Nov 7, 2013

Worship and Sexuality: the Sacred and the Profane

By Felicia Woodard                                                     

To say sexuality and worship in the same sentence would raise some eyebrows. In context of the west, we are socially  taught that these things do not, should not, and cannot coexist. on the contrary, I feel that we as a western nation/culture of people, must be understood that various cultures, religions, and people of different regions and philosophies do not share this same sentiment. 

Worship spaces do not simply serve as physical spaces for prayer, offering, and fellowship. They also often express religious sentiment and philosophies. With this said, worship spaces in the Judeo-Christian West are not adorned with ornamental deities (gods) displaying open flesh. You may see a naked cherub, but the full breasts, jutting hips, full thighs, and jewelry adorned frame of a 12th century dancing yakshi (female deity/goddess) displayed in a northern Indian temple is not a norm in the West.
Why is this so? Is it taboo for the image of a naked woman to be displayed in a worship space in America? Well, let’s ask ourselves this. Can we imagine an unadorned Virgin Mary? In many cultures, some defining aspects of sex, sexual imagery, and the body include not sharing it unless it is shared with a marital partner and not displaying the body especially in public spaces. With worship spaces being meant for the sacred and the holy, and the naked body being rendered unholy and inappropriate outside of the fore mentioned places, how do we make sense of the publically displayed, naked female deity in a sacred Indian temple?
It's simple. We simply try not to make sense of it. Instead of attempting to make sense of another’s culture or religion through the lens of our culture and religion, I offer that we completely take our lens off. Even but for a moment in an attempt at dialogue receiving knowledge. We can also ask ourselves some of the following questions:
  • Are the social boundaries for religion and art in my country the same in theirs?
  • What do the figures symbolize?
  • Maybe sacred and profane in Hindu tradition is described as something different than what I am used to?

In Buddhism and Hinduism, as far as the yakshis or female deities are concerned - because the same cannot be assumed for actual women in these societies - the alluring form of the female was allowed in temples for the gazes of the “cultured” social elite. There were structural designs to the deities that the cultured elite desired. For example, the left hip jutted outward and the breasts were of a specific form. The female deities had to have a sense that she was in motion, and she also was often adorned in jewels and nothing more.  This aesthetic was common for the cultured elite of that time and region.  

All of it meant and still means something... it was symbolism. Many deities were carved holding trees and flowers because it symbolized fertility and the woman's ability to create. These goddesses were desired so much, that if there were any hesitation about displaying naked yakshis in sacred temples, it far under weighed the desire for them.

So where does this leave us? Hopefully it leaves us in a place where we can admire beauty. Or maybe in a place of willingness to open our lens beyond our norm if they were not before. Even if we don't understand something, having a willingness to try goes a long way.

Felicia Woodard is a professional dancer from Houston, currently  pursuing an M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies at University of Houston Clear Lake. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.

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