As Indian films and television increasingly show sexual content there are plenty of commentators extolling this as progress in catching up with the “sexually liberated” West.
But is the West truly sexually liberated? And what does sexual liberation mean in the first place? To understand this question we need to take a look at a sexual history of the West.
Sexual repression is a Christian gift to the world. If we consider art or literature in the pre-Christian era, there is plenty of evidence that sexuality was considered a very normal and natural human impulse. The Greeks certainly had no problem with nudity as seen from their art. Indian art and literature was also clearly very comfortable with sexuality, not only in treatises like the Kamasutra or the extravagant details found in the temples of Khajuraho, but also in other texts such as the Sanskrit dramas or the puranas. We do not find this particular post-Christian shame in talking about the phallus or the vagina, the linga and the yoni. They are dealt with as any other humans organ and both literally and symbolically used for designating procreation and fertility.
Sexuality was both normal, as well as recognized as a powerful energy that could be harnessed with even greater value as a path towards higher consciousness. Indeed, the Divine was often shown as a couple in physical embrace, whether that was Radha-Krisha or Shiva-Parvati. These images were fully sexual and alive, re-iterating the idea the divine union was not a repudiation of the human union; rather human sexuality was a reflection of the divine union on the human plane. Bhakti itself could become an elevated sexuality –Meera could relate to Krishna in terms of sexual longing and various yogas discuss the awakening of the sexual energy.
Christianity’s relationship to sexuality has been far more troubled. Christianity did not understand the idea of different natures of people, with a multiplicity of paths to choose from, as the Indic traditions provided. Secondly, the practices for the proper utilization of sexual energy were absent from the institutional Catholic Church and the very theologians and clergy who were the guides were themselves deeply troubled with their sexuality-something that mere exhortations of faith couldn’t cure. Finally, the sexual shame of the Church patriarchs at their inability to control themselves was projected onto their congregations with an inflated fervor.[i]
In the first century, Paul advocated celibacy for Christians. The early church fathers’ view of sex was closely related to sin. “It was Augustine who epitomized a general feeling among the church fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally disgusting. . . . Arnobiur called it filthy and degrading, Methodius unseemly, Jerome, unclean, Tertullian shameful, Ambrose defilement.”[ii]
Perhaps no one has been as influential in defining the relationship of Christian sexuality than Augustine, in the early 4th century. “Augustine interpreted sexuality at the core of each human being, and he interpreted it as the echo of mankind’s original sin, Adam and Eve in the Garden, disobeying God. Through the prism of sexuality, he saw reflected lust, man’s fundamental flaw. Hateful erections were its mark …”
In his Confessions, Augustine describes a life of wanton sexuality, till he decided to become celibate. “He hated coitus with all the passion of a newly converted celibate… But unrequited, uninvited lust still racked him. ” He was racked by sexual fantasies and uncontrolled nightly ejaculations. “He wrote that sexual intercourse was evil if it was corrupted by desire, and his experience suggested that it was always so corrupted, even in old age.”[iii]
Even though it was a Christian duty to marry and beget children, they should do so not with desire but “‘descend with a certain sadness’ into sexual intercourse.”
Augustine wrote extensively on sexuality and his writings were seminal in Christian attitudes towards sexuality over the centuries. Sexual desire came from the devil, was a sign of evil and needed to be combated. The less the clergy themselves were able to follow this advice, with greater fervor they preached hellfire and damnation to their congregation. According to the New York Times, Catholic priests in every single diocese in America were accused of sexually abusing children in their congregations. It is not hard to imagine that abuse by the Christian Priesthood in earlier times was even more-the authority of the clergy was greater as was their power to control information. The religious fanaticism of the Church could well be traced to a deviant use of sexual energy.
This desexualizing of the Christian narrative shows itself in other areas. So “God” becomes solely a He-God, a Father, rather than the image of Ardha-Narishwara or Shiva-Shakti found in the Hindu tradition. The female figure of Catholic worship, in the form of Mary, is itself completely desexualized as the Virgin. Similarly the question of Jesus’ own sexuality and relationship with Mary Magdalene was suppressed. The message is repeated over again: sexuality is sinful and evil. Even in the case of motherhood, the ideal is the virgin, or if not that, at least a woman who does not enjoy the sexual encounter but who merely tolerates it as a necessary evil. To a woman who takes pleasure can thus be designated as a “slut”, a fallen woman. Decrying “Slut-shaming” is the reaction in the West to historic Christian repression, though these memes are mindlessly copied by “modern” Indians.
It was only in the 20th century that sexual “liberation” finally came to be regarded as a goal in its own right. However, the demons of centuries are not easily exorcized. The centuries of sexual repression in the Christian West had created its counterpart of sexual obsession. Sex became a mental construct retaining its sinfulness. By keeping it out of the light, it became darker still. Thus, instead of the open-ness of even extra-marital relations in the India context, or even the much-maligned devadasis, the Western counterpart was always kept in the dark. Pornography flourished, surreptitiously concealed. Sexuality and sin became joined to the extent that the very pleasure of sexuality was derived from the thrill of transgression, of breaking the law, of sinning.
These ideas are retained in “liberated” popular culture of the West. Try to remember some Hollywood sex scene. When is the last time you remember a sexual scene involving a married couple? Can you remember any at all? Is this not surprising given that marital sexuality is still a numerically dominant form of sexual intercourse? Western sexual obsession does not really represent sexual liberation. Its thrill still remains closely tied to the idea of transgression and Western society has still to come to terms with the Christian demons in its psyche where sexual activity is inherently linked to sin.
Western secular materialism, however does no better. Without any ideas of the stages of life or ashramas as present in the Indian tradition and by disavowing any higher purpose, it has left sexuality as the only link to possibly transcendent experience. This has furthered the sexual obsession by making it central to one’s self-definition. This creates the Culture of Viagra, where even seventy year olds need to participate in sexual intercourse for feeling fulfilled.
The same attitude is displayed in relationship to “pornographic” material. The very category again comes from the Western approach to sexuality. In India, paintings showing couples in coitus are commonly found. These did not hesitate to include the phallus or the vagina, but these were considered art, not pornography. The pornography of the West did not exist in India, since pornography in its very nature is concerned with debasement of the sexual act. Porn comes from a culture of sexual repression, not from a culture that can happily put explicit sexual scenes, threesomes and fellatio on its temple walls.
Unfortunately, like in everything else, Indians schooled in the English-created system of education and in Western thought and literature, have taken on this Western repression-suppression syndrome. Urban-educated women social workers in India, deployed to the villages for sexual “counseling”, were surprised and shocked by how easily the rural women talked about sexuality and referred to male and female sexual organs without shame. On the other hand, “convent-school” educated women in India may have a harder time in being sexually open and responsive. It may be that counseling is needed in the other direction – it is time for the natives to sanskritize the civilizers.
This slavery continues in the popular media when we are importing the same shame into the new Indian films and television soaps in following the “advanced” West. For sexuality to be exciting, it needs to be outside the marital relationship – the mental component of risk, subterfuge and transgression need to be added for appreciating what is a natural physical pleasurable act. This is actually in contrast to older Indian films where, even though sexual activity was rarely depicted, the setting itself was often around the marital bed, especially for newly weds.
It is this pathological state of sexual repression that Freud encountered in the Christian women that were his patients. It is not surprising then that his observations of psychological disorders centered on this sexual repression. It is also why his theories do not generalize well to other cultures. Thus, recent academic attempts to “psycho-analyze” ancient Indian cultural symbols are somewhat meaningless, since in a society that is open about sexuality, such symbolism can be overt rather than needing to be excavated, released and psycho-analyzed from its repressed state.
While in the Indian tradition, there was an emphasis on Brahmcharya for the life of a Sanyasi, this was not because it was sinful, but because sexual energy could be utilized by the sanyasin by yogic means. Sexuality in the context of the grihasta ashram was not classified as sinful and in many cases, sexual relations outside marriage were also recognized as a natural impulse, though restraint and avoidance of recklessness was always upheld.
Indian practices of sexuality changed over the centuries due to its encounter with Islam. However, it was during the colonial rule, when our very system of education was changed that we started to consider Victorian views of sexuality as “normal.” For the British colonizers, brought up on ideas of sexuality as sin, the relative openness of Indian society was yet another reminder of their civilizing mission – the need to change the “corrupt” ways of the natives. A society with natural sexuality, the open society the British encountered, was termed “immoral”, and this diagnosis was parroted by the colonial elite that the British schooled. Women without top-cloths, common in many tropical societies, were turned into a narrative of “caste oppression.” The colonial gaze, internalized by native men, caused campaigns for women to be “allowed” to wear the top-cloth (but none to be “allowed” to be topless). Toplessness became castiest and patriarchal, the colonial gaze created shame where none existed. Contrast this is with the bra-burning and topless protests for “topfreedom” which are a feminist movement in the West against patriarchal restrictions while men can be topless in public[iv]. There are many historic instances of women sanyasis in India being in the nude. All this was abhorrent to Christian (and hence “convent educated” modern) morality.
As a society and in our elite schools, we were slowly trained in Victorian morality to acquire shame about sexuality, about the human form, about sexual organs. The elite made our films, produced our media and books. Note that this inherent shame about sexuality is different from the regulation of sexuality by social custom in traditional society. As the West started to rebel against unnatural Christian repression in the 20th century, the next generation of the colonial elite in India peddled the need for learning “sexual liberation” from the West. We were immoral earlier for being open (using the Western lens), and now backward for being closed (by the Western Lens). A colonized people are doomed to remain backward since all advancement must come from the colonizer’s race. These Indian “liberals”, I call lock-step liberals. The earlier generation of these would no doubt have cheered the Indian Penal Code when gay sex was deemed an “act against nature” and criminalized by the British, just as today’s generation proclaims “gay rights”, once it has become a fashion in the West. An original thought has yet to cross the minds of India’s modern “progressives.”
We are not getting sexual liberation from the West. What we have done is first import Christian ideas of sexual shame, drummed into our heads by over a century of English-based education and by the academics schooled in those traditions. From there we are moving on to copying the Western reaction to sexual repression by turning it into a sexual obsession. The priest’s confessional has been replaced with the psychiatrist’s couch. Yet the pathology remains the same. As we have done in the case of “secularism”, we force“cures” for Western pathologies onto a healthy society; the “cure” induces the disease and we make ourselves ill. Aping the West is then prescribed as the best medicine for that disease. We told you so.
[i] Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing by Karen McClintock © 2001 Augsburg Fortress Press
[ii] 1 Ray Tannahill, Sex History (New York: Stein and Day, 1980)
[iii] A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbot, DaCapo Press, 2001.
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Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, author and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon. His essays in the book “Invading the Sacred” contested Western academic writing on Hinduism. He is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and the University of Texas and holds six technology patents. His latest book is “The English Medium Myth.” He blogs at sankrant.org .