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Sahitya Akademi

Sex and Indian Literature


Author(s): ADYA RANGACHARYA
Source: Indian Literature, Vol. 34, No. 5 (145) (September-October, 1991), pp. 139-146
Published by: Sahitya Akademi
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Sex and Indian Literature


ADYA

RANGACHARYA

T ITERATURE,
from the very beginning, has shown an attitude
^
towards sex that is entirely opposed to both that of practical
life and of religion and morality. For this the reason probably

seems to be in the significant difference of sex as an instinct from


others like hunger or sleep.
Sex is an activity that, in animals,
depends for its fulfilment, not only on two individuals but (in
This union of the two
normal cases) on a male and a female.
the
birth
new
leads
to
of
a
But
(third)
invariably
living being.
the

greatest

mystery

about

sex

is that

in its fulfilment

both

men

and women reach a sensation of joy which makes them lose


their identity, however short the duration may be. It is almost
death since man and woman, for that duration, just cease to be.
It is this aspect of sex which made poets and philosophers and

devotees equate it with 'final bliss'.


In this context, it is essential to remember that since the
If this
beginning, human society has been dominated by man.
have
been
were not so, the Literature of the world would
entirely

different. As it is, Literature and the Arts have been the expres
sion of persistent and constant yearning of the human male for
At its worst, it can be said of Literature that it is
the female.
than the mating cry of the human male. Wooing
more
nothing
But with the
inherited quality of man.
loss of free scope for promiscuity, the wooing, so to say,

of the female is an
gradual

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140 / Indian Literature


From the battles of the epic stories
of
romantic
to the intrigues
stories, it is a story of man's wooing
into literature.

is sublimated
of woman.

Literature, unlike social manners and Religion and Morality,


The
has been thoroughly uninhibited where sex is concerned.
of
in
sex
the
human
animal's
life
can
be
seen
from
importance
the fact that, as society gradually evolved itself into an organi
sation, Religion and Morality were invoked to regulate man's
social life with a number of do's and don'ts. With the progress

of time the prescriptions and prohibitions have changed in their


number and nature, but to this day the need for them is acknowl
edged. It is not surprising that even religion and morality, in
dominated

a society

were favourable

by man,

to

man

and

prejudiced against woman.


"Man
lives consciously for himself but unconsciously he
serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of historical and
social ends." In these words, in his War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
on

comments

war

Napoleonic

between

Western

and

Europe

This, indeed, is a very significant observation by a great


writer. This double life of man is due to his fight, so to say, with
Russia.

is a

It

Nature.

struggle

for

power

between

Man

and

Nature

consequent on the dawn of what we call intelligence in Man.


So this remark applies as aptly to sex as to other natural instincts
in man. Sex, we can say, lives in man and this he employs
consciously for himself while unconsciously he is made by it to
serve as an instrument for the accomplishment of Nature's own
This conscious employment is more genuinely seen or
purpose.
rather conveyed through his Literature
morality or the penal code.

than through religion,

Whatever

place or function has been accorded to sex by


to a man its distinctive feature is the joy or bliss or
It is not a mere physical experience
ecstasy to which it leads.
The man and the woman experience a feeling in which every
thing, including their individualities, ceases to exist. It is an
Nature,

eternal

moment

they are re-born.


Sept.-Oct.

and

once

they

come

out

of it

they

fee!

as

if

This is the only experience where, in spite of

1991

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Sex and Indian Literature / 4l


all the symptoms of physical fatigue (like perspiration or strain
ing

the

nerves,

fresh

etc.),

vigour

and

more

strength

are

felt

by

the partners. For this reason in Indian literature, sex experience,


called 'Rati', has been recognised by rhetoricians as the king of
rasas (rasa being the enjoyment or involvement of the reader in
what he reads). It is not the physical pleasure of the sexual act

but the total

catharsis, so to say, of Personality that exalts sex


in Indian Literature. This is an approach which neither Religion
nor Morality could combat. On the other hand, these latter two

may be said to have accepted this distinctive quality by establish


God and Man (devotion)
and between
ing a relation between
man and man (,lokasamgraha) in the same terminology.

The attitude of a people's Literature to sex was determined


its
social philosophy which, in earlier days, was represented
by
its
The Hindu social philosophy accepts life as an
by
religion.
on
the
obligation
part of a man determined by his past Karma

i.e. moral life. Believing in re-birth, a man is asked to live such


a life in the present that would assure him a better one in his
next birth.
Though
accepted

as

prescribed
more

than

by the ethical

Code

a duty

to

limited

as such, sex was

a purpose

because

of

the element of relaxation, pleasure, happiness and joy involved


in it. Secondly, even as a duty involving pleasure, it was some
thing which, overwhelming the male and female as a biological
urge, was incapable of being regulated.

It was in this context that Literature all over the world pro
vided a new meaning and value to the sex-instinct. Literature, in
insisted that there was something
its imaginative approach,
called Love which justified (even glorified) man's sexual life. If
Anthropologists could find out who discovered this idea of Love
and when and where, it would be one of the best stories illustrat
inventiveness of the human mind. Love,
ing the unfathomable
Cupid with his arrows, Heart as the seat of these activities, etc.,
found out to be no more than fiction. And, naturally
enough, this myth of Love is most developed in Literature only.
By postulating Love, Literature provided man with an antidote
could be

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1421 Indian Literatute


for the guilt-sense which sex usually implied.
A Sanskrit poet who is credited with the authorship of three
'centuries' (collections of 100 verses) on Love, Morality and
has the following

Renunciation
on

verse in his century of verses

Love.

of flesh and yet they are


are no more
than lumps
is just
'an
to golden
face
abode'
of
(a woman's)
jars;
to moon; her hips contain urine, etc.
phlegm, etc., and it is compared
to heads
of fine elephants;
and
oh, how poets
they are compared
breasts

(Female)

compared

have

glorified

filth that goes

the abominable

to make

a woman!

A more honest criticism of the attitude of Literature towards


sex is hard to come across.
Even great poets indulge in this sort of description. For
example, in Kalidasa's play Malvikagnimitram, the king, hero of
the play, while wooing Malvika, the heroine, moves to embrace
Then he describes
following words:
her.

I pass my hands
hold of my
she catches

When

her

covers

breasts

with

to himself the way

on

the

with her body


atremble,
girdle,
when I still try to embrace
her she
her hands;
when I raise her face for a kiss,

she turns aside


side-long
glances
me with the
she does
provide
pretexts,
(IV,

in the

fingers;

with

desire

she reacts

her

face;

happiness

but under

these

of fulfilling my

15).

In his own

happiness,

the hero hardly leaves anything for

the reader's imagination.


It is not the present purpose to justify the misunderstanding
of the un-informed that Sanskrit poetry could be (or is) freely
obscene. That question does not arise because of examples like
On the other hand, it can be asserted that our
the one above.
earlier poets were more honest in their attitude towards sex. Sex,
as an instinct given by God for his Divine purpose (propagation
of the species), was not only respected but efforts were con
tinuously made to understand it. God Himself was the father
not only of the world but of Kama,
Sept.-Oct.

the sex-deity. Even

1991

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as early

Sex and Indian Literature / 143


as the Upanishads the creation of the world was explained in sex
terminology. He desired, Let me be many, let me procreate, and
thus the world was created. ('Desire'
is expressed by the same
root which 'Kama'Sexual
desire was derived as a noun).
One

becoming many is what sex is intended to be. And because of


such a creation it was easy to believe that the Creator was
immanent in everything, living and non-living, as the human

father is in his children. The distinctive feature of sex-experience


in which for a moment man and woman lose their identity gave

Hindu mythology the conception


of half-male and half-female
image of God Siva. One thing, however, was emphasised viz.
sex is given to man for God's purpose and hence man should
not feel any attachment to it. Ignorance of this traditional
to sex has driven some Western scholars to say, while
approach
acclaiming a treatise like Vatsyayana's Kamasutra as the 'world's
first definitive manual on the art and science of love', that it
was written in a society in which
flourished among a people

gamy
sexual

It is true

pleasure.

that

kings kept harems and poly


devoted to materialistic and

Kamasutra

was

composed

the highly civilised and flourishing period of the Gupta


(5th

a.D.)

century

remarks,

but

the

author

in his

himself,

gives his reason for writing such a


he

relations,"

says,

"are

dependent

on

a man

during

Empire

introductory

treatise. "Sexual
and

a woman,

and

to develop such a relationship requires the application of certain


methods."
Another writer of the 14th century, writing on the
same

subject,

says

that

"ignorance

about

the

act

and

the

woman

make certain men look at women only from an animal point of


view. Such men must be looked upon as foolish and un-intelli
gent, and this book is composed with the object of preventing

loves being wasted in similar manner" (Aranga-Ranga


of Kalyana Malla).
It is no wonder that in depicting Love,
Sanskrit Poetry scrupulously followed Kamasastra.
lives and

It is quite likely that this scientific approach to sex inspired


what is called the Rasa Theory in Indian literary criticism.
would be a better term than 'criticism'
Perhaps 'appreciation'
while talking

of the Rasa

Theory.

It is not necessary

for the
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145

144 / Indian LiteratUr


present purpose to go into any detailed discussion of that
Theory. It is enough to note that an early and well-known pro
ponent and commentator of the Theory describes the distinctive
as the quality of 'losing oneself'

feature of 'Rasa'
ment.

It is not

state

where one

pleasure

loses

or joy

or

even

one's identity.

ecstasy

as

in the enjoy
such

but

the

This is exactly a feeling


This particular feeling in

that distinguishes sexual experience.


literary appreciation is called Rasa, a word which has no
It is no surprise, in view of the origin of
equivalent in English.
to find that the Rasa of Love (shringara) is
the conception,
called the king of all the Rasas, Sex-experience is at the root of
the conception.
It is interesting to note that this Shringara Rasa is described
as of two kindsviz. Sambhogaenjoyment
(the same word also
and Vipralambhaseparation
or non-fulfil
'copulation')
This is
ment; the lovers either come together or stay separated.
truer to human experience than the Western classification of
means

Romantic

Comedy

or

Romantic

Tragedy.

Whether

tragedy

or

comedy, the story of Shringara is pervaded by a spirit of joy. In


Sanskrit Literature a story like that of Romeo and Juliet is
unthinkable. A natural instinct like sex compels the two partners
Life is self-renewing, self-perpetu
to come together eventually.
ation and sex is the means for this process. There is no death
and this immortality is attained through sex. On the other hand,
it is a force to which men and women are instruments, willing

or unwilling, and they are never masters of it. For this reason,
separation or Vipralambha is, unlike union, limited by space and
time. But union or separation, men and women, when controlled
by the sex-instinct, go through an experience in which, losing

their identity, they emerge as fresh as re-born.


It should be clear from the foregoing that Literature has
been protagonist of sex as against Religion and Morality. The
more the latter two have condemned sex the more has Literature
supported it. Thus in any given society, the attitude its literature

towards sex is largely shaped by the attitude of its


Hindu Religion (and morality in its
Religion and Morality.
shows

Sept.-Oct.

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Sex and Indian Literature / i 45


wake) has accepted sex as one of the legitimate duties of man
and woman.
And reasonably enough, during the proper age
is
it
limit,
prescribed as one of the duties which men owe to
God and their ancestors. Restrictions on sex life, when there are
any, exist in the interests of family, inheritance, and social
peace. If it is censured, it is in terms of the adage that too much
even of a good thing is bad. And, secondly, restrictions, because
of the nature of the social order, were in favour of the male as
against the female. For this reason, sex has never been a taboo
in the tradition of Indian Literature.
Even the greatest poets
have

not

been

accused

of

indecency,

leave

alone

when

obscenity,

they have freely discussed the intimacies of sex-life. The only


restriction was that the description must be in accordance with
the rules both of Kamasastra
and of Rhetorics. Otherwise, the
dignity of man as a superior animal would be adversely affected.
It is true

that

the

sexual

act

could

not

be

considered

as

some

thing to be avoided in life or in literature. The lower animals are


there to make it as public as possible. But, in his inborn sense
of superiority to animals no man would accept behaving like

them. He was not, however, prepared either to consider the


sexual act as something abominable
or to deny its underlying
principle of self-renewal through the ecstasy of losing his indivi
This apparent paradox was solved by our literature by
duality.
the
highest place to the Shringara Rasa (wrongly trans
giving
lated as 'erotics' but actually referring to the distinctive feature
of the sex instinct).
The tragedy of Indian literature is the irreparable break
which took place soon after Sanskrit ceased to be the language
in which all the educated of those days communicated.
This was
followed
centuries
of
Muslim
rule
under which
immediately
by
most of the time all that the Hindu culture and Religion could

Due to the mainly religious con


do was to defend themselves.
flict with the alien conquerors, apart from religious pre-occu
pation the educated leaders had no other activities. As a result,
there grew up plenty of literature in the newly shaping Indian
languages.

Of course, there were some petty kings who extended


No. 145

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146 / Indian Literature


patronage either to Sanskrit or to highly Sanskritised composi
tions. But mostly it was an effort at literary acrobatics. It was
only after the consolidation of British power that living literature
in the Indian languages made its first appearance.
But for his
torical
ten

reasons
for

modern
The
and

Indian

could

approach

Sept.-Oct.

have

no

It is essential

roots

in the

to know

this

tradition,
when

forgot
we

study

literature.
seclusion

compulsory

the Christian

of pruderyan
tional

this

centuries.

sense

attitude
to

of women

of guilt

in regard

under
to sex

Muslim

influence

produced

entirely foreign to the Hindu

sex.

1991

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a sense

tradi