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Indian Art  
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Indian art has been quite explicit in exploring sexuality and the erotic. Most often couples exhibited in the visual media are involved in heterosexual activity, for physical union is regarded as analogous to union with the divine; but some representations depict men and women engaged with one another, with multiple partners, animals, or with inanimate objects, and some images are susceptible to readings.

Not only is sexuality celebrated in the arts, but many of India's gods also consider gender to be a fluid affair; some gods either take on attributes of the opposite sex or switch genders completely. Much of the information about the gods is handed down through India's great epics, the Vedas (ca 1500 B.C.E.), the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (ca 500 B.C.E.-500 C.E.).

The Indus Valley Civilization, ca 2700-1900 B.C.E.

Located in today's Pakistan, and spanning a territory of more than one million square kilometers, the ancient Indus Valley civilization spread from Afghanistan to the mouth of the Indus River. Within this vast terrain several expertly engineered large urban centers have been uncovered, which suggests sophisticated inhabitants, who not only built brick cities with elaborate sewerage systems, but also had a script that has not yet been deciphered.

Among artifacts unearthed from the Indus Valley civilization are artistic prototypes that indicate a uniquely Indian sensibility, including the veneration of both male and female principles. Numerous clay statues of women adorned with flowers and bangles, featuring wide hips and prominent breasts, were found. These depictions point toward a convention carried on in sculpture and observed in both Hindu and Buddhist art.

Hundreds of steatite (a kind of soapstone) seals, ca 2.3-3.8 cm. (1-1½ in.), were also discovered. One depicts a male figure seated in a meditation pose, whose head(s) are adorned with a horned headdress and who appears to be in an ithyphallic (or erect) state. Surrounded by animals, he could be a prototype for Shiva in his aspect as "Lord of the Beasts."

Shiva is an important deity to the hijra (transvestite) community in India today, for he is often shown not only in aniconic form (that is, represented symbolically), as a lingam (erect phallus), but also as an being. An ancient stone lingam found in the Indus Valley indicates the existence of phallic worship.

Lingams today are still revered in numerous places around India as Shiva's emblem and as the generative male energy of the universe. Devotees honor the lingam by performing abhiseka, the bathing or anointing of the phallus with a substance.

This ritual has been practiced for so long that many lingams are smooth and shiny on top from the constant attention. Usually milk is poured over the lingam, and when performed by a male devotee, the undertone of this devotional rite cannot be denied.

The Vedic Society, ca 1500-500 B.C.E.

Around the time the Indus Valley civilization mysteriously disappeared (ca 1500 B.C.E.), Indo-European speaking communities rose to prominence. Literary records reveal the picture of a semi-nomadic people who, equipped with horses and chariots, were interested in religious ritual, weaponry, and stockbreeding.

These people composed a body of sacred writing, the Vedas. Although most of the hymns in the Rig Veda (the oldest of the Vedas) are dedicated to male deities, Giti Thadani notes that many parts of this text were appropriated from earlier feminine cosmogonies. Her book Sakhiyani (1996) speaks of numerous references in this body of sacred writing to the dual and twin feminine and also of a multiplicity of interfeminine relationships.

Both heaven and earth were initially spoken of as two maidens or mothers; and creation was often brought about by the coming together of the dual feminine, the twins, sisters, lovers, or mothers.

The dual goddesses were the first parents who gave birth to sons. The heterosexual relegation of the female goddesses to mere consorts of male deities occurred later than these early feminine cosmogonies. Thadani offers many examples of homoeroticism in these myths, which makes for fascinating reading, but, according to Vanita and Kidwai, some are taken out of context.

However, subsequent stories about same-sex couples having children and the mention of homosexual activity in the epics, as well as in the Kamasutra, an ancient sex manual dated to around the second century B.C.E., indicate that homosexual practices were not uncommon in south Asia.

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Top: A sculpture of Ardhanarisvara, the hermaphrodite form of the Hindu god Shiva (ca 1000-1100 C.E.).
Above: A sculpture in the Temple of Visvanatha, Khajuraho, India (built ca 1000 C.E.) shows a monk masturbating a man.

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