In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Sexuality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Folk and Performative Traditions
  • Modern Media
  • Films
  • Non-Indian Studies
  • Psychoanalytic Studies

Hinduism Gender and Sexuality
Anna Pokazanyeva
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0157


Sexuality is a famously fraught term, constituting some nebulous and temporarily unified intersection of biological sex, gender, desire, and social relationships and structures. This article addresses the various manifestations of all of the above in the context of Hindu traditions. A gendered, and therefore essentially sexualized, view of the cosmos is fundamental to many Hindu schools of thought, beginning with early Vedic sacrificial culture. This polarity becomes articulated as the division and occasional complementarity between puruṣa and prakṛti in philosophical discourse and embodied in the many divine couples that populate the Hindu pantheon. Consequently, sexual symbolism, ritual, and language pervade the sacred sphere and profane gender roles and sexual norms almost never fail to reference a cosmic order. Such constructs are both created by and reinforce the social realities of their human actors. Gender roles and divisions are fundamental to many aspects of social, ritual, and narrative order. Frequently, they serve as sites of tension, negotiation, conflict, and even transformation. Despite the fact that the roles of women appear as rather circumscribed by Brahmanical traditions, ritual structures, and texts, women inevitably participate in their own rituals (domestic and not) and construct their own narratives. For instance, the medieval devotional traditions (600 CE–1700 CE) provide an especially fruitful milieu for female voices. As with tantric traditions, feminine roles were often instrumentalized in the interest of religious attainments that were reserved for men. Nevertheless, devotional personas modeled on feminine gender norms made space for both men and women to subvert and transform their normative gender identities in the interest of spiritual ends. Likewise, several folk traditions devoted to female deities serve as sites where male practitioners are placed into nonconventional roles, sometimes going so far as to incorporate a sort of ritual transgenderism. In the current state of South Asian scholarship, to study gender still frequently means to study women. However, a literature treating masculinities and, even more notably, queer gender identities and sexualities (ancient and modern) has begun to emerge. This article collects the most relevant scholarship that demonstrates significant theoretical engagement with gender and sexuality as analytical categories. Because every aspect of human life—from clothing to rituals to modes of communication—is ultimately gendered insofar as it is performed by an individual of one gender or another, this list follows a narrower understanding of the subject matter so as to provide a roadmap not so much of gendered and sexual aspects of Hinduism as of the critical study of gender and sexuality within these aspects. The readings on Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism articles like Women in Hinduism, Marriage, Goddess, Tantra, and others serve to complement such perspectives.

General Overviews

Due to the open-ended and fluid nature of the subject matter, generalized treatments of gender and sexuality tend to cover a broad swath of subject matter. Doniger 2014 is the most comprehensive study that covers a wide range of topics but offers significant attention to sexuality. Smith 2013 is likewise a broadly conceived study that hinges on the opposition of the ascetic and the erotic. Meanwhile, Roy 2010 examines specifically the early period of Indian history. Kakar 1990 relies on a bricolage of textual examples and contemporary media and interviews coupled with psychoanalytic insights. Myth provides a ground for analysis in Doniger 1980 and Doniger 1999, as well as Good 2000 (cited under Regional Rituals).

  • Doniger, Wendy O’Flaherty. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    Relying chiefly on Sanskrit textual sources, the author volume explores the role of sexuality and sexual metaphors in Indian myth, including representations of women in male-authored, and therefore androcentric, texts.

  • Doniger, Wendy O’Flaherty. Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    A comparative study of primarily Indian and Greek myths that focuses on themes of splitting and doubling as methods of negotiating gendered instances of sexual sameness, difference, contact, and conflict.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199360079.001.0001

    A comprehensive volume containing multiple chapters on the issues of sexual symbolism, transformation, and ambiguity that have animated the body of Doniger’s scholarship. Draws primarily on textual sources.

  • Kakar, Sudhir. Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    A bricolage work relying on a variety of sources, including Sanskrit and Tamil literature, folktales, proverbs, ethnographic work, and popular media, to construct a cultural psychology of Indian sexuality.

  • Roy, Kumkum. The Power of Gender & the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Draws on a range of textual traditions to construct a gendered analysis of institutions and processes ranging from household relationships to rituals and renunciatory traditions in early Indian history.

  • Smith, David. The Hindu Erotic: Exploring Hinduism and Sexuality. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.

    An accessible treatment of Hindu eroticism juxtaposed with asceticism as indicative of a larger paradigm that privileges the power of sensory experience.

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