Maithuna in Buddhist Art

Photo: Maithuna, Eastern Ganga dynasty, 13th century Orissa, India

The notion of the eternal union of man and woman spawned an incredibly diverse abundance of sexual images in Hindu and Buddhist art.

In the Hindu tantras the idea of the couple and the act of copulation is called maithuna—a Sanskrit term, which has several meanings – “couple,” “merging,” “union,” “marriage,” “related through marriage,” “relation,” “sexual intercourse,” “ritual sexual act,” and so on.

In tantric Hinduism, maithuna is a symbol of fertility and well-being and is perceived to be one of the highest expressions of human existence. It refers to one of the five ritual practices (Skt. pañcamakara). They include five substances: wine (madya), meat (māṃsa), fish (matsya), parched grain (mudrā), and sexual intercourse (maithuna), which are in turn associated with the five elements of the Universe (fire, air, water, earth, ether). In the context of tantric rituals, maithuna exemplifies the interaction between the male (śiva) and the female (śakti) energy.

The purpose of this union is to transform sexual energy into spiritual power and awaken the dormant potential of human consciousness. Copulation in the tantric tradition is transformed into a ritual in which human activity becomes divine; therefore, images of copulating couples embody the universal concept of a sacred union or hierogamy.

In some Hindu texts, maithuna is presented as the cosmogonic union of fire and water, or of the earth and sky, hence it is associated with Vedic rituals. Evidence of this ritual act can also be found in the Buddhist tradition, presented mainly in their symbolic form, although there are indications of its actual performance as well.

The figures of maithuna are a visual interpretation of the creative impulse arising from desire (kāma). Their customary depiction is of a couple standing next to each other, embracing, or engaged in sexual intercourse. These images appeared for the first time in Buddhist art in 2nd century BCE. The most remarkable examples date from the time of the Shunga dynasty (185-175 BCE) They can also be found on temple pillars or gates of some early Indian Buddhist temples, e.g. in Bharhut, in the state of Madhya Pradesh (2nd century BCE), and in Karla, in the state of Maharashtra (1st century CE).

Maithuna figures were included in the Buddhist pantheon in the time of the Maurya dynasty (321-185 BCE) in India because of their popularity in the local belief system. The images of hierogamy stand in the periphery of the temple, while the deities from the Buddhist pantheon inhabit its core. Unlike many other images in Buddhism, the maithuna couple provokes the interest of few scholars. One of them, Piratti, who studied temple complexes in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, comments that the art in that region intrigues numerous scholars but none of them has shown interest in those particular figures.*

The woman in the maithuna couple represents the ideal of feminine beauty, which has been the norm in India since time immemorial – wide hips, narrow waist, round breasts and thighs, and flamboyant jewellery. These distinctive characteristics are typical of another class of popular female figures in early Buddhism, called yakiī in Sanskrit (Tib. gnod sbyin mo). Some scholars identify them as the feminine aspect of maithuna, but most other view them as independent demi-goddesses with an incredible importance in the early stages of the development of the Buddhist tradition.

  • V. Piratti, Mithuna in Buddhist Art: With Special Reference to Amaravati & Nagarjunakonda, Delhi, 2002, 5.

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