Why do certain temples have architecture depicting sex?
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The temples often are the replicas of the cosmology of the universe. Just as in the Vedic cosmology there are fourteen planetary systems, and beyond these fourteen planetary systems is Vaikuntha. When a seeker is moving towards spiritual world, towards Vaikuntha, the abode of the Lord, he/she has to pass through the heavenly planets. These heavenly planets have many allurements of the pleasure, the seeker has to resist getting allured by these pleasures, and stay focused on the goal of Vaikuntha. If he/she gets attracted by these worldly pleasures, (they are worldly in the sense that there are materialistic pleasures in heavens also) then the seeker may deviate from attaining the spiritual abode. Similarly, many traditional temples have seven walls which indicate the seven planetary systems. These planetary systems are there, from the earth, upwards. Earth also is included in the count of seven and beyond these, there are Vaikuntha planets. Hence, beyond the seven walls is the spiritual abode of the Lord. These temples’ architecture not only depicts cosmology of the universe but explicitly portrays sensual material pleasures on their walls, which conveys the point that we do not have to get distracted by these temptations and should move forward single mindedly towards the Lord. To the uninformed vision these depictions may appear vulgar, but to the informed one they are replicas of the soul’s spiritual journey towards God. That is the first point and the primary understanding.
Another understanding is that, in the Vedic culture the aspect of sexuality is not rejected in the spiritual realm. Of course in the spiritual realm, the relationship between Radha and Krishna is entirely different from the sexuality which we know of in the material world. Srila Prabhupada, that’s why in several places, says that there is no thing as sex in the spiritual world. At the same time he also says that the idea of the multifaceted conjugal relationship with God is given in the Vedic scriptures and it is glorified by Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as the highest of all relationships with God. This is because of the great intimacy it brings. Hence, although the relationship between Radha and Krishna is not like material sex, still there is male female duality in their relationship and they have a conjugal relationship. It is certainly not the sex as we know of in the material world, but still there is a romantic relationship between them and this may also be depicted in some architecture in the temple constructions. It is also depicted[Z1] in the text like ‘Geet Govind’ by the famous poet Jaidev Goswami. In the Gaudiya tradition also great Vaishnava authors and poets like Krishna Das Kaviraj Goswami in his books like ‘Lilamrita’, and Raghunath Saraswati’s ‘Sangeet Mathav’[Z2] , also describes intimate pastimes of the Lord with His devotees. Now in our modern times, our vision being so contaminated and agitated by sexuality that we generalize our sexual carnal tendencies on everyone else, including God. When ‘Geet Govind’ was written seven hundred or eight hundred years ago, it was very popular amongst people in general who used to sing it on a regular basis, and they never considered it objectionable. there is no record of…………………. after the ‘Geet Govind’ that pure and sacred, and God’s relationship with his devotees is pure and sacred and they are glorious in their own way[Z3] . So it was an object for veneration and glorification. But in modern times because of our sexually contaminated mind we see everything as sexually charged and that’s why we impute sexual actions even on the divine beings. This is very unfortunate. Srila Prabhupada would tell a story about a horse that was caught in a fire and it fearfully saw the bright yellow flame coming towards him, as the stable in which it was tied was burnt. Finally it maimed loudly. The owner came running and rescued it. After the stable was built again, it had a reddish yellowish paint and the horse was maiming violently. The owner could not understand what was happening. He called an expert, and the expert told him to change the color of the paint of the stable. When the change was done the horse became quiet. Hence, when there was no fire the horse was thinking it to be fire; it was mistaking the paint’s color to be fire and was screaming. Similarly, all of us has been scorched and tormented by the fire of lust. When we come to Krishna consciousness, by the chanting of Hare Krishna we will find that the fire of lust starts getting decreased and it slowly extinguishes. But then because we have this mental association of the mundane male female relationship, as soon as we see Radha Krishna, we also start screaming “why it is here? why it is here? what is this?”, like the horse maimed seeing the yellow paint. That’s why Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu comes in kaliyuga. He is Krishna himself and all His Gopi(cowherd damsels) associates come as males. They come as Goswamis and perform pastimes of the Sankirtana Mahayajya, dancing and singing glories of the lord. These pastimes are pure and sublime and there is no chance for anyone to misunderstand them as something immoral and mundane. Just as the horse becomes pacified when the shed is repainted, similarly the same associates and the same principles of love are exhibited in the pastimes of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in a way in which we don’t misunderstand and agitate our minds. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in general discouraged the public recitation of exalted pastimes of Radha Krishna and in our Sampradaya acharyas have told all of us to strictly avoid listening to these pastimes because we are not pure enough. We are like the horse who would understand the paint to be the fire.
Bhakti Vinoda Thakura, Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakura and even Shila Prabhupada told us not to read these advanced books. In a similar manner the same principle, when we go to the temple and take darshan of the deities and not get ourselves looking at this architecture, now this is not to say that whatever architecture is there is depicting Radha Krishna. [Z4] Generally it depicts the apsaras in the heavenly planets, and it does not depict anything more particularly it does not depict Radha Krishna. But in case in some places there are depictions of Radha Krishna, this is how we need to understand it that it’s transcendental. We should not misunderstand them.
Beyond this there may be some depictions which are based on the kamasutras. We may have heard of the four ‘purusharthas’ dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Kama is one of the purusharthas, one of the purposes of life, there is religiosity, there is sense gratification, there is economic development, earning of wealth and then there is liberation. Kama is one of the purposes of life and how to fulfill one’s desires, material desires, is talked about in kama-shastras. Vatsyayan, who wrote the kama-shastras, mentions it very clearly in the kamasutras that this book talks about sense gratification but this is not the goal of life. This is just one stage and a person has to precede this with dharma. It has to be ultimately succeeded by moksha. But in modern times people don’t follow dharma and they hardly care for moksha. They just want kama and artha, i.e. they want sense gratification and they want money, that is their goal of life. Because of this some of the traditional depictions are misinterpreted and misunderstood and ……. from the original context.[Z5] So yes there is restricted sexuality in the spiritual culture which is there in India, especially as it is taught in Krishna Consciousness culture. Now, we have to understand that Krishna Consciousness is not just giving us the Vedic culture; Krishna Consciousness is giving us the best and the topmost of Vedic culture. In the Vedic culture there is dharma, artha, kama, moksha and above moksha there is prema. Prema is the pancham purushartha; it is the fifth and the ultimate goal of life. This pancham purushartha which is the ultimate goal of life is being made available to us in Krishna Consciousness. Also because we are focusing on it we try to minimize our kama and artha and don’t do any mundane dharma, but we focus on paradharma, i.e. we submit to spiritual realization. One is the accelerated steep way and the second is the gradual slowly sloping upwards way. The slowly sloping upwards way takes the course of dharma, artha, kama which goes on for many many life times and gradually one develops the desire for moksha If a person is very fortunate then he/she may understand that beyond moksha there is prema. Hence, there (following four purusharthas) it takes many many life times to come to the ultimate perfection of life i.e. prema. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, 7th chapter 19th verse, “bahunam janmanam ante jnanavan mam prapadyate”, after many many lifetimes a person surrenders to me. But in Krishna Consciousness we have been given the highest, the quickest path to prema directly. For ascending to this quick path to prema, where we can attain a destination loftier than what was attained after many many lifetimes, by following the slower path, we can attain that loftier destination in one life, we have to pay a price and that price is strict regulation. The four regulative principles (no meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication and no illicit sex) are important for our spiritual advancement and in the Vedic tradition also there is regulation in sex, but there was accommodation recognizing that sense gratification is also one of the purusharthas, the goal of life, there was facility for indulgence in it too. Still it was never divorced from the context of dharma and ultimate goal of moksha. Because it is being divorce now in our so called modern culture, it has to be strongly restricted and people have to be cautioned.
So far I have talked about three aspects of this question. Why there are erotic depictions? First is that it replicates the cosmology, second is on special occasions there is depiction of the pastimes of Radha and Krishna, which are entirely transcendental and we should not mistake them to be mundane and third is that in some cases there might be depiction of the progression of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Therefore coming to the temple is dharma, and there are scenes of artha and kama which are of huge prosperity of the kings and the sense gratification that they enjoyed, whether in heavens or in this world, and beyond that is moksha. So as one enters the temple more and more one feels free from material anxieties and material desires, which is in one sense similar to moksha and ultimately one enters the sanctum center of the temple, where one gets the darshan of the Lord. One feels attracted to the Lord, which is akin to attaining prema. Therefore, there is profound spiritual significance behind these depictions.
Unfortunately, when the Europeans and especially when the Christian evangelists came to India, they were the people who aggressively wanted to propagate their own religion, in the Victorian era of the British history.
Victorian era of the British history was characterized by high amount of sexual prudishness. Prudishness means that all forms of sexual impropriety are hid under the rug. Sexual immorality was not removed but no one talked about it and everybody was prudish, everybody was pointing out that is immoral, that is immoral, that is immoral. When these British evangelists came to India and looked at many temples in India, they were shocked from their moralistic point of view, as a temple is supposed to be a holy place and how these obscene seeming images are there in these holy places. This made them feel that this whole temple and the area around it are not holy. It is unholy and it is immoral. They had no understanding of the profound spiritual significance behind them nor did many of the Indians at that time. Especially those who were educated in English and who interacted with these Britishers, were largely disconnected from the living tradition that was there. This was because of the fact that the living traditions were in Sanskrit or in the vernacular, largely in Sanskrit, and the living tradition was not really educated in modern science. Many of the Sanskrit pundits did not know much about modern science and modern cosmology. Due to this the Indian educated class did not take them very seriously and because of it they had no answers to such questions which the evangelists asked them. They rather also started to feel that these are immoral. Instead, to think that they are immoral or improper, what we need to understand is that there is a profound spiritual significance underlying these depictions. Srila Prabhupada was aware of the current contemporary moral sensibilities as well as the criticisms that have been leveled, that’s why when Srila Prabhupada built temples he ensured that there were no such depictions because that would unnecessarily lead to misunderstanding in the common masses. Especially in kaliyuga, we don’t follow the succession of dharma, artha, kama and moksha; rather we, in Krishna Consciousness movement, focus primarily on cultivating prema by the mercy of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Hence, those temples which have been build in the modern times by the followers of the authorized parampara system, they have tried to preempt such immoralist accusations by ensuring that the architecture to be primarily divine in the depiction of the Lord. The earlier architectures were also divine, but the divine was depicted in the progressive way and that is sometimes misunderstood by us. If we can understand the overall philosophical and cultural context then we will not feel any reservations or embarrassment or suspicion when we see such explicit architecture in the temples.