Views On Sex, Sexuality, And Gender Throughout Indian History

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

  • India Was The First Culture To Openly Provide Sexual Education
    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. 

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

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

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

  • A Tantric Ritual May Have Evolved Into A Secret Late-Night Orgy Game
    Photo: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Tantric Ritual May Have Evolved Into A Secret Late-Night Orgy Game

    In a tangential section of an article on devadasi (the marrying of pre-pubescent girls to a deity or temple, after which she essentially becomes a prostitute priests, pilgrims, or the upper caste), Dr. K. Jamanadas writes: 

    "[A] game of 'ghat kanchuki'. It is described in the Hindu sastras as 'chakrapuja'. M.M. Dr. P. V. Kane has described it in his 'dharma sastra cha itihas'. He describes that, an equal number of men and women assemble secretly in the night, without any consideration of caste or relationship, and sit around a paper on which 'chakra' is drawn as a symbol of goddess. All the women remove their cholis and put it in a pot, and every man picks up a choli at random and selects his partner for the night. A Hindu Tantrika text, 'Kularnava Tantra', he says, mentions that God has ordered that, what ever good or bad transpires that night must never be disclosed. Kane had heard in his childhood that this puja was practiced in some cities in Maharashtra."

    Various online sources have taken this passage to mean the history of India was rife with clandestine late-night orgies. However, as Rajmani Tigunait writes in Tantra Unveiled: Seducing the Forces of Matter & Spirit, chakra puja was a complex tantric ritual undertaken to gain access to higher consciousness. Known as the left-hand path, the practice involves: sitting in a circle; consuming meat, liquor, and fish; performing specific mudras (gestures); and doing the deed.

    As Tigunait explains, "The left-hand path is controversial, and those who are not familiar with the scriptures and the oral tradition believe that it advocates drunkenness and orgies. This is a gross distortion". 

  • The Arrival Of Muslim Rules Changed Aspects Of Public Sexuality And Gender In Northern India
    Photo: Master of the Jainesque Shahnama / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Arrival Of Muslim Rules Changed Aspects Of Public Sexuality And Gender In Northern India

    In the 13th century, Muslim conquerors arrived in northern India and established a Sultanate (more or less analogous to an empire) in Delhi. It should be understood that everything mentioned herein regarding their impact on Indian society was restricted to areas under their influence. As John Keay points out in his book India: A History, the subcontinent is so large that, until it was unified as a single, federally governed area by the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, its history cannot be understood as singular. 

    The impact of the Sultanate on sexuality in India is complex. In some cases, it was restrictive. For instance, the Sultanate imposed purdah, "the seclusion of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing (including the veil) and by the use of high-walled enclosures, screens, and curtains within the home", a clear restriction on the open sexuality of women. Meanwhile, in the sweltering tropical heat of south India, women sometimes went out in public with their chests bared.

    In 1236,  a woman, Razia Sultana, succeeded her father as head of the Delhi Sultanate, wielding an unprecedented amount of power for a woman at the time. She wore men's clothes, rode about in public on an elephant, and ignored purdah

    The Ananga-Ranga was commissioned by Ladakhana, a Muslim. The text was a double-edged sword: it essentially ignores female pleasure, making it retrogressive when compared to the previous book, though did allow for open discussion of sexuality and relationships.