|Erotic Hindu Spirituality
The Religion eZine - Spirituality
By Sudhir Kakar
The erotic carvings of medieval Indian temples, such as those of Khajuraho in central and Konarak in eastern India, have always puzzled people of other religions. If there is one clear and unambiguous message in the sensuality of these sculpted representations, it is that the human soul is preeminently amorous, and nothing if not amorous.
At the same time, many wonder that if the sexual act in Hindu religious tradition does not lie outside but within the holiness of life, then why are contemporary Indians so embarrassed by Khajuraho’s sculptures and feel the need to explain them away in convoluted religious metaphors and symbols or to dismiss them as a product of a ‘degenerate’ era?
The answer is that since centuries Hinduism has also set a high value on the ascetic ideal and the virtues of celibacy. There is a whole mythology around semen, shared by Hindu saint and sinner alike, which sees its emission as enervating, a debilitating waste of vitality and essential energy. In the Hindu theory of sublimation, if semen is retained, it can be transformed into a source of creativity and spiritual power.
The ascetic ideal, too, is quintessentially Indian, perennially in competition with the erotic one for possession of the Indian soul. Although the ascetic ideal, reinforced by the Victorian morality of India’s British colonial rulers, held sway for many centuries, today there are again signs of a change, a tentative re-emergence of the erotic in upper class urban elite.
This change, spurred by the globalization of communications, is evident in the Indian media, especially in the proliferation of magazines that celebrate the sensual and the erotic.
The strain of asceticism, the road to spirituality through celibacy, held aloft through centuries by the Hindu version of William Blake’s “priests in black gowns... binding with briars my joys and desires,” however, has not disappeared and it continues to influence Indian religious and sexual discourse.
Just as it is very unlikely that ancient Indians could be or were ever as unswerving in their pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the ancient Romans, similarly I believe that in the coming decades sex will assume its rightful position in the Hindu view of life--a spirituality without the excesses of either flesh or the spirit.