Prudery is a byproduct of civilization. Cavemen cannot be imagined as subject to this subtle vice. They were protected by a natural honesty. Later on, in the progressive development of human life through different phases, sex became taboo. The sacred became contrasted with the profane, in the name of unseen values. Doctrines of original sin and man’s fall from his birthright of purity, and salvation through grace or merit began to influence the human conscience. Sex and sin have been considered almost synonymous in the religious context. The happy state of natural innocence was over-covered by guilt-sense obsessions and repressions from which humanity has continued to suffer, and from which, to a large extent, humanity still suffers.
When sex became a matter of shame rather than one of pride as with ancient peoples, marriage became discredited in favor of celibacy. Women became despised. A married saint was an exception. Much sex hypocrisy, however, passed unnoticed under the cloak of monasticism. To consider sex as necessary or normal smacks of paganism or heresy even today. It was only recently that Freudian psychology entered by the back door of academic life and created a stir. Notions about sex and sin are being revised drastically by the modern generation. It is time to rethink of this matter with thoroughness.
The Absolute as Eros
Vedic texts are not religious in the same sense that Christianity follows, because their “paganism” is sometimes shockingly sexy. Even when the Vedas give place to Upanishads which hold up the models of wisdom and renunciation, this Vedic attitude to sex has persisted. Max Muller preferred to translate some too honest Upanishadic passages into Latin rather than plain English, like the other parts of the text, in the name of decency. The Bhagavad Gita which continues and upholds the Vedic tradition and way of life in a revalued form goes even as far as to state that the Absolute itself consists of Kama, the erotic value-factor, when not against righteous conduct (VII. 11).
“O best of the Bharatas, in strong persons, I am their strength devoid of desire and passion. I am sexual activity not conflicting with virtue or scriptural injunctions.”
Cupidity and concupiscence are not such sins as the active objective aspects of desire or anger such as implied in rajas, the active pursuit of desire. (The subtle difference between the two forms of desire or attachment is clearly implied in the Gita:
“But whosoever, controlling the senses by the mind, O Arjuna, engages his organs-of-action in Karma Yoga, without attachment, he excels.”
When we touch the stratum prior to the Vedas, sex looms large in it. The worship of the phallus (lingam) is an unmistakable indication. This tendency has culminated in the androgynous god Siva who is an unrepressed Bacchus in whom sex attains to a high sanctity. In him male and female meet in a Sex which is with a capital S.
Some ancient South Indian temples have images of divinities to whom nudism is normal, and representations of sexual intercourse in frieze or panel are so common that passers-by take them for granted, while even a modern tourist boasting of “free morals” might well be shocked out of his wits by them. The subtle dialectical interplay between the profane and the sacred as preserved in such ancient places of worship is at least the joy of the dilettante at present.
In and through the bane and taboo of sex, however, it persists and flourishes in the very precincts of religion. Erotic mysticism has its place at the core of the sacred scriptures themselves. The Song of Songs of the Bible and Gita Govinda (aptly translated Indian Song of Songs by Sir Edwin Arnold) are glaring examples of this ironical phenomenon. The Pastoral Krishna’s morality with the cowherd girls cannot be easily explained away by Hindu apologists who wish to see their favorite deity appear more respectable in the eyes of other critics. This is because they are beginning to forget the idiom or language proper to contemplative mysticism. Vyasa takes the extra effort in his Srimad Bhagavatham to point out the true meaning behind Rasa leela (Krishna’s affair with the cowherd girls) — Just as a child plays at its own will with its reflection in a mirror, even so with the help of His Yogamaya Bhagavan Sri Kṛiṣhṇa sported with the Gopis, who were like many shadows of His own form.
Due place for Sex
Whether sex made men feel morally or spiritually inferior or superior, it has been present all through and has exerted its pressure in human life almost uniformly from the beginning. Talk of controlling it or suppressing it is out of the question. (The Gita recognizes this verity of the irrepressible nature of vital tendencies in chapter III.33:
“Even a man of wisdom behaves in conformity with this own nature. All creation goes on subject to nature. Of what avail is control?”
Human decency makes us ashamed of it and we vainly try to abolish it, but the more intelligent way would be to give it its due place in human life and to take full advantage of its potentialities to raise the level of human goodness and perfection.
Bergson’s epoch-making work touched the core of the problem in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, as the title itself indicates. He established here that there is a mystical morality which is free, dynamic and open, as opposed to a social morality which is closed, static and obligatory in character.
The Epic of Kalidasa
A supreme example of a whole epic composition devoted to this subject is found in The Birth of the War God (Kumara-sambhava) of Kalidasa.
Here we return again to the story of the ancient people’s god Siva, whom stone-language and myth conceived as androgynous. Here in this epic, one of the twin aspects of the Absolute as represented by the Daughter of Himalaya (Parvati), representing nature, meets Siva the Supreme Man (Purusa) — representation of Spirit. Resulting from their union is the positive spiritual principle Subrahmanya or Kumara who is also known as the “War God” in Sanskrit as the vanquisher of all dark forces or forces of relativism. He represents the victory of the Absolute.
The striking feature of this epic that we should notice here is that Siva burnt to ashes Eros the God of Love. The sharp tragic note is at the core of the epic. Sex or love of a different order, however, pervades the whole epic and every metaphor or figure of speech reveals a philosophical scheme of reality into which sacred love enters to reveal the good, the true or the beautiful in life. Sex in its most intimate aspects is not excluded from the string of graded interests which the master-poet fingers alternatingly.
The dialectical paradox round which the epic is constructed consists of the fact that while the flame emitted by the middle eye of Siva tragically reduces Kama (Eros) to ashes as Rati (the consort of Eros) watches on weeping and voices of unseen spectators call for mercy through the winds, Siva himself is not without his love affair with Parvati. This develops at the pace of eternal becoming. Parvati undergoes long penances for the favour of Siva in the forest where he meditates.
After long austerities, standing in neck-deep water or in scorching sun or in rain, emaciated, with pallor invading all but the redness of her lips, Parvati makes an offering to Siva in meditation in mid-forest. The eyes of Siva open in sympathy that has nothing but sacred love implicit in it, but when the eyes light inadvertently on the red lips of Parvati, Kama (Eros) is about to assert himself readily aiming an arrow at Siva at that moment of rare advantage.
The God meets the situation by the burning of Kama with all tragic vehemence or indignation. This inner happening, depicted in overt epic form, gives us the secret of this noble poem, in which Love or Sex with a capital letter that knows no decrease, is contrasted with sex that passes and fades like summer’s blossoms.
Relativist and Absolutist values with sex and love as its central items are here juxtaposed, compared and contrasted masterfully. Sex attains a sacred status here. Art, philosophy, morals and mysticism come together to accomplish this task. The subtle dialectical interplay of sex and love values can be seen in this composition to weave the fabric of a sheer joy which is sublime and sacred at once, in spite of sex or love being the central interest.
The principle of sacrifice (yajna) referred to in the Gita which the Creator put into human beings at the very start of creation, is the potent factor which can lift mere sex and transform its value contemplatively into something noble and sublime. Sex has to be canalized and made to flow through contemplative channels. Hindu Dharmashastras warns us against procreation which is out of mere lust. It is emphasized that the act should be fully conscious and treated sacred. The attitude must be same as offering oblations to the sacred fire kindled for worship. It is here that Love and Sex attains its highest status.