April 03, 2020
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"Free Sexuality From Reproduction"

Acclaimed psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar talks to Shoma Chaudhury about the ambivalences and contradictions within India's sexual attitudes over the millennia

"Free Sexuality From Reproduction"

How would you define a sexually liberated society?
By the time and place given to sexuality in that society. It should at least equal the pursuit of artha and dharma. And even if it’s subordinate to other preoccupations, it should be among the high ones. Second, sexuality would be freed from reproduction as a sole goal. Pleasure would be a twin goal, if not the higher one. Of course pleasure can’t be the only pursuit, you need other tensions. If anything is too free, people get bored; that’s why sexuality would have a place of honour but not the highest. It would also be a society that not only allowed a love relationship between two young people, even if unmarried, but gave it full support. It would also acknowledge adult sexuality as natural both inside and outside marriage and wouldn’t react with horror to sexual interest or curiosity. There would be an insistence not on mutual faithfulness in marriage but mutual happiness. It would, in short, be a society which supported an individual’s quest for sexual happiness.

There’s this idea that ancient India was sexually liberal and voluptuous. Is there anything to justify this?
Yes, the iconic representations of Konarak and Khajuraho; Sanskrit lyric, drama - they display not so much sexual liberalness as eroticism. There’s a certain playfulness, a celebration of the erotic in that poetry and drama which they had the time and grace for indulging in.

Yes, but how representative of the masses was any of this or the Kamasutra, for instance, always cited as a tribute to Indian sexuality?
You’re right. I don’t think it was. It was more to do with the courts and urban rich. The others weren’t even thought worthy. India’s always been strongly hierarchical; there was sexual untouchability even then. The Kamasutra even instructs one never to have sex with a low caste; they were deemed erotically illiterate.

And can the same be said for erotic temple architecture; that it didn’t mirror the life of the common man?
Well, no. Temple architecture was accessible to all people - and the artist had freer expression - so it could have mirrored something more widespread. But I’ve difficulty believing that because those were predominantly agricultural societies and they’re never sexy. They’re concerned with the produce of the field, clear-cut boundaries, the straightforward producing of children. For them ‘he begat, she begat’ is important, not playfulness.

Isn’t this at odds with the other common perception that besides the urban rich, tribal and rural India’s always been sexually uninhibited?
Tribal India yes, but rural no. For rural, agricultural India, lineage, property, who inherits what, are very important; so they can’t have adultery. Their metaphors are the seed and the field - and that seed has to be limited. It cannot be spread around.

What impact did Islam and Christianity have on our sexual attitudes?
Islam didn’t really impact that much. It’s much freer, not ascetic. It’s not an enemy of sex like Hinduism was and is.

You mean for male sexuality; it’s repressive about female sexuality...
Yes, but female sexuality’s always been constrained the world over. Even the few mythical matriarchal societies one talked off, we now find never existed.

Except for the tawaifs of Avadh, has unconstrained female sexuality ever been celebrated in India? Sita Kunti were ostracised; Draupadi had no choice, Radha's the pining lover...
Not really. Not even in the world. Except for the hitares in Greece and the courtesans here and perhaps in the festival of Kama described in the Kamasutra where women could take groups of lovers and the main lover or husband couldn’t complain. But in real terms, it’s probably freest now.

And what about Christianity?
Well, Christianity in India was intertwined with colonialism and Victorian morality. We’ve always had an anti-erotic strain in Hindu civilisation, represented by the Brahmanical high priests and this found a big ally in the colonial masters. They had an unspoken collusion. The identification of the babu class with Victorian sexual attitudes had the approval of Brahmanical ascetics. That’s prevailed.

Isn’t this anti-erotic strain in Hinduism at odds with the fecund gods of its mythology?
Which fecund gods?

Indra, Kama, Shiva...
Yes, but Indra and Kama are not worshipped any more, Shiva is completely monogamous, at least serially. There were references to his sexual playfulness in the Upanishads, but all that was cleansed out of more popular and accessible texts.

Why did this happen? Why didn’t a country as diverse as ours not throw up more diverse sexual attitudes?
Primarily because it’s always been an agricultural society, not a hunter or post-industrial one. Then because of the ascetic strain in Hindu culture - the rishis, munis - celibacy and sexual virtue became important. Brahmanical morality prevailed.

But were there instances of sexual playfulness that have been elided?
Yes, the festival of Kama’s gone, there are traces of it in Holi, but nothing of its original orgiastic form. Kama and Indra, like I said, aren’t worshipped. But no matter how submerged, it’s better than if these things hadn’t existed, or if there were only western examples. Like with the film Fire, its defenders could say lesbianism’s traditionally had a place in Indian society - and wrest some sort of sanction from that.

But why have these inhibitions continued in a modern India? Why has there been no sexual revolution here like in the West?
Revolution, especially in sexual attitudes, is always brought on by the young. But for that you need generational conflict. We’ve never had that here. In a way, that’s our success; our families have remained intact. Generational continuity and peace are valued more than conflict. The need for family approval is stronger than the need to fulfil sexual desires. Also there isn’t so much individualism here. With the idea of the individual, sexual needs become more defined and urgent.

Have attitudes to sexuality then changed at all?
Yes, there’s much more talk, it’s more open, embarrassment is less. Sexual experimentation’s also increased, though for many, ‘sexual’ still means just intercourse and the values of virginity, monogamy, arranged marriages are still very strong. What’s changed is that a sexual encounter outside of marriage is not just with bhabhis, cousins, uncles. The expression of sexuality has moved from inside the family to outside.

And what about women? Has the expression of their sexuality become more visceral, less inhibited?
Yes. Women’s sexual awareness is much higher. They’ve always known about orgasms and things, but their expectations are higher now. That’s my sense of it, but it’s difficult to talk about Indian sexuality; there are studies like the one done on urban, middle-class women in Bangalore. Most said one of the goals of their marriage was satisfying their husband’s sexual needs, not their own. So I’d say there are two sexual worlds in India, one still being born, but which makes the most noise through the media. The other, more conservative, has always been there.

Will sexual attitudes change over the next 100 years?
They’ll certainly move towards permissiveness. Individualism’s growing; so individual happiness of which sexual happiness is a part will become more important than social harmony. As for how fast it’ll change, or whether there’ll be generational conflict, I don’t know. My sense of it is that, in the true Indian way, it’ll happen with consensus between parents and the young.

Many more are acknowledging alternate sexualities. Is there an emotional tendency towards bisexuality?
No. Genuine bisexuality’s rarer than one thinks, more fantasy. Many people can be with both sexes but that’s not bisexuality. It’s about which sex really excites you - and for most people who claim to be bisexual, that excitement is not equal. One’s always more than the other. Most bisexuals are homosexuals who find it easier to inhabit both worlds and not be isolated.

With media emphasis on the body, expectations have risen. Has this created a sense of sexual inadequacy?
Where there’s expectation, there’ll be disappointment. Without expectations, people wouldn’t even engage in the endeavour. You may not climb Mt Everest, but you might climb other small mountains if you’re engaged! That’s why it’s important.

What explains the strange coyness with which sex is represented in commercial Indian cinema?
Well, at one level, it’s well-intentioned; they want to imbue romance and sensuality. But at another level, it borders on the obscene and seems to me to be the cinema of a sexually repressed, conservative society in which perversities are highlighted. Everything’s fixated on intercourse which becomes a shameful thing. They try to cover this attitude with romance but it’s again a case of a repressed social ethos triumphing over individual sexuality.

Which countries are liberated?
Scandinavia. North Europe. Not the US.

Are they emotionally healthier?
Yes, definitely. People equate permissiveness with licence. But actually a conservative morality creates precisely what it alleges to check: anti-social and perverse sexuality. Neurotic and perverse sexual behaviour, nymphomania, even promiscuity is more prevalent in conservative societies. Sexually liberal societies tend to tolerate child molestation, rape, and other sexual abuses or perversions much less. Ironically, permissive societies breed emotionally healthy people more able to cope with sexual disappointment than in conservative societies.

What are the signs of a move towards liberalness?
Most crucially, the reduction of sexual offences.

Can you cite historic occurrences that have triggered off or marked distinctive changes in sexual attitudes?
The era of the erotic and passionate was really between AD 3 to AD 6 when court poetry about erotic love flourished in Sanskrit. This is the time of the Kamasutra, Konarak, Khajuraho, the celebration of Radha and Krishna. Traces of this is visible right up to AD 11 when you have Jaidev’s Geet Govind. Prior to that, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism had already brought in anti-erotic elements. Later again, in the eighth century, you have the ascetic Shankaracharya. Yet, tantric traditions and temples of the yoginis continued side by side. Now, the western media has perhaps had the strongest impact on sexual attitudes.

Sudhir Kakar has authored several books, including Tales of Love, Sex and Danger and Intimate Relations.
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