The heady mix of sensuality and religion that defines so much of Indian art often confuses and even alarms western viewers when they first encounter it. The sacred and the sensuous rub shoulders in an intimate manner that seems strange to sensibilities that have been trained to see art through the lenses of a tradition rooted in Christian attitudes to sexuality and religion: why, we wonder, would a monastery built for celibate Buddhist monks be decorated with images of beautiful, half-naked palace women? How could it be appropriate to cover the exterior walls of a religious building with graphically copulating couples?
Yet to pre-colonial Indians, there was no paradox here. For ancient Hindus and Buddhists, there was no association of women with sin; and in all India’s voluminous scriptures there is no Eve. Women were associated with fertility, abundance and prosperity rather than temptation, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine: “In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without,” states the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. “In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without.”
For this reason, throughout their long history, the arts of India – both visual and literary – have consistently celebrated the beauty of the human body. This in itself is a surprise to someone brought up in the western tradition. Christianity has always seen the human body as essentially the tainted vehicle of the perishable soul, something which has to be tamed and disciplined – a fleshy obstacle to salvation. It is only by casting off the body that we can attain perfection: we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Indian thought takes quite another tack. “The human bodily form was hailed as the epitome of manifested perfection,” writes the great Indian art historian, Vidya Dehejia. “All objects were seen to gain in meaning, and to be best understood, through comparisons with human beauty and human behaviour, especially in the context of erotic love and union.”
Continue reading in The Guardian