March 30, 2020
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‘Erotic Pleasure Transcends Both Inhibition And Hedonism’

Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar on sexuality and intimate relations in modern India...

‘Erotic Pleasure Transcends Both Inhibition And Hedonism’
Photograph by Narendra Bisht
‘Erotic Pleasure Transcends Both Inhibition And Hedonism’

Psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar’s books include The Indians, Culture and Psyche, The Ascetic of Desire and The Analyst and the Mystic. His 1989 book, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, was one of the first studies on sexuality in modern India. He spoke to Sreemoyee Piu Kundu.

You’ve said in the past that “sexuality can be very subversive of family stability”. Can you explain this with reference to context of the changing nature of Indian families and how, with rising divorce rates and adultery,  the stabil­ity and sacredness of Indian families are being challenged?

Even a few decades ago, the dangers posed to the larger family by the development of sexual intimacy in a couple were suggested by such questions as: Will the couple’s growing closeness cause the husband to neglect his duties as a son? As a brother? Will the increasing intimacy of the couple turn the woman primarily into a wife, rather than a daughter-in-law, and inspire the husband to transfer his loyalty and affection to her, rather than remaining truly a son of the house?

These were, of course, not either/or choices. However, custom, tradition and interests of other family members demanded that in the redefinition of roles and relationships initiated by marriage, the roles of husband and wife, at least in the beginning, be relegated to relative inconsequence. Thus, the elder family members discouraged signs of a developing attachment and tenderness within the couple by either belittling or forbidding open expression of these feelings. Efforts were made to hinder the development of any intimacy, which might exclude other members of the family, especially the man’s parents. Oblique hints about ‘youthful infatuation’ or outright shaming virtually guaranteed that the couple did not express any sexual interest (let alone affection) for each other in public and that they were effectively alone together for only brief periods during the evening and night. If women’s songs are any indication, even these brief meetings were furtive affairs; the songs complain of the ever-watchful mother-in-law or sister-in-law preventing the woman from going to her husband at night.

Today, the tension between the two has not disappeared, but the husband-wife relationship as the fulcrum of family life has begun to establish its primacy, at least in urban, middle-class India. We should, however, be aware of the strains that the triumph of this ideology will impose upon the couple and the larger family. For, as the middle-class disenchantment with other social institutions in Indian society becomes more rampant, the strains placed on the couple as a space that fulfils the quest for authentic experience may prove too much for this still fragile institution.

The first source of this strain is the setting free of the universal wishes of man and woman in relation to each other; wishes that were kept in check by the older ideology that attached signal importance to the larger family vis-a-vis the couple. The perennial question—what does a man or a woman want—has been often answered thus: that a man wants his wife not only as an adult sexual woman but also as a mother, a little daughter and a twin sister. Similarly, a woman not only wants her husband as an adult sexual man but also as a father, mother, a little baby boy and a twin brother. The demands on the partner, mostly unconscious, to fulfil these multiple roles—rather than their being spread over the larger family—can certainly be a source of strain in the psychological life of the couple and (result in) the breakdown of marriage.

A solution to maintain the primacy of the couple, chosen by many young couples who can economically afford it, would seem to be its isolation from the larger group, that is by cutting off from the family. Here, the danger is that the inevitable upsurges of aggression in the couple’s relationship will have no other outlet and can cause serious damage to the partners and their intimacy. The larger family mitigates the effects of aggression by either some of its members serving as the objects of its discharge or by providing the stage where the husband and wife can be aggressive towards each other in the relative safety of an intimate audience.

Moreover, living in close quarters with other couples of a larger group, with at least a pre-conscious awareness of their sexual lives (and observing its signs on the faces and bodies), is a constant source of excitement that can help in maintaining the couple’s erotic life. Extended Indian families are not only a system of duties and obligations but also highly charged fields of eroticism. The danger, of course, is that one or the other family member—a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, a cousin, a niece, a nephew—may come to constitute a sexual temptation that is not resisted by the man or the woman, destroying the couple’s intimacy. This danger, however, is even greater in the social network of friends that has begun to replace the family in the life of some middle-class couples, where the tolerance for such lapses is generally less than if they had taken place within the family.

In your analysis of the Kama Sutra, how does our modern approach to sexuality differ from the classical and pre-classical era? Why do you say that India has been a sexual wasteland for the last two centuries? Was India freer morally in the ancient times? Also, how would you explain the impact of Islam and Christianity, especially Victorian prudishness, on sexuality?

From all available evidence, there was little sexual repression in ancient India, say from the 3rd to the 12th centuries, at least among the upper classes, the primary audience of the Kama Sutra and of Sanskrit poems and plays of the period. The demands of sexuality had to be reconciled with those of morality, dharma, yes, but it was reconciliation rather than repression. The uninhibited sexuality of the Kama Sutra, where nothing is taboo in imagination and very little in real­ity, which combines tenderness with playful aggression in lovemaking, where gender roles in the sexual act are neither rigid nor fixed, was brought to its visual culmination between the 9th and 12th centuries in the temples of Khajuraho and Konark.

In the intervening centuries, and especially the last 200 years, Indian society managed to enter the dark ages of sexuality. Some blame the Muslim invasions and medieval Muslim rule, when the full covering of women’s bodies and segregation of the sexes became a sign of high social status. Yet, medieval Islam was not a sexually repressive creed. At least in the upper classes, sexual love was marked by a cheerful sensuality. Indeed, a number of hadiths, the commentaries on the Quran, strongly favour the satisfaction of the sexual instinct. At least, that is, for the privileged male.

Others blame Victorian prudery of British colonial rule, itself the consequence of Christianity’s uneasy relationship with the body...some Victorians even covered the legs of chairs because they were ‘legs’. There is some truth to both these influences, but the more fundamental factor in the rejection of the erotic has to be looked for within Hindu culture itself.

Sculpture at Khajuraho. In the classical period our ancestors celebrated the fact that desire is a primal force in all creation, says Kakar.

Photograph by Getty Images

It is the ascetic tradition in Hinduism that is the real counterforce that undermined the Kama Sutra legacy. The duality of the eroticism vs asceticism dialectic has been always a part of Hindu culture. The one or the other might become dominant in a particular period of history, though the other is never submerged. At the same time the Kama Sutra was composed, there were other texts holding fast to the ascetic ideal and extolling the virtues of celibacy for spiritual progress. The ascetic ideal that can degenerate into puritanism is then also quintessentially Indian, perennially in competition with the erotic one for possession of the Indian soul. It is unlikely that ancient Indians were ever, or even could be, as unswerving in their pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, ancient Romans.

That India has been a sexual wasteland for the last two centuries is then due to a combination of British prudery, adopted by the upper classes in what may be called an “identification with the aggressor”, and our own deep-seated strain of Brahminical asceticism, held aloft through the centuries by the Hindu version of the poet William Blake’s “priests in black gowns...binding with briars my joys and desires”.

What according to you is the intimate relationship between sexuality and spirituality? Do you think we can sublimate our sexual energy and use celibacy as a transformative tool? Also, if celibacy is key to our religion, then how would you explain the sexual violence endorsed by certain modern-day godmen?

The connecting link between spirituality and sexuality is that both of these, ideally, are two forms of the fundamental human emotion of love: in one, the love for the Divine; in other, for another human being. Both promise a transcendence of individual boundaries, of a release from self-centredness in a union with something or someone outside one’s self. As for sublimation, a popular form of Hindu theory (to which Gandhiji also subscribed) is that physical strength and mental power have their source in virya, a word that stands for both sexual energy and semen. Virya can either move downward in sexual intercourse, where it is emitted in its gross physical form as sexual fluid, or, by the practice of celibacy, it can move upward through the spinal chord and into the brain, in its subtle form known as ojas. Ojas becomes a source of spiritual life, besides enhancing memory, will-power and inspiration—scientific and artistic.

Can celibacy help build energetic men of action, original thinkers, or bold reformers? I am sceptical as far as most of us mortals are concerned. Yet I would concede the possibility of successful sublimation to a few extraordinary people of genuine originality and transcending sense of mission. Many saints and ‘godmen’, and not only the ones you mention, who cut off the sexual part of their selves in celibacy, find that the cut-off part of the self returns at some time or the other in later life when they age and their psychological defences go down. Never having been dealt with and fully experienced in a mature, adult fashion, the cut-off part, the unlived life, manifests itself in its regressed, primitive form as one or the other sexual perversion.

Shruti Haasan, Arjun Rampal in D-Day. Kakar thinks mass media and empowerment of women have led to a change in sexual mores in India.

Isn’t it ironical that today Indians are known to be squeamish about sex and utter prudes, when our gods are known to be polygamous, homosexuality was rampant and our temple architecture is sexually explicit?

Yes, it is indeed ironical when our ancestors, especially in the classical period of which we are so proud, not only acknowledged, but celebrated the fact that desire is a primal force, not only in human beings but in all creation. For instance, the 6th century Brihat Samhita says: “The whole universe, from the Brahman to the smallest worm, is based on the union of the male and female. Why then should we feel ashamed of it, when even Lord Shiva was forced to take four faces on account of his greed to have a look at a maiden.” I believe we must be proud that our civilisation had such a deep insight into the nature and power of desire and delved so deeply into how to deal with it, whether in enjoyment or sublimation.

You have said: “Pornography incorporates the darker aspects of desire: violence, sadism, and heedless rush of tidal instinct where the partner is but a degraded body”. Don’t you think it is ironic that for a government that seeks to ban pornography, it seems to have no problems with the blatant objectification of women and marginalised groups like the transgenders in popular culture and crass item songs continue to become chart-busters?

The darker aspect of desire expresses itself in many forms, ranging from extremes of sadistic violence in pornographic videos at one end to objectification of women and crass item songs at the other. You may call the latter ‘pornography-lite’. The point is that the rawer forms of desire, although disavowed by our moral selves, and finding a home only in the secrecy of our imaginations, are as much a part of desire as are its more elevated forms like love poetry and soulful ghazals. No society, even the ones regarded as the most permissive, has ever succeeded in getting rid of the rawer forms of desire. Bans are not a solution. All we can do is to mount educative campaigns; beginning in schools, to highlight how dark forms of desire can inhibit an unfolding of the full potential of sexuality. How the unrestrained consumption of pornography, in all its forms, can impair a person’s full enjoyment of sexuality and deprive it of the erotic grace that unites the partners in sensual delight and metaphysical openness.

Have women’s attitudes to sexuality been transformed, given their new-found economic independence and status as bread-winners? Or is women’s sexuality largely related to her reproductive prowess? Why isn’t a woman’s body and desire ever celebrated? Why the slut-shaming still?

Changes in the realm of attitudes that touch our deepest concerns: our bodies, our gender and personal identities, our families, are much slower than changes that take place in the political, economic or social spheres. Women, at least in urban middle-class India, have begun to be aware that they need not be ashamed of their sexual desires. That their bodies are not only vessels for reproduction, but also for the gratification of their desire. As a friend remarked, the significance of the breast in female imagination is no longer only maternal, but also sexual. Men will take more time to acknowledge and accept the change in how women view their desire, since it impinges deeply on their own, culturally imposed script of what it means to be a male.

Do you think sexual portrayals in commercial Indian cinema and popular culture have moved from coy suggestiveness to frankness, from titillation to realism?

Bollywood has evolved greatly from a time, till into the 1980s, when there was an obligatory scene of the heroine’s sari getting wet, either through rain or her falling in a stream, so as to expose her charms. The ‘wet sari’ scene no longer exists. Earlier a kiss was never shown; the camera panned away to a bee alighting on a flower and such other images when the faces of the hero and heroine came closer for the kiss. The kiss is now depicted, but it is still awkward. I have the impression that the actors are not really enjoying it. I must say I miss the directorial ingenuity in old movies in showing images that hinted at sexual intercourse: the flaring up of a flame in the fireplace was perhaps the worst one. I hope that Bollywood will liberate itself even more from the icy frost of morality without falling into the trap of many Western films that only portray the fierce heat of instinctiveness.

The new urban elite seem to enjoy some sort of sexual freedom. Do you see it as a new dawn for the Kama Sutra legacy? Or does the commodification that accompanies this new urban culture make it different from the original inspiration of the Kama Sutra?

Yes, I think the erotic has again begun to reassert itself, although the forces of the asceticism are opposing it vigorou­sly. It is different from the original inspiration of the Kama Sutra, in the sense that the erotic today is perceived in terms of the rawly sexual, which can easily overwhelm erotic pleasure that involves more than bodily sensation. We need to keep on being reminded that the Kama Sutra’s most valuable contribution is the insight that pleasure needs to be cultiva­ted, that in the realm of sex, nature requires culture. Contemporary urban culture seems to be losing the essential insight that erotic pleasure needs to be rescued from both repressive morality and anything-goes sexuality, from both sexual inhibition and promiscuous coupling.

Will we ever become a sexually liberated place like western Europe and Scandinavia? Are they emotionally in a better and more progressive space? What historic developments in your view have led to changes in sexual behaviour in India?

There are two historical developments that have led to the change in sexual behaviour in urban India. First, globalisation, especially of mass media, which presents images and narratives of gender relations around the globe, which then make one question one’s own society’s traditional view of sexuality and the ideal organisation of relationship between the sexes. Second, the increasing empowerment of women consequent to a widespread social acceptance of women’s education and work in professions which are non-traditional.

Are western Europe and Scandinavia et al in a more progressive space? Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the rescue of sexual­ity from an inhibiting morality has opened up the vistas of a sexually fulfilled life and made sexual happiness not only acceptable, but desirable. No, in the sense that many people in European and North American societies who have escaped from the ice may have fallen into the fire of unchecked sexuality. They seem to subscribe to Michel Foucault’s observation that: “ has become more important than our soul, more important almost than our life, and so it is that all the world’s enigmas appear frivolous to us compared to this secret, minuscule in each of us, but of a density that makes it more serious than any other”.

The pressure to have a sexually satisfied life, to expect orgasm as a constitutionally granted right, creates its own emotional problems. Yes, sexual love, Eros, is the fundamental experience of human life and, along with death, the primary definer of the human condition. But sexual love is not a matter of the body alone. It combines the cravings of the body with longings of the soul. Under sway of either the moralists or the hedonists, we have a tendency to separate the two, not realising that both the streams combine to become (in Herman Melville’s words) the “endless river that flows into the cave of man”.

Whereas in all other situations in life, we guard the frontiers of our individuality against trespassers, in sexual intimacy we make ourselves metaphysically porous to another human being, to get an inkling of the surrender so extolled by the mystics. Sexuality is the fire of creation and to debase it as an itch to be scratched, treat it so casually as to use the genitalia as a handshake, may be a liberation of the body but a shackling of the soul.

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