Why you should care
India’s Supreme Court reinstated a law making homosexual acts a crime — and this from the country that brought us the Kama Sutra and has a long history of celebrating transgender deities?
Hinduism and homosexuality are not strange bedfellows.
Hindu texts have not shied away from addressing homosexuality and gender variance, and some scholars would even point out that same-sex love and sexuality are celebrated. Add to this, a portion of the Kama Sutra is dedicated to the fulfillment of sexual desires and encompasses the full range of human sexuality. When India’s Supreme Court recriminalized homosexual acts by upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, many expressed disappointment in a law they saw as out of step with Hindu culture.
”Same-sex relations have never been something unspeakable or horrifying in Hinduism,” says Hindu scholar Ruth Vanita, author of Same-Sex Love in India, adding that these relations have always been written about in literature and depicted in art.
Some scholars point out same-sex love and sexuality are celebrated in Hindu texts.
She explains that in Hindu literature, attitudes toward homosexuality range from mild disapproval to celebration, and everything in between.
Religious narratives talk about deities and heroes who change genders, engage in homoerotic behavior, and/or involve themselves in same-sex relationships, some resulting in children. The Kama Sutra categorizes men who desire other men as having a ”third nature,” and the transgender hijras in modern-day India often embody this. Hijras identify as neither male nor female, and many of them, genetically born as males, undergo ritual castrations. Bahuchara Mata, the patron goddess of the hijras, grants them the power to bless people with fertility in exchange for their emasculation.
This week, India’s Supreme Court is hearing arguments from the LGBT community against Section 377, the controversial sodomy law that recriminalized gay sex. This will be the last opportunity to overturn their previous verdict.
The concept of rebirth adds to the culture’s explanation of same-sex attraction. Hindu priests who marry same-sex couples often explain that the couple’s irresistible love for each other must be from an attachment they had in a previous life. The belief in Hinduism is that almost everything can change when one is reborn, except for attachments, whether they are to places, activities or people. That carries over into the next lifetime. Srinivasa Raghavachariar, the head priest of the Srirangam temple, talked about this concept in The World of Homosexuals, saying the soul retains its attachments, hence love impels them toward one another.
Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar responded to India’s criminalization of homosexuality, tweeting, ”Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. In fact, Lord Ayyappa was born of Hari-Hara (Vishnu & Shiva).”
Lord Ayyappa is a Hindu deity, worshipped extensively in South India. The story behind his birth says he was created when Lord Vishnu took the form of the female Mohini, and seduced Lord Shiva. Shiva and Vishnu had a baby, Ayyappa. He is also known as Hariharaputra or Hariharan Puthiran, which means son of both Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Haran). Depending on the Hindu text you’re reading, Shiva may or may not have been aware of Mohini’s true nature as Vishnu.
Vanita says it is important to understand that in Hinduism, the same story is often told in many different ways. The religion does not rely on just one text. She recounts a 14th-century Bengali text which tells the story of two women who have an explicitly sexual relationship, and due to divine blessing, one of them has a child, Bhagiratha. While some texts say Bhagiratha was born to a heterosexual couple, several others talk about Bhagiratha’s two mothers, although the versions differ on whether they intended to have a child, were instructed to do so, or had him accidentally. When hero-king Bhagiratha grew up, he was cherished for bringing river goddess Ganga from heaven to Earth.
There are many more stories like Bhagiratha’s and Ayyappa’s, pointing to same-sex relationships, along with miraculous sex changes and gender variance in Hindu texts. Author Vikram Seth said it best in an interview with IANS after India’s disappointing Supreme Court ruling: “It is homophobia that came into India and not homosexuality.