Hello World! Religion and Erotics in Traditional India

Religion and Erotics in Traditional India

It is a common perception of the Indians and of the outsiders that Indian society is very traditional and explicit references and expressions of erotic imageries in words or visual form are against the norm of “Indian tradition.” Seeing the majority of places in India today, it in fact seems to be true. Indian society is not a touching society ie, couples don’t touch each other in public and revealing clothes are still frowned upon in most places. More serious are the orthodox, politicised reaction of the Hindutva forces against any explicit expressions of eroticism in art forms. Their violent opposition to the paintings of MF Hussain and Shivaji Panikkar are well-known by now. The truth however is, that the pre-modern India had no hangups about explicit representations of erotics in art and literature in public spaces. Too often the mention has been made of Khajuraho in this context. But this culture of accepting explicit eroticism as “normal” goes back to the Harappa civilisation ie, the earliest phase of Indian history. We have numerous figurines from this civilisation, including the famous and much-published “dancing girl,” which are sculpted in the nude. In the early historical period and later, we also have the cult images of Lajja Gauri (also called Aditi, Renuka and Adya Shakti), which shows a headless nude goddess in birth-giving posture with a blooming lotus on her neck. This is thought to be a form of the Goddess related to the fertility cult. Then we have the famous and beautiful Sanchi and Barhut Yakshis and the numerous nude women sculpted on temple walls and painted in Rajput miniatures. A very popular representation was that of a woman drying herself after bath in complete nude state and a figure of a prince secretly watching the scene from a hidden spot in the panel. And let’s not forget the Kamasutra.

Those who think that this explicit eroticism is “anti-Indian,” don’t know the history of their civilisation well. In fact, ths eroticism also forms the basis behind many devotional cultic idioms that focus on the union between the divine and the devotee by using these explicit erotic imageries in their thought and expression.

The Krishna cult especially lends itself to the culture of expressive eroticism. numerous poetic texts were composed and painted, describing the love-play between Radha and Krishna, which was also symbolic of the union betwen the devotee and the deity. This was perhaps most beautifully and sensitively expressed in Gita Govinda – a 12th century poetic text composed by the Oriya poet Jaidev in beautiful lyrical Sanskrit. In its 24 eight-stanza poems called Ashtapadi, this text beautifully and explicitly captures the love-making of Radha and Krishna. This text has also been the backbone of the exquisite classical dance form of Orissa called Odissi – also describd as lyrical sculpture in movement because of the poses it uses from temple iconography. The poetry from Gita Govinda that is sung with this dance expressively talks about the amorous exploits of Radha and Krishna and the dancer enacts these on stage through beautiful, stylised dance poses, gestures and emotional expressions. If one can understand what is being sung with the dance, the emotional enjoyment of this dance form by the viewer reaches its zenith. For example, following is an excerpt from a dance recital from an Ashtapadi from Gita Govinda, which shows Radha narrating her first love-making with Krishna and her desire to unite with him – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W52DuhqBRo

In fact, the entire pre-modern tradition laid a lot of stress on developing the Sringara Rasa in poetry, fine arts and classical dance and theatre forms of India and anyone familiar with these forms of cultural expressions is so well-aware with the explicit eroticism in these forms that often one doesn’t even notice the “explicitness” of eroticism there because one gets so used to it – and it was considered to be normal in pre-modern times, no one really objecting to it. I didn’t realise this myself, so used to I have been of continuously seeing these explicitly expressive images that this normal acceptance of these images in pre-modern India has come to the West only after radical intellectual movements there. This dawned upon me one day when I was teaching about the Goddess cult in class including some students fom Europe and North America, when one student exclaimed at the following image I showed them – “but she is almost naked”! I had seen the photograph of this beautiful 8th century sculpture from Aihole in Karnataka hundreds of times, never once thinking she was “almost naked”!

I looked back at the slide show on the screen and said in a natural voice – “Yes, so what?” I didn’t realise this was any unusual aspect to be pointed out – I took it as normal – and I saw the look of bewilderment on these students’ faces. Then suddenly it occurred to me – these students, coming from a culture that has traditionally liked to show a woman almost completely covered, were not familiar with the idea that a pre-modern image could have shown a woman’s body not really covered – this was a feature of modernity for them, a sign of women’s liberation and for us, it was tradional normalcy, nothing special! And this image is not even as explicit as many other images from pre-modern India. Then I decided to give them a lecture on this theme, how erotic and explicit cultural expression had been a common feature in India, till the colonial norms changed everything. And they really liked this lecture – even wrote and discussed about it in their assignments.

What is of importance here is that these expressions were not only accepted in pre-modern India, they were part of the devotional religiosity of this country. And no one raised an eyebrow over them. We wouldn’t have had such a rich cultural tradition if people had gone around destroying all such expressions, beautifully and emotionally composed, painted, sculpted and enacted.

The biggest irony is that the negative association with the explicit eroticism started in the Colonal period when India received the Victorian norms of behaviour as “ideal” from Europe. The first Europeans who came in contact with the erotic expressiveness in India thought these were obscene and tried to mould the cultural expression of India according to their then prevailing norms. Indians in response, attempted to modify their normative expressions to suit the “ideal” that was placed before them – and hence, this entire discourse on the erotic expression as objectionable evolved. Till then, erotic expression in India had always been beautiful. Today, those who don’t understand this history react against the erotic expressiveness in India as “anti-Indian”! Another irony is that Europe itself has moved away from those Victorian norms today and India has kind of institutionalised them in the form of “Indian tradition”!

8 Responses to “Hello World! Religion and Erotics in Traditional India”
  1. Archana says:

    I have posted the link of an Odissi recital on this post. Since the poetry that is being sung with the dance is in Sanskrit, I give below the translation of these verses by timeline and also the way they exist in the Gita Govinda. Their erotic association is beyond doubt, when you know the verses being sung.

    Translation –
    Setting – Radha is talking to her friend about her desire to meet Krishna and narrates her first love-making with him.
    0.00 – 1.05
    “One night I went to meet him in his bower in the forest grove (3 times). He hid himself and I began to look for him all around,…
    1.06 – 1.36
    …feeling bewildered and anxious at not finding him there (Twice). Then, suddenly he appeared before me, laughing at my bewilderment!”
    “O friend, Krishna who killed the Keshi demon is a generous soul.”(Refrain)
    2.02 – 3.13
    “During our first meeting, I was naturally shy (3 times).
    3.13 – 3.35
    Seeing this, he spoke sweet words to me softly and made me feel comfortable (Twice).
    3.35 – 4.02
    When I was relaxed, Krishna shrewdly pulled the garment from my hips.”
    4.03 – 4.35
    “O friend, Krishna who killed the Keshi demon is a generous soul.”(Refrain – 3 times)
    4.36 – 5.03
    “During our love-making, my gems-studded anklets began to ring (Twice).
    5.04 – 6.06
    My gems-studded anklets
    My gems-studded anklets
    My gems-studded anklets…
    (Several times)
    (Rest of the stanza is not included in this video)

    The way these verses exist in the Gita Govinda –
    Setting – Radha is talking to her friend about her desire to meet Krishna and narrates her first meeting with him.
    “One night I went to meet him in his bower in the forest grove. He hid himself and I began to look for him all around, feeling bewildered and anxious at not finding him there. Then, suddenly he appeared before me, laughing at my bewilderment!”
    “O friend, I hope Krishna who killed the Keshi demon and who is a generous soul unites with me, knowing about my desire to have a union with him.” (Refrain)
    “During our first meeting, I was naturally shy. Seeing this, he spoke sweet words to me softly and made me feel comfortable. When I was relaxed, Krishna shrewdly pulled the garment from my hips.”
    “O friend…”
    (After several stanzas describing their love-play)
    “During our love-making, my gems-studded anklets began to ring. My waist-band that made a jingling sound came off as Krishna caught my braid and repeatedly kissed my face.”
    “O friend…”
    Note – Keshi demon – Krishna as a child killed a demon called Keshi who was in the form of a horse.

  2. JAYDEEP says:

    celebration of the body may be the oriental invention! ‘Sringara Rasa’ is the key to look at the aspects of joyous consciousness of the body as the medium of senses!
    well worked out!

  3. Arati says:

    This article reminds me Romila Thapar’s book “Sakuntala. Texts, Readings, Histories” where while taking different texts on Sakuntala into account, she draws a similar conclusion. Interestingly the book gives reference of earlier version of Sakuntala stories, which appear much prior to Kalidasa’s Sakuntala and then it shows how in the course of time through Brahminical culture and Victorian values Sakuntala’c character changes.

  4. Archana says:

    Thanks Jaydeep. That’s an important observation.

  5. Archana says:

    Thanks Arati. Her Shakuntala is my favourite too – perhaps I have been influenced by that.

  6. Wendy says:

    Your articles are deep.

  7. Anon says:

    What a pervert!

  8. Archana says:

    Thanks, Wendy and welcome!

    What’s so pervert about it? If it happens in the West, it’s liberation of women. If it happens in India, it’s pervert. Why this difference?

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