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A Hindu Perspective on Sexuality

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In the Sanskrit language, sexuality is usually referred to by the word kama (which is different from karma) and this is accepted as one of the four main goals that human beings should aspire to in life. These four goals of life are listed as dharma, one's religious, social and moral duty, artha, wealth and prosperity, kama, the fulfilment of sensual desires, and ultimately moksha, liberation from rebirth.

 

Maintaining a balance

 

A balanced life is one in which all four goals are properly pursued and attained, and so it is apparent that from a traditional Hindu perspective sexuality is not regarded as something inherently sordid or immoral, but as a natural aspiration, the fulfilment of which is essential for a successful life. But that is not to say that Hinduism therefore recommends unrestrained indulgence in sensual pleasure. In pursuing the four goals of life, a proper balance must be maintained and excessive preoccupation with sexuality may lead to neglect of dharma and moksha, which are regarded as the higher goals. Therefore Hindu teachings usually insist that sexuality be confined to marriage and that sexual relationships should not be engaged in without restriction and without proper preparation. This is not because sex is inherently bad or irreligious, but because it is such an intoxicating pleasure that unrestrained indulgence can come to dominate a person's life and take away his or her higher sensibilities.

 

Celibacy

 

Hindu teachings do indeed point out the problems that can arise from excessive preoccupation with sensuality. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Lord Krishna why it is that people are drawn towards wickedness even though they may desire to live a virtuous life. To this Krishna replies (3.37) that it is lust and anger that are the root causes of sin, for a person whose life is dominated by selfish desire quickly loses any sense of virtue or concern for others. So sensuality is not in itself sinful, but it is seen as one of the main causes of wickedness and a barrier to dharma. Similarly, those who are most ardently seeking moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth, are usually advised to refrain from sensual pleasures and take vows of celibacy. This applies only to a very small section of human society, people who leave the world behind and follow the path of renunciation, but it is recognised that attachment to the world is the root cause of rebirth, and sexual desire is one of the most intense forms of worldly attachment.

 

The traditional approach

 

Traditional Hindu teachings on dharma insist that women in particular should not engage in sexual activities prior to marriage and that a major element of a woman's dharma is the devotion she shows to her husband. Hence chastity prior to marriage and undeviating commitment to her spouse have been regarded as pillars of dharma in a woman's life and although standards are changing somewhat today, these principles are still the norms for most of Hindu society. For men, the emphasis in teachings on dharma is slightly different, but the same fundamental principles apply. In his student life, a man was expected to remain celibate so as to focus on his studies and we find many examples in Hindu sacred texts which serve as a warning against excessive indulgence in sensuality. Perhaps the best known example is that of Ravana, who is one of the main characters in Valmiki's Ramayana. There Ravana is shown to be the most evil-minded of men, but he is by no means a fool and has an extensive knowledge of religious belief and practice. But his wickedness constantly prevails over his religious sensibilities because of the subordination of his character to a burning lust in his heart. Ultimately this sensuality leads to his kidnapping of Sita and his eventual death at the hands of her husband Rama. The example here is of an intelligent, sophisticated man whose good qualities are vanquished by the power of sexual desire.

 

The modern approach

 

At this point, one must state that in Hinduism rules of personal conduct are rather flexible and Hindus can choose to move away from traditional interpretations of dharma without moving away from their commitment to their religion. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna defines dharma as conduct that is beneficial for living beings and that clearly allows scope for change and development as the social structure in which we live changes and develops. The core values remain, but there may be changes in the implementation of those values on issues such as divorce, remarriage of widows and homosexuality. In fact, traditional Hindu teachings say little or nothing on the subject of homosexuality and so it is relatively easy for modern Hindus to accept the contemporary ethos. And Hindus have also adapted their conduct in line with the modern economic situation so that young women are more or less free to study and work in an environment in which they associate with young men. Traditionally this type of contact might not have been allowed but Hindus have recognised that rigid adherence to a set of rules composed in a previous age is not the real meaning of dharma.

 

The study of ancient Hindu texts reveals that traditional ideas on sexuality were complex and not really in line with the puritanical values introduced to India by the British in the Victorian era. We have seen how scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana give a clear warning of the moral and spiritual dangers of excessive sexual indulgence, but at the same time there was a recognition that sexuality is one of the great delights of human existence and that to regard it as something inherently sordid was quite wrong. It could be argued that the modern preoccupation with pornography is a direct result of the repression of sexuality insisted upon by an excessively puritanical moral code, which has converted sexuality into the degraded form depicted in pornographic images. As stated above, Hindu teachings accept that kama is one of the four goals of life to be sought by all human beings, and books such as the Kama Sutra were written to provide instruction as to how this goal could be pursued in a legitimate manner and how it could be enjoyed most effectively by both men and women.

 

The long centuries of foreign rule over India led to an imposition of puritanical values, which in some ways matched the Hindu teachings on dharma and moksha, but were subtly yet significantly different in their emphasis. Seeking to demonstrate the high moral status of Hinduism, modern teachers sought to emphasise the puritanical virtues of their traditions and demonstrate that their values were identical to those of Victorian Christianity. This notion was not entirely untrue but it rather overlooks phenomena such as the Kama Sutra and the representation of sexual images on Hindu temples and other buildings. These carvings demonstrate very clearly that in pre-modern Hinduism sexuality and the full enjoyment of sexual pleasure was seen as one of the great joys of life; sexuality is not at all sordid, but is one of the fruits of piety manifesting itself as good karma. Sexual scenes are displayed on temples because the temple is an auspicious place and sexuality is an auspicious form of activity, provided it is kept in due proportion.

 

And finally we must note that whenever sexuality and Hinduism are discussed the word tantra is commonly encountered. But what is tantra and why is it portrayed in the West as some form of 'good sex guide'? The truth of the matter is that tantra is entirely distinct from kama and the Kama Sutra, and the western misappropriation and misrepresentation of the tantric tradition is an example of the worst kind of cultural theft. The tantric tradition provides a wide range of spiritual ideas and practices, most of which have nothing at all to do with sexuality. Some groups who exist on the fringes of Hinduism practise 'left-handed' or unorthodox tantra and here some of the techniques may involve the awakening of sexual energies. Even here, however, the object is self-transformation and self-empowerment and the process is one that is entirely distinct from any attempt to enjoy a higher degree of sexual pleasure. Hence one should not confuse the representations of tantra derived from Western sources with the authentic Hindu tantric tradition; the former is a wholesale misrepresentation of what traditional tantra sought to achieve.

 

 

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