Home | Title Index | Topic Index | Expert Directory | News Releases | Calendar | Articles  

History of sex in India

Human sexual behaviour in India has been influenced by different attitudes and opinions over time.


[edit] History

A Sculpture depicting a sexual Pose

The seeming contradictions of Indian attitudes towards sex can be best explained through the context of history. India played a significant role in the history of sex, from writing the first literature that treated sexual intercourse as a science, to in modern times being the origin of the philosophical focus of new-age groups' attitudes on sex. It may be argued that India pioneered the use of sexual education through art and literature. As in all societies, there was a difference in sexual practices in India between common people and powerful rulers, with people in power often indulging in hedonistic lifestyles that were not representative of common moral attitudes.

Depictions of Apsaras from the Khajuraho temple

[edit] Ancient times

Indian culture can be considered amongst the most ancient, with the ancient Indus Valley civilization being contemporary to ancient Egypt and Sumer, spreading across modern India and Pakistan at its peak, 4000 years ago. During this period, not much is known about social attitudes toward sex. One thing that has been observed about sexuality in the Indus Valley civilization is the practice of fertility rituals. Early philosophy and theology related to sexuality may have developed during this time.

The first evidence of attitudes towards sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the first of which are perhaps the oldest surviving literature in the world. These most ancient texts, the Vedas, reveal moral perspectives on sexuality, marriage and fertility prayers. The epics of ancient India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which may have been first composed as early as 1400 BCE, had a huge effect on the culture of Asia, influencing later Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and South East Asian culture. These texts support the view that in ancient India, sex was considered a mutual duty between a married couple, where husband and wife pleasured each other equally, but where sex was considered a private affair, at least by followers of the aforementioned Indian religions. It seems that polygamy was allowed during ancient times. In practice, this seems to have only been practiced by rulers, with common people maintaining a monogamous marriage. It is common in many cultures for a ruling class to practice polygamy as a way of preserving dynastic succession.

Nudity in art, was considered acceptable, as shown by the paintings at Ajanta and the sculptures of the time. It is likely that as in most countries with tropical climates, Indians from some regions did not need to wear clothes, and other than for fashion, there was no practical need to cover the upper half of the body. This is supported by historical evidence, which shows that men and women in many parts of ancient India mostly dressed only the lower half of their bodies. Whilst this has changed in modern times, it is likely that taboo against nudity was not present in many Asian, African and South American civilizations and the taboo in Europe is a matter of climatic necessity.

Artistic depiction of a sex position, described in the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana

As Indian civilization further developed over the 1500 years after the births of Buddha and Mahavira, and the writing of the Upanishads around 500 BCE, further historical evidence, art, and literature shows that ancient Indian society was perhaps as sexually tolerant as many modern European and East Asian countries.[citation needed] It was somewhere between the 1st and 6th centuries that the Kama Sutra, originally known as Vatsyayana Kamasutram ('Vatsyayana's Aphorisms on Love'), was written. This philosophical work on kama shastra, or 'love science', was intended as both an exploration of human desire, including seduction and infidelity, and a technical guide to pleasing a sexual partner within a marriage. This is not the only example of such a work in ancient India, but is the most widely known in modern times. It is probably during this period that the text spread to ancient China, along with Buddhist scriptures, where Chinese versions were written.

The Tantric school of Indic/Hindu philosophy formed at some point in this period, and part of the philosophical system was the idea that sex, as a basic and powerful desire experienced by all humans, could be utilised as a way of achieving enlightenment. Some ardent devotees of this system for example might deliberately break sexual taboos that were ridiculed, such as extramarital sex, to master human nature and achieve greater understanding of the universe, their soul. The Tantric tradition spread throughout Asia as far as Japan.

An ancient fresco from the Ajanta cave complex

It is also during this period that some of India's most famous ancient works of art were produced, often freely depicting nudity, romantic themes or sexual situations. Examples of this include the depiction of Apsarases, roughly equivalent to nymphs or sirens in European and Arabic mythology, on some ancient temples, which were used to remind people of the romantic duty that married couples should perform as part of dharma. The best and most famous example of this can be seen at the Khajuraho temple complex in central India. Other examples of this classical art include the ancient frescos of various cave temples, such as those at Ajanta.

[edit] Delhi Sultanate and Muslim Rule Era

After the foundation of the Delhi Sultanates and the set up of several Muslim states in the 14th-15th centuries in India, Islamic customs of the complete/partial covering up of women changed the approach to sexuality that once existed in India. It is not to say that the "Purdah" system became prevalent or was enforced in this period, because there were several Hindu customs which had the same principals - such as the 'ghunghat' of the marwaris of Rajputana. However, it came to be followed more like a staunch rule than a tradition, and of course it must be remembered that this was not an indigenous custom, being in fact imported from the Arab Peninsula (which required covering of women for totally different and non-religious reasons). There has been strong evidence that Islamic customs of 'burkha' and the likes were not forced among the majority of the then liberal Hindu population.

[edit] Colonial era

At the end of the medieval period in India and Europe, colonial powers such as the Portuguese, British and French were seeking ways of circumventing the Muslim controlled lands of western Asia, and re-opening ancient Greek and Roman trade routes with the fabled rich lands of India, resulting in the first attempts to sail around Africa, and circumnavigate the globe. Various European powers eventually found ways of reaching India, where they allied with various post-Mughal Indian kings, and later managed to annex India.

Although the Portuguese and French had managed to set up some small enclaves in India, such as Goa, where the Catholic inquisition forcibly converted some of the population of the small region to Catholicism, it was the arrival of the British, who managed to annex the entire Indian subcontinent through alliances with various monarchs, that had the largest effect on the culture of India and its attitudes to sex. Rule was indirect at first through the East India Company whose administrators did not necessarily interfere extensively and even took advantage of the tattered remnants of Hindu liberalism in sexual matters, for example through liaisons and by maintaining de facto wives. At the same time there were significant number of orientalists who saw India as a great civilization, invented the field of Indology, and advocated a more accepting point of view.

However the East India Company was progressively brought under the control of the British Parliament and Crown by Acts of Parliament in 1773, 1784, 1786, 1813, 1833 and 1853. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 caused widespread condemnation of the East India Company's alleged shortcomings and the Government of India Act 1858 completely did away with the Company's intermediary role, ushering in the British Raj era of direct rule. This put India much more at the mercy of Britain's official guardians of morality. Victorian values stigmatized Indian sexual liberalism. The pluralism of Hinduism, and its liberal attitudes were condemned as 'barbaric' and proof of inferiority of the East. The effects of British education, administration, scholarship of Indian history and biased literature all led to the effective 'colonization' of the Indian mind with European values. This led some Indians wanting to conform their religious practices and moral values to Victorian ideas of "high" civilization.

A Marriage guide published in Madras Presidency, in 1920s

A number of movements were set up by prominent citizens, such as the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay Presidency, to work for the 'reform' of Indian private and public life. Paradoxically while this new consciousness led to the promotion of education for women and (eventually) a raise in the age of consent and reluctant acceptance of remarriage for widows, it also produced a puritanical attitude to sex even within marriage and the home. The liberality of precolonial India had allowed individuals sexual latitude within the home while imposing strict seclusion from public life. This may have hidden sexual abuses such as intimidating relatives into incest and spousal rape from public view, but it also left individuals freer to explore their sexual identities. With the influence of colonial morality, women were comparatively freer to mix with men not related to them, but the rules for what could or could not be done in their presence were far harsher. These new ideas of 'temperance' and good conduct overlay and reinforced ancient ideas of asceticism and yogic self-containment, the 'brahmacharya' of ancient tradition.

Countries such as India became more conservative after being influenced by European ideas. At the same time, translations of the Kama Sutra and other 'exotic' texts became available in Europe, where they gained notorious status, and ironically may have triggered early foundations of the sexual revolution in the west.

[edit] Modern India

Conservative views of sexuality are now the norm in the modern republic of India, and South Asia in general. It is often argued that this is partly related to the effect of colonial influence, as well as to the puritanical elements of Islam (e.g. the new Islamic fundamentalist Wahabi movement, which has influenced many Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and also many Muslim organizations within India). However, such views were also prevalent in the precolonial era, especially since the advent of Islam in India which brought purdah as ideal for women. Before the gradual spread of Islam largely through the influence of Sufis, there seems to be evidence of liberal attitudes towards sexuality and nudity in art. However, scholars debate the degree to which Islam, as a mass and varied phenomenon was responsible for this shift.

While during the 1960s and 1970s in the west, many people discovered the ancient culture of sexual liberalism in India as a source for western free love movements, and neo-Tantric philosophy, India itself is currently the more prudish culture, embodying Victorian sensibilities that were abandoned decades ago in their country of origin. However, with increased exposure to world culture due to globalization, and the proliferation of progressive ideas due to greater education and wealth, India is beginning to ironically go through a western-style sexual revolution of its own, especially in cosmopolitan cities.

[edit] Current issues

Modern issues that affect India, as part of the sexual revolution, have become points of argument between conservative and liberal forces, such as political parties and religious pressure groups. Many sexual issues are used as ways of political parties garnering votes amongst conservative Indians. These issues are also matters of ethical importance in a nation where freedom and equality are guaranteed in the constitution.

[edit] Sexuality in popular entertainment

Sex in Indian entertainment The entertainment industry is an important part of modern India, and is expressive of Indian society in general. Historically, Indian television and film has lacked the frank depiction of sex; until recently, even kissing scenes were considered taboo. On the other hand, rape scenes or scenes showing sexual assault were shown. Currently, some Indian states show soft-core sexual scenes and nudity in films, whilst other areas don't. Mainstream films are still largely catered for the masses of India, however art films and foreign films containing sexuality are watched by middle-class Indians. Because of the same process of glamorization of film entertainment that occurred in Hollywood, Indian cinema, mainly the Hindi speaking Bollywood industry, which is the largest film industry in the world[citation needed], is also beginning to add sexual overtones.

[edit] Pornography

Distributing and publishing pornography is illegal in India, although such material is reported to be widely available. Accessing pornography apparently is not illegal.

Softcore films have been common since the late 1970s, produced by many directors. Magazine publications like Debonair (magazine), fantasy, chastity, royal magazine, dafa 302 exist in India.


  • Savita Bhabhi [3] is a manga-like erotic cartoon strip about the adventures of a bored and husband-neglected housewife.
  • A Desi Fantasy website solicited and gave access to user-written pornographic narratives but as of 2010 seemed to have disappeared into the ether, leaving behind a compendium in a blog hosted outside India. [4] These narratives are in a mixture of English and romanized Hindi/Urdu. They are notable for situations inside traditional extended families that might be considered incestuous as well as for situations outside traditional families, perhaps documenting the sex lives of Indian yuppies whose lifestyles seem to resemble their western counterparts'.
  • The Information Technology Act, Chapter XI Paragraph 67, the Government of India clearly considers online pornography as a punishable offense. The CEO of the Indian subsidiary of eBay was charged with various criminal offenses for allowing the trading of a CD containing these clips on the website.[1]

[edit] Sex industry

While trade in sex was frowned upon in ancient India, it was tolerated and regulated so as to reduce the damage that it could do. However, stigmatisation in modern times has left the many poor sex workers with problems of exploitation and rampant infection, including AIDS, and has allowed a huge people-trafficking industry like that of Eastern Europe to take hold. Many poor young women are kidnapped from villages—particularly in Nepal—and sold into sexual slavery.[2][3] There have been some recent efforts to regulate the Indian sex industry.

[edit] AIDS

HIV/AIDS in India has a modern AIDS problem, which is partly to do with its immense population, but also a product of poor sexual health education, stigmatisation, and general ignorance. The first case of AIDS in India was reported in 1986, and since then, around 2.5 million people have become infected, most of them without any access to proper care, and many of them unaware they are carrying the disease and infecting others. This is a major problem in India.

[edit] Sexual abuse of children

In 2007 the Ministry of Women and Child Development did a survey of children and young adults. [5] 53.22% of children reported having faced sexual abuse. 5.69% had been sexually assaulted (oral sex or penetration of vagina or anus). 21.90% of child respondents faced severe forms of sexual abuse including assault, exposure or being photographed in the nude. 50.76% reported other forms of sexual abuse including sexual advances in travel or marriage situations, exhibitionism and being forced to view pornographic material. 50% of abusers were known to the children or in a position of trust and responsibility. Most children had not reported the matter.

The authors concluded:

The subject of child sexual abuse is still a taboo in India. There is a conspiracy of silence around the subject and a very large percentage of people feel that this is a largely western problem and that child sexual abuse does not happen in India. Part of the reason of course lies in a traditional conservative family and community structure that does not talk about sex and sexuality at all. Parents do not speak to children about sexuality as well as physical and emotional changes that take place during their growing years. As a result of this, all forms of sexual abuse that a child faces do not get reported to anyone. The girl, whose mother has not spoken to her even about a basic issue like menstruation, is unable to tell her mother about the uncle or neighbour who has made sexual advances towards her. This silence encourages the abuser so that he is emboldened to continue the abuse and to press his advantage to subject the child to more severe forms of sexual abuse. Very often children do not even realize that they are being abused. In a study on Women's Experiences of Incest and Childhood Sexual Abuse conducted by RAHI, some of the respondents have stated that till the questionnaire was administered to them they did not realize that they had been abused as children. They had buried the incident as a painful and shameful one not to be ever told to anyone. Some deep seated fear has always moved Indian families to keep their girls and their 'virginity' safe and many kinds of social and cultural practices have been built around ensuring this. This shows that there is knowledge of the fact that a girl child is unsafe though nobody talks about it. However this fear is only around girls and the safety net is generally not extended to boys. There is evidence from this as well as other studies that boys are equally at risk.

In recent years, movies based in India have addressed the issue of sexual abuse. The 2001 film Monsoon Wedding written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed by Mira Nair had a subplot with a longtime abuser finally confronted.[4][5] And in the Oscar-winning 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, part of the plot involves the protagonist's attempt to rescue his childhood friend and love interest from a gangster who has captured her and intends to sell her virginity. It should be noted, however, that both of these films were produced outside of India.

[edit] See also

[edit] Further reading

[edit] References

[edit] External links

BBC Article on AIDS Awareness in India

Related Articles & Resources

Sexuality Experts

Sexuality: Books and Articles

This article is based on one or more articles in Wikipedia, with modifications and additional content by site editors. This article is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 License (CC-BY-SA) and the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).

Sexsources.ca home page