Sexuality and Spirituality in Hinduism

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From The Editor's Desk

(Hinduwebsite Editorial - Exploring Truth Amidst Illusions and Distortions)


The purpose of this discussion is not to support the alleged sexual activities of any spiritual master, but to examine the sexual conduct which is applicable to those who practice spirituality and pursue liberation.


What does Hinduism say about sex and spirituality? The common belief is that spiritual people should abstain from sex and practice celibacy (brahmacharya). Indeed, it is the well known teaching and the expected normal behavior from Hindus who practice spirituality for peace, self-purification or liberation.

However, Hinduism rarely settles with one idea or approach. In matters of sexual conduct also it prescribes a unique approach from a broader perspective to accommodate divergent ideas and exceptional circumstances to address the peculiarities and the complexity of human life.

Hindu Dharma is a reflection of life. It is complex and relative to the person and his or her circumstances. Although it considers the world an illusion, it takes into account the reality of the mortal world and the problems people face. Like everything else in this world, human morality is also subject to the duality of extremes or the pairs of opposites, which is a limitation in itself and cannot be considered universally absolute. Hence, in certain aspects of life, it looks for the middle ground.

For example, we have stories from the Puranas which suggest that our ancient seers, who were supposed to practice self-restraint were not completely celibate. When they were practising austerities and pursuing spiritual perfection, they practiced celibacy and abstained from sex. At other times, they engaged in sexual activities as part of their householder duties and social obligations.

Those who are familiar with the Mahabharata and other scriptures know how Hindu seers often helped women in the birth of their children. A seer was responsible for the birth of both Panduraju and Dhritarashtra, the fathers of Pandavas and Kauravas respectively. Sage Vishwamitra had a brief relationship with Menaka, the celestial nymph, which led to the birth of Shakuntala but did not diminish his austere image or spiritual status in society.

Hindu gods are not sexually neutral. We have Manmadha, the god of sex, and Indra, the lord of the heaven, with many amoral relationships. We have Vedic hymns which are meant to attract the opposite sex or destroy potential rivals in a conjugal relationship. We have Shiva, the fertility god, who is symbolized and worshipped as phallus, and the tradition of Tantra, which permits controlled sexual activity as a spiritual technique to achieve liberation.

The question which arises from such examples is whether spiritual people, especially spiritual gurus have the permission in Hindu tradition to engage in occasional sexual activity for some higher or spiritual purpose. Truthfully, according to the authority of the scriptures the answer is both yes and no. In both situations, the motive is important. The motive has to be pure and beyond reproach. In this essay, we examine the relationship between sexuality and spirituality in Hinduism and whether spiritual people can engage in sexual intercourse.

Hinduism and sexual mores

Few decades ago, one of the prominent spiritual gurus of India, Acharya Rajneesh, was severely criticized for his stance on sex and spirituality. He sincerely believed that sexual desire was a natural human urge, just like thirst and hunger, and needed to be expressed or fulfilled to free the mind from its natural inhibitions.

He felt that true liberation was not possible unless the mind was freed from the shackles in which it was held by society, religion, the authority of scriptures, teacher traditions and religious institutions. According to him, true bondage was bondage to the mind and body, and our beliefs about sex and sexuality were an important part of that equation. Acharya Rajneesh, an enlightened scholar and philosopher, had a point, which is as old as Hinduism. However, unfortunately, he never gained public approval.

It is important to remember that as far as sexual desire is concerned there is a big difference between Hinduism and Abrahamic religions. Both traditions emphasize the importance of self-control and celibacy in religious practice. However, Hinduism does not condemn sexual acts as sinful except those that are deemed deviant or socially unacceptable such as incest, rape, adultery, and unnatural sex. Desire is considered natural and human, even divine, not the act of a demonic force. Selfishness, rather than desire, is considered evil in Hinduism. The same applies to sexual desire also.

Thus, Hinduism deals with the subject of sexuality with a broader brush stroke, acknowledging the compulsions of human life and the obligations of spiritual practice, and attempts to strike a balance. On the positive side, it recognizes the importance of sex in procreation and the continuation of the worlds and beings. On the negative side, it admits the problem of egoism, selfishness, attachments, delusion, ignorance, bondage, etc., which may arise from unregulated sexual conduct.

One cannot ignore the play of gunas (modes of nature) in human sexuality and the resultant karma. Sexual desire under the predominance of sattva is desirable although it too is binding, since it leads to purity, pleasure, peace, harmony and happiness. However, sexual desire under the predominance of Rajas and Tamas leads to lust, pain and suffering and the risk of dark and demonic behavior.

Thus, according to Hinduism spiritual people with the predominance of sattva have some leverage. However, they too must be honest with themselves, know its implications to their karma and examine their motives in engaging in any sexual activity. If their intentions are impure, they are bound to suffer. If they become excessively attached, they delay their liberation and make themselves vulnerable to the influx of impurities.

Thus, in a mundane sense, Hinduism holds that sexual desire, like any other desire, leads to karma and bondage of human beings. It also interferes with their devotion to God and contemplation upon the Self. Hence, Hindu scriptures exhort spiritual people to lead exemplary lives, control their sexual desires and abstain from sex, just as they are expected to control all desires and practice renunciation and detachment with their minds absorbed in the contemplation of God or the Self. Since sexual desire is more difficult to control, gaining control over it is considered the ultimate test of self-control and purification.

At the same time, tradition does not condemn sexual activity, which is without selfishness and sense gratification and performed as part of an obligatory duty and moral purpose. Householders should engage in it as an obligatory duty for procreation and continuation of the world, while spiritual people too may engage in it, as a sacrifice to God, without desire for the fruit of such actions and as a sacred duty. Let us now examine how these divergent ideas are reflected in the beliefs and practices of Hinduism.

Sexual norms for householders

In Hinduism, sexual pleasure (kama) is one of the chief aims of human life. The Hindu law books laid down a strict code of conduct for both men and women regarding their sexual activity. Such laws were not universal, but specific to the caste, profession, duty or background of the people in society. The laws were lenient towards higher castes and men of privilege, but stricter towards others.

Thus, under the ancient law unmarried men and renunciants had more obligations, compared to married men. While students were expected to practice strict and extreme celibacy (they were not allowed to even look at women when they went out for begging or take a relaxing bath), householders were allowed to indulge in lawful sex both with their married partners and in some instances with others also. Until last century, polygamy was an accepted practice in Hindu communities, which meant that the religious laws allowed men to marry multiple women and beget children through them.

Men also enjoyed the freedom to indulge in sexual activity with willing women outside their marriage such as the maids who worked in their homes or those who provided sexual pleasure for money, power, love, protection, or some other reason. Literary evidence suggests that women were sold and bought in some parts of ancient India and such women were considered the property of their owners. So was the case with women who were captured during wars.

Unmarried women who chose to live freely or forced to abandon their families had the privilege to choose their sexual partners. The story of Jabala, the mother of Satyakama, is an example in this regard. A widow who had no children and lost her husband at a young age was allowed by the law books to choose a brother or cousin of her deceased husband for procreation.

The law books also gave permission to a childless men to choose suitable males to impregnate their wives for procreation. Let us not forget that these provisions were not meant to be used as a license to engage in libidinous activities, but to facilitate sacrifices to gods and the ancestors, who depended upon humans for food, and ensure the order and regularity of the worlds. Their purpose was not sexual gratification bur religious duty.

We do not know how far they were practiced with strictness, and whether they were practiced at all. Ancient India was pluralistic. People of diverse religious and social backgrounds lived together, and each followed their own norms and code of conduct. The law books (Dharmashastras) not only accorded many privileges to the higher castes but also put many obligations and moral restrictions upon them to ensure their righteous conduct.

Sexual mores of Hindu gods and goddesses

The broader approach of Hinduism in matters of sexuality and spirituality is also well reflected in the descriptions of Hindu gods and goddesses. Some Hindu gods are libidinous. Because of the predominance of sattva, by nature all Hindu gods are pleasure loving. Since they represent the senses and the pleasure principle in creation, they enjoy having sex with heavenly maidens as well as with earthly women who draw their attention. This is especially true with regard to the Vedic gods such as Indra and Agni.

However, one cannot say the same about Hindu goddesses. The tradition expects them to be pure, loyal and austere and serve as role models for women in their supportive roles as partners to their husbands in performing their obligatory duties. They may engage in sexual activity, but only with their consorts. In the Sakta tradition (or Shaktism), the goddesses are chaste and superior. In popular Hinduism and sectarian traditions such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, they are chaste but either equal or secondary to the main gods namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Gratification of sexual desire is also viewed in some instances as a reward for austere, spiritual effort. For example, some Upanishads describe that when a person departs from here and goes to the immortal world, on his way he is greeted by thousands of beautiful maidens, who come forward with perfumes and garlands to entertain him. Such descriptions and the actions of gods and goddesses suggest that sexuality and enjoyment in Hinduism are not confined to the gross body or to the mortal world. They extend to the subtle body and the subtle worlds also.

According to the Puranas, gods use sexual desire as a weapon to keep the humans under control and bound to the mortal world. Indra is particularly jealous of anyone who practices celibacy or austerities for liberation. He keeps an eye or all the ascetic people, seers and sages who want to transcend the human plane and secure a place in the heaven or its lordship. Therefore, if they progress far on the path and reach certain perfection, he feels threatened and promptly dispatches beautiful nymphs to distract them.

The Puranas show how at times gods deviated from the standard sexual mores and engaged in unlawful sexual activities, with sinful consequences for themselves and others. For example, Vedic gods such as Indra and Agni were often captivated by beautiful maidens and even the wives of rishis and drew them into their snare of love and lust. Indra ruined the reputation of many chaste women by tempting them and drawing them into sexual relationship, much to the displeasure of their lawful husbands. Chaste women such as Ahalya fell into disrepute because of his cunningness.

Among other gods, a notable example is Lord Krishna. According to the Puranas and legends, he had numerous wives and consorts. (Some believe such descriptions are symbolic and untrue). Even Shiva, an epitome of self-control and asceticism, had his own share of temptations. According to the legends, he fell for the beauty of Mohini, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu and a child was born out of their relationship. The creator god, Brahma, too was not free from the temptation of desire. He was captivated by the beauty of goddess Saraswathi, his own creation, and made her his consort.

Sexual conduct for Hindu ascetics

As stated before, Hindu law books are particularly stricter and uncompromising towards the sexual practices of those who give up worldly life and practice renunciation to achieve liberation. Hindu ascetics (Sadhus and Sanyasis) are expected to shun sexual intercourse as part of their spiritual transformation and austerities.

However, it is not a universal norm. The rigidity is mostly confined to those who practice the right-hand methods of spirituality and traditional yoga. However, those who practice the left-hand methods of Tantra have the flexibility to engage in sexual activity as a spiritual practice to achieve purity and self-control. Once, they achieve the required perfection, they are expected to revert to complete celibacy.

In Hindu spirituality, the emphasis is stronger on self-control rather than sex. Self-control on sexual desire is an essential aspect of the broader aim of gaining control over the mind and body. The purpose of such control is not because sex is sinful but because it will lead to the transformation of sexual energy into spiritual energy (tapas). By not controlling it, one would delay one’s progress, besides opening oneself to the possibility of a spiritual downfall.

True renunciation is renunciation of all external obligations, controls, social norms, moral codes, dualities and attraction and aversion and live solely by oneself like a free spirit, without compromising the goal of liberation or disturbing the inner balance and tranquility. A Sanyasi therefore has a lot of freedom, but that freedom comes with a lot of spiritual responsibility. In that journey through an unchartered land, intelligence (buddhi) and discernment are his only guides to avoid quagmires.

These ideas were well exemplified by our ancient seers, including the seven great seers, who lived as householders and engaged in conjugal relationships to procreate children. They practiced celibacy, but not were not rigidly bound by it, and like true karma yogis used discretion and time horned traditions to resolve moral dilemmas, leaving the outcome to God. They had one or more wives and had children through them. They also often enjoyed sex with other women and celestial nymphs as fate willed it.

As stated before, the progenitor of Hindus, Bharata, (after whom India is named in Sanskrit) descended from such a relationship only. His mother, Shakuntala was born out of a sexual relationship between sage Viswamitra and the celestial nymph, Menaka, and Bharata was born out of a secret and rather unconventional marriage between Shakuntala and Dushyanta.

The birth of Bharata or Shakuntala was not an isolated incident. Ganga, who according to tradition is a consort of Shiva, had a son named Bhishma or Devavrata through Shantau. Satyavati, the wife of Shantanu, had a son named Krishna Dvaipayana, also known as Vyasa. He was born to her before her marriage to Shantanu, through her premarital relationship with sage Parasara.

According to the epic, the sage overcame with a strong desire for the maiden, when he saw her ferrying passengers across a river. Afraid that he would curse her if she refused, she satisfied his lust and got a son and some boons from him. When Vichitravirya, her son through her husband, Shantanu, died without children, sage Vyasa (the same sage who is mentioned before) helped both the widows to conceive sons and continue the Bharata race. From the epic we also learn that the Pandavas and Kauravas were also born under strange circumstances.

These examples suggest that at times it was not sexual desire, but fate, divine will or karma, which influenced the sexuality of the seers and sages. Although they were men of purity and perfection, they were drawn into the play of God to do their part and ensure the progression of the world and precipitate momentous events. We cannot judge them, or anyone for that matter, based upon their actions only.

Sexuality in the Upanishads

The Vedas contain many references to sex and sexuality. The Upanishads, which form the end part of the Vedas are no exception. They recognize the importance of sex in the transmigration of the souls and continuation of the world. They do not condemn sexual desire, but attachment to it. There are few verses in the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads which are explicitly sexual in nature.

They suggest how a man can make a woman agreeable for sexual intercourse for procreation, by performing certain rituals and if necessary using force during or after their performance. They also suggest how a husband can harm the secret lover of his wife with the help of some sacrificial rituals and procedures. The Upanishads compare sexual intercourse to a sacrifice and the various organs used in the intercourse to the tools and materials used in the performance of the sacrifice.

(For more information on this subject please refer to the following essay: Sex and Spirituality In the Upanishads).

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