Celebrating and Discarding Sexuality: Sexual liberalism And The Many Contradictions In India

Sexual liberalism, Women of Kamasutra

Sexual liberalism And The Many Contradictions In India: The contradictions between the present Indian attitudes towards sexuality and the work produced in Pre-Colonial India can be best understood through a study of the past and present. Present-day Indian society seems to internalise itself with homophobic thoughts and perhaps closed its doors for anyone experimenting or exploring their sexuality. However, the texts which were produced earlier show evidence of gender fluidity that existed in Hinduism.

Hindu mythology is filled with innumerable instances of gender fluidity. Devdutt Pattanaik mentions that in Purana, prince Sudyaumna turns into a woman to marry Budh– god of mercury, Mahabharata’s Shrikhandi is born as a woman, with the help of yaksha, becomes a man. In the medical text of Shushruta Samhita, birth of queer is explained as a Tantrik belief. Panchatantra further goes on to prescribe adequate food and nutrition required for sexual performance[1].

William Darlymple highlights that the portrayal of erotic art on temple walls is not sinful, rather sensuality was considered a path towards divinity. Sensuality was seen as a symbol of spirituality and often as female fertility.

Sexuality & Pre-colonial India

One cannot ignore the fact that Vatsyayana’s work is an example of the celebration of sexuality and experimentation. Wendy Doniger  highlights that Kamasutra acknowledges the third gender and goes on with a long description of physical acts in sensual details[2].  

O Somasundaram opines that it was the work of Kamasutra, leaving an impact on erotic art of the early medieval temples of Khajurao and Konark, and on Buddhist paintings[3].

The Khajurao temples were built during the Chandella dynasty between c. 950 to 1050 C.E.

Shobita Punja states that erotic art of Khajurao depicts the sexual practices of the Tantric cult. Many scholars have tried to explain the purpose of erotic art on the temple walls, some have gone to the extent to believe that Khajurao provided free sex-education, by representing the work of Kamasutra through architecture. Punja, however, quotes the Shiva Purana as literary evidence to the Shiva temple of Khajurao, which focuses on the myth of Kama God (God of Desire). She states that the temple art is therefore used as a symbol to depict submission of desire in order to attain divinity[4].

Devangana Desai states that erotic motifs on the temple walls depict feudal structures. The medieval society of Orrisa followed a feudal structure, where the aristocrats were affected by “war and sex.” It is natural that the work of art produced reflected eroticism. Moreover, no literary evidence proves that the depiction of eroticism symbolizes subjugation of desire[5].

Zatalli’s works provide ample  examples from Medieval Indian History regarding exploration of one’s sexuality. Raziuddin Aquil further exposes sexual practices of the Mughal household[6]. Aquil’s work on Zatalli proves that exploring one’s sexuality was not a European invention.

ungender language

Sexual liberalism: Criminalising Sexual Experimentation

Throughout the history of Pre-colonial India, discourses around exploring sexuality, same-sex love is demonstrated. Partha Mitter cites an example from the 17th Century, of a European traveller stigmatising sexual liberalism. It was formalised in the Victorian Era when such practices were looked down upon with disgust as a merely unnatural act.

Aftermath of the Revolt of 1857, India witnessed a new era of colonisation, where India came under the direct control of the British crown, by 19th century the administrators and educationists imposed their anti-sex and homophobic ideas unto Indian legal system. In 1860, consensual sexual intercourse between two adults of the same-sex was criminalised and considered unnatural, manifested by British Law-Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was introduced.

It, therefore, does not come as surprise as to why India is reluctant to accept what once used to be an integral part of its culture. The burden from coloniser’s superiority and so-called civilised culture denounced any such practice that did not align with the ‘high culture,’ leading to the white-washing of the idea of culture and civilisation.

Gradually, the belief that used to be a minority became mainstream assisted by the legal implications. England, however, by 1967, decriminalised homosexuality, whereas India struggled till the 21st century.

Long Way To Go

Independent India or 20th century India, struggled for the recognition of gender non-conforming and LGBTQIA+ community through cinema and journals. By 2001, many organisations rallied to the streets of the National Capital on International Women’s Day, demanding acceptance for the LGBTQIA+ community. The long struggle finally bore a fruit on September 6 2018 and Section 377 was declared unconstitutional and decriminalised sexual conduct between consenting adults of the same sex.

The struggle, however, does not stop here, a great amount of unlearning is still left in order to challenge the way one is conditioned. Execution of laws do not make a difference, unless the society understands and accepts the law and in order to do so, one must be aware of their past.


[1] Chakraborty K, Thakurata RG. Indian Concepts on Sexuality, Indian J Psychiatry 2013

[2] Doniger Wendy. On the Kamasutra, Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Spring 2002

[3] Somasundaram O. Sexuality in the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, Indian J Psychiatry, 1986

[4] Vaidik Aparna. Outing the Sexual Taboo, Viking Penguin India, 1999

[5] Ibid

[6] Aquil Raziuddin. The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian History, Penguin India, 2009

The views expressed are the author’s own.