This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
Despite only having overturned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality, in September 2018, India has a long queer history, which the BJP (the incumbent Hindu nationalist party) completely disregard. Both ancient Indian culture and mythological texts directly refute the attitude that “…traditionally, India’s society does not recognise [homosexual] relations”, as asserted by RSS (a Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation) leader Arun Kumar, following the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement against Section 377.
Within both of what became known as Hinduism and Islam, the division between sacred and sexual was extremely fluid. There are various devotional traditions in which male disciples would effeminise themselves in order to worship gods such as Krishna, Shiva and Vishnu. Similarly, in the court of Awadh, the Nawabs would dress as women on the day of their pirs (similar to saints). This was something that clearly shocked the British, who were horrified that the rulers of Awadh were men who would dress as women. The British similarly disapproved of the thriving traditions of hijras and aravanis, transgender women who for centuries have organised themselves into formal communities, and still today often live in hijra-communities led by a guru.
Kama, roughly translating to desire, is one of the four Purusartha (the vital aims of human life), within Hinduism, along with Dharma, Artha, and Moksha. The 12th century Khajuraho temples in central India are decorated with an abundance of sculptures, many of which depict erotic scenes. Of these, several show homosexual relations and sexual fluidity both between men and women, as well as depicting heterosexual interactions. Further, the chapter Purushayita in the 2nd century text on love and eroticism, the Kama Sutra, recognises lesbians, or swarinis. Gay men are also frequently referred to in the Kama Sutra as klibas, in the chapter Auparishtaka. The sexual aspect of the Kama Sutra is only one portion, other aspects discuss how to attract partners and keep them, as well as how and when to commit adultery. The text was likely written by the philosopher Vatsyayana around the 2nd century, and references kama as one of the aforementioned aims of life, thus how sexual activity can also be a spiritual act (something Victorian colonists were not on board with). The Kama Sutra recognises homosexual marriage, classified under the gandharva or ‘celestial’ variety – “a union of love and cohabitation, without the need for parental approval”. This isn’t to say that queerness was the ‘mainstream’, but as Madhavi Menon has described, for thousands of years Indians lived with “indifference to difference … difference was not treated as unworthy of existence”. Clearly, queerness existed in both historic India and Hinduism, whether the RSS and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) admit it or not.
Many Hindu epics and ancient texts themselves are dotted with queer characters. Varuna and Mitra, two male deities, are depicted as a homosexual couple in the Rig Veda, and are always shown side by side, representing the two half-moons – according to the Bhagavata Purana, the couple had children. The Krittivasi Ramayan, a 15th century Bengali telling of the Ramayana, states that King Bhagirathi was born of two queens, the wives of his late ‘father’, who made love to each other. Further, there is mention of lesbian Rakshasas in the Ramayana, the story that the BJP MP, Mahesh Sharma, was referring to when he stated that: “I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong” – a position many Hindu nationalists take. The clear acknowledgment of same-sex relationships in ancient Indian tradition and literature, coupled with the alleged historicity of these texts, evidently contradicts the view that queerness has never been recognised or accepted in Indian society.
What happened then? Why do the self-appointed guardians of Indian (explicitly Hindu) culture completely disregard India’s queer history?
The custodians of so-called Indian tradition have in fact been favouring British law. As previously stated, the British were shocked to see people dressed in ways that didn’t match their alleged ‘predetermined biological code’. The Victorian colonial mindset found ‘morbid passion between members of the same sex’ to be ‘unnatural’ and imposed severe laws punishing it. Colonisers tend to have no issue, and in fact believe it to be their duty, to impose their ‘superior morality’ on the ‘inferiors’ they ruled. The Criminal Tribes Act (1871) criminalised hijras, while the Hindu and Muslim personal laws essentially told people what they could or couldn’t do sexually. Section 377 of the IPC, with penalties as high as a life sentence, was drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1839 and enacted by the British Government in 1861. The laws imposed by the British acted in concert within the caste system, which the British were able to exploit, through which their puritanical beliefs became ascendant within a hierarchical structure.
This Victorian moral code has persevered into modern India, with Hindu nationalists claiming that defending these conservative attitudes is preserving traditional Indian values. However, prejudice against queerness is an ugly colonial relic, which has been internalised through a system of education in which Indians were filled with revulsion for their own traditions. Indian author Gurcharan Das has stated, “tragically, the colonial brainwashing was so deep that this un-Indian imposition [Section 377] remained on our statute books for 71 years after the colonisers had left”.
India has a long queer history which was undeniably severely impacted by colonialism. Any claims that homosexuality has never been part of Indian tradition are, quite simply, factually inaccurate.
By Nicole Brown