Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bhartihari's solemn dilemma

Ancient India, we are endlessly told, was very open to sexuality and its representations – the Kamasutra and this orgy from the temples of Khajuraho are oft cited. Given that Indians are more conservative now (I know, it's a broad generalization), I’ve always wondered what happened in the intermediate historical period that changed attitudes. William Dalrymple’s recent essay in NYRB gives a few insights, but it principally discusses expressions of sexuality in south India – in the Pallava and Chola eras – and in the Tantric tradition.

There are some serious thoughts in the essay and I encourage you to read it. But if you want something in the lighter vein, don't by any means miss this bit that pertains to a dilemma that a 3rd century poet, Bhartihari, faced: Should one adopt a life of austerity and asceticism, or give in to the temptations of unabashed physical lust? Bhartihari seems to have pondered the question very seriously as Dalrymple illustrates:
Classical India developed a refined and tutored sophistication about the finer points of sexuality, famously so in the Kamasutra, the principal work on love in Sanskrit literature. It has never been equaled; yet there has always been a strong tension in Hinduism between the ascetic and the sensual. The poet Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the third century AD, around the time of the composition of the Kamasutra, oscillated no less than seven times between the rigors of the monastic life and the abandon of the sensualist. "There are two paths," he wrote. "The sages' religious-devotion, which is lovely because it overflows with the nectarous waters of the knowledge of truth," and "the lusty undertaking of touching with one's palm that hidden part in the firm laps of lovely-limbed women, loving women with great expanses of breasts and thighs."

"Tell us decisively which we ought to attend upon," he asks in the Shringarashataka. "The sloping sides of wilderness mountains? Or the buttocks of women abounding in passion?"
Any answers?


DP said...


I came across your blog through Varnam. I have wondered for long how we have become so conservative (in a broad way) now compared to earlier times when we were clearly more open about the sensual aspects of life.

When people talk about Indian "values" and "culture", I feel like directing them to the classic temple architecture, found not only in Khajuraho but on several other temples across India.

However, its still a continuing mystery to me why openly expressing sexuality has become so repressed in India.

Hari said...

Yes, DP, that’s a very good question to ask, and it has been something I’ve thought about too. Part of the answer must lie in the influences that came from the outside – Christian and Islamic. Perhaps modesty in terms of sexuality is something these monotheisms brought with them too, and was gradually taken up by Indians. I have to admit, though, that my argument is weak in that I have nothing to back up this claim – answers, especially to such difficult questions, are always nuanced. We might startle ourselves if we were to dig deeper.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so puzzled as I once was about why I've lived a life of celebecy to this point. For many years it was simply because I didn't believe women wanted anything to do with me, and as I'm not gay this left me with no other option than celebecy. Now that I've come to terms with the psychological trauma which led to the false idea of me being repulsive to women, I've still not had a sexual relationship. I've tried to date and have had no luck establishing an intimate relationship.

Which leads me to reflect on my spiritual beliefs. I'm convinced there is a woman who I'm eventually going to spend my life with in a deeply satisfying relationship. I believe we have lived many lives to this point and will live many, many more. It may be that in this life I'm simply ment to learn leasons which require the lack of a sexual partner. Whether this is true or not, who knows? But at least is puts this whole idea of "doing without" in perspective.

Daniel Elvebak

Hari said...

Thanks, Dan, your comment – I found your frankness moving. Yes, we all carry different beliefs and ideas: and finding the rationale for how life turns and reconciling it with one's beliefs isn't always easy, as you so appropriately point out.

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