History of sex in India

Human sexual behaviour in India has been influenced by different attitudes and opinions over time.


Sexual liberalism in a society can be defined as how tolerant or pluralistic that society is to open sexual behavior and different sexual tastes or practices. It is generally seen that societies that hold conservative attitudes towards sexuality also tend to suffer from a lack of general freedom of expression, which in turn is often associated with a lack of economic, democratic and religious freedom. However, the actual ideological makeup of sexual conservatism differs from culture to culture. Thus, abortion may be stigmatised in one culture by sexual conservatives while tolerated or even advocated by comparable groups in another.


The seeming contradictions of Indian attitudes towards sex can be best explained through the context of history. India played a significant role in the history of sex, from writing the first literature that treated sexual intercourse as a science, to in modern times being the origin of the philosophical focus of new-age groups' attitudes on sex. It may be argued that India pioneered the use of sexual education through art and 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.

Ancient times

Indian civilization can be considered amongst the most ancient with the ancient Indus Valley civilization being contemporary to ancient Egypt and Sumer, spreading across modern India and Pakistan at its peak, 4000 years ago. During this period, not much is known about social attitudes toward sex. One thing that has been observed about sexuality in the Indus Valley civilization is the practice of fertility rituals. Early philosophy and theology related to sexuality may have developed during this time.

The first evidence of attitudes towards sex comes from the ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the first of which are perhaps the oldest surviving literature in the world. 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 1400 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 monogomous marriage. It is common in many cultures for a ruling class to practice polygamy as a way of preserving dynastic succession.

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 and women in many parts of ancient India mostly dressed only the lower half of their bodies. Whilst this has changed in modern times, it is likely that taboo against nudity was not present in many Asian, African and South American civilisations and the taboo in Europe is a matter of climatic necessity.

As Indian civilisation further developed over the 1500 years after the births of Buddha and Mahavira, and the writing of the Upanishads around 500 BCE, further historical evidence, art, and literature shows that ancient Indian society was perhaps as sexually tolerant as many modern European and East Asian countries. 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 'love science', was intended as both an exploration of human desire, including seduction and 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.

The Tantric school of Indic/Hindu philosophy formed at some point in this period, and part of the philosophical system was the idea that sex, as a basic and powerful desire experienced by all humans, could be utilised as a way of achieving enlightenment. Some ardent devotees of this system for example might deliberately break sexual taboos that were ridiculed, such as extramarital sex, to master human nature and achieve greater understanding of the universe, their soul. The Tantric tradition spread throughout Asia as far as Japan.

It is also during this period that some of India's most famous ancient works of art were produced, often freely depicting nudity, romantic themes or sexual situations. Examples of this include the depiction of Apsarases, roughly equivalent to nymphs or sirens in European and Arabic mythology, on some ancient temples, which were used to remind people of the romantic duty that married couples should perform as part of dharma. The best and most famous example of this can be seen at the Khajuraho temple complex in central India. Other examples of this classical art include the ancient frescos of various cave temples, such as those at Ajanta.

Delhi Sultanate and Muslim Rule Era

After the foundation of the Delhi Sultanates and the set up of several muslim states in the 14th-15th centuries in India, Islamic customs of the complete/partial covering up of women tarnished the freedom of sexuality that once existed in India. It is not to say that the "Purdah" system became prevalent or was enforced in this period, because there were several Hindu customs which had the same principals - such as the 'ghunghat' of the marwaris of Rajputana. However, it came to be followed more like a staunch rule than a tradition, and ofcourse it must be remembered that this was not an indigenous custom, being in fact imported from the desert lands of Arabia (which required covering of women for totally different and non-religious reasons). There has been strong evidence that Islamic customs of 'burkha' and the likes were not forced among the majority of the then liberal Hindu population.

The Mughal rule saw an interlude of liberalism and forward thinking which was brought to an end in the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, who single-handedly usurped the power of the Ulema and imposed his own tyrannical and puritan version of Islam on a scientific, forward looking people. Non-muslims in the empire were encouraged to follow the muslim customs by way of new laws and other tactics, for instance, the reintroduction of the hated "jiziya" tax (which non Muslims had to pay). The Non-fundamentalist Muslim way of 'blasphemous' liberalism including Sufiism and communities like the Shias, were ridiculed and even punished. These tactics led to mass conversions of Non-Muslims. No mention of Khalsa Sikh battles with this tyrant... during the rule of the tyrant, and Islamic Sharia Law was almost introduced for all Mughal subjects (rather than just Muslims) before Aurangzeb's death, thus resulting in nearly total loss of the liberal way of life that once existed.

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 town 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. Early British exposure to India occurred at a time when Europe was entering the Age of Reason, and so, whilst there was a lot of Protestant discrimination of Hindu beliefs and Indian society along the lines of early Muslim invaders, there was also a significant number of orientalists who saw India as a great civilization, and invented the field of Indology.

However the main moral influence that led to stigmatisation of Indian sexual liberalism by Indians within India itself was the effect of the ideas of the Victorian era, in which other cultures, from European view, were seen as primitive if they did not conform to the ideas of European culture. The pluralism of Hinduism, and its liberal attitudes were condemned as 'barbaric' by a colonial Europe 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 'colonization' 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" civilization.

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 precolonial India had allowed individuals sexual latitude within the home while imposing strict seclusion from public life. This hid sexual abuses such as intimidating relatives into incest and the rape of spouses from public view, but it also left individuals comparatively free to explore their sexual identities. With the influence of colonial morality, women were comparatively freer to mix with men not related to them, but the rules for what could or could not be done in their presence were far harsher. These new ideas of 'temperance' and good conduct overlay and reinforced ancient ideas of asceticism and yogic self-containment, the 'brahmacharya' of ancient tradition.

Countries such as India became more conservative after being influenced by European ideas. At the same time, translations of the Kama Sutra and other 'exotic' texts became available in Europe, where they gained notorious status, and ironically may have triggered early foundations of the sexual revolution in the west.

Modern India

Conservative views of sexuality are now the norm in the modern republic of India, and South Asia in general. This is partly related to the effect of European occupation of the Indian subcontinent, as well as to the puritanical elements of Islam (e.g. the new Islamic fundamentalist Wahabi movement, which has influenced many Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and also many Muslim organisations within India).

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 ironically go through a western-style sexual revolution of its own, especially in cosmopolitan cities.

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. Many sexual issues are used as ways of political parties garnering votes amongst conservative Indians. These issues are also matters of ethical importance in a nation where freedom and equality are guaranteed in the constitution.

Sexuality in popular entertainment

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. Currently, some Indian states show soft-core sexual scenes and nudity in films, whilst other areas don't. Mainstream films are still largely catered for the masses of India, however art films and foreign films containing sexuality are watched by middle-class Indians. Because of the same process of glamourisation of film entertainment that occurred in Hollywood, Indian cinema, mainly the Hindi speaking Bollywood industry, which is the largest film industry in the world, is also beginning to add sexual overtones to films.

Sex industry

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. However, stigmatisation in modern times has left the many poor sex workers with problems of exploitation and rampant infection, including AIDS, and 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. There have been some recent efforts to regulate the Indian sex industry.


India, like China, has a modern AIDS problem, which is partly to do with its immense population, but also a product of poor sexual health education, stigmatisation, and general ignorance. The first case of AIDS in India was reported in 1986, and since then, around 2.5 million people have become infected, most of them without any access to proper care, and many of them unaware they are carrying the disease and infecting others. This is a major problem in India.

See also

Further reading

External links

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