Indian culture’s attitude toward sex vs. Christian Morality

Let us begin with the assumption that our stories about Indra and the Gandharvas are just that: stories, authored by human beings, without truth-content. (That is to say, they are neither true nor false.) When human beings write stories, their imagination is (partially) constrained by their societies, cultures and the times they live in. None quite knows how exactly the latter constrain human imagination even though the extant theories about myths try to explicate this relation: some see in them a mirroring of society, some see in them a disguised historiography or sociology, some see in them a personification of virtues, and so on. Because this issue is not settled yet, I shall presuppose the truth of none of the theories about myths that dot the landscape. However, I take the ‘constraint’ I spoke about to incorporate the following minimal claim: the myths suggest that some attitudes fall within the limits (or transgress them, as the case may be) of the cultures whose myths they are. Under this assumption, let me isolate some of the attitudes that come to the fore if we look at our stories about apsaras.

Different kinds of sentient creatures (different species?) populate the cosmos, ranging from the human through the Rakshasa to the Gandharva. Marriages are a matter for the traditions which one belongs to. However, no one tradition is privileged above the others in matters of marriage: a human being could use any tradition of marriage and have his/her group accept the validity of such a marriage. One could also marry the Rakshasas (Bhima with Hidembe) and procreate with them (Ghatotkacha): neither the marriage nor the progeny are discriminated against. The stories of Arjuna, Bhima, Vishwamitra etc. tell us that one could inter-marry across sentient creatures (species?). (If that is the case, inter-jati marriages, which are marriages between human beings, are neither revolutionary nor prohibited.) In so far as sex is concerned, sex between different kinds of sentient creatures is not prohibited. If we combine this with the Indian conceptions of sentience and add the notion of species to it, we get the following:  sex with species other than human beings is not a matter of ethical injunctions. (Perhaps, that is the reason why Kamasutra reports sex between human beings and other species without expressing any moral indignation.) In that case, the latter is not a perversion. (Contrast the Biblical injunctions about sex with this attitude.)

Prostitution exists everywhere, including among devas. If prostitution is so ubiquitous that it exists among both human communities and the devas, then one cannot abolish it by prohibiting it. A married creature (an apsara) could be a prostitute without affecting her status among the devas. Consequently, neither occasional nor systematic adultery is a matter of ethical judgement purely on the basis of adultery alone. Rishis could have sex and marry (temporarily); this did not affect their status. Just because a woman sleeps with multiple men and procreates with each one of them (Draupadi, the apsaras), she does not lose her ‘purity’ (‘pavitrya’). That is to say, sex is not subject to ethical norms or injunctions; it cannot be constrained and morally condemned. It can only be guided and made cultured and civilized. Furthermore, if apsaras also marry, this means that we could also have married prostitutes. One could be a wife and a prostitute without violating ethical injunctions. In that case, the ‘prostitute’ does not function as a contrast set to ‘wife’ in the Indian traditions.

These are merely some of the many more attitudes suggested by our stories about apsaras. I consider such attitudes extremely liberating, very enlightened, and completely non-coercive. It is my hunch that such attitudes prevent (if prevention is possible) the emergence of sexual perversions in society. It channelizes the human sexual instinct into civilized forms without brutalizing human beings in the process. I really do think that the attitude of Indian culture towards sex far surpasses anything we know today: neither Freud nor the ‘sexual liberation’ of the 60’s can even hold a candle to what I have learned from an ‘orthodox’ upbringing in India. Calling apsaras as “prostitutes in the court of Indra” does not demean the nature of Indian traditions or culture. It merely recognizes our intellectuals for what they were: extraordinarily perceptive and humane in their attitudes towards fellow human beings.

  • Umang Dixit

    This all may be true but how de we revive this in the India of today? Attitudes among contemporary Indians are extremely prudish and the expression of the sexual impulse exists only in brutish form.