“A Hundred Million Authorities”: Hinduism and Homosexuality by Ruth Vanita
Hinduism is the world’s oldest continuously practiced religion and Hindus constitute a sixth of the world’s population today. Most Hindus live in India but there are over 1.5 million Hindus, both Indians and non-Indians, in the U.S.A.
Modern Hindus regard all beings, including humans, animals, Gods and Goddesses, as manifestations of one universal Atman (Spirit). There is a Hindu deity and story related to almost every activity, inclination, and way of life. Every God and Goddess is seen as encompassing male, female, neuter, and all other possibilities.
Hindu texts have discussed variations in gender and sexuality for over two millennia. Like the erotic sculptures on ancient Hindu temples at Khajuraho and Konarak, sacred texts in Sanskrit constitute irrefutable evidence that the whole range of sexual behavior was known to ancient Hindus. Traditions of representing same-sex desire in literature and art continued in medieval Hinduism as well as Indian Islam. When Europeans arrived in India, they were shocked by Hinduism, which they termed idolatrous, and by the range of sexual practices (including same-sex relations), which they labeled licentious. British colonial rulers wrote modern homophobia into education, law and politics.
A marginal homophobic trend in pre-colonial India thus became dominant in modern India. Indian nationalists, including Hindus, internalized Victorian ideals of heterosexual monogamy and disowned indigenous traditions that contravened those ideals. Nevertheless, those traditions persisted, for example, in the very visible communities of hijras, transgendered males who have a semi-sacred status and often engage in sexual relations with men.
Hinduism sees all desire, including sexual desire, as problematic because it causes beings to be trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth. Procreative sex, circumscribed by many rules, is enjoined on householders, but non-procreative sex is disfavored. Most Hindu texts assume that everyone has a duty to marry and procreate.
However, Hindu devotional practice, philosophy and literature emphasize the eroticism of the Gods, and Kama (desire) as one of the four aims of life. In the earliest texts, Kama is a universal principle of attraction. In the first millennium C.E., he becomes the God of love, a beautiful youth, who shoots irresistible arrows at people, uniting them with those they are destined to love, regardless of social inappropriateness.
Ancient Hindu law books, from the first century onwards, categorize ayoni (non-vaginal sex) as impure. But penances prescribed for same-sex acts are very light compared to penances for some types of heterosexual misconduct, such as adultery and rape. The Manusmriti exhorts a man who has sex with a man or a woman, in a cart pulled by a cow, or in water or by day to bathe with his clothes on (11.174). The Arthashastra imposes a minor fine on a man who has ayoni sex (4.13.236). Modern commentators misread the Manusmriti’s severe punishment of a woman’s manual penetration of a virgin (8.369-70) as anti-lesbian bias. In fact, the punishment is exactly the same for either a man (8.367) or a woman who does this act, and is related not to the partners’ genders but to the virgin’s loss of virginity and marriageable status. The Manusmriti does not mention a woman penetrating a non-virgin woman, and the Arthashastra prescribes a negligible fine for this act. The sacred epics and the Puranas (fourth to fourteenth-century compendia of devotional stories) contradict the law books; they depict Gods, sages, and heroes springing from ayoni sex. Unlike sodomy in Europe and America, ayoni sex never became a major topic of debate or an unspeakable sin in India. Unlike Europe where many men and some women were tortured and executed for sodomy, in India we know of only one person having been executed, and this was a boy in sixteenth-century Goa, burnt to death by the Portuguese.
A number of fourteenth-century texts in Sanskrit and Bengali (including the Krittivasa Ramayana, a devotional text still extremely popular today) narrate how hero-king Bhagiratha, who brought the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth, was miraculously born to and raised by two co-widows, who made love together with divine blessing. These texts explain his name Bhagiratha from the word bhaga (vulva) because he was born of two vulvas. The idea that two women’s intercourse can result in conception and birth comes from a first-century Sanskrit medical text.
Another sacred text, the fourth-century Kamasutra, emphasizes pleasure as the aim of intercourse. It categorizes men who desire other men as a “third nature” (tritiya prakriti) further subdivides them into masculine and feminine types, and describes their lives and occupations (such as flower sellers, masseurs and hairdressers). It provides a detailed, non-judgmental, description of oral sex between men, and also refers to embraces and continuing unions between male friends who have absolute trust in one another. Hindu medical texts dating from the first century A.D. provide taxonomies of gender and sexual variations, including same-sex desire.
Most modern Hindus are ignorant of this rich history, and believe the popular myth that homosexuality was imported into India either from medieval West Asia or from modern Euro-America. It is symptomatic of this ignorance that the democratic and secular Indian government has retained the British law criminalizing sodomy (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860). The Indian LGBT movement challenged this law as unconstitutional, the Delhi High Court overturned the law, and the case is now before the Supreme Court.
The indigenous roots of same-sex relationships in India are evident in the fact that over the last thirty years, Indian newspapers have reported young female couples all over the country getting married to each other by religious rites or committing joint suicide, which they see as a type of marriage. Almost all these women are non-English speaking, from poor or lower-middle-class backgrounds, living in small towns or villages. None of them had any contact with any movement, and most did not know any other gay people or even any words for “gay” or “lesbian.” They had no knowledge of the international debate around gay marriage, in fact, these stories predate the U.S. campaign. The first reported case of a joint suicide occurred in Kerala in 1980, and the first reported case of a wedding was that of Leela and Urmila, two police constables in Madhya Pradesh. What is remarkable is that in some cases their families accepted and even celebrated their marriages. Recently, civil rights groups have been trying to help such couples and the media has been following up the cases.
Indian Hindus living in the U.S. maintain strong ties with India. Although influenced by modern homophobia they are also exposed to LGBT movements and literature. There are now many Indian LGBT groups in the U.S. and India, most of whose members are Hindu in origin. Trikone, the LGBT South Asian magazine published from San Francisco since 1986, carries many essays on Hinduism and homosexuality. Indian media, including television, has extensively covered both the LGBT Indian movement and cases of oppression of gay people, such as familial and police harassment of young couples, and the persecution and suspension of Prof. S.R. Siras from Aligarh Muslim University last year, on grounds of homosexuality, which culminated in his death under suspicious circumstances.
Rightwing Hindu groups, active both in India and the U.S., who aim to remake Hinduism as a militant nationalist religion, express virulent opposition to homosexuality, inaccurately claiming that it was unknown to ancient Hindus.
However, several modern Hindu teachers, who draw on traditional concepts of the self as genderless, emphasize that all desire, homosexual or heterosexual, is the same, and that aspirants must work through and transcend desire. Thus, when Swami Prabhavananda (1893-1976), founder of the Vedanta society in the U.S., heard of Oscar Wilde’s conviction, he remarked, “Poor man. All lust is the same.”
Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), who set up a center in Ojai, California, said that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, has been a fact for thousands of years and becomes a problem only because humans over-focus on sex. When asked about homosexuality, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (born 1956), founder of the international movement, Art of Living, said, “Every individual has both male and female in them. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes other, it is all fluid.”
Mathematician Shakuntala Devi, in her 1977 book, The World of Homosexuals, interviewed Srinivasa Raghavachariar, head priest of the Srirangam temple. He said that same-sex lovers must have been cross-sex lovers in a former life. The sex may change but the soul retains its attachments, hence love impels these souls towards one another. In 2002, I interviewed a Shaiva priest who performed the marriage of two Tamil Brahman women in the U.S.; he told me that, having studied Hindu scriptures, he had concluded, “Marriage is a union of spirits, and the spirit is not male or female.”
As Amara Dasa, a monk for 18 years, and founder of Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association (GALVA), notes in his recent book, several Gaudiya Vaishnava monks emphasize that since everyone passes through various forms, genders and species in a series of lives, we should not judge each other by the material body but view everyone equally on a spiritual plane, and be compassionate as God is.
Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi recounts that when he was studying at the Ramakrishna Mission, a monk told him the Mission was not a place to run away from himself, and that he should live boldly, ignoring social prejudice. Row Kavi went on to found the Indian gay magazine Bombay Dost. In 2004, Hindu right-wing leader K. Sudarshan denounced homosexuality. Row Kavi, identifying himself as “a faithful Hindu,” wrote an open letter to Sudarshan in the press. He asked Sudarshan to read ancient Hindu texts, and noted that modern homophobia is a Western import.
Despite these enlightened opinions, there is little discussion of the issue in most Hindu religious communities. Consequently, some teachers and most lay followers remain homophobic, which has driven many gay disciples out of religious communities and some, both in India and the U.S., even to suicide.
The millennia-long debate in Hindu society, somewhat suppressed in the colonial period, has now revived. In 2004, Hinduism Today reporter Rajiv Malik, asked several Hindu Swamis (teachers) their opinion of same-sex marriage. The Swamis expressed a range of opinions, positive and negative. They felt free to differ with each other; this is evidence of the liveliness of the debate, made possible by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As Mahant Ram Puri remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism. We have a hundred million authorities.”
- Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai ed., Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (New York: Palgrave, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002).
- Christopher Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple (New York: Penguin, 1980).
- Ashok Row Kavi, “The Contract of Silence,” Yaraana: Gay Writings from India ed. Hoshang Merchant (Delhi: Penguin, 1999).
- A Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience ed. Rakesh Ratti (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1993).
- Interview with Jim Gilman by Arvind Kumar, Trikone special issue on Hinduism and Homosexuality, 11:3 (July 1996).
- Ruth Vanita, Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (New York: Palgrave; New Delhi: Penguin India, 2005).
- Michael J. Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, “The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology of Queers in Classical Indian Medicine,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3: 4 (1993): 590-607.
- Rajiv Malik, “Discussions on Dharma,” Hinduism Today, October-November-December 2004, 30-31.
- Amara Das Wilhelm, Tritiya Prakriti (People of the Third Sex): Understanding Homosexuality, Transgender Identity and Intersex Conditions through Hinduism (XLibris Corpn, 2004).