Monday, March 1, 2010

What Purpose can Rediscovering the Pre-Modern Queer Culture Serve? Methodological Issues - Shivaji K Panikkar

(Working Paper for Current Work on Sexuality in Visual Culture, Led by Professor Natalie Kampen, The Visual Studies Department at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 1st February 2010)

The presentation intends to address general methodological questions with regard to researches on queer within India’s past culture. These research publications relate to areas of religion, philosophy, myths, and use frameworks of psychology, anthropology, social history, literary criticism and art histories of pre-modern India. The primary purpose of such an enquiry would be to explain what research on queer culture can mean to queer community, to artists and cultural historians and to the civil and political society at large. I would like to map the different thematic that have attracted researcher’s interest about India’s ancient past, and like to engage in a critique and possibly suggest new directions for research. The analytical/interpretative frameworks, methodology and limits would be one of the focuses.

Sexuality, Identity and Power
It is in 1892 that heterosexuality and homosexuality entered into English language; from the book, Psychopathia Sexualis, by the Austrian sex researcher, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-19020). Sexuality as a critical category can be traced back from this point to the European and American scientific studies of human eroticism. The term splinters into complexity when marked by prefixes – homo, hetero and bi, embodying particular desires, and lending possibilities for identity formation. These terms lent the possibility to assert where one stood on the sexual map, and granting a coherent place within the cultural order. While locating identities, it is clearly understood that we are talking about subjects; their agency and instrumentality. So that, what we define as sexualities is regarding the historical construction. Only by 1890s had the term sexuality and its prefixed forms – homo, and hetero -became associated with types of sexual person and kinds of sexual attraction. While there could still be discontent among many for assuming an identity among those who practice non-heterosexual practices, and what such historical construction entails, the queer activism however is a world phenomena today.

Joseph Bristow (Sexuality, Routledge, 1997) points out that today one of the most difficult terms to analyze precisely is sexuality. This is so since the term sexuality is obviously connected to sex, which refers to sexual act, but, it also refers to the biological distinction of male and female. The referred term ‘sexualities’ for the workshop is implicated in these distinct frameworks of understandings. Further, what do sexualities refer to; possibly to varied sexual desires and varied sexed beings?

The contemporary world had been in an era where unprecedented diversification of sexual behaviors and identities, has occurred. What is the impulse for the contemporary fascination for diverse and distinct forms of sexual behavior? From this premise, what theoretical model we should set up to understand pre-modern/pre-colonel sexualities? It is a historical fact that since late 1960, there has been an increasing number of vocal sexual minorities struggling for public recognition and political legitimacy. Especially significant in the recent past is the queer minority discourses. These apart from having helped dismantle conventional categories used in interpreting sexualities, such as homo, hetero binary; the dissident sexualities have subverted the basic categories of sex and gender.

Implicated within the late Victorian sexology to queer theory, is it possible to view pre-modern sexuality pristinely within their historical context, without the encumbering of the identity politics, so as to put an end to the curiosity as to how sexualities might have been lived in any of the past times, without the burden of the contemporary? Is there any way that the researcher can be unbiased, and stand away from Civil Rights movements? Can the available fragmentary sources of literature and art available to us enable us to give insights into how sexualities were lived-out, perceived, permitted and controlled? What are the assumptions that we have to make to make sense of the often confusing myths, and textual descriptions and art objects or ideas that are far removed from our own time?

Dana Y. Takagi, invoking class, race and generation says “underlying much contemporary talk about difference is the assumption that differences are comparable things.” Differences are not analogues or interchangeable, but an uncritical notion of diversity can give the impression that they are.

It is a well accepted fact that the ongoing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LBGT) activism in India is over two decades old. The earliest mobilization of community action began in Bombay in 1989-90 with the publication of the newsletter Bombay Dost. In the 1990s and through the present decade, significant formal or informal LGBT groups and at instances of political formations or/and reach-out-publications had emerged in the major Indian cities and several small towns. Significant also are similar developments from other Asian, and South-Asian Diaspora in the West. Of these, some of which are still functional and some either disbanded or dormant, have pursued several lines of action - in the areas of mental and physical health, jurisprudence, and community identity; running help lines to creating common platforms for queer people to discuss common problems. At the top of their agendas, most organizations also sought to actively define the political, social and legal issue of queer rights, particularly the battle against IPC 377.

In India as elsewhere, reclaiming the historical antecedents had been one of the focuses, and several research publications have been noticed:

Bertram Schaffner, M.D, Androgyny in Indian Art and Culture: Psychoanalytic Implications, Journal of The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 29(1), 113–125, 2001.

Anya Gurholt, The Androgyny of Enlightenment: Questioning Women’s Status in Ancient Indian Religions, Westminster College, McNair Scholars Program, 2004 Summer Research Project.
Slide: Text
Rosalind O'Hanlon, Manliness and Imperial Service in Mughal North India, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1999), pp. 47 -93 Published by: BRILL

Geeta Patel, Home, Homo, Hybrid: Translating Gender, College Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis (Feb., 1997), Published by: College Literature.

Robert P. Goldman, Transsexualism, Gender, and Anxiety in Traditional India, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1993), pp. 374- 401 Published by: American Oriental Society.
Slide: Text
Maithreyi Krishnaraj, Androgyny: An Alternative to Gender Polarity? Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 16/17 (Apr. 20-27, 1996).

Vinay Lal, Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality, Social Text, No. 61, Out Front: Lesbians, Gays, and the Struggle for Workplace Rights (Winter, 1999), pp. 119-140 Published by: Duke University Press.

Aloka Parasher-Sen, Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 1999; 6; 43.

Michael J. Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology of Queerness in Classical Indian Medicine, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Apr., 1993), pp. 590-607 Published by: University of Texas Press

Possibly, these emerge from the field of activism; or at least inspired by activism, and in any case these have provided certain fillip to the queer movement as such. In this context, the primary question that of such an enquiry would be also to explain what research on queer culture can mean to queer community, to artists and cultural historians and to the civil and political society at large.

Imagining Queer into Ancient Indian History
Apart from the above publications, a book such as Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai had been one of the most significant.

Among other purposes, the book, definitively enable confronting the queer-phobic myth that various forms of queerness was imported to India from foreigners – Muslim invaders, European conquerors, and American capitalists. Through introducing, annotating and interpreting wide ranging queer thematic from literary data; Vedic, Buddhist, Puranic, medical treatises to book on eroticism the author preeminently establish categories and practices related to the multiple, historical antecedents of currently known queer identities; gay, lesbian and bisexual orientations, transgender, intersexual and genderqueer, or/and of other non-heterosexual sexuality, sexual anatomy, or gender identity. However, it is significant to note that the book primarily deals with homoeroticism, or what has been designated as same sex love. It is also made clear that the authors are talking about a period prior to the formation of categories and identities of homo or hetero. The term queer too is avoided, because non-heterosexual behavior is not only not represented as strange or deviant, for they are upheld by the texts as valid differences. Second reason is that the term’s scope is too wide, which are outside the scope of the book. The book also avoids categories of transgender, trans-sexuality, or inter-sexuality, and the focus remains within homoeroticism.

The book is also not about how woman loved women or how men loved men, but is rather about how such love was viewed and represented. The book is also not about sex, but is about love –because there is no way to know if the attachment or love was sexual.

The book is addressed to combat phobia among queer people, their self-hatred, shame, family’s disgust, secrecy, and attempts in curing themselves, compulsory heterosexuality, suicide and such. It hopes to feed into self-esteem while dealing with labels such as abnormal, unnatural, and unhealthy.

The book hopes that the Indian homoerotic persons will profit from it, “by learning to acknowledge that some of their ancestors were so inclined, that their writings and writings about them constitute an important part of our common Indian heritage as well as world heritage, and that such acknowledgement is crucial to building a more tolerant, better informed, les conflict-ridden society… “

The rough thematic categories from the ancient period that is dealt with the book are:
(1) Romantic, erotic and sexual interactions between same sex people.
This is rather rare. Often quoted example is from Valmiki Ramayana of Hanuman seeing semi-clad Rakshasi (or the evil women) in each others arms in Ravana’s palace. There are references to oral sex as performed by male servants on their masters in Kamasutra. In Rajatarangini, king Kshemagupta indulge in anal sex. Silappadikaram too records boy prostitutes. All these are represented in descriptive, nonjudgmental manner, “As normally present in court and in daily life, evidence of the affluence and splendor of Urban Culture.” Ruth Vanita.

(2) Texts/myths of exceptional same-sex friendships and same sex pairing. The example is of Krishna and Arjuna, and of Nara Narayana.
(3) Traditional categories of non-heterosexual behavior, inclinations and acts identified in ancient Indian books on sexology, law and medicine.
Kamasutra, Manusmriti, Charaka Samhita and Shushruta Samhita.
Kamasutra – Tritiya prakriti – of the third nature.
Arthashastra – ayoni or non-vaginal sex. As punishable with lowest fine.
Manusmriti – prescribes mild punishments, but states that, “sexual union with a man is traditionally said to cause loss of caste.”
Charaka Samhita and Shushruta Samhita – taks of kliba, pandaka and napunsaka – all verities of neutered gender.

(4) Texts/myths representing sex change or undoing of gender - transgender, trans-sexuality, or inter-sexuality. (Arjuna and Narada becoming women).

(5) Body hating asceticism, refusing marriage and misogyny.
(6) Textual and visual representations androgyny – Ardhanarishwara:
Combination of male and female qualities
Gupta period Buddha and later Hindu sculptures, the traditional Indian perspective, and psychoanalytic implications/ Hermaphroditism.
(7) Philosophical and theological questioning of gender as non-reality, illusion and non-duality (Brahman), and justification of the socially acceptable/unacceptable in terms of rebirth.

(8) Divine children of same sex unions(Ayyappa, Bhagiratha).

(9) Composite forms of gods: Harihara, Ardhanarishwara.

(10) Unnatural birth: Kartikeya (more than one male god as parent) and Ganesha (all female origin).

(11) Bhakti – the mystical loving devotion to a chosen god by ritual transformation into opposite sex – sakhibhava- self exceeding gender.
It is to be kept in view that Bhakti was a cohesive Brahmanical social discourse a process of subsumption through inclusion, and that feminization has to be thought in the context of the through sexualization of female body, and in the process reified, exaggerated, accentuated and commodified. It is also significant to note that the divine feminine sphere had been a largely a patriarchal construct. In this context it will be worth also to see that male body in Indian art, at least from 5th century AD was a spiritualized entity, having the bearing upon the Brahmanic idealistic philosophy.

(12) Bhakti and friendship with god - sakha bhava

(13) Popular contemporary religious transgender and transsexual festivals: Aravani,

(14) Intimacy in Male teacher-student (guru-sishya) relationship.

(15) Homoerotic religious communities:

(16) God’s inseparable same-sex companion: Ayyappa and Vavar,

(17) Hindu male mystics: Shri Chaitanya, Sri Ramakrishna
Writing queer histories is a matter of feeding into the legitimacy to queer existences, and as a matter that strengthen the political conviction and faith in queer activism. Although my intention here is not to dwell deeply into the on going historical research, it has generally accepted that there had been no evidence of extended history of persecution of queer practices in the pre-British or pre-modern India. On the other hand we have inclusion and subsumption of the queer practices as minor, inconsequential or irrelevant aspect of life, or the "benign neglect" as Sudhir Kakar calls it. “In ancient India, homosexual activity itself was ignored or stigmatized as inferior, but never actively persecuted. In the dharmashastras, male homoerotic activity is punished, albeit mildly: a ritual bath or the payment of a small fine was often sufficient atonement.” Sudhir Kakar , Homosexuality And The Indian - India has a tradition of benign neglect of alternate sexualities, (

Ruth Vanita’s approach like all other researchers is still primary, taxonomical and basic.
It is very common assumption that ancient India had celebrative attitude to sexuality and that it was flexible and tolerant to sexual minorities. Yet, we can’t ignore the fact that heterosexuality was the norm, and as Foucault would call it as, “tactical polyvalence of discourse”. Most, or all the writers have been using extractive method, and they have a naturalizing affect, and have not as yet concerned about minor sexualities from the larger reality of class and caste, or the general aspects of power relations, as to how power circulates through discourse. Queer studies on ancient India needs to work with methodological models of domination, subordination and resistance and has to focus on institutional strategies, discursive formations and structures of power/knowledge that maintain the dominance of heterosexuality.

Recovering and Reclaiming Our Cultural Heritage:
In the Introduction of The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts edited by Calaude J. Summers, (Cleis Press Inc., California, 2004) the editor states that, “Recovering our cultural heritage is a crucially important endeavor for everyone, but it is especially significant for gay men, lesbians and others who have grown up in families and societies in which their sexual identities have been ignored, canceled, or condemned. They often come to a realization of their difference with little or no understanding of alternative sexualities beyond the negative stereotypes that pervade contemporary society, and they usually feel isolated and frightened at the very time they most need reassurance and encouragement.”

The study of queer sexualities in cultural history must face base questions of definitions and identity. What constitutes sexual identity and how do minor sexualities figure-in within the larger socio-political structures? What instrumentality or agency the minor sexuality had within the lager heterosexual world? Did India, possibly among other Asian counties; had a more inclusive approach to minor sexual identities and practices? Did the dichotomies as it exists today between hetero-normative and queer practices existed in different historical periods or was in the case of India or South East Asia different? What kinds of social control operated in the ancient of medieval Indian societies? How much of it was institutionalized and how and what were the practices outside the institutions? These are some questions that need to be attended by researchers urgently.


  1. Nice posting. Do you know about these Samhita texts?

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