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Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, and Hindus constitute a sixth of the world’s population today. Most Hindus live in India but there are about 1.5 million Hindus, both Indians and non-Indians, in the United States. As a result, homosexuality is a complex matter in Hinduism and depends heavily on cultural context and tradition.

Hinduism and Sexuality

“Same sex desire and even sexual activity have been represented and discussed in Indian literature for two millennia, often in a nonjudgmental and even celebratory manner,” according to Hindu scholar Ruth Vanita. For example, the erotic sculptures on ancient Hindu temples at Khajuraho and Konarak, and the sacred texts in Sanskrit constitute irrefutable evidence that a whole range of sexual behavior was known to ancient Hindus. The tradition of representing same-sex desire in literature and art continued in medieval Hinduism.

When Europeans arrived in India, they were shocked by Hinduism, which they termed idolatrous, and by the range of sexual practices, including same-sex relations, which they labeled licentious. British colonial rulers incorporated their homophobic prejudices – largely attributed to certain Christian teachings – into Indian education, law and politics.  As a result, homosexuality was made illegal in 1861, when British rulers codified a law prohibiting carnal or lustful intercourse “against the order of nature” with any man, woman, or animal – in other words, any sex that is not between a man and a woman with the aim of reproduction is outlawed. Thus, the marginal homophobic trend in pre-colonial India became dominant in modern India. Some Indian nationalists, including Hindus, internalized Victorian ideals of heterosexual monogamy and disowned indigenous traditions that contravened those ideals. Homosexuality remained a criminal offense in India until 2009 when New Delhi’s highest court deemed this colonial era law unconstitutional.

Homosexuality and Hindu Law

Ancient Hindu law books, from the first century onward, categorize non-vaginal sex (ayoni) as impure. But penances prescribed for same-sex acts are very light compared to penances for some types of heterosexual misconduct, such as adultery and rape.

For example, one Hindu text, the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy, imposes a minor fine on a man who has ayoni sex. Modern commentators sometimes misread another text, the Manusmriti, the authoritative words of Brahma, interpreting its severe punishment of a woman’s manual penetration of a female virgin as suggesting that the text is anti-lesbian. In fact, however, the punishment is exactly the same for either a man or a woman who engages in this act, and it is related not to the partners’ genders but to the loss of virginity and marriageable status. The Manusmriti does not suggest punishing a woman who penetrates a female who is not a virgin, and the Arthashastra prescribes a negligible fine for this act.

The sacred Hindu epics and the Puranas, a compendia of devotional stories, contradict the law books. They depict gods, sages and heroes springing from ayoni sex. Ayoni sex never became a major topic of debate, nor was it categorized as an unspeakable crime.

There is no evidence of anyone in India ever having been executed for same-sex relations.

Sex and Gender

Hindu scriptures contain many surprising examples of diversity in both sex and gender. Many of the deities are androgynous and some even change gender in order to participate in homoerotic behavior. For instance, medieval texts narrate how the god Ayyappa was born of intercourse between the gods Shiva and Vishnu when the latter temporarily took a female form. A number of 14th-century texts in Sanskrit and Bengali (including the Krittivasa Ramayana, a devotional text still extremely popular today) narrate how hero-king Bhagiratha, who brought the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth, was miraculously born to and raised by two co-widows, who made love together with divine blessing. These texts explain that his name Bhagiratha comes from the word bhaga (vulva), because he was born of two vulvas.

Another sacred text, the fourth-century Kamasutra, emphasizes pleasure as the aim of intercourse. It categorizes men who desire other men as a “third nature.” The text goes on to subdivide such men into masculine and feminine types and describes their lives and typical occupations (including flower sellers, masseurs and hairdressers). The Kamasutra also includes a detailed description of oral sex between men and refers to long-term unions between male partners.

Hindu medical texts dating from the first century also provide taxonomies of gender and sexual variations, including same-sex desire.

Hijras: The Third Gender

Described as neither male nor female, but rather as a third-gender, hijras are traditionally depicted as a powerful force within Hinduism. Although no census data exists, it is estimated that over 2 million hijras reside in India. With a recorded history of more than 4,000 years, the power of the hijras as sexually ambiguous individuals can only be understood through the use of Hindu mythology.

In Hindu mythology, ritual, and art, the power of androgyny or sexual ambiguity is a frequent and significant theme. Bahuchara Mata, the main object of hijra veneration, is a version of the Mother Goddess, for whose sake they undergo emasculation. In return for their emasculation the Goddess gives them the power to bless people with fertility, granting them an important religious role in births and marriages. The ceremonies that hijras perform are called badhai as a reference to the gifts of cash and goods they receives as payment of these occasions. However, hijras are also thought to have the power to curse a family’s fertility, explaining why they are often treated with a combination of mockery, fear and stigma forcing many to live in ostracized, poorer urban districts.

Though there are many similarities in gender variant experiences and identities between the hirja and MTF transgender communities, they are in fact separate and distinct.  Unfortunately for both, due to the social stigma, the both communities have limited means of survival often restricted to performing badhai, begging, and sex work.

Until 2009 the hijra and the transgender community had few rights and were not recognized by Indian law. The Indian government, as of 2099, allows MTF transgender people to get identity cards stating their true gender as well as allows transgender people to receive sexual re-assignment surgery free of cost at government hospitals. In addition, the Election Commission of India added the option of using “other” on the voter ballet. Previously, the ballots forced transgender people and hijras to select either “male” or “female.”

Modern Trends and Views 

There are now many Indian LGBT groups in the United States and in India, most of whose members are Hindu.

Some right-wing Hindu groups, active both in India and in the United States, have expressed virulent opposition to homosexuality. However, several modern Hindu teachers emphasize that all desire, homosexual or heterosexual, is the same, and that aspirants must work through and transcend desire. For example:

  • Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, has been a fact for thousands of years, and that it becomes a problem only because humans focus too much on sex.
  • When asked about homosexuality, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the international Art of Living movement, said, “Every individual has both male and female in them. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes other; it is all fluid.”
  • Mathematician Shakuntala Devi, in her 1977 book The World of Homosexuals, interviewed Srinivasa Raghavachariar, head priest of the Srirangam temple. Raghavachariar said that same-sex partners must have been cross-sex partners in a former life. The sex may change, he said, but the soul retains its attachments; hence love impels them toward one another.
  • When, in 2002, Hindu scholar Ruth Vanita interviewed a Shaiva priest who had performed the marriage ceremony for two women, the priest said that having studied Hindu scriptures, he had concluded, “Marriage is a union of spirits. And the spirit is not male or female.”
  • As Amara Dasa, founder of Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava  Association, noted in Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, several Gaudiya Vaishnava  authorities emphasize that since everyone passes through various forms, genders and species in a series of lives, people should not judge each other by the material body but should view everyone equally on a spiritual plane and be compassionate, as God is.

Still, there is little discussion of this issue in most Hindu religious communities. Consequently, some teachers and lay followers retain their anti-gay beliefs. As a result, many LGBT Hindus have left their religious communities.

Indian newspapers, however, have reported several same-sex weddings and same-sex joint suicides over the last 25 years. These incidents have primarily involved female Hindu couples living in small towns and unconnected to any LGBT rights movement. Several weddings have taken place by Hindu rites, some with family support. The suicides often resulted from families forcibly separating same-sex partners. In Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West, Ruth Vanita analyzes these phenomena.

The millennia-long debate in Hindu society over homosexuality, which was somewhat suppressed in the colonial period, is again becoming active. In 2004, Hinduism Today reporter Rajiv Malik asked several Hindu swamis (teachers) to describe their feelings about same-sex marriage. The swamis expressed a range of opinions, positive and negative. They felt free to differ with each other — evidence of the liveliness of the debate, made possible by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As one swami, Mahant Ram Puri, remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism. We have 100 million authorities.”

Legal progress for LGBT individuals continues to be made in India. In 2009 New Delhi’s highest court decriminalized the colonial era law prohibiting homosexual activity. Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice S. Muralidhar declared:

“The old law violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees all people ‘equality before the law;’ Article 15, which prohibits discrimination ‘on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth;’ and Article 21, which guarantees ‘protection of life and personal liberty.”

However, the decision to decriminalize homosexuality applies only in the territory of India’s capital city.  This case is expected to continue at a national level forcing India’s government either to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, or change the law nationwide.