Homosexuality: Some Reflections from India

Article excerpt

Human sexuality has never been a part of public discourse in India. In the traditional joint-family system, prevailing patterns of behaviour, especially sexual behaviour, followed a rigid code reinforced by customs, symbols and communal rituals. Because homosexuality was never spoken of in this situation, it is difficult to find much written documentation on the issue of homosexuality in India. Even today few radical groups struggling for social justice in India concern themselves with discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.

Indian churches have generally speaking refused even to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals. Misconceptions and prejudices abound about any behaviour that is out of the ordinary. Homosexuality is condemned as "deviant" and as an act of sin. But over the past half-century science and technology, new economic patterns, the growing influence of the media and the diminishing influence of religion have brought about vast changes in people's mores, beliefs and life-styles. A once-rigid code of conduct is being subjected to critical scrutiny. A candid, often radical reappraisal of the traditional value system and behaviour patterns is going on at least in certain circles in India. The discussion of homosexuality should be placed in this context of change.

The new life-styles are bewildering in their diversity. In an era dominated by technology, media, mobility, anomie and loss of moral absolutism, many people, particularly in urban areas, feel that traditional attitudes towards homosexuality should be altered. Contemporary Indian society urgently needs to come to terms, in its thinking and legislation, with academic research which paves the way for greater understanding of homosexuality. Such research and study are still far too scarce in India.

The present article is based on an individual study conducted by one of the authors, Ajit K. Abraham. It is by no means to be taken as a representative view of the Indian church or community at large. Rather, it is presented as an indication of the scope of this issue and a plea for a dispassionate judgment on it. But before reporting on the study as such, we need to look briefly at the historical record, including evidences of homosexual practice in some of the traditional religious literature.

Historical and religious traditions

Homosexual behaviour occurs in every culture, even in those where it is most heavily denied. In ancient Indian literature, homosexuality has been documented in various treatises by different authors. Hindu legends abound with references to homosexuality; and archaeologists have found prehistoric cave drawings depicting homosexual acts. According to the Hindu sage Vatsayana, author of the renowned treatise on love, the Kamasutra, homosexual practice is allowed by the holy writ (Dharmasutras) with just a few exceptions. Indeed, the Kamasutra devotes an entire chapter to Auparistaka -- homosexual intercourse. The reference in the Ramayana to Sri Rama as purusamohana Rupaya -- so handsome as to be pleasing even to men -- indirectly suggests that homosexuality would have been considered, at least in certain quarters, a legitimate behaviour. In the popular tradition of Hinduism, sexual prowess is considered helpful in unleashing spiritual energy to attain liberation. Both Siva and Krishna are said to have engaged in homosexual activities.

Although these practices are referred to in the traditional Hindu literature and religious mythology, the general attitude towards homosexuality has tended to be disapproval. As editor of the journal Young India, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in 1929 about the "unnatural vice" in boys' school.

Male homosexuality in Muslim culture existed during the Mughal period in India. Under the Muslim rulers homosexuality entered court life. In Islamic Sufi literature homosexual eroticism was used as a metaphorical expression of the spiritual relationship between God and man, and much Persian poetry and fiction used homosexual relationships as examples of moral love. …