India's Sensual Past

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

India's Sensual Past


THE SOURCE: "From Kama to Karma: The Resurgence of Puritanism in Contemporary India" by Wendy Doniger, in Social Research, Spring 2011.

ATTACKS ON STORES AND RESTAURANTS that celebrate Valentine's Day. Protests against artists and writers who link Hindu gods with sexuality. The arrest of couples who put their arms around each in public. These incidents in India today aren't isolated, argues the Indologist Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago. Throughout much of the country, Hindu fundamentalists are engaged in "pervasive and often violent moral policing." Many of them blame the West for tainting India with lasciviousness, but they're pointing a finger in the wrong direction, Doniger writes.

India has a rich tradition of eroticism, and a tradition, just as old, of what Doniger calls "Hindu Puritanism" The Rig Veda, India's earliest Hindu sacred text, written around 1500 BC, "revels in the language of both pleasure and fertility" Various other texts, including the Upanishads and the Tantras, which appeared in subsequent centuries, refer to ritual sex. But sexual acts coexisted with the path of meditation and asceticism--some interpreted the acts as intended to occur only on a symbolic level--and so a kind of religious doublethink arose that fostered tolerance.

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The more secular Kamasutra, a book that today is referred to much more often than it is read, appeared in the third century AD. Some of the views that the author, Vatsyayana, expressed about women and homosexuality are liberal even by today's standards in India. Yet "the Kamasutra plays almost no role at all in the sexual consciousness of contemporary Indians" in part because it is largely known through the ham-handed translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton (and various others who generally aren't credited) published in 1883. …

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