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Love, Eroticism and Female Sexuality in Classical Sanskrit Literature (Seventh-Thirteenth Centuries)

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Item Code: NAM811
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Author: Shalini Shah
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788173048319
Pages: 248
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 470 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This book is an attempt to analyse the conception of kiuua in the early-medieval classical Sanskrit literary tradition from a gender perspective. By reading against the grain, the author has tried to illumine the sexual status of women within the different genres of these classical Sanskrit sources. The book highlights that far from being a unitary homogeneous category with only a certain kind of sexual status, women and their sexuality have been conceived differently in different philosophical schools, be they dharmasastra, kamasastra, Lokayata. tantric, ayurvedic and the ascetic philosophies.

The author has further made a case for seeing the prostitute sexuality differently from that of a kulavadhu, i.e. a household woman. The treatment of the sexual desire of mayavinis, raksasis, dakinis, and svairims too places them in an all-together different category from the other women of patriarchy.

This book also argues in favour of the validity of talking in terms of low (prema) tradition in contra-distinction to an erotic (srngari) tradition in the classical Sanskrit sources of the early- medieval period. The basis for this binary division is predicated on the fact that in the love tradition, in which we include the poetry of the female poets, Bhavabhutis and Jayadcva's work deals with reciprocity and emotions in the sexual relations between man and woman. while the masculine erotic tradition authored by the srngari poets is marked by hegemonic masculinity in which women exist solely ,as fetishized objects for exclusively mall' erotic stimulation.


About the Author

Shalini Shah is Reader in the Department of History, Indraprastha College for Woman, University of Delhi. Her publications include The Making of Womanhood: Gender Relations in the Mahabharata ( Manohar 1995). She has also published many research papers in Prestigious journals and edited Volumes, Focusing on gender relations.



This work sets out to discuss what has been described in the ancient Indian tradition as kama or sexual desire. Kama was one of the four' goals of human life--dharma, artha and moksa being the other three. What prompted me to undertake an analysis of the texts dealing with kama, is my concern with women in general, and the social relations between men and women in particular. In rewriting a new women's history, the psycho-dynamics of the private sphere (which after all is the designated place of women in patriarchy) will need to be subjected to careful analysis. The patriarchal tradition completely subordinated women's goals in the spiritual and material spheres to the dictates of men. A woman who followed the pativrata dharma, the duty of an ideal chaste wife, was said to achieve both artha and moksa. In the kama tradition, on the other hand, women have a far more visible (even though not always as a subject) role to play. Perhaps this was because in the Indian tradition, unlike the Greek tradition for instance, kama was conceived predominantly in heterosexual terms.


The extant literature can be analysed under different rubrics. There are monographs on erotic/sexual life in ancient India in general. Then there are works that focus on women in the early medieval context. Significant for our purpose are various studies that deal specifically with Sanskrit literature, many of which also touch on the classical texts of the seventh to thirteenth centuries. Furthermore, historians of the early medieval period have used the erotic texts as sources, or have commented on the concerns that are the focus of this work.

One of the earliest writings on Indian erotic literature was R. Schmidt's Beitraege Zur Indischen Erotik published in 1911. It was an account of the contents of published and unpublished Kamasastra texts, arranged under different heads with copious quotations and translations. J.J. Meyer published his Sexual Life in Ancient India in 1930 but dealt chiefly with the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with compilations from the Smrti texts in the footnotes, so that his study has no direct bearing on my problem. In fact, in spite of the suggestive title, Meyer's book avoids discussion of even the Kamasutra, the text par excellence on the science of erotics. S.K. De's significant monograph Ancient Indian Erotics and Erotic Literature, published in 1959, deals with love and erotic sentiments in both Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit texts of the pre-classical period such as the Rgveda, Atharvaveda, Buddhist Therigatha, and Hala's remarkable collection of verses, Gathasattasai. Referring to the classical period of Sanskrit literature, he observed that we find erotic poetry blooming in its fullness; poetry which vindicated the claims of women as 'objects' of divinely inspired passion. De noted, quite perceptively,' that in classical Sanskrit erotic poetry 'the physical charms of men are seldom directly described; but those of women are profusely and frequently depicted with a passionate intensity of detail.... It is remarkable that in describing feminine charms only such details are selected as have frank sexual appeal.' However, De failed to develop this insight in any paradigmatic manner in his monograph. He also fell short of commenting on the gendered nature of the sources that gave rise to dissimilar treatments of men and women and their bodies in the erotic kavya. If there was grossness in the depiction of the female form, De tried to explain it by stating that 'love was being conceived in its concrete richness'; that the 'essential realism of his (the poet's) passion makes him put a larger emphasis on the body; and love appears more as self-fulfilment than as self-abnegation'." De gently chides those who condemn Sanskrit love poetry as sensual: 'the standards and limits of propriety as well as prudery are different for different people', he says. That the standards of propriety were also different for men and for women was something De did not grasp. Chandra Chakravarty, in his short monograph Sex Life in Ancient India (1963), is ambitious in terms of the themes covered: primitive tribes, health, marriage, tantric worship and even some exemplary narratives in ancient India which deal with sex. The last chapter of this monograph, which gives the book its title, is merely a description of a few coital positions from Vatsyayana's Kamasatra, which are then copiously explained in the footnotes with details from modem medical treatises that refer to matters such as frigidity. Chakravarty supplements the medical tracts with desultory sociological data to explain everything from sexual congress to sexual hospitality mentioned in the ancient texts. Chakravartys work is too convoluted to make any academic sense. There is no context and no perspective to the mish-mash of data that he has collected. Like De, N.N. Bhattacharyya in History of Indian Erotic Literature (1975), is of the view that in the literary sources the erotic is presented as a sensation with 'direct appeal to the female body'. He too eschews analysis of the relevant texts from either the historical or the sociological perspectives. His study is a compendium on erotic literature intended for the general reader.

Several works deal specifically with women in the early medieval context. Saroj Gulati's Women and Society: Northern India in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries A.D. (1985) lacks analytical rigour, often taking for granted what actually needs to be explained. Moreover, she has barely consulted the sources that are central to my study. Two monographs on women, both published in 1987, Tripat Sharma's Women of Ancient India from 320 A.D. to circa 1200 A.D. and U .P. Mishra' s Prachin Bharata mein Nari 600- I 200 I svi, do cover the period of study, but lack conceptual or historical application regarding the lives of women. Like Gulati's work they too do not focus in any substantive manner on the relevant sources. A more nuanced understanding of the issue of control over female sexuality in the ancient Indian historical context was furnished by feminist scholar Uma Chakravarty in her important article 'Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State', published in 1993. Chakravarty pointed out that for the brahmanical system, based as it was on status by birth, purity was contingent on the control of female sexuality. She commented on the role of the state in regulating women's sexuality in the private sphere. Gender and caste were, thus, the organizing principles of the 'brahmanical' social order, and were intimately interconnected. What was being safeguarded through the control of female sexuality was not only caste purity, but also the purity of the paternal bloodline. Without total control of female sexuality the system of patrilineal inheritance could not be passed on with any certainty. The gender perspective also informs the work of R.P. Sharma whose Women in Hindu Literature was published in 1995. Sharma stated that a 'large part of Sanskrit erotic literature is openly voyeuristic'.' Sharma also seems to be acutely aware of the asymmetrical male and female sexual relations. While referring to Vatsyayana's Kamasutra, he refers to the daily life of the male as depicted in this text as a 'round of pleasures', but that of his wife as a 'round of duties'. Sharma goes on to observe? pithily that 'no acquisitive system, whether Aryan Hindu or any other, recognizes the autonomy of the female, and it cannot therefore allow the semantics of love to emphasize an unqualified sharing of certain feelings and experiences between equal heterosexual partners'. Thus, says Sharma, the Kamasutra formulated an ethics of male sexuality from the male point of view and assigned to the female the 'status of a sex object'." Kumkum Roy's interpretation of Vatsyayana's Kamasutra in 'Unravelling the Kamasutra' (1996), lead to similar conclusions. Roy commented on the way female sexuality was circumscribed within the confines of patriarchy. A gendered attitude is reflected not only in the text but even in modern writings on, and editions of, this ancient text.

Gender analysis is noticeable in two important works which make a specific aspect of eroticism, homosexuality, the focus of research: Giti Thadani's Sakhiyani (1996), a path-breaking work on lesbian desire within Indian culture, and Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai's magnum opus Same-Sex Love in India (2001). The importance of these two studies stems from the fact that they bring to centre-stage" an aspect of eroticism that has been completely marginalized within a pervasively heterosexual Indian cultural complex.

In Rahul Peter Das' The Origin of the Life of a Human Being: Conception and the Female According to Ancient Indian Medical and Sexological Literature (2003) women, empirically speaking, occupied centre-stage, though the same cannot be said of their analytical visibility. Das' analysis of the role of women in conception, and in the physical act of sexual intercourse that brings about conception, lacks critical insight. He fails to notice that female desire is either marginalized (as in sexological texts) or treated as a disorder (as in the Indian medical tradition).

D.D. Kosambi in his brilliant introduction to the edited volume of Vidyakara's Subhasitaratnakosa gave a Marxist critique of this anthology, compiled around CE 1100. Kosambi called this 'class literature', 'circumscribed literature'." He noted that srngara pervaded the poetry of this anthology. A 'woman may be a household animal to him [the poet/rasika] but she is also the one luxury of the rich that he can savour at first hand with the highly developed technique of the Kamasastra' . While the androcentrism that attributes the subject status to males and the object status to females of this class literature caught Kosambi's attention, he was puritanical and made certain simplistic statements. He talked about a certain 'healthiness' in the sexual depiction where 'we hear little of prostitution, and nothing of homosexuality or other abnormalities' .

Sukumari Bhattacharji in her History of Sanskrit Literature: Classical Age pointed out that what passes for love in Sanskrit literature is in most cases mere love." Desire almost always begins and ends with the body (the female one). Bhartrhari, Bilhana and Jayadeva all glorify the body and the lust it provokes, which no love poetry can afford to ignore but which all true love poetry has to transcend in order to attain beauty and richness. Bhattacharji also commented on the gendered difference in the presentation of nayaka and nayika in this literature. While the poetical texts defined the nayaka according to his character, the nayika was characterized in relation to the manner in which she was treated by men. A.K. Warder in his monumental five-volume Indian Kavya Literature (1972-88) did not have anything to say on the gendered nature of poetry, but his work is rich in empirical detail and deals with most of the sources, particularly the verses of female poets that I shall be using in this work. A refreshingly original perspective on the literature of love is that of K.S. Srinivasan. ln his The Ethos of Indian Literature: A Study of its Romantic Tradition (1985), he grappled with the vexed problem of Indianness in Indian literature. His proposition was that the roots of Indian literature lie in the people's poetry-the bardic songs which celebrate love among the common folk. He saw Hala' s Gathasattasai of the first century CE as the earliest available specimen of such literature. Srinivasan was of the view" that trading caravans and Prakrit-speaking Jaina monks moving along the daksinapatha between Madurai and Ujjain via Pratisthana, disseminated these love songs (spicy love songs being ideal for weary travellers to recite). Following the logic of his proposition, Srinivasan suggested a linkage between the Prakrit tradition and the early Tamil tradition," citing parallels in the gatha and the sangam poetry, the latter being the off shoot of the former. This relation, he said, was not just in the theme of love but in language as well In fact, he looked upon" early Tamil as Dravidi Prakrit, a term first used by R.L. Mitra and agreed upon by T'V. Mahalingam. Srinivasan'" stressed the female author- ship of these Prakrit songs. In the Gathasattasai there are about 262 poets of whom seven are women. He further pointed out that of the eight Ettutokai anthologies in the sangam literature, six comprised love songs (aham). Of the 473 poets, 30 were women. Srinivasan considered the Prakrit love songs the main inspiration behind the classical Sanskrit lyrical love poetry as well, particularly visible in Govardhanacarya's highly erotic Aryasaptasati. Govardhanacarya in fact described Prakrit as the abode of Sarasvati, adding that the muse was forcibly harnessed to Sanskrit (balena nita). Ananda- vardhana in his seminal treatise on poetics Dhvanyaloka quoted copiously from the Prakrit tradition of love poetry. Srinivasan thus identified the original love tradition in Indian literature as being both non-Sanskritic and feminine.




  Acknowledgements 9
  Roman Equivalents of Nagari Letters 10
  List of Abbreviations 11
  Introduction 13
1 The Philosophy of Kama 50
2 The Physiology of Kama 94
3 In the Business of Kama 128
4 Prema and Srngara 163
5 Conclusion 217
  Bibliography 223
  Index 243
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