This article appears in February, 2012’s Common Ground magazine.  Please hit “control” and “+” at the same time to read. (You might have to do this seven times!).

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What Do Sexy Temple Statues Have to Do with Yoga?

By Eric Shaw


When the Brits began taking economic advantage of India way back in the 1600s, they encountered a culture alien to them. Here was a society where naked holy men roamed, prostitutes plied their wares in temples, and certain rituals required drinking human blood.

But perhaps the most strangely compelling sight for Brits and other Europeans were temples like those at Konorak, Khajuraho, and Kailasanatha carved with tier upon tier of naked or scantily clad statues writhing in the pleasures of sex.

One writer addressing the masses back in merry olde England said it was unmentionable and enough to “outrage a Christian public.”

Churches advertising wild sex? Huh?

The sexual prudery of the Victorian Age hadn’t yet dawned. That would happen in the 1800s; nonetheless, Brits from the 1600s still had ideas about church that didn’t include public displays of folks in delicto flagrante.

What were these Indians thinking?

Missionaries from Italy and Spain began exploring the mysteries behind Indian thinking beginning in the 1500s, but the business went big time in the 1800s when scholars from France, Germany, and Britain learned Sanskrit.

Knowing this ancient Indian language helped uncover clues about the significance of these sexy temples.

The scholars discovered that Indians didn’t structure human life as Westerners did. In books like the Kama Sutra, for instance, the pleasure of sex was a holy pillar of life. It fit within the purusharthas—life’s four goals. The purusharthas blessed morality (dharma), work (artha), pleasure (mainly sexual pleasure, kama), and transcendence (moksha) as life’s main aims.

Kama was a clue to the temples. Its position in the purusharthas gave sex a holy place.

This was a novel idea because—even now—the West hasn’t made sex holy. The messy striving for pleasure lies outside the Church’s transcendent goals.

In the West’s High Heaven, nobody is in carnal embrace. San Francisco may parade giant penises at Gay Pride, but this is a celebration of resistance to a social norms, and shares no grace notes of a shift in sacred consciousness. Alternative Culture still hasn’t pushed sex through our church doors. The neo-Tantra folks are certainly working hard on the problem, but—just like the Brits of the 1600s—a big distance remains between raucous Western ways and the affirmation of sex in the purusharthas.  Victorianism and sexual liberality are usually two sides of the same coin.

Sex is still profane, even for rebellious modern folk. And it will be a long time before Lutherans carve church statues to sanctify sex.

The purusharthas were part of a raft of sacred ideas that celebrated fertility, wealth, and creativity for Indians. Sexual pleasure was symbolic of of the explosive fecundity of nature and society.

The purusharthas were a formulation of life for those in normal social roles: those who went to work each day and supported their families. Intensely religious, most Indians past and present make regular temple visits while pursuing spiritual growth.

The temples embraced all their social creativity and made it holy. Statues of wildly cavorting apsaras (heavenly girls) symbolized the delight of personal and social evolution, just as beautiful women and men on magazine covers subconsciously speak of life’s primal vitality now (despite more modern arguments that can intolerably limit such images to the profane realm of gender power or objectification).

Drawing both male and female attention, apsaras told that story then.

Societies both secular and religious encourage happiness, productivity, and the creation of wealth as parts of human growth. Indian temples supported a mainstream view of embracing life’s vast lila (play).

Nudity on temple walls was a raw celebration of this.

But this mainstream view of life is not the only thing the temples or their nudes stood for—the temples were two-faced, and the sexy statues were only part of their message. They composed the outward part, the surface.

But the temples also stood for life’s deeper satisfactions, which had to do with the purushartha of moksha (ultimate freedom), freedom from the nagging pull of kama—freedom from pleasure! The goal of yoga, classically, is opposite the goals celebrated on temple exteriors. The goals of yoga aligned with what was found in the deep interior of the temple, in the central space called the kha. Here, a sculpture of a lingam and a yoni (a phallus and a vulva) was placed, indicating the joining of the eternal opposites. This sculpture pointed to the ultimate oneness of life—to the transcendence of life.

The fourth purushartha is moksha, or transcendence, and the temple highlighted this goal by the centrality of the kha, the presence of lingam and yoni there, and the priestly rituals for a happy rebirth. We are taking a huge philosophical U-turn when we go beyond the temple’s sexy statues and talk about the temple activities and the philosophy indicated by all of its wares.

The Brits didn’t understand the sexy statues for two reasons.

First, because they couldn’t understand that earthly pleasures were wholly sacred.

Second, because they couldn’t conceive that Indians knew the limited power of earthly pleasure—through their yoga philosophies and other doctrines. They couldn’t conceive of a society unbridling the forces of sexuality but also knowing sexuality’s limits.

Because India also pursued yoga, the sexy statues always stood in quotation marks, as it were.

To both Brits and Indians, there was always more—and less—to their display than meets the eye.


Eric Shaw, MARS, MASE, MAAS, E-RYT-500, lives in Berkeley and teaches yoga history, philosophy, and practice worldwide.