The third largest religion in the world – after Christianity and Islam – Hinduism accounts for roughly 14% of the global population, with approximately 2 million Hindus living in the United States. Among its most familiar texts are the Bhagavad Gita, though the Vedas are considered the authoritative guiding text by which one’s life is shaped. Dating to 6,000 BCE, the Vedas constitute the oldest scripture in the world.
In Hindu belief, deities can take many forms, but all combine in the universal spirit of Brahman. Unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which focus on the actions of a single lifetime, Hindu belief centers on a continuous process of birth and rebirth that ultimately releases the true self from the limitations of body and the ego – a freeing of the spirit called moksha. That process includes a release from sensual experiences, including sexuality. Hindu sacred texts, however, do not distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual acts. While Hindu sacred texts do not specifically use those terms (heterosexual and homosexual), they do distinguish between procreative sexual acts (within marriage) and non-procreative sexual acts such as oral, etc. The latter are explicitly discouraged not for the common man but for brahmanas and priests.
Because there is no central Hindu authority, attitudes to LGBTQ issues vary at different temples and ashrams. The Hindu American Foundation, in its policy brief on Hindus and Homosexuality, notes that Hinduism does not provide a fundamental spiritual reason to reject or ostracize LGBTQ individuals, and that, “Given their inherent spiritual equality, Hindus should not socially ostracize LGBT individuals, but should accept them as fellow sojourners on the path to moksha.”
The Vedas refer to a "third sex," roughly defined as people for whom sex is not procreative, either through impotence or a lack of desire for the opposite sex. Members of the third sex are not ostracized, however, and are sometimes recognized for having divine powers or insights. The Kama Sutra, a Hindu text detailing the pleasures of sexuality, states that same-sex experience is "to be engaged in and enjoyed for its own sake as one of the arts."
Nevertheless, some Hindu communities continue to be unwelcoming of LGBTQ people, often reflecting attitudes imported from conquering nations, such as the British Empire in India.
The Gay & Lesbian Vaishnava Association (GALVA) highlights, in its report Homosexuality, Hinduism and the Third Gender, the gender fluidity of Hindu deities, and notes that “everything in this world is a reflection of the original subtle and spiritual reality.” The epic Mahabharata features the transgender character Sikhandin, and depicts the warrior Arjuna cross-dressing to become Brihannala, teacher of fine arts. GALVA further notes, “Vedic culture allowed transgender people of the third sex, known as hijras, to live openly according to their gender identity.” As stated above, contemporary attitudes will vary across different Hindu organizations and society.
According to the Dharma Shastras, marriage has distinct functions, including Prajaa, or procreation. Some, therefore, view same-sex marriage has unacceptable. However, it’s also clear that the Dharma Shastras are guides – not binding texts – and that there are multiple ways to define or interpret the idea of Prajaa. Today, marriage equality enjoys support among Hindu Americans and same-sex Hindu marriage ceremonies are celebrated in the United States by some Hindu priests.
There is no formal policy on anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
Rules for ordination vary but usually require years of study, knowledge of Sanskrit and a commitment to purity. Celibate men and women can be ordained as Hindu priests.
Council of Hindu Temples of North America
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