Konark- A Tale of Open Society

Satyakam Ray

After seeing the mesmerizing Konark sun temple, the awe-inspiring artistic masterpiece, great Poet Rabindranath Tagore minced no words to applaud the beauty. He said, “Here, the language of the stone surpasses the language of man.”  

No wonder Konark Sun temple, also known as the black pagoda, features among the seven wonders of India, along with the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Constructed in the 13th century by East Ganga Dynasty Ruler King Narasimhadeva I, the Konark sun temple still embodies the artistic excellence of Odisha-style architecture. UNESCO declared it a world heritage site in 1984. 

The other UNESCO World Heritage site, Khajuraho, is located in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh. Surrounded by the beautiful backdrops of the Vindhya range of mountains, Khajuraho is famous for its group of Hindu and Jain temples. It is known for the erotic sculptures built during the Chandela dynasty, representing Indo-Aryan architecture. The temples of Khajuraho dated between 950 to 1050 A.D. 

The two heritage places built in different centuries have one thing in common- the erotic rock carvings or sculptures where various sensuous sexual positions between man and woman are beautifully showcased. There is a visual representation of the essence of Indian aesthetics. The passion and celebration of the forbidden art are reflected through the artist’s imagination, or it’s just a tinge of the open society we lived in during that period? It’s time to try and unravel the truth.

The concept of open society and connection with the sculptures:

An open society consists of people openly confronting their personal decisions without being demoralized by the collective/populist social norms. Philosopher Karl Popper sees the open society as an antithesis to the closed system of law, morality, and religious beliefs. In a closed society, individuals seek no change in the age-old social traditions and abide by the rules. Humanitarianism, accountability, equality, and freedom of thought and expression are the fundamental traits of people living in an open society.

Sexuality is a crucial aspect of the open-mindedness of individuals. The hallmark of open-mindedness is the more liberal approach to physical need or talking about it without considering a taboo subject. The more liberal the country, the richer it is in artistic expression and heritage. The cultural capital of Europe, Paris, where women can roam without wearing clothes, is not a sight of astonishment for the public. 

The sculptures of both Konark and Khajuraho display many erotic kama and mithuna scenes. Often considered derogatory amoral carvings, these sculptures say a lot about the life cycle and the importance of sexuality in the process.

Vatsyayana, the author of Kamasutra, depicts the Kama as happiness that originates in the mind. Just like appreciating the aesthetics of a painting, dance, or music in its discourse of Kama, expressing and practicing sexuality without any hindrance is a means of enjoyment and pleasure. From different senses like hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling, people seek satisfaction from the world to keep the harmony between mind and soul.

Karl Popper describes the Kama as attitude and capacity. During various sensual experiences, the person becomes immersed in the loved ones and feels complete and fulfilled by embracing openness and intimacy. 

According to Hindu tradition, Kama is one of the four principal goals of human life. The other three goals are- Dharma, which means leading a moral life guided by virtue; Artha, meaning material prosperity or the means to survive in life; and Moksha, which represents the self-realization or liberation of an individual from this cycle of birth and death. These four aims of life are called Purusartha. 

Maithuna is the union of opposing forces focusing more on the non-duality of humans and the divine. It’s a means to worldly enjoyment and spiritual liberation. According to the Tantric sex, maithuna means sexual intercourse, and mithuna is a couple participating in such a ritual. 

Makara is the emblem of the love god Kamadeva. Maithuna is one important Makara of the same. The various tantric, erotic poses of the male and female shown in Konark and Khajuraho show the practices followed for semen retention by the male practitioner in the grand ritual of Panchmakara. 

Theories behind sculptures of Konark:

Various theories are running through generations about the erotic sculptures built in Konark. Very little knowledge is prevalent for the same in the case of the Khajuraho temple.

One theory goes like this- during the 13th century, people living in the Kalinga (now Odisha) were very open-minded. They showed no hesitation towards sensual pleasure, and polygamy was rampant in society. The sculptors have merely drawn artistic representations of the social customs through temple carvings.

The 2nd theory revolves around the importance of sex education. Unlike others, during the 13th century, there was no medium for teaching sexual education to youngsters. But the Hindu tradition strictly followed grihastha, where the couple had to have healthy and fulfilling sex to lead a satisfying life. The young people were allowed to roam around the temple premises to look at the yogic tantric poses to learn and emulate in their private lives.

The 3rd theory is about retaining young Brahmins’ concentration while they learn sastra or pray to god. The outside walls of the temple are adorned with erotic man-woman embracing poses. When one devotee comes to the temple to pray to the sun god, he is distracted by seeing such postures. It teaches the person how to focus by avoiding such distractions.

The Last theory seems very practical and relatable. After the Kalinga War, many soldiers died, and Asoka’s army had a shortage of warriors. The postures were built to promote sex. Since women visited temples regularly, erotic figures were made to create more inclination and curiosity toward sex, ultimately leading to increased childbirth.

The Kalinga war was fought much before, around 262 BC, and the Konark temple has existed since 1290 AD. The archaeological surveys have found that there was always a temple from the 11th century B.C. devoted to the Sun god on the same spot. According to some credible historians, a replica of the old temple was constructed with black stones, and the erotic images were copied as they were.

Expert historians and archaeological surveys of India (ASI) should thoroughly re-check the authenticity of the theories.

Importance in the present context:

Today’s world combines a regressive patriarchal mentality and ultra-liberal obstinate sexuality. While one section is busy imposing different to-do lists on the less powerful women folk with a religious, traditional mindset, the other section explores different sexual sensuousness, claiming they are open-minded.  

The open-minded mindset doesn’t justify how the goals of Purusartha, self-realization, or Moksha can be attained by random mating through finding dates on digital platforms. 

Still, polygamy is prevalent among urban and rural people (both men and women) stealthily or sometimes openly. But adultery is a brainchild of the reptilian brain where only lust is prominent. Sexual pleasure without binding the two souls doesn’t guarantee the completeness one craves physically and emotionally. 

Vatsyayana claims the Kama is never in conflict with Dharma or Artha. In Hindu philosophy, sexual pleasure is not a shameful or taboo subject. When pursued diligently, the Kama, Artha, and Dharma fulfill the three Purusartha goals for a holistic life. 

Maybe that’s the message sent by the beautiful artistic stone works done on the temple walls of Konark and Khajuraho to the Gen Z of the 21st century- to enjoy life holistically following the Purusartha pursuits without being a pervert.

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