OBSCENITY IN SANSKRIT LITERATURE
A definition of the term in the ancient Indian context
In Western literary criticism, the adjective "obscene" generally means only that the person using the word happens to find a particular passage personally distasteful. Sanskrit critics seem to me more professional in their attitude. The notion of pornography was known to early Indian critics as gramyatva^ aSlilatva^ asabhyatva^ all considered literary faults.1 But the great literary critic of the eleventh century, Abhinavagupta, tells us that they are not nityadosas^ faults in all circumstances, for there are cases of vulgarity that serve ^ purpose. What is important is the intention of the author. This seems fair. For example, if one intends to sexually excite the reader, then obviously (or is it?), the more explicit the description, the more successful. Danish pornography, with photographs of three-way sex, recognizes this fact. So did the early Indian critics. Mammata (twelfth century) in his KavyaprakaSa says that the following verse is perfectly justified in a situation where one wants to arouse a woman sexually:
When the woman^ tight cunt is softened by a man^s fingers, his cock moves in and out shining gloriously.
In Sanskrit it is not difficult to distinguish "pornography" from "literature" if one agrees to be formal. (What is not so simple is to distinguish good pornography from bad literature. Some of the "obscene" verses I quote later in this article seem to me better than many verses from Magha and Bharavi.) The reason for this is the existence of an important principle of Sanskrit literature which states that one ought not to state directly an emotion one wishes to convey. Dandin (seventh century) is the first critic to state this explicitly. The example he provides is:
Virgin girl, I want to fuck you, why do^t you want to fuck me?
Abhinavagupta, followed by Mammata, says that the breasts of a young girl excite us all the more if they are only half revealed. And it is true that the verses in the sections on viparltarati (where the woman sits on top of the man), are rarely explicit and are, thus, not pornography. The KavyaprakaSa V. 137 quotes a lovely Prakrit stanza:
Laksmi, astride Visnu, is making love to him.
Suddenly she sees Brahma sitting on the lotus that grows
out of Visnu^ navel. Overcome with sexual passion