Weird History
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Views On Sex, Sexuality, And Gender Throughout Indian History

Updated November 26, 2018 52.7k views11 items

Indian written works and art dealing with sexuality, gender, and relationships date back thousands of years. The subcontinent has a relatively well documented history of sexuality, and that history is long, complicated, and at times contradictory. India is generally considered the first place to provide education in sexuality and relationships, and produced ancient texts promoting female pleasure. It's also a place where, in certain empires, women were secluded and covered, and where widows were forced to go up in flames on their husband's pyre. 

The history of humans in the India subcontinent is extensive, complex, and overflowing with civilizations, cultures, languages, religions, and globally significant figures (the historical Buddha, for instance). Comprehensive accounts of this history are typically subdivided into mega eras, each of which is broken into its most significant epochs, which are explained through further sub-categories; such obsessive regulation is necessary, given the enormity of the land (about the size of western Europe) and its history. Early humans arrived as many as 70,000 years ago, and India's first major civilizations flourished in the 3rd millennium BCE. Documentation on physical relations in India covers ancient civilization (c. 3300 BCE - c. 650 CE) as well as the medieval (c. 650 - 1526 CE) and/or early modern (1526 - 1858 CE) eras.   

The people of India have a history of openly embracing sexuality, much of it intrinsically tied to religion. If surviving artifacts and written works are honest indications, lovemaking in ancient Indian culture was highly sensual, involving open relationships, erotic texts and artwork, and tantalizing games. Any history of sex in India would be remiss not examine the Kama Sutra, an ancient text on navigating love, relationships, and sexuality that famous includes a lot of suggested positions. Given its geographical location - isolated by mountains across the north and oceans all around its massive peninsula - India developed as a unique region. Though there was regular contact with the civilizations around it, including ancient Greek and Rome, India's is, like China's, a continuous civilization, and should be considered apart from civilizations of the ancient world, such as Greece or Rome

  • Photo: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    India Was The First Culture To Openly Provide Sexual Education

    India is widely considered the first place to teach sex education, thanks to texts like the Kama Sutra and Ananga-Ranga, and the vast amount of artwork produced. Education in this context differs from education in the modern context; the term should be understood very loosely here. Teachers weren't convening classes and creating curriculum to educate the masses, but rather authors, and in some cases, rulers, created resources anyone with access could use to learn about sexuality.  

    Rather than learning about AIDS and condoms, people in India used texts and art to cultivate a holistic view, from basics like what goes where and how should this-and-that be touched to complex philosophical ideas such as how sensuality should work within, and outside of, relationships. Those not literate enough to read and consider the lessons of the manual (which was written in notoriously difficult-to-understand Sanskrit) could at least learn about the human body, different ways of doing it, and positions from illustrations and sculpture. 

  • Photo: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Advocating The Importance Of Female Pleasure Such That It Recommends Women Not Pleased By Their Husbands Seek Additional Lovers

    It's more or less impossible to know whether the advice of an ancient text was acted upon by anyone over the course of history, though the existence of that text makes clear that at least someone was thinking about the ideas presented therein. The contents may indicate how its author (Vātsyāyana) wanted readers to behave sexually more than the actual sexual behavior of people at the time of its release, but the fact remains that the text exists, and may be indicative of sexual behavior in ancient India (the text was written in the third century CE).

    A sutra, of which countless exist, is a treatise. Kama translates roughly from Sanskrit as "desire/love/pleasure/sex". Among other things, the guide advocates seeking pleasure outside relationships when necessary. As history professor and author Anne Hardgrove writes

    "What is especially unique about the [book] is that it maintains a special focus on creating pleasure for the woman. A man who fails to provide and bring about those pleasures is subject to a woman's recourse, that is, to seek pleasure elsewhere where she may find it."

    As Devadatta Shastri notes in his appendix to the book:

    "Vātsyāyana has said that a man who comes too soon should first excite the woman and make her wet by means other than intercourse. Such a way of proceeding satisfies first a man and a woman."

  • Photo: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Ananga-Ranga Was A Widely Accessible, More Male-Centered Update

    As historian Anne Hardgrove writes

    "As the 'original' study of sexuality, the book became the fountainhead of all subsequent compilations, including the 15th century Ananga-Ranga which is a revised version and builds upon Vatsyayana's basic tenets. Yet because of the complex and rather inaccessible style of Sanskrit in which it was written, the previous book for many centuries fell into obscurity."

    The Ananga-Ranga was more accessibly written than its predecessor by Hindu poet Kalyanamally, and commissioned by Ladakhana, a Muslim ruler. It was easily available in the India's Muslim Sultanates of the medieval era, and offered advice on marriage and sexuality. Hardgrove details the books contents: 

    "It begins with a detailed description of female bodies, and includes 'centers of passion,' erogenous zones, classifications of body types and the timeliness of their potential sexual pleasures. Classification and compatibility of males and females by their genital size is explored in various combinations and to their degree of passion. Many scholars speculate that Kalyanamalla lived in a more sexist society than earlier writers, noting that Kalyanamalla deviates from other writers by neglecting to provide normative advice for producing women's pleasure, such as the use of fingers, a method that other texts heartily endorse."

  • Photo: Immanuel Giel / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Practitioners Of Ancient Esoteric Indian Tantric Rituals Aim To Achieve Higher Consciousness And Divinity Through Meditation

    Merriam Webster defines tantra as "one of the later Hindu or Buddhist scriptures dealing especially with techniques and rituals including meditative and sexual practices; also, the rituals or practices outlined in the tantra".

    Tantric rituals are esoteric and ancient, their roots buried deep in the dense thicket of Indian religion, where intertwine Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Brahmanism, and the Vedas. Practicing tantra requires serious devotion and concentration, and is oriented on the goal of awakening dormant parts of the self or divine beings located within the self with the aim of achieving higher consciousness. In some instances, this is achieved, at least in part, through the act. However, the primary focus of tantric studies is forms of meditation.  

    As psychiatrist and author Dr. Judith Orloff puts it:

    "Tantra is a potent Hindu system that teaches the art of love by combining passion and spirit. Westerners often see this as linear, the goal being orgasm, but tantra views sexual love as a sacrament and an energy exchange between two people. According to tantra, orgasm isn’t simply a physical release. Using specific positions, you move energy upward from the genitals to nourish and purify your whole being."

    Tantra has been practiced throughout Indian history, though shouldn't be taken as indicative of mainstream sexuality at any point. Rather, it was practiced by devout acolytes who worked in tandem with an experienced teacher to achieve direct connection to divinity.