Sexual Morality in the Upanishads

Krishna With Gopis

by Jayaram V

The Upanishads are the heart of Hinduism. I was introduced to them by chance nearly forty years ago, and ever since my interest in them only grew. It was out of my interest I translated several Upanishads twice in the past. The first attempt was several years ago, and it was meant mainly for the Internet. In my recent attempt, which took me over a year, I translated 16 major Upanishads covering over 1700 slokas. For me the exercise was more like an active meditation with an opportunity to communicate with the best of the ancient minds and making sense of their universal vision of God and existence. In this section I want to share with you the wisdom of the Upanishads, whenever I am inspired to do so. I hope to present at least a few every month until my thoughts are exhausted or my interest has waned. I hope you will find them useful. Jayaram V

Please do not look for complete answers or information in these. They are fragments of thoughts which deal with only certain aspects of the chosen subject

Sexual morality in the Upanishads. In Hinduism sex is not a taboo. Fulfillment of sexual desire (kama) is part of the chief aims of human life (Purusharthas). Because of 500 years of Christian influence, most Hindus today feel uncomfortable with the subject of sex, although traditionally Hinduism does not regard sexual desire with the same contempt as some religions do. The values the scriptures uphold and the Puritanism that has taken hold of the people is one of the interesting contradictions of the popular Hinduism today.

Few decades ago, Acharya Rajneesh, a Tantric spiritual teacher, was so condemned by a majority of educated and elite Hindus for his beliefs that he had to leave the country and find home elsewhere. It was done to him by a country where sexual symbols are worshipped religiously in thousands of temples and where Tantrism has been practiced ritually by different religions and schools for over 2000 years.

This is not a case for free sex or permissiveness or the lustful behavior of controversial gurus. It is to denote the extent to which Hinduism was injected with wester beliefs about sex and sexual morality with negative repercussions for society, women, and gender relations. Since sex has become a dirty subject, many people would not like to speak about it or recognize its sanctity. Many scholars and commentators quietly avoid translating sexually explicit information found in the scriptures or gloss over the subject.

In the Upanishads you will find a contrary approach. They are almost unapologetic about the subject and speak about it with the same energy and indifference as any other subject. Their approach is in line with classical Hinduism which views sex as an integral and necessary part of human life and life upon earth, and upholds it as an obligatory dut to God and ancestors.

The tradition also takes a lenient view of ascetics and renunciants who may indulge in sex for purposes other pleasure and selfishness. We have many instances in the Puranas, the epics and even in the Upanishads where ascetic people, enlightened seers, yogis, and even gods participated in amorous and sexual activities due to either temptation, or past karma, or an obligation to create conditions and circumstances to move forward the wheel of creation. What is not acceptable, however, is the deception and cheating.

Traditionally, in Hinduism sex is viewed positively as a divine force of Nature and an integral part of  God's creation. For the beings, procreation is an obligatory duty. Even God engages in it to manifest the worlds. the Upanishads declare that seated in Prakriti, the Cosmic Female, Isvara, the Cosmic Male (Purusha) created all beings and worlds. When he woke from sleep in the primal waters, Supreme Brahman did not want to be alone. Therefore, he created the second and produced all the diversity. The duality of male and female which began at the highest level extended to every aspect of creation all the way from the highest to the lowest. Therefore every god in Hinduism has a female counterpart. 

There is one story in the Chandogya Upanishad (4.1) which is particularly interesting. Once upon a time in ancient India there lived a charitable person named Janasruti, who was the grandson of another person by the same name. He was so pious and generous that he built resting places and offered plenty of food to Brahmanas and poor people. One day, two Sramanas (mendicants 1) happened to travel by the house where he lived. While they were going, one of them began praising Janasruti saying that his fame spread all the way to the heavens. The other mendicant responded by saying that his greatness was nothing compared to the greatness of Raikva.

Raikva was a knower of Brahman, but lived a simple life under a cart, which he probably pulled for his livelihood, since he was known as Raikva, the one with the cart. Now, Janasruti overheard this conversation and sent his servant to look for this man and inform him about his location. The servant managed to find him resting under a cart scratching his itching skin. After ascertaining where he lived, Janasruti went to him with "six hundred cows, a necklace, and a chariot drawn by mules," as a gift and requested him to teach him about Brahman. Raikva, the cart puller, chided the rich man for bringing him those gifts and told him to go away. Undaunted, Janasruti went again this time with a thousand cows, a necklace, a chariot and mules. In addition, he also took his own daughter as a bonus gift.

Raikva who resisted the offer of six hundred cows and a chariot (something like a Ferrari in today's standards), could not resist the offer of the young maiden. Looking at her face and holding it with his hands, he said, "O Sudra 2, you who has brought me all these gifts, by this face alone you made me speak." Thus, Raikva, the cart puller and the knower of Brahman, the pious man, the scholar and the wise person, whom the mendicants held in great esteem, agreed to teach Janasruti the rare knowledge of Brahman, in appreciation for the gift of his beautiful daughter. Now, you may always argue that Raikva wanted a daughter, maid-servant or a slave to serve him in his old days, but let us not forget that he refused 600 cows and even a chariot, which would have served him better than the cart he had. If it happened today, and if Raikva happened to be a spiritual guru, most Hindus would have condemned him as an imposter and demanded his head. However, he was so great that the Upanishads chose to mention not only his name but the whole story associated with him, which is not the usual practice. << >>

Suggestions for Further Reading

Notes:

1. The verse actually mentions them as swans (hamsas). Hamsas are actually mendicants, or Sramanas who used to travel by foot in ancient India. The most advanced among them were known as Paramahansas. A swan is the vehicle of Brahma. Those pursue the knowledge of Brahman are hamsas and those who attain Him are knowns as Paramahansas.

2. Janasruti was not a Sudra by caste. He was probably a warrior or a merchant. Raikva addressed him as Sudra because of his ignorance.

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