Nipun Goyal writes on what it means to be gay and Hindu, and if the two identities can ever be reconciled in a country that’s predominantly Hindu, and at the same time deeply homophobic.
What pegged me, a self-confessed Agnostic to dwell upon this issue? The mystical lure of this ancient religion is not the least among them- even as a 21 year old, I continue to enjoy with equal gusto as any other faithful Bengali Hindu the sounds of dhak and the swirls of dhuno during the Durga Poojo aartis. But more important is the fact that despite our trend towards Agnosticism or Atheism, Hinduism holds immense sway over the lives of millions of Indians. And the fact that modern day Hinduism is deeply homophobic leads us to this debate.
What sets Hinduism apart
Unlike Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism is not a monolithic religion. While these religions have a holy book that regulate the follower’s beliefs and lifestyles, Hinduism is more of a quest, where the onus is on the individual, rather than on the deity. The Hindu concept of God or Brahma is the omnipresent and omniscient being which pervades time and space, and thus is within each one of us. He does not regulate our lives, but our actions do. It is this emphasis on the individual rather than the religion, as is in the case of Abrahamic faiths that will perhaps hold the key to our questions.
How Hinduism views sexuality
Hinduism sees all forms of desire as a source of trouble. Sexuality is one of them. It traps you in the cycle of karma and rebirths. But at the same time kaam- or sexual gratification is one of the four aims of human life. How does one resolve this seemingly strange dichotomy? I talked to the president of the Hare Krishna Temple in the Hindu holy city of Ujjain and this is how he explained it- It is obviously not possible to embark on the path to God with worldly distractions agonizing the mind. And what agonizes the mind more than anything else is unfulfilled desire- that may be in the form of material comforts or sexual needs. Hence the need to fulfill our desires before we take refuge in the Lord.
But does that mean there’s no place in the spiritual world for the worldly man? Not exactly, he says. If one regulates his/her life as per the scriptures, both material and spiritual needs may be fulfilled simultaneously. Now here lies the catch- what constitutes such behaviour? Hindu scholars have interpreted it as a monogamous heterosexual married life. Some of the orthodox even saying that even within marriage, only sex for the sake of procreation is acceptable. So where does that leave gay and lesbian people? Indeed, what about the promise of allowing the believer to satisfy all desire ?
Hinduism and Homosexuality
Now let’s come to the question of what our scriptures say of homosexuality. I remember tickling with mortification and at the same time feeling a chill run down my spine as I watched B. P. Singhal, the Sangh ideologue ranting against gay sex on a televised debate on the issue. Watching him, I also recollected my recent trip to the Konark Temple, where our guide had shown us, among other things, a relief showing two women in a homosexual embrace. Mr. Singhal said the Manusmriti prohibits homosexual behavior. I did some research to find out how accurate his argument was.
This is what the Manusmriti says on the issue of two Brahmin men having sex-
“A twice-born man who has intercourse with a male, or with a female in a cart drawn by oxen, in water, or in the day-time, shall bathe, dressed in his clothes.”
A ritual bath as a punishment for having gay sex? I wonder if too many gay Hindus would mind that! Also the book says nothing on the issue of non-Brahmin men having gay sex.
Here’s what it says on lesbian sex-
“If two kanya (virgin girls) have sex, each must be fined two hundred (panas), pay the double of her (nuptial) fee, and receive ten (lashes with a) rod.”
Ruth Vanita, a scholar on this issue points out that here the concern is not about homosexuality, but about loosing virginity, because the same punishment is meted out to a man who has intercourse with a virgin girl outside marriage.
Two conclusions may be drawn from the findings- One, punishments for homosexual behavior are very minor, especially when compared to punishments for heterosexual transgressions (A Brahmin man is to be executed for adultery). Secondly, one has the liberty to question the authority of the Manusmriti itself as it is not a scripture, but a law book, and laws should reflect the changing times. For instance, the Manusmriti says that a Shudra (a low caste Hindu) who listens to the recitation of the Vedas should be punished by pourning molten lead into his ears. Would Mr. Singhal agree to that?
On gay marriage
Revivalist Hindu movements like the Arya Samaj strictly define and regulate marriage between one man and one woman. However, the Vedas, from which the Arya Samaj draws its beliefs are much more lenient, defining marriage as a “union of two souls.” So while polygamy is ruled out, gay marriages aren’t because according to Hinduism, the soul has no sex.
Also, as per accounts in the Kamasutra, committed same-sex couples were not unknown to ancient Indians, though it can never be verified whether such unions were religiously sanctified or secular in nature-
“There are also third-sexed citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married together.”
A Vaishnava preacher I recently talked to termed homosexuality “demonic”. When I pointed out to him that none of the Hindu scriptures censure it, he replied that a silence on the issue is not necessarily an acceptance. If that’s true in this case, how would we explain the homoerotic sculptures on the walls of ancient temples or the abounding references to homosexuality in the Puranas- not sparing even the gods and goddesses? How many Hindu priests today would allow homo-erotic images to adorn their temple walls? Doesn’t the fact that priests in ancient India didn’t seem to mind say something for the tolerance of homosexual people in during those times? And here we have Hindu politicians saying that homosexuality is a western import, unknown to ancient Indians! If anything is a western import, it is without doubt the deep rooted homophobia of modern day Hindus- imposed upon India as late as the nineteenth century by patriarchal and homophobic Abrahamic values, and institutionalized through the notorious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
As the Gay Rights movement establishes itself in predominantly Hindu countries like India and Nepal, and as the expatriate Hindu community gets exposed to the international LGBT Movement, Hindus will have to question their hobophobia and scrutinize their beliefs in the light of both their scriptures as well as modern-day democratic and liberal values, which afterall may not be contrary to their own faith.