Sex in India
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Hindu texts, ancient
Alf Hiltebeitle in his book, The Cult of Draupadi , recounts a conversation between Bhima and Krishna around intimacy. Draupadi is married to five brothers, but in accordance with their arrangement, she lives with each brother (as wife) one at a time and for one year at a time.
Bhima, however, in the year that he is her consort, worries that he might not be able to satisfy her, and shares this concern. Krishna agrees and tells Bhima that Draupadi is no ordinary woman, that she is in fact Kalirupa (an incarnation of Kali), and it is not possible for anyone to match that energy. And then, going back to Bhima’s initial concern, Krishna offers him a part of his own energy to help him out.
There is the wonderful story of Savitri, who manages to reclaim her husband from the clutches of Yamaraja (the god of death), on the basis of a hasty promise made to her by the harassed god, that she would bear Satyavan a hundred sons. The story says (this is often a lost detail, but one that I particularly love) that it is from the sound of her jingling anklets that Yamaraja knows she is following him.
He finds it distracting and is furious at the temerity of the woman who is daring to follow him, but every now and then she pauses and he is more annoyed at himself for noticing that the sound has stopped. The nuance of the jingling anklets is part of the shringar bhasha (the pleasure vocabulary) and when she asks for her sons she makes it clear that she will need her husband there in order to have them.
Not just intimacy, but a good, mutually pleasurable relationship was one of the essential bonds between couples. Far from shunning it, our ancient texts spoke of it not just in terms of great beauty, but also in great detail, as a trait that had to be followed and emulated. Interestingly, in our changing society, it was this 'detail that was to become the problem.
The Telugu verse “Radhika santavanam” depicts the emotional bond, of the comfortable closeness and love between Krishna and Radha (Image: Brooklyn Museum)
The vocabulary of pleasure
Kalidas’s Kumarsambhavam , a symphony of exquisite verse exploring the desires, intimacy and pleasure of the divine couple, had triggered outrage among the British to the extent that in the 1800s they banned the eighth canto (the chapter on the consummation) from being translated or published as they felt it was too ‘graphic’.
Another ban was placed on the erotic prabandham, Radhika santavanam [ Appeasing Radhika], also for its ‘graphic’ portrayals of conjugal love. What they failed to note perhaps was that these verses were not gratuitous portrayals of sex but rather of the emotional bond, of the comfortable closeness and love that existed between the couple, as a result of their pleasurable intimacy. It was the glue that held two people together in a way that nothing else can.
So, while in some texts (the Vedas, the Manu Smriti etc), sex is about procreation, with marriage being the necessary means, other texts like the Kamasutra , the Anangaranga , the Shringar Prakash etc, focus on the importance of intimacy for pleasure, introducing some very radical ideas (to our modern thinking), like the importance of female pleasure and sexuality, and even more controversially, the idea that since people of all ages are capable of understanding sexual acts, all should be familiar with the text. Of course, at some point the narrative changes and divine births become immaculate, where children are born through magical concoctions. But for me, what stands out is that along with removing the intimacy narrative, the bond of closeness from these relationships seems to disappear as well — or at least from the stories.
The pleasure principle
Gandhari, for instance, produces a hundred sons who she ‘grows’ in pots but simultaneously we also never hear stories of her and Drithrashtra sharing anything as husband and wife. They never hold hands, there is no banter, there are no precious moments of private conversations or mutual comfort. Or Anusuya is the ideal wife to Atri, but only through her unstinting service and devotion to her husband. It could be any two people co-existing anywhere.
For me some of the most interesting stories are on gender and sexual fluidity and the extension of pleasure boundaries — gods and humans alike can be androgynous, moving between sexual desires and identities. Shikandi is born female, is brought up to believe he is a man and eventually exchanges his sexual organs with a yaksh and becomes a man permanently.
Or Prince Ila who starts life as a man, becomes a woman and then through a twist of magic, lives out his life as both man and woman on alternate months, even having children as both man and woman (he ends up with hundred children who call him mother and another hundred to whom he is father).
But the most telling sentence of his story is that eventually when the gods tell him he must pick one identity, he chooses to be a woman because as he says “the sexual pleasure was better”.
In the subset of same-sex love texts my favourite is the tale of Bhagiratha, who is born from the passionate lovemaking of two women (translated by Ruth Vanita from a 14th century Bengali text). The fifth-century medical text Sushruta Samhita had laid the foundations for this possibility saying that two women's sexual union can result in pregnancy and childbirth.
However since, as the text said, “the father contributes the bones and the mother the flesh and blood, a child born from the mingling of two women's sexual fluids during intercourse will be a boneless lump of flesh”. Perhaps this was the inspiration behind the story of Bhagiratha who is born without bones and acquires his skeleton and his powers from a twisted curse.
Texts like the Kamasutra, the Anangaranga and the Shringar Prakash focus on the importance of intimacy for pleasure, the importance of female pleasure and sexuality (Source: Wikipedia) Ancient India saw “kama” [desire, wish, longing] as one of the four essential pillars of life. Far from being evil or sinful the texts talk of sexual union as divine, the basis of creation and preservation with the manifested universe itself being a product of the physical merging of the male and female halves of the Supreme Being.
The Upanishads [Chandogya Upanishad (5.8.1-2), and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.13 and 6.4.2-3)] suggest that the pleasure arising from sexual union is a faint reflection of and a step towards the blissful nature of the supreme self.
I’m not sure when the taboos on sex crept into our thinking or when pleasure and desire became 'unIndian', but I would like to end with a very perceptive quote from our literature from about 2,000 years ago: “The union of man and woman is like the mating of heaven and earth. It is because of their correct mating that heaven and earth last forever. Human beings have lost this secret and have therefore become mortal. By knowing it the path to immortality is opened...”
Partners, number of
Contrary to the stereotype that men have multiple sexual partners while women remain chaste, the latest data on people having multiple partners – collected in 2019-21 through the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – shows that in urban India women are not that far behind men, with an average of 1. 5 sexual partners in their lifetime compared with 1. 7 for men.
In fact, in many states and UTs women averaged more sexual partners in their lifetime than men. These include Rajasthan, Haryana, J&K and MP in north and central India, Assam in the east and Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south. The data also shows that rural women had on average more sexual partners over their lifetime (1. 8) compared with their urban counterparts and that same was the case among men.
However, a much larger proportion of men (3. 6%) than of women (0. 5%) had had sexual intercourse with someone who was neither a spouse nor a person they were living with over the 12 months preceding the survey. The data was collected as part of an attempt to gauge the prevalence of higher-risk sexual intercourse and of condom usage during such sex, as low condom usage could put people at greater risk of HIV/AIDS. The respondents included close to 1. 1 lakh women and 1 lakh men. While it is difficult to imagine all respondents being entirely frank about their sexual liaisons, just the fact that so many, especially women, were willing tospeak about sexual partners,including sex outside marriage, is telling. While therecould be underreportingamong women, in the caseof men there could also be atouch of wishful exaggeration in some cases. The survey also covered what percentage ofwomen had sex with two ormore partners in the past12 months. A slightly largershare of rural women thanurban women and of currently marriedwomen than ofthose never married, divorced,widowed or separated said theyhad sex with twoor more partners in the 12 monthspreceding the survey. On the whole, the dataindicated that men were farmore into high-risk sex andthe proportion reporting theuse of condoms during suchhigh-risk sex was just a littlemore than the proportion ofwomen reporting the same. Hindu men had the highest mean number of sexualpartners over a lifetime (2. 2),followed by Christians and Sikhs (1. 7), while Jains hadthe lowest (1. 1). But the communities with the highestshare of men reporting having had sex with more thanone partners in the previous12 months were Buddhists/neo-Buddhists and Sikhs,while Jains and Muslims hadthe lowest proportion. Among people who hadsex in the past 12 months,women and men who nevermarried were more likelythan those currently marriedor formerly married to reporthaving sex with a person whowas neither their spouse norlived with them.