In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Body

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • The Body and Philosophy
  • The Body, Law, and Ethics
  • The Body and Sex
  • The Body and Art

Hinduism The Body
Gavin Flood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0154


The body has been a central concern for Indian religions and philosophies, on the one hand being given a positive evaluation in some traditions as the vehicle of the journey to liberation (Skt. mokṣa) or enlightenment (bodha), on the other hand being given a negative evaluation in some traditions as a restriction or confinement of the soul from which it must break free. Most traditions that we designate by the term ‘Hindu’ have understood the universe in cyclical terms as going through periods of creation and destruction over and over again. As part of this cyclic process the soul (ātman) is believed to be reincarnated in different bodies, animal and human, according to its action (karma). Thus the kind of body that a being has is constrained or determined by its actions in the past. The body along with its pleasure and suffering is the result of previous action in a former life. Some traditions think that the soul can be set free from the confinement of the body through meditation and ritual while some Yoga traditions have believed that the body can achieve immortality or at least great longevity. In popular or folk Hinduism the body is important as the locus of a deity in ritual possession, making the body analogous to the icon (mūrti) in the temple. In some forms of Hinduism the body is theologically important in being part of the body of God and conversely as symbolically containing the cosmos within it. The body is also of central importance sociologically; the kind of body a person has is a determining feature of the endogamous social group or Caste (jāti) to which s/he belongs. Thus caste is a property of the body that one is born with, although according to some Tantric and devotional traditions caste is eradicated at initiation (dīkṣā) and also at formal renunciation (saṃnyāsa). Apart from soteriological and ritual concerns, the body has been the focus of medical discourse, the Ayurveda, that cannot be separated from general Hindu cosmological and philosophical categories.

General Overview

General literature on the body in the humanities and social sciences is relevant for understanding the body in Hinduism. The turn to the body as a focus of research began in the 1970s and there is a large literature focused on it in anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, sociology, and area studies. The body in religions has been an important theme in recent decades. Related to a discourse about the body is a discourse about Gender and this has also become an increasing focus of attention. On the body in religion generally see the edited volume Coakley 1997 and for an overview of the body in Hinduism see the article Holdredge 1998. There are three important volumes containing articles on the body in both the textual traditions and popular religion: Boullier and Tarabout 2002, Michaels and Wulf 2011, and Botto, et al. 2004. Doniger 2014 contains important articles on body, gender, and desire as represented in Sanskrit literature. Johnson 1987 is a classic study on the body as a metaphor foundational to language while the edited volume Khare 1992, treating the cultural meanings of food in Indian religions, focuses less on the body and more on what goes into it.

  • Botto, Oscar, Arion Rosu, and Eugen Ciurtin, eds. Du corps humain, au Carrefour de plusieurs saviors en Inde. Bucharest, Romania and Paris: de Boccard, 2004.

    This is a very substantial collection of essays on different aspects of the body ranging from the esoteric body of Tantrism and Yoga to medical literature and somatic practices. There is a useful list of abstracts.

  • Boullier, Véronique, and Gilles Tarabout, eds. Images du corps dans le monde hindou. Paris: CNRS, 2002.

    The book contains sixteen studies of the body in Hinduism from anthropological fieldwork, the philological study of Sanskrit texts, traditional Sanskrit drama, and the social construction of the body through ritual including cremation. Boullier and Tarabout provide an excellent introduction to the view of the body in Hinduism.

  • Coakley, Sarah, ed. Religion and The Body. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    This fine collection of essays contains one on Hinduism by Wendy Doniger, “Medical and Mythical Constructions of the Body in Hindu Texts,” which pays particular attention to embryology and the accounts of the senses in mythological or puranic literature.

  • Doniger, Wendy. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199360079.001.0001

    Doniger has rewritten previously published articles in this book. It contains important chapters on the body, gender, and sexuality, including a survey chapter on medical and mythical understandings of the body in Sanskrit texts and a section on desire (kāma).

  • Holdredge, Barbara. “Body Connections: Hindu Discourse of the Body and the Study of Religion.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 2–3 (1998): 341–386.

    This article surveys trends of scholarship on the body in the human sciences and then goes on to examine discourses on the body in Hinduism as the vehicle for maintaining social and cosmic order through diet, social duties, and the maintenance of purity rules. The article discusses the Hindu metaphysics of the body.

  • Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    This classic study examines how the body provides the fundamental metaphors of language. Cognitive and somatic structures are linked through the imagination and the fundamental concepts such as balance, scale, and cycles that emerge from bodily experience. This book is relevant to the analysis of the body in Hinduism.

  • Kasulis, Thomas P., R. T. Ames, and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    This book examines the self-body relationship in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions. The section on India includes an essay by Frits Staal, “Indian Bodies.”

  • Khare, R. S., ed. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

    The experience and understanding of food, this book claims, is central to understanding the Hindu and Buddhist practices and cultures. This interdisciplinary volume presents papers on food as cultural expression and personal experience.

  • Michaels, Axel, and Christoph Wulf, eds. Images of the Body in India. New Delhi: Routledge, 2011.

    The stated aim of this book is to understand the body in the particular cultural context of India, which it does through philological and anthropological approaches. The book contains essays on the body in the Vedas, epics, medical and Yoga texts, and dance.

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