Homosexuality and Religion
An Encyclopedia - (ed.) J. Siker, Greenwood Press, 2007.
HINDUISM. Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion, and Hindus constitute about one-sixth of the world’s population today. Hindu communities foster a wide range of philosophy and practice, and revere thousands of texts as sacred. There is a Hindu God and a story or variation of a story related to practically every activity, inclination, and way of life. Hindus consider this diversity expressive of divine abundance and everything in the universe a manifestation of divine energy. Every God and Goddess is seen as encompassing male, female, neuter, and all other possibilities, and every living creature as having divine potential. The simultaneity of unity and multiplicity is a basic Hindu premise. Variations in gender and sexuality have been discussed in Hindu texts for over two millennia; same-sex love flourished in precolonial India, without any extended history of persecution.
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. When European Christians 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. When the British colonized India they inscribed modern homophobia into education, law, and the polity. Homophobic trends that were marginal in premodern India thus became dominant in modern India. Indian nationalists, including Hindus, imbibed Victorian ideals of heterosexual monogamy and disowned indigenous traditions that contradicted those ideals. Ancient Hindu ascetic traditions see all desire, including sexual desire, as problematic because it causes beings to be trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth in the phenomenal world. While procreative sex, hedged around with many rules, is enjoined on householders, nonprocreative sex is disfavored. These ideas influence householder life, which is structured as a set of obligations. Many Hindu texts insist that everyone has a duty to marry and produce children, during the householder stage of life. This is countered in Hindu devotional practice and also philosophy and literature by an emphasis on the Gods as erotic beings, and Kama (desire) as one of the four normative aims of life. The earliest texts represent Kama as a universal principle of attraction, causing all movement and change. In later texts, he is the God of love, a beautiful youth, like the Greek Eros, who shoots irresistible arrows at beings, uniting them with those they are destined to love, regardless of social disparities. Thus, Krishna, incarnation of preserver God Vishnu, is worshiped with his beloved Radha, even though, in most traditions, each of them is married to another spouse.
Hindu law books, dating from the first to the fourth century CE, categorize ayoni or nonvaginal sex as impure. This category encompasses oral sex, manual sex, anal sex, sex with animals, masturbation, sex in the water or in a receptacle. 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. In the Arthashastra, the penalty for a man who has ayoni sex is a minor fine, also prescribed for stealing small items. Modern commentators wrongly read the Manusmriti’s more severe punishment of a woman’s manual penetration of a virgin as revelatory of that text’s antilesbian bias. In fact, the punishment is exactly the same for either a man or a woman who does this act, and is related not to the partners’ genders but to the virgin’s loss of virginity and hence of marriageable status.
The Manusmriti does not mention a woman penetrating a nonvirgin woman, and the Arthashastra prescribes a negligible fine for this act. The sacred epics and Puranas (compendia of stories of the Gods, dating from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries) seemingly contradict the law books; they depict Gods, sages, and heroes springing from ayoni sex. This is because, unlike the Christian category of sodomy, ayoni sex is not so much sinful or evil as forbidden or taboo. Like other taboos, it may be broken by special beings or in special contexts, and is broken in secret by ordinary beings too. Unlike sodomy, ayoni sex never became a major topic of debate or an unspeakable crime. Medieval Hindu texts narrate how the God Ayyappa was born of intercourse between the Gods Shiva and Vishnu when the latter temporarily took a female form. A number of fourteenth century texts in Sanskrit and Bengali also narrate how the hero, Bhagiratha, who brought the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth, was miraculously born to two co-widows, who made love together with divine blessing.
The fourth century Kamasutra, also a sacred Hindu text, emphasizes pleasure and joy as aims of intercourse. It nonjudgmentally categorizes men who desire other men as a “third nature,” and describes in detail oral sex between men, also referring to long-term unions between men. Hindu medical texts dating from the first century AD provide a detailed taxonomy of gender and sexual variations, including different types of same-sex desire. Close same-sex friendships, in which friends live and die together or for one another, are celebrated in Hindu texts and socially approved in most Hindu communities as an essential element of the good life. As long as a man does his duty by marrying and having children, his intimate friendships are usually accepted and even integrated into the family. Women’s ability to maintain intimate friendships after marriage is more constricted.
Over the last two decades Indian newspapers have reported a series of same-sex weddings and same-sex joint suicides, most of them by female couples in small towns, most of them Hindu, and not connected to any gay movement. The weddings generally took place by Hindu rites, with some family support, while the suicides were the consequence of families forcibly separating lovers and pushing them into heterosexual marriage. These phenomena suggest the wide range of Hindu attitudes to homosexuality today, varying from community to community, and even family to family.
Modern Hindu ultraconservative organizations, like the Shiv Sena, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who aim to remake Hinduism as a militant nationalist religion intolerant of differences, declare that homosexuality is alien to Indian culture and tradition, and has been imported into the country from Euro-America or West Asia. In 1998, activists of these organizations violently attacked theaters showing the lesbian film Fire. The Indian government has retained the British antisodomy law, which is widely used by police and blackmailers to harass gay men and also to threaten women.
There is a gulf between these opinions and those of several modern Hindu spiritual teachers who draw on traditional concepts of the self as without gender, and emphasize the sameness of all desire, homosexual or heterosexual, which the aspirant must work through and transcend. Thus, when Swami Prabhavananda (1893–1976), founder of the Vedanta society in the United States, heard of Oscar Wilde’s conviction in the early twentieth century, he remarked, “Poor man. All lust is the same.” He advised his disciple Christopher Isherwood to see his lover “as the young Lord Krishna” (Isherwood 1980, 254).
Pioneering gay activist Ashok Row Kavi recounts that when he was studying at the Ramakrishna Mission, a monk told him that the Mission was not a place to run away from himself, and that he should live boldly, ignoring social prejudices, and testing his actions to see if he was hurting anyone. Inspired by this advice, Row Kavi went on to found the gay magazine Bombay Dost. In 2004, when Hindu ultraconservative leader K. Sudarshan denounced homosexuality, Row Kavi wrote an open letter to him in the press, identifying himself as “a faithful Hindu,” asking Sudarshan to read ancient Hindu texts, and pointing out that not homosexuality but rather modern homophobia is a Western import. Vedanta teacher, Swami Chinmayananda (1916–1993), when asked his opinion of homosexuality, replied, “There are many branches on the tree of life. Full stop. Next question” (Kumar 1996, 6–7).
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (born 1956), founder of the international movement, Art of Living, when asked about homosexuality, stated, “Every individual has both male and female in them. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes other, it is all fluid.” When asked about the high suicide rate amongst gay youth, tears came to his eyes and he responded, “Life is so precious. We need to educate everyone. Life is so much bigger. You are more than the body. You are the spirit. You are the untouched pure consciousness.” (Rupani 2003, 15).
In her 1977 book, The World of Homosexuals, mathematician Shakuntala Devi interviewed Srinivasa Raghavachariar, priest of the Vaishnava temple at Srirangam. 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 the power of love impels these souls to seek one another. A Shaiva priest who performed the marriage of two women stated that, having studied Hindu scriptures, he had concluded, “Marriage is a union of spirits, and the spirit is not male or female” (Vanita 2005, 147).
Despite these enlightened opinions, there is little discussion of the issue in religious communities. Consequently, some teachers and most lay followers remain homophobic, which has driven many gay disciples out of religious communities and a few even to suicide. Swami Bodhananda, Vedanta master in the Saraswati lineage, and founder of the Sambodh Society, stated the following about same-sex unions: “We don’t look at the body or the memories; we always look at everyone as spirit. . . . I am not opposed to relationships or unions — people’s karma brings them together. I am sure spiritual persons will have no objection when two people come together. It’s a Christian idea that it is wrong. From a Hindu standpoint, there is nothing wrong because there is nothing against it in scripture . . . but it’s a social stigma. We have to face this issue now. . . . what is required is a debate in society” (Vanita 2005, 307).
The centuries’ long debate in Hindu society, somewhat suppressed in the colonial period and after, has now revived. When Hinduism Today the Swamis expressed a wide range of opinions, positive and negative; that they felt free to reporter Rajiv Malik, at the Kumbha Mela in Ujjain in 2004, asked several Hindu Swamis their opinion of same-sex marriage, differ with others in their own lineages (akharas), is evidence of the continuing liveliness of this debate, facilitated by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As Mahant Ram Puri, of Juna akhara, remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism.We have a hundred million authorities” (Malik, 2004).
Das Wilhelm, Amara. Tritiya Prakriti (People of the Third Sex): Understanding Homosexuality, Trans-gender Identity, and Intersex Conditions through Hinduism. Philadelphia, PA: XLibris Corporation,2004.
Isherwood, Christopher. My Guru and His Disciple. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Kavi, Ashok Row. “The Contract of Silence.” In Hoshang Merchant, ed., Yaraana: Gay Writingsfrom India. Delhi: Penguin, 1999.
Kumar, Arvind. “Interview with Jim Gilman.” Trikone, 11(3) (July 1996): 6–7.
Malik, Rajiv. “Discussions on Dharma.” Hinduism Today (October–December 2004): 30–31.
Rupani, Ankur. “Sexuality and Spirituality.” Trikone, 18(4) (2003): 15.
Sweet, Michael J. and Leonard Zwilling. “The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology ofQueers in Classical Indian Medicine.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 3(4) (1993): 590–607.
Vanita, Ruth. Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage and its Antecedents in India. Delhi: Penguin India, 2005.
Vanita, Ruth, ed. Queering India. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai, eds. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History.New York: Palgrave, 2000.
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