History of sexuality in India

The definition of Sexuality is widely debated and has varied meanings attached to it. The work of Michel Foucault is of central importance when considering the term "Sexuality" and he put forth that 'sexuality ... is a name that can be given to a historical construct', encouraging in some the view that sexuality can be redefined or re-constructed.[1] This page will explore the historical construction of sexuality in the Indian context and how it has been reconstructed over the ages.

Multicultural India has developed its discourse on sexuality differently based on its distinct regions with their own unique cultures. However, one common aspect remains: the existence of a subtle conspiracy of silence and taboos that clouds the Indian world of sexual desires and expressions. The origins of this silence towards India's rich contributions to sexuality and shunning of it almost are to be found in the repurcussions of the colonial rule and of the Bible [2] These shaped the attitude and opinions Indian people hold about their sexuality today; one that is hegemonically hetereosexual and must aim at procreation after marriage. However, from the second half of the 20th century, several significant voices have challenged this silence imposed over sexuality and questioned the roles assigned to desires within the socio-political and artistic fields. Many recently published studies confirm the richness of India's erotic past and popular voices are now spotlighting this for the masses to know. A myriad of folk tales,[3] sculptures like those in Khajuraho,[4][5] religious poetry[6] and scholary documents[7] reveal homoerotic content and how love and sex between women, men, gods, semi-gods and goddesses was expressed.

A Sculpture depicting a sexual Pose

The seeming contradictions of Indian attitudes towards sex (more broadly - sexuality) can be best explained through the context of history. India played a role in shaping understandings the history of sex, and it could be argued that one of the first pieces of literature that treated "Kama" as a science[8] came from the Indian subcontinent. Historically, it may be argued that India pioneered the use of sexual education through various art forms like sculptures,[9] paintings, and pieces of 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. Moreover, it must also be stated that there are distinct cultural differences seen through the course of history across India.

Depictions of Apsaras from the Khajuraho temple

Ancient times

The origins of the current Indian culture can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation, which was contemporaneous with the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations, around 2700BCE. During this period,

The first evidence of attitudes towards sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism. 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 1500 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 both polyandry and polygyny as a way of preserving dynastic succession.

Nudity in art was considered acceptable in southern India, 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 in many parts of ancient India mostly dressed only the lower half of their bodies with clothes and upper part of body was covered by gold and precious stones, jewellery, while women used to wear traditional sarees made of silk and expensive clothes as a symbol of their wealth.

As Indian civilisation further developed over the 1500 years after the births of Mahavira, and the writing of the Upanishads around 500 BCE, 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 'science of love', was intended as both an exploration of human desire, including 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.

It is also during 10th century to 12th century that some of India's most famous ancient works of art were produced, often freely depicting romantic themes and situations. Examples of this include the depiction of Apsaras, roughly equivalent to nymphs or sirens in European and Arabic mythology, on some ancient temples. The best and most famous example of this can be seen at the Khajuraho complex in central India built around 9th to 12th century.

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 civilisation, 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 stigmatised 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 'colonisation' 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" civilisation.

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 pre-colonial India had also respected the home and relationships.

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 in countries like Pakistan (e.g. the Islamic revivalist movements, which has influenced many Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh). However, such views were also prevalent in the pre-colonial era, especially since the advent of Islam in India which brought purdah as ideal for Muslim 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 globalisation, and the proliferation of progressive ideas due to greater education and wealth, India is beginning to go through a western-style sexual revolution of its own, especially in cosmopolitan cities.

Gandhi's impact on the Indian sexuality

Mahatma Gandhi is called the "Father of the nation", and was the leader of the Independence struggle in India. Widely known and respected across India, this figure also shaped the social understanding of sexuality and impacted how the Indian views their individual sexuality today. This public figure known all over the world, was quite candid when dealing with his sexuality in his letters and autobiographical writings. Through these it is evident that Gandhi believed sexual passion engendered all generations - not only parents but children too. He spoke constantly of sex and gave detailed, often provocative, instructions to his followers as to how to they might best observe chastity.[10] The first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, described Gandhi's advice to newlyweds to stay celibate for the sake of their souls as "abnormal and unnatural" shows that some of Gandhi's advice and teachings were contested.[11]

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. These issues are also matters of ethical importance in a nation where freedom and equality are guaranteed in the constitution.

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 do not. Mainstream films are still largely catered for the masses.


Main article: Pornography in India

The distribution and production of pornography are both illegal in India; however, accessing pornography in private is not. Regardless, softcore films have been common since the late 1970s, and many directors have produced them. Magazine publications like Debonair (magazine), Fantasy, Chastity, Royal Magazine, and Dafa 302 exist in India, and more than 50 million Indians are believed to see porn on a daily basis.

Sex industry

Main article: Prostitution in India

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. Unfortunately, however, the stigmatisation that has arisen in modern times has left the many poor sex workers with problems of exploitation and rampant infection, including AIDS, and worse, it has allowed a huge people-trafficking industry, like that of Eastern Europe, to take hold. Many poor young women are kidnapped from villages and sold into sexual slavery.[14][15] There have been some recent efforts to regulate the Indian sex industry.

Sexual abuse of children

In 2007, the India Ministry of Women and Child Development did a survey of children and young adults. Of the survey's respondents, 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, and 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 realise 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.[16][17] 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.

See also

Further reading


  1. Foucault, Michel. (1979) The History of Sexuality.
  2. García-Arroya, Ana. First Indian Reprint: 2010, Alternative Sexualities in India.
  3. Pattanaik, Devdutt. 2002. The Man Who Was A Woman And Other Queer Tales.
  4. LINGIS, ALPHONSO. "KHAJURAHO." Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 62, no. 1, 1979, pp. 52–69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178110.
  5. Allen, James Sloan. "The Mystery of the Smiling Elephant: In the Erotic Temples of Khajuraho." The Georgia Review, vol. 53, no. 2, 1999, pp. 321–340. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41401706.
  6. Kidwai, Saleem and Vanita, Ruth. 2000. In Same-Sex Love in India
  7. Thadani, Giti. 1996. Sakhiyani:Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India
  8. Vātsyāyana, , Richard F. Burton, and ibn M. 'Umar. The Kama Sutra. New York: Diadem Books, 1984. Print.
  9. Sahai,Surendra.1999. Khajuraho: The Art of Love, Prakash Book Depot
  10. SUDHIR KAKAR. 1989. Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality. Gandhi and Women.
  11. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/thrill-of-the-chaste-the-truth-about-gandhis-sex-life-1937411.html
  12. "Savita Bhabhi's creator comes clean, reveals identity | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis". dnaindia.com. Retrieved 2015-03-21.
  13. "Avnish Bajaj back in Safe Harbors". India Law and Tech Blog.
  14. "Sex workers to combat trafficking, BBC News, 2001". news.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2015-03-21.
  15. "HIV fears over trafficked Nepal sex workers, BBC News, 2007". news.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2015-03-21.
  16. "Sawf.org". sawf.org. Retrieved 2015-03-21.
  17. "The Cry of Child Sexual Abuse by Aditi De". boloji.com. Retrieved 2015-03-21.
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