Magazine article UNESCO Courier

India's Wings of Desire

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

India's Wings of Desire

Article excerpt


Hindu civilization glorified the sensual body and gave the world a famed treatise of physical love. While the advent of Aids was first met with intolerance, traditional practices are regaining right of place

Koovagam, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has attracted the limelight in recent years -- thanks to Aids. The village is the traditional seat of chitirai pournami, an ancient transsexual festival marking the anniversary when Lord Krishna is believed to have taken on the form of a maiden to enjoy sexual bliss with Aravan, a Pandava prince.

For centuries, the festival has been celebrated on a full moon day in April and is patronized by urban and rural folk and hijras (transsexuals and eunuchs) from across India. In the last three years, Aids prevention organizations from Chennai have stepped in to confer "new respectability" to this expression of alternate sexuality by organizing an annual beauty contest for the "third gender." "We want people to realize that hijras are as much a part of society as anyone else, and use the opportunity to provide Aids information and condoms," says Dr. Manorama Pinagapany, director of a community health NGO.

While the local media has become more daring about promoting "new lifestyles," Indians are generally considered "conservative and orthodox" in sexual matters. There is an irony in this: it was after all in countries like India that various sexual cultures claimed their natural place in society from time immemorial.

Hindu culture views the physical body as a container of the soul, a divine but transient abode of the spirit. The body is revered because it houses the Self, the life-force. The Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu treatise on sex by Vatsyayana, notes that karna (sexual desire) is one of the means to attain moksha (salvation).These primeval thoughts still pulsate through the subcontinent. The Shivalinga, a phallic symbol of the deity Shiva in sexual union with his consort, goddess Parvati, is worshipped all over India. Lord Rama and his wife Seetha may be glorified for their sense of duty and fidelity, but India is also the land of Krishna, celebrated for his dalliances with celestial beauties.

Temple sculptures of Hindu deities seek neither to conceal any body parts nor even censor their proportions. Depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses are usually of graceful, sensual proportions, the men long limbed and athletic, the women with slim waists and ful some bodies. Stone figurines of divinities and mortals at the 10th century Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh depict a variety of sexual unions, almost in clinical fashion.

The unabashed honesty of the nudity that embellishes almost every Hindu temple divests the body of crude eroticism, raising it to a near ethereal plane in Hindu consciousness. The average Hindu was conditioned to accept the body and sexuality as natural aspects of the cycle of birth and death.

Cultures driven underground

Sexual openness was an ordinary aspect of everyday life, as temples also served as centres for social interaction. An assortment of sexual orientations were an integral part of traditional Hindu societies. Transsexual courtesans, dancers of the devadasi tradition, street dancers, singers and musicians offered pleasure and sensual fulfillment. Multiple partner sex, bisexuality and other so-called sexually "deviant" cultures were never explicitly disowned but instead, had their own social, religious and artistic space within mainstream society.

Sex work, for example was conferred religious respectability in the culture of the devadasi sect. These women were given in marriage to God and ritualistically dedicated themselves to fulfilling the sexual needs of society. They lived in or around the temples and enjoyed considerable respect.

Indian civilization allowed for a diversity of perceptions, lifestyles and values to the extreme and was non-judgemental almost to a fault. …

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