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Art And Pornography: Do They Meet In India?

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A few days ago, I bumped into a set of people who held the opinion that the youth in Bangalore are on a moral tail-spin, and one of the primary reasons for this being that they are addicted to pornography in its many shades. Since this is an expressed opinion, I listened with interest because opinion is more often than not backed by the intent of some kind, and reflects a thought process. The more strident the opinion, more deeply rooted is the attitude and values. The group went on to say that answers to this issue could be found in religion – answers to the malignancy of homosexuality, pornography, and untrammeled sex.

I gently pointed that the country that we live in is a civilization, the oldest surviving one and that we have value systems that are deep-rooted. These values and cultural attributes support us as a collective. Since the group could not look beyond the present, I drew them back to about 850 AD and the beautiful erotic art at the temples of Khajuraho, in India. Our ancestors had created something startlingly beautiful and not just to titillate the masses. The group had, much to their credit, heard of Khajuraho and called it ‘temple pornography’ – strong words indeed for something built about 1,200 years ago, even when pornography was probably not defined or even as widely seen as of this day.

However, why did Hindus put erotic walls on their temples? These temples have at various times excited and embarrassed Indians. The answer may surprisingly lie in today’s management theory in terms of cognitive psychology and what motivates humans. Unlike in the United States and many other parts of the world the ancient Hindu, rarely looked at success from the narrow confines of wealth, but broke it down to a four-part journey of permissible goals – of the Kama, Artha, Dharma, and Moksha – in that order, all required for humans to pursue their destiny. For an individual to realize their supreme Self, they need to identify the reasons and objectives why they came into being on this earth, and fulfill them in order. The ancient rishis clearly articulated the goals of humankind as Purusharthas. ‘Purusha’ means an individual or person, and ‘Artha’ means meaning or objective or pursuit. They articulated four Purusharthas as:

  • Kama: Desire
  • Artha: Wealth
  • Dharma: Righteousness, Duty
  • Moksha: Liberation

The idea is simple. Just as Abraham Maslow’s much-studied pyramid or hierarchy of needs, ancient Hindus were clear that we needed to go on a journey before we achieved peace and merge with God. There was nothing to be ashamed of desire (Kama) but it had it’s place and time as on the outside of a temple, where you were expected to leave it even as you approached God. Erotic temple art was by no means pornography, and ancient Hindus were not promiscuous, indeed they had developed and expressed a deep understanding of life.

An individual can realize themself, by balancing and fulfilling these four objectives. These four objectives are not exclusive to each other and should not be viewed as such. The interplay between the objectives is very important and critical to a balanced life. The activity of fulfilling one objective should also support the fulfillment of the others. By maintaining a balance between the definition and realization of the four Purusharthas, a synergistic evolution of the individual self-takes place. Exclusive pursuit of one Purushartha, say wealth or desire, creates an imbalance in a person’s life and prevents the person from reaching the ultimate destination of their life, which is the attainment of God.

As a person progresses through the evolution of their soul, they find that some of the objectives eventually lose their place and importance to more predominant objectives. For example, the desire to earn wealth may diminish and disappear, or a person may come to the realization that there are no more material desires that they need to pursue, and hence more room is created for the pursuit of the ultimate objective, Moksha.

Hinduism has always looked at sex in an ambivalent manner and relegated it to the bottom of the pyramid, just as Maslow did many many centuries later as a basic need. “The more we learn about man’s natural tendencies, the easier it will be to tell him how to be good, how to be happy, how to be fruitful, how to respect himself, how to love, how to fulfill his highest potentialities … The thing to do seems to be to find out what one is really like inside; deep down, as a member of the human species and as a particular individual” (Maslow, 1987).

It is also probably true that many Hindus developed a deep shame of the context and expression of sex, as they came into contact with other religions which entered India about 1,000 years ago and got worse during the British Victorian age. As an aside, it is interesting to note that many of the fathers of modern psychology in the United States have been deeply influenced by Indian thought. India’s ancient spiritual wisdom seeped into the cultural bloodstream of America. It is fascinating to learn how Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later Henry David Thoreau and other 19th century writers and poets, were responsible for disseminating the wisdom of the east to the masses in the west.

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