Mithuna (The Male-Female Symbol in Indian Art and Thought)

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Item Code: IDD858
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Prithvi K. Agrawala
Language: English
Edition: 1983
Pages: 209 (Color Illus: 18, B & W Illus: 223)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.2" X 8.8"
Weight 1.09 kg
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Book Description

About the Book


In a most comprehensive and thorough analysis, the present work identifies Mithuna or Male-Fame theme as a symbol pure and simple that occurs and recurs under many contexts and representational assumptions in different phase of Indian culture, art and thought. The author has brought out an exposition of the Mithuna symbol treating fully its implications in manifold contexts and areas of thought such as One And The Many, Male and Female, As An Idyllic Concept, Dampati, Incomplete Mithuna, Eternal Mithuna And Sahaja. As such this symbol now forms the key to analyzing several basic ideals permeating different Indian metaphysical systems and mythical formulations as well as well their tangible projection in art and iconography through the ages.

The accented expression of Mithuna in Indian art and ritual has ever been a thing of wide interest both to scholars and general readers. Dr. Agrawals's work studies this greatly fascinating subject in new and comprehensive setting, treating the Indian Male-Female theme for the first time in the widest possible range of its existence from prehistoric ages to pre-modern times and of its multiple presence in religious, social and philosophical ideologies and art.


About the Author


Dr. P. K. Agrawala is one of the most perceptive young scholars of Indian Art History and Symbolism. He received his education at the Banaras Hindu University where also obtained his Ph.D. degree on "Goddesses in Ancient India". He is at present Lecturer in the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology.

He is the author of numerous article and several distinguished books, including Skanda-Karttikeya; Gupta Temple Architecture; Srivatsa; The Babe of Goddess Sri; Early Indian Bronzed; Goddess Vinayaki; Terracotta Human Figurines; Aesthetic Principles of Indian Art; On the Sadanga Canons of Painting; The Unknown Kamasutras etc. He is General Editor of the Indian Civilisation Series Published from Varanasi and has edited several works of the late professor V. S. Agrawala, his father.



All the creation proceeds from the union of a duality, the co-operation of two diverse principles or relation between entities of two different orders or polarity. This truth underlines every sphere of existence, nature, life, civilisation, art and religion. Nothing that is utterly and severely single can produce anything. Even the physical atom consists of a nucleus and its satellites; electricity is bi-polar, positive and negative. In the animate realm, we have the male and the female. In fact, the union of the male and female (the Mithuna) provides the key to the understanding of the religious symbolism behind Brahmana and Maya, Siva and Sakti, God and his creative will, etc.

Dr. Prithvi Kumar Agrawala has, with commendable insight and imagination, dealt with this basic concept in all its ramifications. He shows how this Mithuna symbolism underlines the myths of the Vedas (including the Brahmanas and the Upanisads), such as the Golden Egg (Hiranyagarbha), Heaven and Earth (Dyava-Prthivi), Yama and Yami, Prajapati and Vak, Pati and Patni, and a host of other formulations. As he happily puts it: "Emerging out of its chaotic mystery of primordial abstractions, Mithuna is accepted as the highest concept of human existence, of life's abundance and exultations, of beauty, auspiciousness and things aspired for. Kindred symbols of inexhaustible beauty and prosperity known in Indian art and tradition are the Kalpadruma (Wish-fulfilling Tree), Kamadhenu (Wish-fulfilling Cow), Purnaghata (Vase of Plenty), and Uttarakuru (the Elysian Land of all happiness and abundance). The list may be multiplied by adding some other motifs, such as the Wishing Jewel, Wishing Conch, Wishing Horn, etc., of varied descriptions and accepted in the consciousness of the people as talismans of miraculous gifts. But all such idyllic concepts are incomplete in themselves except the Mithuna which stands complete by itself owing to its very definition."

Dr. Agrawala traces the later developments of this concept in the Puranas and the Tantra and the Bhakti schools. The Tantras were interested in working out a synthesis between Bhoga (Enjoyment, Pleasure) and Final Release (Moksa), by manipulating and sublimating the sex-impulses. His interpretations of these attempts are quite illuminating, although one may not agree with them in entirety. Dr. Agrawala states it excellently well: "That which may be understood by us now on the sheer human level as erotic phantasy was shown on the temple walls as bringing out the basic truth of all religiosity- the divine connubium comprehended in sexual mundanity – for such was the aim of their author. … Even in the Bhakti mysticism, at the back of certain devotion of formulations an idea of Mithuna dualism had come to be basically understood. Under the later cult of Bhakti, mystic devotion, the motif of the union or reunion of the indiviudla soul with God was given a metaphorical elaboration in the imagery of the love of the herd-girls (Gopis) for Krsna. Every individual is a woman who aspires for the ultimate union with her Lord, the Purusa. Thus in certain medieval Visnuite sects even the male devotees dressed themselves and behaved like women with reference to their sexual union both in literary descriptions and pictorial renderings. The best illustrations of the theme on the mystical level is represented by the Rasa-mandala where Krsna, the Universal Purusa, is encircled by a great dance-ring comprising those innumerable beings – the simulated females – who have attained His exalted 'company' through their intense devotion and absolute submission to Him."

The author is no doubt mainly interested in showing the Mithuna motif as illustrated in literature and art, especially painting and sculpture. The philosophical and religious implications are, however, adequately drawn and explained. By a rare combination of sound scholarship, analytic exposition and objectivity of treatment, Dr. Agrawala has, in my opinion, made a signal contribution to the subject. It is eminently readable and is based throughout on original sources. I have no manner of doubt that his work on the Mithuna will be accepted as a standard book on the symbolism of religious art.




The Present work is new study of the Mithuna symbol in its history and meaning through the ages. Mithuna is the Man-and-Women motif that occurs and recurs under many contexts and representational assumptions in various phases of Indian culture, art and thought. The subject is studied by us here from an approach which is quite different from the one that has been adopted in the earlier writings on Indian erotic art. Most of the scholars have so far devoted much of their attention to a study particularly of the Maithuna (sexual act) aspect of the Male-Female theme which, however, forms part of Chapter Seven of the present work also. We have in a wider perspective taken Mithuna as a symbol pervading different areas of Indian art and thought and analysed fully its implications in manifold contexts from such fresh aspects as One and the Many, Male and Female, Mithuna as an idyllic Concept, Incomplete Mithuna, Eternal Mithuna and Sahaja, etc. An exposition of the Mithuna theme as brought out in the following pages in its definition purely as a motif reveals it as forming the key to analysing several basic ideals permeating different Indian metaphysical systems and mythical formulations as well as their tangible projection in art and iconography at successive stages of history – The book is divided into eight chapters.

Chapter One, entitled 'One And The Many', introduces the subject against its primordial setting in Vedic and Upanisadic philosophy on the basis of which the rudimentary beginnings of Mithuna as a symbol in early meta physical thought are analysed. Literally, Mithuna means a productive pairs. The symbol took shape, presumably, as one of the primary notions achieved by man in his primordial understanding of the 'dualism of female-male sexes and their union as the source of new life. The dualism of opposites conceived in Nature behind all creation – a fundamental imagery of man's early understanding – was derived from the essential Male – Female pattern of productive life. In the light of certain Vedic texts, early imageries of cosmogony are seen to have their foundation in the sex dualism which logically descended to the level of myths of divine entities are male and female. The creative impulse called Kama, will or Desire, is mentioned as he essential substratum for the One Ultimate principle, which is divided into principles of creative duality. The same Desire is conceived to work as the all-uniting force inducing creative fusion of the multiple opposites in the recurrent process of cosmicisation. The mythical definitions of archetypal male and female were attempted by Vedic thinkers in several possible terms of mutual relationship, such as the Father-Daughter, Male-Female Twins Brother-Sister, Mother-Son, all the which, on human level, become Incest. Acceptable in the social pattern of human life it is only the Mithuna of Man-Woman as Husband-Wife, who are Father-Mother of the progeny.

Chapter Two, entitled 'Male and Female,' investigates further into the occurrence of archetypal sex motifs in early Indian beliefs and art, namely Nudity, Robe, Phallus, Vulviform, Great Mother-Goddess, Bisexual Entity, Sexual Union, its homology as Sacrifice (Yajna), Ananda or immortal Bliss and its human share in sexual union, and Marriage as a gift of Kama.

Chapter Three, entitled 'Mithuna, An Idyllic Concept,' brings to focus, for the first time, a folk-religious definition of the Male-female theme as an idyllic concept, pure and simple standing for the blissful existence and abundance of human life. In this respect it appears to have evolved like several other kindred symbols of inexhaustible plenty and beauty, such as the Wishing Tree, Wishing Cow, Wishing Vessel, Wishing Jewel, etc. There is also a popular Indian belief of Uttarakura found echoed in early Historic art and post-Vedic literary tradition. Uttarakura is the Elysian land of Indian imagination believed to be ever inhabited by Mithuna or male-female Paris enjoying life of unending pleasure and joys. Likewise, the Mithuna pairs existing in ever happy life formed the main motif of all idealistic theories of primeval ages maintained by the Jaina, Buddhist and Brahmanical creeds. That the mythical accounts of the pleasure land of Uttarakura were not ere poetic fancies is demonstrated by many portrayals pertaining to it in early Indian sculpture. Particularly interesting are the Kalpadruma, Tree-of-life or Wishfulfilling Tree giving birth to Mithuna pairs as its fruits, the Wishing Tree and Creeper bringing forth as its blossoms many bounteous gifts of choice ornaments, fabrics and drinks. Several plausible abbreviations of the Uttarakuru and its Mithuna theme are to be identified in later art tradition, such as the couple enjoying music, dance or drink, the lotus creeper bringing forth female or male figures or gifts of ornaments and garments.

Chapter Four, entitled 'Mithuna and Dampati,' deals with the next definition of the male-female theme as Dampati, i.e., married couples as husband-and-wife, that formed the pivot of all Indian socio-religious thinking. The Indian tradition believed in two diametrically opposed ideals of human life having equal religious merit, one that of positive social order belonging to the Householder, the other of the Ascetic going against worldly dictates of Nature. But both have a common goal of Emancipation (Moksa, Nirvana) signifying total freedom from worldly bondage. The eminent Indian theory of Purusartha, Humans Goals, has set three aims of fulfilling one's worldly life in terms of Dharma, socio-religious duty, Artha, material resources, and Kama, all instincts inherent in man by nature. The Fourth and Final aim is Moksa. The first Three Pursuits are of worldly life and the Fourth aims beyond it. The Dampati or Householder pursues the Triple Aims in their harmony and according to an Indian scheme of Four Stages of life, Asramas. But the Ascetic may skip over the first three stages and enter the fourth stages of Samnyasa to strive for the Final Aim of Salvation in his own way.

The Householder's life is praised from the very beginning of Indian literature as the root-centre of society and its welfare. The psycho-moral evolution of human life is viewed as essentially based on it. The part played by the Purusartha ideal in shaping individual householder's life, according to the social order, is briefly analysed by us. It has been also indicated as o how the concept of Mithuna or Dampati called for a social set-up even in the Indian pantheon of gods and goddesses, who appear classed in regular Dampati or consort pairs in Indian art and mythology about the beginning of the Christian era though the process at work may be traced back to the Vedic period. The portrayal of Dampati couples in art can be distinguished from other Mithuna depictions on the basis of any of the following factors, namely (1) the Indian ritual injunction on the position of wife at the left side of husband, (2) the figure of happy couples present with no erotic involvement, (3) such couples in adoration attending on the deity or his symbol, (4) elaborate affairs of loving couples shown according to a set scheme of amorous pastime of garden sports, water sports, embellishment of the body, drink, music and dance, etc.

Chapter Five, entitled 'Mithuna, A Motif,' surveys the occurrence particularly in art of the male-and-female motif as a beatific symbol of human society and weal. Its representations in Harappan art, primitive painting and on a protohistoric Deccani pot are identified for the first time in their true relevance. In the Vedic tradition, one basic maxim of liturgical exegesis widely resorted to be the Brahmana commentaries is indicated to be founded in the fertility significance of Mithuna or pair. That the motif of Mithuna was used as a branded mark on the ears of catle is known from a Vedic passage. Continued tradition of the symbol can be well traced from its occurrence in the Punch-marked coin devices and subsequently in early Indian monuments which have an unbroken history since the third cent. An analytical study made of diverse occurrences of the Mithuna symbol in early Indian sculpture and minor arts shows how it came to be cherished by the Indian artist as a motif of common fascination and auspicious bearing. The textual injunctions cited from architectural treatises and other literature of the Gupta and post-Gupta periods fully support its contemporary portrayal in temple sculpture. A significant note has been made of Mithuna pairs of demigods such as the Gandharvas, Vidyadharas, and hybrid beings such as the Centaur and Serpent, and also of birds and animals which are found represented frequently on the religious edifices.

Chapter Six, entitled 'The Incomplete Mithuna,' introduces an altogether new explanation of the portrayal of voluptuous female figures on religious monuments. We call it the incomplete Mithuna as it represents only a half or fragment of the male-female theme. The amorous instinct in man in mainly female-focussed and thus the female element finds symbolically an illustrious multiform to accord the male's languid desires in sexual sphere. In the Indian tradition this incomplete or complementary aspect of Mithuna is found to have its representation in the multiple figures of Alluring Femininity appearing in Her libidinous self-display. They occur on Stupa railing-pillars of the Buddhist and the Jainas alike, from the second cent. BC. Of such alluring females more than two dozen bodily postures are enlisted as signifying their various psychic situations in erotic anticipation. Later on they came to occupy the walls, pillars and architectural portions of the temples in which positions they are described by classical Sanskrit poets as well as medieval treatises on architecture.

According to the Tantric imagery and the temple planning corresponding to a Tantric diagram or Yantra, these females were considered as aspects of active energies subservient to the Great Sakti.

A persisting belief in celestial beauties is traceable on the literary side to the Upanisadic texts and the Buddhist and Jaina canons. Their presence is full erotic attraction on the exterior of religious monument appears to have been widely accepted by all Indian religions and it, however, involved no false apology for any deemed heretical outlook. The enticing Apsaras figures, as they are popularly called, stationed on the temple walls were perhaps there to play rather a didactic role demonstrating the gradation in the realm of unsatiable desires.

A unique exemplification of the incomplete Mithuna is witnessed in the Ragamala series of Rajput and Mughal paintings during the fifteenth through nineteenth cent. For the first time a key to understand truly the puzzling and variable iconographies of the Ragamala pictures is offered here. An exceptionally subtle representation of the ethos of Nayika or Love-woman will be found in the Ragamala (i.e., "Garland of Musical Modes') painting which, in their very pictorial concept, are of a unique kind in the whole range of world art. They are in fact to present 'hieroglyphis' of the Indian musical melodies, called Ragas and Raginis, i.e. Male and Female melodies, respectively. Pictorial renderings of the mood of each of the six male Ragas are shown to bring out the motif of Mithuna in union, and likewise that of the thirty-six or more female Raginis, as representing the motif of Mithuna in aspiration or anticipation. Most of the Ragini pictures, as analysed by the author, are thus based on the concept of incomplete Mithuna, showing a lonely maiden or heroine languishing, in her various moods and gestures, for the union with lover, and the material world and nature being treated as reflecting the particular mood of the heroine as well as the melody personified by her.

Chapter Seven, entitled 'Mithuna As Maithuna,' underlines an essential and dynamic expansion of the Mithuna symbol as Maithuna or sexual union. The author has divided the study of this implied aspect of the otherwise simple male-female theme in three distinguishable contexts, (1) the art of love-making proper, (2) sexual act as a ritualistic and religious symbol, and (3) its portrayal on religious buildings. As for the first section, Vatsyayana's Kamasutra is the earliest Indian treatise on erotics available today dating in its extant textual form to the second-third cent. But it owes, as it s now well-known, much of its contents to many preceding exponents and authors on the subject. Something about the first human teacher Svetaketu on erotics, mentioned by Vatsyayana and credited in the great Indian Epic to be the founder of social order of marriage, is traceable back to the Upanisadic texts. IN the Upanisad passages cited, the central idea is that the conjugal union is transformed into a hierogamy being a ceremony comprising preliminary purifications and prayers. From a considerable antiquity, it appears, the secrets of the Erotic Knowledge had found expression also in art for their illustrative merit revealing to the worthy the coital techniques and asanas, and also serving the virtuoso in love for pleaure. Such ancient illustrative material is, however, lost but its former existence is indicated by the literary evidence referring to the palace apartments or bed-chambers equipped with amorous painting and sculpture.

The other aspect discussed is of sexual union or Maithuna in its ritual symbolism or paradigm as a means of spiritual uplift or soteriological discipline, accepted in Yoga and Tantra. The origin of this approach to sexual pursuits is traced back to a Rgvedic hymn describing such ascetic ecstatics. Their sexo-yogic path can be presumed to have subsequently given birth to the Tantra creed. The sexo-yogic ideals and pursuits of the great Indian Tantric way of life are discussed in contrast to the aims and regulations of the social order.

Third section of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of the erotic portrayal in religious architecture. The author is of the view of there can be no single explanation forwarded for its ubiquitous presence on temple wall as the Mithuna motif has a long history and overwhelming place in the religious thinking and architecture of the Indian people. Moreover, any opinion of a defending or condemning nature given from a standpoint of modern conventional propriety can hardly do justice to this motif. There can be no place more sanctified in purpose than a shrine of the god for a people who build it. We are, therefore, not to consider the temple figures as merely erotic portrayals in isolation from their contextual totality of existence. The author holds that from a historical point of view, the simple man-and-woman Mithuna came to be particularly expanded with the change of the religious attitude in the medieval period with respect to its otherwise implicit aspect of Maithuna or sexual act and thus the age-old symbol found a new lease of life for it. Primarily, we are to trace the background of this change of attitude at a stage of Indian religious history that largely explains the frank and significant portrayals in religious art. More than one strand of tradition and manifold symbolical bearing are seen to have contributed their share to the most dynamic formulation of this theme, For example, the Hindu temple invoking a full-fledged commentary on the collective social idealism of Triple Objective including sexual desires; the religious belief in sympathetic magic effected by amatory act and its portrayals; the architectonic planning of the temple in accordance with a Tantric Yantra;' the fertility significance of coital ritual in the temple cultus and its surrogate as temple relief; the sexo-yogic ideals of Tantra symbology; the Vedanta allegory of divine coenobiums to be apprehended in sexual mundanity; the path of love-worship in Bhakti mysticism; etc.

Chapter Eight, entitled 'The Eternal Mithuna and Sahaja,' makes in a way the cycle of Mithuna study complete. Here the author summaries particular views of Indian religious philosophies that conceived the Mithuna symbol and its varied implications as apprehending the nature of Ultimate Truth. As early as the Upanisads thought, the bliss experienced in sexual union is called the paradigm of highest Bliss which is an attribute of Brahman, the Ultimate Self. The same trend of thought is shown to be widely dwelt upon in the Buddhist and Vedanta schools, Kashmir Saivism, Krsnaite Bhakti mysticism, and particularly in Tantric discipline and philosophies. In many of the above doctrines the concept of ultimate joy r soteriological bliss is found epitomized by the term Ananda, or Sahaja-ananda, or later on simply Sahaja, which, it is proclaimed, arises in spontaneity from the absolute merger or unity of all phenomenal dualism. It is to the same dialectic of the Biunity of the principles of polarity that the entire cosmos is referred in Yoga mysticism and Tantra.

The accented expression of Mithuna or the male-and-female theme in Indian art and ritual has ever been a thing of wide interest both to scholars and general readers. The present venture studies this greatly fascinating subject in a new and comprehensive setting. It treats the Indian male-female symbol in the widest possible range of its existence from prehistoric ages to pre-modern times and of its multiple presence in religious, social and philosophical ideologies and art of India.




Cover Illustration:


The Loves of Krishna, on the left a human couple reenact the divine act of love, Rajasthan, 19th century, National Museum, New Delhi.



List of Illustrations

One and the Many

Male and Female

Mithuna, an Idyllic Concept

Mithuna and Dampati

Mithuna, a Motif

The Incomplete Mithuna

Mithuna as Maithuna

The Eternal Mithuna and Sahaja

Selective Bibliography of Modern Works

Sample Pages

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