Polyamory in India, ancient and modern styles of marriage co-exist
Like China, India presents some strange paradoxes when it comes to sexuality and intimate relating. The famous erotic temple sculptures of Khajuraho and the present-day practices of existing indigenous tribal peoples in central India, the well-known writings of Kama Sutra, and the popular worship of Krishna with his thousands of wives, and legendary queens and goddesses with more than one husband all point to a culture where sexuality was celebrated and multiple partner relating was sanctioned. Waves of invaders, first the ancient Persians, then Muslims, then British, all brought their own mores to the Indian subcontinent.
Uma, a psychotherapist in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), feels that the British are primarily responsible for the sexual repression that has prevailed in Indian society for the past century and that most Indians “have not managed to shake off yet.” Prior to the arrival of the British, the upper classes and royalty were known to enjoy lovers in addition to their husbands or wives.
One of the most difficult things for me about traveling in tropical India was that it is still frowned on for a woman to show bare shoulders or legs. Midriffs peeking through colorful saris, strangely enough, are perfectly acceptable as long as they are topped by short-sleeved breast coverings. In predominantly Buddhist Thailand and Cambodia, modesty is also the rule in temples or in the vicinity of the many celibate monks, but in India, this prohibition on bare skin coexists with temples filled with Shiva Lingams and sculptures depicting love making in every conceivable configuration.
Khajuraho is a popular tourist destination, and in the small town that has grown up around the temples, there are many small hotels and restaurants catering to travelers. Shiva is a strikingly handsome young Indian man who looks as though he just stepped out of one of the ancient carvings. When he learned that I was an expert on polyamory from the United States, he asked me to have dinner at his restaurant and give him some coaching. “It’s easy to meet foreign women here,” he told me. “Even the ten-year-old boys know that all you have to do is ask a woman if she wants to learn Tantra and you have a date.”
Shiva has had many love affairs with tourists who end up staying anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before moving on. “But this time it’s different. It’s not just a fling. Genvieve and I Skype almost every day since she went back to France. It would be easy to have other women and not tell her; lots of Indian men do that. And she could do the same, but we’ve talked about it, and we want to be honest with each other, to share everything. She’s going to come back next year when she finishes college, but now we are apart, and we want to enjoy life but still be close to each other. The trouble is, she gets jealous when I tell her I’ve been with another woman. I get jealous of her too. I’m afraid she won’t come next year as she’s promised. It’s a lot of drama! What can we do?” I gave Shiva the links to the material on my website about managing jealousy, applauded his good intentions, and gave him the cardinal rule about dealing with jealousy: never try to reason with a jealous person. Instead, breathe through the emotional upset, find support from sympathetic friends or a therapist, and talk about it when the jealousy has subsided.
Khajuraho was the spiritual capital of the Chandella dynasty, known for the flourishing of arts that took place under their long and stable reign. These exquisite temples were built over a 200-year period, beginning in the tenth century. Twenty-five of the original eighty remain, spread over a twenty-one-square-kilometer area. Because they are located in such a remote area, invaders never completely destroyed them, and like the similarly amazing ruins in faraway Ankgor Watt in Cambodia, they were covered by jungle for centuries before being discovered by westerners in the nineteenth century. It’s obvious from the sculptures covering the walls of the existing temples that group sex was part of the repertoire of this accomplished culture. Scenes with every conceivable combination of sexual union abound, but they are side by side with scenes of all aspects of life, various gods and goddesses, animals, and plant life. Judging from the sculptures, despite the freedom to explore many configurations, the male/female dyad was the predominant social unit.
Perhaps this society is distantly related to the Gonds people, an indigenous tribal people still living in the forests of central India who are known for their Ghotuls. The Ghotul is thought to be a very ancient institution where young people are taught everything from crafts to ethics to farming to the arts of love. In some villages, all the young people, both girls and boys, sleep together at the Ghotul beginning in early puberty, though they still visit with their parents daily. They are given total sexual freedom and are expected to explore intimacy with everyone in the group so that they can learn who they are from the many different reflections. Pairing up is forbidden until adulthood, at which time monogamy is the rule.
The Gonds people live in modern-day Maharashtra, the same state where cosmopolitan Mumbai and Pune, site of the infamous Osho ashram, is located. Pune has become a high-tech center and is home to many Indian professionals as well as those attracted by the Ashram founded by the man first known in the West as Bhagwan Shree Sanjeevneesh and later as Osho. Osho was well known for developing spiritual practices that encouraged people to say “yes” to the shadow-and to sexuality. He encouraged couples to break out of the confines of traditional marriage and encouraged singles to passionately follow their attractions. Jivana was one of many young Americans and Europeans who spent time at the ashram in its heyday, drawn to the chance to be in the presence of Bhagwan.
Jivana says that she felt caught in the “evolutionary wobble” while living at the ashram. All the old forms for relationship were breaking down, and there were daily therapy groups to provide a place for people to look at what was coming up for them. What Jivana discovered when she fell in love, she says, is how wounded she was. Having never experienced such love, such safety, such sublime sex, she wanted to establish a solid dyad before opening up to others, but she also wanted to honor her new partner’s autonomy. Nevertheless, her partner felt this as limitation and control and they frequently argued and eventually split up.
Many Osho sanyasins I’ve known over the years have been conflicted about nonmonogamy. Osho taught that monogamy required a high level of awakeness, that it was a very high spiritual practice. He also taught that true love is not possessive, that if your beloved wishes to be with someone else, it doesn’t work to try to prevent it. But without the ongoing support of the guru or at least the community, it’s been difficult for many sanyasins to reconcile the two. Today, the Osho resort, as it’s called, is perhaps the most Western place in all of India. Its rooms have purified air, its food is organic, the bathrooms are sparkling clean, the swimming pool is hygienic, and the large hall is equipped with soundlessly closing airtight doors and frigid air-conditioning. In the required orientation meeting I attended, there were visitors from all over the world, but perhaps a third were Indian. Things have changed a lot in India in the past thirty years.
Sanjeev is a thirty-five-year-old Osho sanyasin (devotee and follower of Osho’s teachings) who grew up in Pune. He’s a successful corporate trainer and relationship and intimacy coach whose practice includes young polyamorous couples. Two years ago, after reading my book Polyamory: The New Love without Limits, Sanjeev decided to take the leap and come out to his family. While westerners are often apprehensive about family reactions to polyamory, family is far more important to Indians. Fortunately for Sanjeev, his family was concerned but lovingly accepting and even curious. “Initially the journey looked dangerous, but when I embraced it, it set me free. The path was laced with deep confrontation and sometimes fear, but now when I look back, it was all worth it,” he says.
Sanjeev fantasized about having an open marriage while still in high school, long before he’d ever heard of polyamory. When he shared his ideas with his friends, they ridiculed him, and his girlfriend was furious at the very idea. Realizing that for the people he knew marriage meant monogamy, or cheating, he decided not to marry. Now he’s happy to be able to suggest polyamory as an option when working with couples where a secret affair is on the horizon.
I arrived in Bombay a few weeks after the 2008 terrorist attack that left residents and tourists alike in a state of shock. Sandeep, an Indian man in his early forties who runs a small consulting firm in Bombay, was still reeling and grateful that his immediate family was unharmed. Sandeep has been married to Leela for fifteen years, and they have a six-year-old daughter. Theirs was an arranged marriage, as is still common in India; nevertheless, they came to love each other deeply. Sandeep told me that Leela is his best friend, that they tell each other everything, and that they started their business together as well.
Two years ago, Leela told Sandeep that she wanted to become sexually intimate with their good friend Karna. Sandeep was very uncomfortable about this, partly because Karna was not telling his wife but also because his own jealousy was painful and intense. He’d already downloaded my Compersion e-book by the time we met and had found it helpful, but he was still struggling.
Sandeep had been introduced to me online through a mutual friend, and when he heard I was coming to India, was eager to meet with me. I had coached many couples in the United States dealing with similar situations and was not surprised to find that poly hell, as some people call it, knows no national borders. I’m told it’s unusual for an Indian wife to openly assert her sexual freedom and for her husband to be accepting of this, but I suspect that Sandeep and Leela are on the leading edge of a growing polyamorous movement in India.
Sandeep is a thoughtful, insightful man and a professional communicator with a Western education. He is a student of Bombay advaita master Ramesh Balsekar, who teaches that it is only our thoughts about what should or shouldn’t be happening that disturb the natural state of peace and happiness. Leela and Karna also have an affinity for advaita, and the threesome have attended many satsangs (literally translated, this means “meetings in truth”) together, so I figured that they had at least some chance of working this out.
After acknowledging Sandeep’s courage and willingness to let jealousy be his teacher and I inquired about his family of origin. As I’d guessed, Sandeep’s relationship with his wife mirrored that with his mother, who was a fiery and dominating figure. His father was amiable but distant, much like Karna. Clearly, this triangle offered Sandeep an opportunity to do the inner work of healing the past, and he had the necessary skills and motivation to move through these old issues quickly, but still his marriage was at risk because Sandeep and Leela had never established a satisfying sexual relationship.
I suggested that he ask Leela if she were willing to invest some time and energy in creating a sexual connection with him as well as with Karna. In India, as in the United States, it’s sometimes easier for people to access their eroticism with a new partner than with the spouse they know so well.
It always seems ironic to me that, Khajuraho, Kama Sutra, and Ghotuls notwithstanding, many modern Indians have yet to undo the heavy burden of sexual repression. Yet there is evidence that this is changing. Facebook now has a “Polyamory India” group, and upper-class Indians have discovered swinging. I met Chitvan and Suresh in southern California, where they had gone to visit Sandra and Jack after meeting at a lifestyles convention in Las Vegas. Both Chitvan and Suresh are medical doctors in Delhi and have been married for fifteen years. They are an affluent, upwardly mobile, high-energy couple in their early forties who are anything but sexually repressed. “They’ve promised to throw a swing party for us when we come to India,” Sandra reports excitedly. “If all their friends are like them it should be a lot of fun.”
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