Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Sexuality and Hinduism

  • Mark HarrisEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_9065-1

The twentieth century was bloody and disorienting, shattering assumptions held since the Enlightenment about the nature of life and morality. The “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s, spawned by the birth control pill, challenged norms throughout the Western World. First approved for contraception in the United States in 1960, the birth control pill removed the fear of pregnancy for millions of couples and allowed sexual experimentation by the masses, rather than only by fringe elements of society as had been the case for millennia. Combined, these factors encouraged some westerners to look to non-Western religions such as Hinduism for alternative perspectives on sexuality – what does it mean to be a sexual being, and what does sex itself mean?

To study a religion is, in part, to study its source of authority. Common sources of religious authority include scriptures, traditions, words, and deeds of important people past and present, and the lived experience of its adherents over time. The reader must also consider his or her interpretive framework (hermeneutic). Will words be understood literally, allegorically, according to the assumed intent of the author, according to the preference of the reader, in some other way, or in some combination? This article attempts to use interpretations traditionally accepted by adherents.

Hinduism is fluid by its very nature. The caste system has been consistent over the ages, as have concepts such as samsara (rebirth), moksha (release), and Brahman (highest universal principle), but other concepts have evolved over the centuries and from place to place. American Hinduism, for example, differs notably from Kashmiri Hinduism. Some Westerners may include the austere tendencies of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), the founder of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCOM), as “Hinduism.” Others may include the licentious teachings of the “Sex Guru” Chandra Mohan Jain (1931–1990), founder of the Rajneesh movement (Palmer 1994, p. 46). Devout Hindus have been polygamists, monogamists, and celibates. Some Hindu texts such as the Arthashastra and the Manusmirti (Law of Manu) proscribe same sex activity (Parrinder 1996, p. 21), while other works such as the Kama Sutra seem to allow it (Lidke 2003, p. 124). During the horse sacrifice, one of the most important early Vedic rituals and used only in the most severe need or jubilant celebration, the queen lies with a horse, thus suggesting that bestiality is permitted (Parrinder 1996, p. 15). The net result is that almost any definition and any practice of sexuality can fit under the big tent of Hinduism. As Jeffrey S. Lidke affirms, “Hinduism expresses the entire gamut of human attributes towards sexuality” (p. 103).

The Hindu caste system includes the Brahmin (the highly educated, especially religious leaders), the Kshatriya (rulers and military leaders), the Vaishya (merchants and farmers), the Shudra (servants to the other castes), and the Dalits (people outside the system entirely). Similarly, there are three major pursuits in life – Dharma (fulfilling one’s duty, the law, which results in virtue and religious merit), Arthra (worldly wealth), and Kama (love, pleasure, and sensual gratification). What one does to achieve dharma differs depending upon their station in life. A Brahmin might offer sacrifices, a Kshatriya might fight wars, and a Vaisha might make money. A veshya (courtesan or prostitute) might pursue dharma by practicing her trade (Dane 2003, p. 28).

Fundamental to Hindu views on sexuality are the concepts of fire and water. The major Hindu deity Siva is the god of fire – he is generally portrayed as male and his main symbol is the phallus. He transforms his sexual desires into spiritual heat through yogic practices. As such, the male sex is primarily represented by fire, and they can transform their sexual drive into spiritual power. The female sex is primarily represented by water. The goddess Ganga, after whom the Ganges River is named, was one of Siva’s wives. The union of his fire and her water created spiritual power and fertility. Undoubtedly, the observation of amniotic fluid coming from women at birth contributed to the association of women with water.

While the dominant theme in Hindu sexuality is male fire and female water, there is an element of reversal. Vedic ritual involves a priest offering a sacrifice, often a libation, on a fire altar surrounded by sacred space. During the act of sexual intercourse, the male offers his semen as a “libation” into the “fire pit” of the woman, her sexual organs (Lidke 2003, p. 108). Sex thus becomes a sacrificial act by the male for the purpose of conception, fertility, and ultimately spiritual transcendence. Inherently dangerous sexual power is transformed into spiritual energy and ultimately truth, goodness, and justice, by such ritual (Lidke 2003, p. 111). To maximize power, a wife would have sex only with her husband, only during certain phases of the moon, and never during menses (Lidke 2003, p. 123). In fact, for a pious Brahmin, all sexual contact was to be a holy rite (Feuerstein 1992, p. 139).

There are important psychological factors herein. From an individual standpoint, the scriptural instructions on gender identity and sexual conduct provide psychological support to those who wish to follow them. For those who accept the underlying assumptions of Hinduism, the actions required of men and women are logical and flexible. From a corporate standpoint, social roles required by scriptural and traditional authority empower individuals to define themselves relative to others, and smooth social interactions and expectations in the sensitive subject of sexuality.

While sex is a source of spiritual power, making “semen flow upwards,” literally withholding one’s sexual energy, is also a source of such power. The Hindu religion told men to conserve their semen, and ejaculation was a source of guilt. Sexual energy was to be directed into religious ritual, into battle, into trade, or into other work, depending upon which dharma (duty before the law) was appropriate to an individual’s caste. These ideas long predate Freud’s ideas of sublimation, in which sexual energies are diverted into more socially acceptable pursuits. Nonetheless, a neo-Freudian would be well familiar with these teachings.

Tantrism is another important Hindu tradition. In the left-hand path (vama-marga), physical sexual intercourse is paramount. In the right-hand path (dakshina-marga), intercourse is seen purely in symbolic or allegorical terms (Feuerstein 1992, p. 138). The latter has much in common with medieval mysticism. The goal of vama-marga is to allow each individual of the couple to recapture the transcendental fusion between the god (Shiva), the male principle, and the goddess (Shakti), the female principle (Feuerstein 1992, p. 142). Ritual sexual intercourse imitates the god’s divine copulation (Parrinder 1996, p. 37). The five components of this ritual include wine (madya), meat (mamsa), fish (matsya), parched grain (mudya), all of which are considered aphrodisiac, and (intercourse) maithuna (Feuerstein 1992, p. 143). Part of the ritual involves the partners massaging each other- nonsexual areas first, sexual areas second- and intercourse last. Such activities foster intimacy and improve each person’s awareness of their own and their partner’s bodies. If done well, the tantric believes that each member of the couple will obtain bliss, the “everlasting orgasm of god and goddess in divine embrace” (Feuerstein 1992, p. 152).

From a behavioral standpoint, such ritual is powerful, providing a sensual experience which touches the hearts and minds of the participants. Meditation, music, chanting, dancing, and other nonsexual rituals often accompany sexual rites, relieving anxiety and heightening the effect of each. From a therapeutic standpoint, techniques recommended in these rites mirror those commonly used in secular sexual therapy. At their best, these blissful experiences reaffirm the truth of tantrism in the minds of the adepts. Some new religious movements use tantric-style sexual encounters as therapy, but such encounters can impair rather than improve individual health.

Sexual identity can be more fluid in Hinduism because the belief in reincarnation adds fluidity to gender identity. If a man can be reborn as a woman in the next life, and if he was an animal in a past life, what gender, or even species, is he? If his end is to achieve release from the endless cycle of rebirths (moksha) and merge with the universal Brahman, what is the meaning of gender at all? Hindu sexuality is different today than it was in the past, and is different in the Western World than in south Asia. The answers to questions about sexual identity depend largely on the setting in which the questions are asked.

Hinduism continues to influence modern sexuality in India and throughout the world, but has merged with other views in a twenty-first-century amalgam. Bollywood follows Hollywood in promoting a licentious lifestyle and pushes the envelope with ever-new activities, which some would call indiscretions. Movements for women’s rights challenge former roles from the boardroom to the bedroom. By separating sex from reproduction, the birth control pill (and its variants) have revolutionized sexuality, and current sexual mores clash with ancient ones. Such tensions of past and present produce a personalized practice of sex. Psychologically we become atomized in our thinking – independent from and isolated from others.

Psychopathology impairing sexual function among adherents to Hinduism can be dealt with using medications and culturally competent counseling. Medications can include selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRI), phosphodiesterase inhibitors, and androgen therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is useful, especially for victims of sexual trauma. As the recognized need for behavioral health treatment grows, psychologists and other professionals will be called upon to know their patients, culturally and individually, to help meet their needs.

Conclusion

The concepts of fire and water, the ritual nature of sexual activity, and the transforming of sexual energy into spiritual power form the foundation to understanding Hindu thought and action. Nonsexual rituals, scriptures, and social factors also play an important role in Hindu life and Hindu sexuality. Behavioral health professionals and other interested parties should possess a basic understanding of these factors as they interact with Hindus, especially in the area of sexuality.

See Also

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southern Baptist Theological SeminaryLouisvilleUSA