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Ancient Indian erotics and erotic literature

Sushil Kumar De

De, Sushil Kumar;

Ancient Indian erotics and erotic literature

K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1959, 109 pages

topics: |  sanskrit | erotica |

Fascinating tales from the earliest vedic texts, particularly the
r^igveda.  In the original, these stories are rather obscure and
there is considerable ambivalence; De gives us a more physical

urvashi and purUravas, painting by
raja ravi varma. source: wikipedia

Treatment of love in pre-classical sanskrit literature

the earliest indian poems which give a passionate expression to the emotion of love, are to be found in two so-called vedic ballads or saMvAda hymns in the tenth book of r^ig-veda. the first of these (r^ig-v. x.95) is a poem of eighteen stanzas, supposed to consist of a dialogue between purUravas पुरूरवस , a mortal, and urvashI उर्वशी, a divine maiden. this romantic story of the love of a mortal for a nymph has been retold, and no less a poet than kalidAsa has taken it as the theme of one of his finest dramas.

the vedic hymn takes it up at that point where urvasI, who had lived with purUravas for years on earth, had vanished "like the first of dawns" ; and purUravas, having found her after a long search, was pleading in vain that she might return to him. the satapatha brAhmaNa supplies the untold details of this ancient myth and weaves fifteen out of the eighteen verses of the r^ig-veda into its brief and bald narrative; but the r^ig-vedic hymn, though obscure in many places and cast in the form of a dialogue, gives a fine lyric expression to the ardent but hopeless pleadings of purUravas and the somewhat cold but no less pathetic rejoinder of urvasI. addressing her as his "fierce-souled spouse" he implores her to tarry a moment, and reason together for a while:

	let the gift brought by my piety approach thee.
	turn thou to me again : for my heart is troubled.

to which la belle dame sans merci replies :

	what am i to do with this thy saying?
	i have gone from thee like the first of mornings.
	purUravas, return thou to thy dwelling;
	i, like the wind, am difficult to capture.

rebuking her for her inconstancy, purUravas recalls in vivid language the
days of pleasure they had passed together; but the only consolation which
urvasI deigns to give him is her promise to send him the son who will be born
to them. even when, in despair, purUravas speaks of self-destruction and
wants to throw himself from the rocks to the fierce wolves, she only replies:

	nay, do not die, purUravas; nor perish;
	let not the evil-omened wolves devour thee.
	with women there can be no lasting friendship.
	hearts of hyenas are the hearts of women!

the purUravas-urvashI tale was also the subject of one of kAlidAsa's
most famous plays, Vikramorvashiyam विक्रमोर्वशीयम्. 

d.d. Kosambi has analyzed this story from a modern social gendered
viewpoint, (Myth and Reality, 1962) - for his discussion, see kumkum
roy's Women in early Indian societies (1999)

Yama and Yami

	[yami, later known as yamuna, is the twin sister of the god of
	death, yama.  their father is the sun (vivasvat), and their mother
	saranya, daughter of the sage tvastri, the first-born creator of
	the universe.

	sukumAri bhattAchArji notes how yama is the first man to die, and
	is resurrected then as the lord of death {Indin Theogony, p. 100].
	the shatapatha brAhmaNa aligns him as the man hidden within the
	radiance of the sun - "this glowing light is that immortal
	element, therefore Death does not die, he is within the immortal"
	(x:5, also xiv:1).  the sun's rotation also gives him a temporal
	aspect as kAla.

	yami and yama are among the earliest layers of the vedic gods, and
	are among the earliest in creation; another brother is manu.
	there is a suggestion that there may not be too many other suitors
	so that their union is sanctioned as the only means to perpetuate
	the race (e.g. see Wilkins, Hindu Mythology, 1900,  but de
	suggests that this was a front, and that yami's urge was possibly
	more primal. ]

	a statue of yama and yami, Tibet early 19th c.
	image: wikimedia


the other passionate poem in the r^igveda is the dialogue
between yama, the god of death, and his sister yami  (r^ig-v x. 10).

there can be no doubt that the ancient myth of the descent of the human
race from primeval twins underlies the conversation and explains yami's
attempt, fruitless so far as the hymn goes, to impel her brother yama to
accept and make fruitful her proffered love; yet the poet, with a more
refined sentiment than the legend itself, is apparently uneasy regarding
this primitive incest and tries to clear yama of the guilt.

in ardent words the sister endeavours to win the brother's love, persuading
him that the gods themselves desire that he should unite himself with her
in order that the human race may not die out :

	i, yami:, am possessed by love of yama,
	that i may rest on the same couch beside him,
	i as a wife would yield me to my husband,
	like car-wheels let us speed in the same task.

but yama repulses her advances as a sin which the ever watchful
gods would condemn :

	they stand not still, they never close their eyelids,
	those sentinels of gods who wander round us.
	not me,  -- go quickly, wanton, with another,
	whirl round with him like the wheels of a chariot.

to which she replies with more passion than reason :

	is he a brother when she hath no lord?
	is she a sister when destruction cometh?
	forced by my love these many words i utter --
	come near me and hold me in thy close embrace.

and on his repeated refusal she bursts forth:

	alas, thou art indeed a weakling, yama;
	we find in thee no trace of heart or spirit ..
	as round the tree the woodbine clings,
	another, and not i, girdle-like will cling round thee.

origin of day and night

as a commentary on this story we have a suggestive little tale in the
maitrAyaNI saMhita (1.5.12) which gives a fine legend of the origin of day
and night :

	yama had died. the gods tried to persuade yami to forget him.
	whenever they asked her, she said : ."only to-day he has died."  then
	the gods said : "thus she will indeed never forget him : we will
	create night." for at that time there was only day and no night.  the
 	gods created night ; then arose a morrow ; thereupon she forgot him.

Spells for lovers

the vedas give two "sleeping
spells'' (r^ig-v. vii. 55; Atharva-v. iv. 5) which have been interpreted
as "charms at an assignation", in which a lover, stealing to
his sweetheart at night, says : 

	may the mother sleep, may the dog sleep, may the eldest in
	the house sleep,. may her relations sleep, may all the
	people round about sleep.

we have references also to the primitive [voodoo] belief that by means of
the picture of the beloved one can harm or obtain power over him or her by
piercing the heart of the picture with an arrow which has a barb of tho~
and feather of an owl, and by reciting the following magic verses (atharva-v.
iii. 25) :

	may love, the disquieter, disquiet thee. with the terrible arrow
	of kAma do i pierce thee in the heart. the arrow, winged with
	longing, barbed with love, whose shaft is undeviating desire, with
	that, well aimed, kAma shall pierce thee in the heart .........
	consumed by burning ardour, with parched mouth, do thou (woman),
	come to me, with thy pliant pride laid aside, mine alone, speaking
	sweetly and to me devoted.

[there is also a similar verse for women: (atharva-v. iv. 130.4; 131.1]

	madden him, maruts, madden him. madden, madden him, 0 air.
	madden him, agni, madden him. 
	let him be consumed with love for me.
	down upon thee, from head to foot, i draw the pangs of longing
	love.  send forth desire, ye deities! 
	let him be consumed with love for me.

[note: in the vedas, kAma is a relatively insignificant agent; he
gets fleshed out later in the epics and purANas.]

Married women and lovers

the position of the woman in the house-hold was one of honour and
dignity ; but the existence of free love and secret lover is
evidenced by the curious ritual o£ varuNapraghAsa in which the
wife of the sacrificer is questioned as to her lovers.

in the famous hymn, usually known as the gambler's Lament
(rg-v. x. 34. 4), a reference seems to be made to the gambler's
wife being the object of other men's intrigues, and in another hymn
(x. 40, 6) mention is made of a woman resorting to her rendezvous.

The word puMshchalI "runnning after men" is already found in the
white yajurveda (xxx. 22) and atharva-veda (xv.  2. I et seq):
while jAra in the early texts had not yet acquired a sinister
sense but was applied generally to any lover. judging from the
vehemence with which women used to utter magic spells for the
destruction of their rivals or co-wives, one would think that the
course of free love did not run smooth even in those days.

in one hymn, for instance, the ashvins are questioned as to where
they were by night (x. 40. 2) :

	who draws you to his house, as a widow does her husband's 
	brother to the couch, or a woman does a man ?

[intense love poetry is largely absent in the extensive brAhmaNa
literature and the epics.]

Classical sanskrit poetry

it is later, in classical sanskrit literature that we find erotic
poetry blooming in its fulness; and it was this poetry which
redeemed and vindicated the claims of woman as an object of
divinely inspired passion.

when we come to this period of sanskrit literature we find that
from its very dawn love had established itself as one of its
dominant themes. in pata~njali's mahAbhhASya, belonging at the
latest to the 2nd century b.c., we have references to the tales of
yavakr^ta, priya.ngu and yayAti, of vAsavadatta, sumanottarA and
bhImaratha. nothing is said of the details of these stories, but we
know that one at least of these, the tale of vAsavadatta, must have
had love as its underlying theme. pata~njali also quotes verses in
the ornate measure of the classical period, and one fragment at
least of a line is clearly erotic in subject in its description of
the morning:

	o fair-limbed one, the cocks unite to proclaim [dawn] !

the full verse is fortunately supplied twelve centuries later by
kSemendra, who quotes it in his aucitya-vicAra औचित्य-विचार 
but attributes it wrongly to kumAradAsa :

	o fair-limbed one, timid of the first union,
	leave your lover, abandon the close embrace !
	the cocks unite to proclaim
	that here is now the break of dawn !

we have also a tradition recorded by several sanskrit authors that
there was a poet, named pANini, who wrote one poem with two
different names or two poems entitled pAtAlavijaya and
JAmbavatI-vijaya, who excelled in composing verses in the upajAti
metre and to whom several verses in this metre are ascribed in the
older anthologies. as indian tradition knows only of one pANini who
wrote the famous grammar, it is not unlikely that the grammarian
may have also been a poet. [p.12]

most of these verses attributed to pANini are in the fanciful
vein but some are distinctly erotic in theme. here is a description
of the evening :

	so close hath the moon, flushed with the glow of passion,
	seized the face of night, lovely with the twinkle of stars,
	that in her love she hath not noticed that her mantle of
	darkness· had slipped off to her feet in the east.

	When the West united with the Sun her face was ruddy : the
	face· of the East was dark. There is no woman who is not

ashvaghoSha [from his Saundarananda]: 
	In the words of women there is honey
	In their heart there is deadly poison.

	madhu tiShThati vAci yoShitAM
	hr^daye halAhalam mahad-viShaM

bio: Sushil Kumar De

Sushil Kumar De (1890-1968) was a scholar spanning a number of
disciplines in the early 20th century.  He was a professor at Calcutta,
Dhaka and Jadavpur Universities. 

A noted scholar, he held a degree in law, but spent his life researching
ancient manuscripts and writing extensively on topics in Sanskrit
alaMkAra, bengali vaiShNavism, the mahAbhArata, sanskrit drama, etc. 
He did his D.Litt from the School of Oriental Studies at the University of
London, with a thesis on Sanskrit rhetoric. 

A president of the All-India Oriental Conference, he edited several
volumes in the Bhandarkar Institute's authoritative critical edition of
the mahAbhArata.  He was also a Bengali poet.  

He also wrote a number of works to popularize classical literature; this
is one of them. 

links : 
* banglapedia
* wikipedia (bangla)


* Treatment of Love in Sanskrit Literature  
      1. In Pre-classkal Literature           1
      2. In Classical Poetry                  12
      3. In Prose Romance and Drama           57
 * Ancient Indian ETOLics                     85

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This article last updated on : 2014 Jun 22