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Religion Library: Hinduism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

Hindu god ShivaThe god Shiva is the great ascetic of Hinduism, and is often seen as the model for human ascetics. Shiva renounces sexual behavior in this guise. Significantly, it is precisely his control of his sexuality that is the source of his tremendous power and energy. Through the control of his sexual desires, he generates ascetic heat, tapas, which is his purifying—and sometimes destructive—power.

A more extreme vision of sexuality is to be found in the Tantric tradition. Tantra pushes the norms of society even further than the bhakti traditions, holding that all rules and laws are human, and not divine, and although such rules may create an orderly society, they also bind us to the human realm. Tantra advocates abandoning all such rules, and often uses sexual images—if not actual sexual activities—as a means of transcending attachments.

Tantra is a highly complex and frequently misunderstood path within Hinduism (and Buddhism), but it essentially holds that we are bound by our lust and desire (not just sexual lust and desire, however).

We attach to the things of this world, objects and rules and social structures, and these things become spiritual impediments. Tantra lays out a more immediate (and more spiritually dangerous) path that conquers these desires by engaging in them. Rather than simply controlling sexual desires—through rules or through ascetic practices—or avoiding sexual desires, followers of the tantric path attempt to defeat them. A well-known aphorism of the Tantric path is: "By the poison of the snake the snakebite is cured." In other words, attachments—sexual and otherwise—are overcome and defeated by engaging in the things that lead to these attachments.

In the end, Hindu views of gender and sexuality are neither simple nor static. Indeed, as in other aspects of Hinduism, tensions and complexity and seeming contradictions are perhaps more the norm than the exception.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the role of women within Hinduism?
2.     How do goddesses contribute to the roles women adopt within the world?
3.     When is celibacy practiced?
4.     What can be learned from the Tantric tradition?


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