes seen as the eternal brahmacarin and supernaturally chaste, his interactions with Kamadeva show the sexual side of Hinduism (O’Flaherty 141). Much of the literature focuses on Kamadeva as he relates to Siva, but the information gathered in these texts give the reader some idea of what influenced Hindu attitudes and rituals relating to sexuality.
While Siva is seen as chaste in many rituals, the idea that he is tempted or does not remain chaste throughout are common. Some of the myths actually place him in the position of the creator, with an erect penis (linga) and seminal fluid that acts as the seed of creation (O’Flaherty 143). Siva’s chastity is, however, his most powerful weapon in myths in which he is juxtaposed with Kamadeva. In one such myth, Siva is responsible for burning Kamadeva up, destroying him. Modern interpretations of this myth hold it as a temptation story, whereas early interpretations view it as a wholly asexual act. Siva, being compared to fire, when the two interacted is said to have melted or destroyed Kamadeva, who is likened to snow. In this analogy, Siva is so pure and chaste that Kamadeva’s sexuality could not possibly have affected him (O’Flaherty 143-34).
The Puranas include a different story of Siva burning Kamadeva. Siva may be aroused by the act or bring Kamadeva back more powerful. In the Puranas, it is suggested that Siva, rather than being so chaste that he is not affected by Karmadeva, in fact recognizes his power and possibly admires him (O’Flaherty 145).
Hinduism is unlike many western religions in that it does not have a single canonical text, but many. Other texts from early Hinduism that mention sexuality include the Upanisads and the Tantras (Doniger 2011). Some Upanisads compare Vedic rituals to sexuality, such as the oblation of butter into the fire resembling the acts of procreation. Each action taken in the ritual has a counterpart in love-making and eventual birth. The Tantras take this notion one step farther and suggest that sexual intercourse is not simply like a ritual, but that the act itself is a ritual (Doniger 2011). The most in-depth text dealing with kama is the Kamasutra, a text from approximately the third century B.C.E. By modern standards, the Kamasutra is a liberal text, with thoughts put forth on subjects such as women’s sexuality and homosexual behavior (Doniger 2011). In opposition to the Vedas, the author of the Kamasutra, Vatsyayana, dismisses the notion that people should only have to procreate. There is also the idea that since people of all ages are capable of understanding sexual acts, all should be familiar with the text. The idea of female pleasure and sexuality is strong in the text, even suggesting a woman leave her husband if he is not satisfying her, in contrast to what earlier law texts say (Doniger, 2011).
The Dharma Sastras’ view of homosexuality is one of taboo; a man who engages in same sex activity is to be punished, however slightly, for the transgression. Vatsyayana holds different ideas, where instead of the defamatory kliba [translated as eunuch, but holds many other meanings] he uses hijra, a term that means third gender. Rather than transgressive, third genders in the text are described in a more neutral way; hermaphrodites and bi-sexuals are treated the same as all others. Throughout the Kamasutra are references to servants and friends who perform oral sex on members of the same sex. The Kamasutra is unlike other texts, it is not a law book, but rather one that categorizes and attempts to explain sexuality. In this way, it is not judgmental (Lidke 124). This lighter view of homosexuality and transsexuality is found throughout both ancient and modern India (Doniger 2011).
Homoeroticism is an important aspect of Hindu literature, even if textual authorities disagree on its morality. The Hindu concept of rebirth, as well as its views of gods as being androgynous, means that gender and sexuality can be viewed as fluid. Heterosexuality, however, is still highly regarded as the normative sexuality (Lidke 124-125). Hijras can also be found in the stories of the epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In the former is the story of Sikhandhin, who begins the tale as Amba and is captured by a warrior. After spurning his advances in favor of one she loves elsewhere, she is eventually rejected by both the one she loves and later the warrior and his brother. She is granted a boon by Siva and asks to be reborn a male. She is reborn as a female hijra, her boon having not been granted as she had hoped (Lidke 126-127). Despite a long history of hijra populations and homoeroticism attitudes about sexuality and behavior changed during and after colonization. The British imposed anti-sodomy laws in 1860 and worked to impose Christian values (Lidke 127). Despite the efforts of the British, hijras still exist in India to this day and include those who proclaim themselves neither man nor woman. For a majority of Hijras the dominant gender is female, with dress and mannerisms being feminine whether one is biologically male or biologically female. In lesbian relationships this means that both partners are feminine, since masculine hijras are rare (Penrose 4).
The Kamasutra also speaks explicitly about females and their sexuality, not only in regards to hijras and males but also in regards to their relations with other females. There are references to penetration with sex toys, both of males and females. The word used for the penetrator is svairini, although some translators also put forth that svairini can also mean oral sex partner or prostitute (Penrose 15). The Kamasutra describes women as penetrators, both of men and of other women. The text, while describing homosexual acts, does not categorize the women as such (see Kama Sutra 2.8.13). Women’s sexuality in this context is defined by her dominance in the act of penetrating, not by the gender of her partner (Penrose 16).
Sexuality in Hinduism has been influenced by divine myths and written and revealed texts and has an effect on many aspects of life. Each of the four stages of life (asram vyavastha) have something to say on the topic and dharmic prescription in place. Sexuality also includes how gender is defined for Hindu’s, as the large and continuing hijras population is proof of. The texts also often have a lot to say about how one should conduct oneself in regards to sexuality, although with multiple texts there are often times contradictions.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Benton, Catherine (2006) God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Doniger, Wendy (2011) “From kama to karma: the resurgence of Puritanism in contemporary India.” Social Research 78:1. Accessed February 7, 2016.
Herdt, Gilbert H (1994) Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history. New York: Zone Books
Kalra, Gurvinder “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 5:121-26. DOI:10.1080/17542863.2011.570915
Lidke, Jeffrey S (2003) “A Union of Fire and Water: Sexuality and Spirituality in Hinduism.” In Sexuality and the World’s Religions, edited by David W. Machacek and Melissa M. Wilcox, 101-32. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Mehta, J.M (2009) Four Spans of Human Life: Ashram Vyavastha. Daryaganj: Hindoology Books.
Menski, Werner F (1991) “Marital Expectations as Dramatized in Hindu Marriage Rituals.” In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie, 47-67. Jawahar Nagar: Shri Jainendra Press.
Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijaras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Siva the Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.
Penrose, Walter (2001) “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a “Third Nature” in the South Asian Past.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3-39. Accessed February 7, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704787.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
The marriage of the Pandeva’s
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Adam Smith (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.