It’s hard to say, generically, what Hinduism says about sex. Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world, “with no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings.” So it’s a challenge to compile, in a general sense, what the sex lives of Hindus are like. Not all Hindus believe the same things, and there are also, like with most major world religions, liberal and conservative viewpoints to consider.
That said, there is a long, long history of Hindu sex beliefs, dating back centuries. Whether or not modern Hindus still follow these beliefs is a different story. With 900 million practitioners and no generally agreed-upon “rules” of sexual conduct, it’s important not to pigeonhole all Hindus as “believing” one thing or another. With that out of the way: here’s a look at what some Hindus, at least, believe about sex and sexuality.
As Rajesh Sampath put it in an editorial in The Washington Post in 2015: “India has outlawed homosexuality. But it’s better to be transgender there than in the U.S.” In 2014, the Supreme Court of India “abolished the binary gender system, creating a protected third gender that covers not only transgender people, but also intersex (who have both male and female anatomy) and eunuchs (who have neither male nor female anatomy).” Collectively, people who are this “third gender” are called “hijra.” The court even cited Hinduism’s “mythological diversity that has normalized multiple gender identities” as a reason for doing so! (But yes, homosexuality is indeed still a crime, so it’s not like Hinduism is super-progressive.)
According to Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough’s Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia (a wonderful Valentine’s Day gift, by the way), Hinduism “celebrates sexual pleasure as a value in its own right, to be enjoyed for what it brings the participants.” Sexual pleasure (Bhoga) is considered as one of two paths “leading to nirvana, the Buddha, and final deliverance” (Yoga, or spiritual exercise, is the other).
Transcendence in Hinduism is achieved “by integration and increased awareness of the totality of one’s mental, sensual, and erotic experiences.” Transcendence “in much of Christian mythology,” in contrast to Hinduism, is achieved through an “ascetic denial of the senses, especially one’s sexual impulses.”
As Brendan Koerner notes in a 2004 article for Slate, none of the sacred texts of Hinduism condemn homosexuality the way, say, Leviticus 18:22 does. There’s this reference in the Laws of Manu (an ancient legal text): "A twice-born man [a man of a higher caste] who commits an unnatural offence with a male, or has intercourse with a female in a cart drawn by oxen, in water, or in the day-time, shall bathe, dressed in his clothes." Hindu theologians, however, question the importance of the Laws of Manu, and, to quote Koerner, “lower-caste Hindus, in particular, question whether the text was written by Brahmins in order to reinforce the social status quo.”
Liberal Hindus point to a cross-dressing Krishna (pictured) in the Mahabharata (a Sanskrit epic) and “a lengthy section on homosexual fellatio” in the Kama Sutra as evidence of the religion’s historical tolerance of LGBTQ lifestyles (although neither the Mahabharat nor the Kama Sutra, it must be noted, are religious texts). Many conservative Hindus are intolerant of homosexuality “in part because of the religion's emphasis on the sanctity of marriage and its strong disapproval of premarital sex” and their belief that marriage should be about producing “progeny so as to perpetuate the family line.”
Traditionally, sex is meant to be between married couples in Hindu culture, according to the BBC, but “the attitudes of some Hindus are changing where Hindus live in societies with more liberal attitudes.” Sex is considered a good, pleasurable thing in the Hindu faith, and is to be enjoyed during the “householder stage of life,” also known as Grihastha. As in most world religions, faithfulness in marriage is expected. Following the Hindu Ashram system, marriage is expected by the age of 24.