The issue of homosexuality is now-a-days a much debated topic associated with much hated, fear, prejudice, disgust and violation of civil rights. Hindus living in the west cannot remain indifferent to and unaffected by the gay controversy and the political and civil rights issues which arise. So the question arises what is the position of Sanatana Dharma on the issue of homosexuality? It is important in this multicultural environment in which the Hindu youth are now growing up to make a clear statement about what Hinduism teaches regarding the subject of homosexuality. Throughout the centuries Hinduism has been the most tolerant religious system and its teachings have a perennial youth and relevance to all ages and situations.
History of Homosexuality in the West
Homosexuality is defined as a sexual orientation towards members of one’s own gender rather than the opposite — it can refer both to men and women. Homo comes from the Greek meaning ‘the same’. “Homosexual” is a term that was coined in the late nineteenth century by German psychologists who considered it a mental illness.
Homosexuality in the Bible
Firstly the attitude towards homosexuality in Western culture derives from the Biblical teaching on the subject. The Bible claims that homosexuality is chosen sexual behaviour which is unnatural, sinful, amoral, and abhorrent to God.
“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
The punishment for homosexuality is death:—
If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death — their blood guilt is upon them (Leviticus 20:13).
According to the New Testament there is no salvation for those who engage in homosexual acts:—
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders. (1 Corinthians 6:9)
N.B. It is important for Hindus to take note that along with homosexuals they too are denied salvation for worshipping idols!
Although ancient Greek and Roman philosophers recognised and categorised same-sex love, the concept in literature and sociology of “homosexuality” as a distinct social phenomena arose in the 19th century — the term “homosexuality” was coined by European psychiatrists for a phenomena which was classified as a mental “disorder”.
“Gayness’ as a distinctive sexual orientation and social identity is a product of the 20th century — and being a modern western distinction it is difficult to apply the same concept to Hindu religious and social ideology and experience and to write a comparative study.
In most western codes of civil law based upon the Bible, there have been very severe sentences handed out to homosexual offenders. Many offenders 200 years ago were transported for life to Australia! Until recently a culprit could receive 2 to 3 years in jail. Most civilised western countries have now removed homosexuality from their penal codes. Throughout the history of Judeo-Christianity the lot of the homosexual has been persecution, ostracism, execution by stoning, imprisonment, torture and murder.
Modern views on Homosexuality
The first psychiatrists beginning with Freud in the west considered homosexuality to be a form of mental illness. Various forms of treatment were prescribed – mainly aversion therapy in which pictures of young men were shown to the “patient” while at the same time administering mild electric shocks. The effect that this ‘treatment’ had rather than convert the ‘patient’ to heterosexuality was to turn them off sex altogether. About 30 years ago homosexuality was removed from the list of pyschiatric diseases. In the 20th century those who are of a homosexual orientation have become a political entity demanding equal civil rights and freedom from oppression and discrimination along with women, blacks, Jews and all other oppressed minorities in the west.
Sexuality is a very complex issue with many theories but very little verifiable evidence. It has been demonstrated by research that everyone is found somewhere along a bell-curve. To one side there are the resolute heterosexuals and on the other side the resolute homosexuals. The vast majority of men and women are found somewhere along the bell curve in the grey area. When deprived of female company some men will engage in homosexual acts, while others will not. Women are more likely to experiment with homosexuality than are men. One thing is clear we are born with innate tendencies towards
The Hindu view-point
The first problem that arises in dealing with the subject of homosexuality in Hinduism is defining the right terminology and the context. The Sanskrit literature uses terms such as kliba, ubhaya, napumsaka, or shanda — to describe what is frequently referred to as the “Third Gender” (Trtiya prakrti). These terms may be taken as referring in general to hetero-sexually dysfunctional men or women, who may be, according to the context, impotent, homosexual or transvestite or even having abnormal genitalia.
A.L. Basham, a well-renowned Indologist remarks
The erotic life of ancient India was generally heterosexual. Homo-sexualism (sic) of both sexes was not wholly unknown; it is condemned briefly in the law books, and the Kama Sutra treats of it, but cursorily, and with little enthusiasm. Literature ignores it. In this respect ancient India was far healthier than most other ancient cultures.
Hinduism is first of all a pragmatic religion which understands everything as being conditioned by time, place and circumstance. In the absence of any one single religious authority or universally agreed upon canon law, a practicing Hindu generally relies upon the teaching of his/her own family preceptor (guru, purohit) or a convocation of learned scholars and priests for guidance in these matters. Thus there is no single accepted religious ruling on any issue whatsoever, nor is any conclusion reached by one group of pandits always acceptable to another. Everything has to be judged according to it’s context — time, place and circumstance.
The three major contextual frameworks in orthoprax Medieval Hinduism are:
- Social Divisions — every society being divided into classes or “castes” — the moral codes, duties and expectations of each social group differ from each other and sometimes are contradictory. These social divisions are no longer relevant in a post-industrial society and do not provide any meaning to the majority of Hindus today.
- Stage of life — the ideal life is divided into four periods — the student, the householder, the retiree and the renunciate. Again not currently relevant to the modern Hindu.
- Goals of life — Dharma (right living, ethical life), Artha (prosperity, wealth, power), Kama (sex, sensual gratification, art, etc.,) Moksha (liberation; principally from the cycle of births and deaths).
When discussing matters of “sexuality” in Hinduism all these 12 perspectives need to be taken into consideration. As in most societies, heterosexuality is regarded in Hinduism as the general norm and desirable orientation because Hindu society is overwhelming “progeny” centred and a fruitful marriage is seen as the ultimate goal and paradigmatic state of happiness. But it must be emphasised that the ultimate tension in Hindu society is not between heterosexuality and homosexuality, it is between sexuality and celibacy; typified by the householder state verses the monastic theme.
The major concern of the Hindu family legislators is procreation of numerous offspring sponsored by a well-structured extended family system. Any form of non-procreative sex heterosexual or homosexual was seen as a deviance from this theme and discouraged.
The Hindu teachers and social legislators also recognised the fact that people are born with different proclivities, tendencies and tastes due to their Karma — the resultant conditioning of actions done in previous lives. One’s sexual orientation, it was recognised, is not a matter of choice but of such previous life conditioning.
The Self which is enveloped by ignorance, is sometimes embodied as a man, sometimes as a
woman, sometimes as a homosexual (ubhaya). According to its deeds and the nature one
acquires thereby, one may be born as a god, a human or a beast.
Whatever the sexual orientation of the child whether it be male, female or homosexual
(napumsaka) it is born in the ninth or the tenth month.
Garuda Purana. 2.32.29
Thus although deviation from the normative heterosexual theme of marriage and procreation was not generally approved of, it was nevertheless tolerated as a social phenomena because it is part of Nature (Prakrti). Hindus do not have a theory of “Natural Law” — such as that invoked by right-wing Christians to condemn homosexuality. If a certain behaviour pattern exists then it is “natural” — that is, part of the way things are in the Hindu universe. The Hindu universe is in general a tripartite structure — heaven, earth and the mid-regions; past, present and future; action, inertia and equilibrium; and sexuality is seen as being a triangle of (normative) male & female and (non-normative) neuter or the “third sex” being the 3rd corner of the triangle. This view is advocated particularly by the texts of Ayurveda — the ancient Hindu system of health care, in its sections dealing with embryonic development and sex.
Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling have demonstrated in their studies of the medical, texts as well as the grammatical texts such as Patanjali’s Grammar of the 2nd century CE, that the concept of a third sex (tritiya prakrti) with all the ambiguous sub-categories of the “neuter” such as napumsaka, kliba, pandaka — “has been part of the Indian world view for nearly 3000 years.”
Jain teachers in the medieval period debated as to whether women could attain salvation or not . In their debates they argued that there were three categories of sexual desire — male, female and third-sex desire — the last was considered to be the most intense. All these forms of sexual desire could be experienced by anyone regardless of biological gender. The Jain philosopher Sakatayana (ca 814 — 867) pointed out that a person is capable of being aroused sexually by the opposite sex, same sex or even an animal.
Homosexuality in the Vedas
The Vedas are the source Scriptures of Hinduism and are considered to be timeless and not composed by any author (not even by God Himself!). Dating by modern scholars of these ancient Sanskrit texts range from 4000 BCE to 1000 BCE. Whatever be the case for the literary antiquity of these texts it is more important to consider their meaning and function in the Hindu world view.
A rishi performing oral sex on a princely visitor — temple sculpture
The Vedas are considered to be the source of, and infallible authority regarding knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman) and in all matters pertaining to Right Ethical Living (Dharma).
But the Vedas deal with Dharma in its pure abstract form — the function of the latter sages and law-givers was to interpret this usage of Dharma in the context of society and social dynamics of the time.
Homosexuality is not mentioned per se in the Vedas but there are some interesting references to homo-eroticism. One is from the Kaushitaki Brahmana Upanishad 2:4 of the Rig Veda:—
“Now then the intense longing of love stimulated by the gods. When one (m) desires to be loved (priya) by a man or a woman or by men and women, he shall offer to the above mentioned gods oblations in the sacred fire”.
This is followed by the description of the ceremony to be performed. Another casual reference is from the Shatapatha Brahmana (2:4:4: 19): in which Mitra — the god of the day is said to implant his seed in Varuna the god of the night on the New Moon day.
Homo-eroticism in Sacred Literature
The Sacred literature is replete with references to love and “erotic” sentiments between members of the same gender, and between the predominantly male poets and God. God is declared to be the only real “male” and all others take on the form of “females”. In the 17th century the Vaishnava sahajiya sect interpreted kama or desire as male and prema or selfless love as female, all the male devotees therefore identified themselves with Radha the consort of Krishna. They dressed and lived as women in order to perfect their love for Krishna.
Nammallvar a famous mystic poet saint of South India sang many of his 1000 devotional songs in the persona of a young woman pining for her lover — Lord Krishna. The songs are replete with erotic sentiment and during the great temple festival every year, an icon of Nammalvar is dressed as a woman and brought into the sanctum to be ritually united with her lover the Lord. Many other mystics such as Surdas and Kabir use the trope of bridal mysticism freely in their works. In the poems the male mystics typically use feminine verbs for themselves and address the male God as husband or lover or paramour. They identify as brides waiting for the bridegroom, as Radha waiting patiently for Krishna, a tryst which is never kept, and which results in intense love-sickness on the part of the poet.
Homosexuality in the Canon Law & Supplementary literature
Hindu sacred literature is classified according to the aims of human life. In the context of this essay we are concerned only with the three worldly aims — Dharma or right living, Artha – governance, power and prosperity, and Kama – Love and the fulfilment of desires.
In the Dharma Shastra or codes of Right Living, some legislators are rather harsh in their condemnation of same-sex intercourse, others are dismissive and many completely indifferent — not even mentioning the practice.
The Manu Smrti which is the basis of almost all of the Hindu codes of law (Dharma) lays down the rule that a man of the three upper castes who has sex with a man, or a woman in a cart pulled by a bullock, in water, or during the day should bathe with his clothes on (Manu 11:175). He also prescribes that a man who ejaculates into female animals, in men, a menstruating women, in something other than a vagina should atone by consuming a drop of a purifying substance made of the five products of the cow and fasting for one night (Manu 11 :174).
Interestingly enough in all the medieval literature (Puranas) in which hell is described in great detail, for what we would consider to be trivial offences such as eating sweets alone or breeding dogs — there is no mention of hell being the punishment for those who engage in same-sex intercourse. Homosexuality it seems, may be a social problem from a “genetic transferral” point of view but is certainly not a spiritual or moral problem per se in the eyes of the preceptors.
The law restricted all “non-reproductive” members of society from inheriting and from participating in certain ceremonies which were required to be commissioned by husband and wife as the principle hosts (yajamanas). (A householder was seen as “complete” only in the presence of a wife). Nevertheless the “non-reproductive” members of society were entitled, along with the other “disabled” to life-long maintenance and support.
The mentally challenged and the homosexuals [the non-reproductive], do not inherit but must be supported (laws of inheritance). (Gautama CCVIII:43)
Homosexuals [the non-reproductive], and the disabled are entitled to clothing and food so long as they live, but they are not entitled to inherit property. (Mahanirvana Tantra 12:104).
Homosexuality in the Secular Law
The Artha Shastra of Kautilya represents the principle text of secular law and illustrates the attitude of the judiciary towards sexual matters. Heterosexual vaginal sex is proposed as the norm by this text and legal issues arising from deviation there from are punishable by fines and in extreme cases by capital punishment. For example rape of a pre-pubescent girl is punishable by the amputation of a hand or a fine of 400 panas (±$4000). If the girl dies as a consequence the offender is executed. (4:12:1-2). On the other hand any non-vaginal sex with either women and men incurs the lowest fine. (4;13;236) This indicates that while homosexual acts were not sanction by law they were treated as minor offences.
Homosexuality in the Kama Sutra
The famous Kama Sutra was a text considered as supplementary to the sacred law which deals in great detail with eroticism, sex and its various manifestations. It was written around the 4th century AD and describes customs and social conditions prevalent from about the 4th century BCE. It inspired many of the erotic sculptures found on temple facades. In this text lesbianism is described in detail, as well as the swapping of male female roles with the female being the dominant one and using accessories to penetrate the male. From the text we discover that male homosexuality formed an integral part of Indian sexual life and various homosexual practices are described in detail.
We also learn that transvestite prostitutes as well as courtesans played an important role in public life and were considered harbingers of good fortune at weddings and religious ceremonies — a belief which is also prevalent in present day India. In his introduction the author sage Vatsyayana discusses categories of sexual partners in a quite non-judgmental way concludes the discussion with:—
“To these must be added the third nature (tritiya prakrti), the inverts or the homosexuals who have particular practices and constitute a fifth category of sexual partners.” 1:27
Chapter 9 of the Kama Sutra is dedicated to oral sex in general with the major part dealing with this particular activity between men. Interestingly enough Vatsyayana also mentions that some people “marry” (parigraha) members of their own sex and live together either openly or in secret.
The Tantric tradition and Homosexuality
Within Hinduism there are two principle paths to achieve liberation from the cycle of births and deaths and be re-united in the Divine from whence all beings have emerged. One is the exoteric path of the householder following social rules and regulations in accordance with the sacred canon law, and the other is the esoteric path of the monastic or renunciate who has rejected all of society’s arrangements and has retired to a monastery to spend the rest of the time on earth in contemplation of the Divine. There is a third path known as Tantra which reconciles these two extremes. It is known as the Path of ecstasy because it incorporates all aspects of the human nature and harnesses of one’s drives to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The principle axiom in Tantra is that every aspect of being can be useful in spiritual practice — including sexuality — as long as no one is harmed thereby. The overriding principle of Hinduism is that any act which intentionally causes suffering to another is sin. So in Tantra one is free to use one’s sexuality in a spiritual context as long no one is hurt thereby.
Under the influence of Tantra erotic sculpture began to proliferate on temple walls – mostly heterosexual with all aspects of sexuality being included. Friezes often depict homosexual as well as bestial acts involving both men and women as well as group sex and a stunning variety of positions.
The Tantra posits the idea that God is androgynous and that one who is in touch with both the male and female sides of their being are closer to the divine than others who are polarised in their sexual orientation. Although Tantra is overwhelmingly heterosexual in its methodology; the homosexual is by no means excluded, condemned or marginalised. Those practitioners of Tantra who are of the homosexual persuasion need to fill in the gaps themselves!
Modern Indian Puritanism
It is quite stupefying that in a country which produced the Kama Sutra and assimilated ecstasy into mystical experience there should be a strong puritanical bias in a world which is becoming more liberal by the day. This puritanism of modern India, mostly restricted to the managerial class, is largely a product of Islamic and Anglo-Saxon prejudice.
Unfortunately most Hindus who are educated in India passed through a Christian orientated educational system which inculcates Anglo-Saxon-Victorian values.
Whilst being profoundly lapse in the study of their own faith it is very easy to overlay the inculcated values over a shallow Hindu socio-cultural awareness. Hence we find highly educated Indian managers denying that homosexuality exists in India and that it is a foreign vice!
The Indian penal code promulgated by Nehrus’s socialist government first enacted article 377 punishing “sexual relations against nature with a man, woman or animal, whether the intercourse is anal or oral.” There is a move afoot to have it removed but the struggle still goes on and there have been and are prosecutions under this act.
The Summary of Homosexuality & Hinduism
When discussing contraversial issues in Hinduism one needs to take into account a number of factors. There are those acts which are crimes and there are those acts which are categorised as sins. There are crimes which are not sins and sins which are not crimes. Crimes are acts which are contrary to establishes Law (usually civil) and sins are religious offences which are usually never crimes. In the west there is a separation between religion and law. In ancient India there was no such distinction.
Sin in Hinduism
Christians declare homosexuality to be a sin, an act hateful in the eyes of their god. There are some modern Hindu commentators who, mimicking their christian mentors, concur with them! But the term “sin” is very differently understood in the true Hindu context. There are a large number of terms which indicate different ideas. But are all translated by the English term sin.
Papa – an act which causes demerit being defined as causing suffering to another being.
Vipatti – failure to fulfil some duty
Klesha – defilement
Aparadha – a ritual or protocol offence against either the deity, guru or other devotees.
Dosha – a character fault
Pataka – an act causing loss of caste
Dushkrta – misconduct
Agha – misdeed
Amhas — blame
Agas — heedlessness
Drugdha – transgression
Abhidroha – an act based upon hatred
Enas – contamination, physical or mental
Anrita – untruth – an act against the laws of nature
Durita – a ritual offence against the gods
Droha — an act of maliciousness against the gods Before an act can be declared a Sin one needs to ask the following questions:—
1. Is it a crime – in other words an act contrary to the Law?
2. Is there a victim — has any suffering been intentional caused to another being?
3. Has the actor done anything which would compromise their social status (i.e, “ results in loss of caste”)?
4. Has the actor compromised their ritual purity.
In consensual adult sex between members of the general Hindu community the answer to all of these would be no!
Problems of Homosexuality
The problems posed by homosexuality in the Dharma Shastras (Sacred Law) are not based on moral judgements but rather legal complexities with reference to offspring and inheritance of ancestral property.
Homosexuals, along with the impotent, the childless and unmarried sons & daughters are excluded by the Sacred Law from inheriting the paternal property. Preference goes instead to the married siblings who have sons. The reasonable need for family units in ancient India was to retain the property within the family and to have it passed down to the descendants. If a homosexual inherited, it means that on his/her death the property would pass to some other family or be acquired by the government.
The second problem presented is liturgical. The essential pre-requisite for participation in many rituals is marriage. Manu states that a man on his own is not whole — he only become so, when united with a woman and children. Unmarried men and women in general may not participate in certain ceremonies regardless of their being homosexual or heterosexual. Apart from these two cases, homosexuals have never been discriminated against nor victimised in Hindu society.
Hindu mothers have wept over the homosexual son or daughter — not because they were sinners and morally perverse, but because of the denial of grand-children that is regarded as so important in Hindu society. Hinduism has been the exemplar of tolerance throughout the ages, let us hope that our youth will continue this sacred and rewarding tradition. Let us pray that they will proudly carry the beacon of compassion for all sentient beings and tolerance for all people and their varieties of life-styles into the future generations.
We hope that every Hindu will become a role model to others for social and religious tolerance and communal understanding. Let no person be denied his/her right to find happiness and contentment in whatever way they see fit.
A Srivaishnava Perspective
Being a non-dogmatic and non-institutional faith community, there can be no official Hindu dogma or position on the subject of homosexuality or “gay marriage’.
Firstly to judge whether something is morally wrong or right we need to establish that there was free-will and ability to choose in the matter. The Hindu Scriptures declare that homosexuality is an orientation which is karmically predisposed and not a matter of choice.
The Self (jiva) which is enveloped by ignorance, is sometimes embodied as a male, sometimes as a female, sometimes as a homosexual (ubhaya). According to its deeds and the nature one acquires thereby, one may be born as a god, a human or a beast. (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.29.29.)
Whatever the sexual orientation of the child whether it be male, female or homosexual (napumsaka) it is born in the ninth or the tenth month. (Garuda Purana. 2.32.29)
In fact one need not refer to scripture for support when every homosexual will testify that they had no choice in the matter!
“Against the natural order” argument also does not stand because if we use animals as the “natural” yardstick then every aspect of human life is against the natural order – from clothing to housing to food etc. Regarding Homsosexuality in the animal world please read the article in Time Magazine Friday, Jun. 19, 2009 “Why Some Animals (and People) Are Gay By JOHN CLOUD.
Secondly the Acharyas and Alvars have mentioned everything conducive to our spiritual life including obstacles thereto, but no where have any of them discussed homosexuality per se, it is therefore a matter of no consequence whatsoever. If they had considered that it was a problem they would have mentioned it.
Hinduism is concerned with Liberation — liberation from suffering here and now and avoidance of rebirth.
If one desires the highest goal which is communion with me (Krishna); one should develop a focused mind, subdue the senses and strive to perfect non-attachment.
However, if this regime is practiced without devotion to Me despite having knowledge, by either, men, women or homosexuals it will not yield rewards. (Varaha Purana 142.50)
What is required for Liberation and communion with Krishna is primarily Prapatti — surrendering oneself to the Lord — a continual practice which will eventually lead to subduing the sense and developing non-attachment to material pleasures.
One of the greatest of the Srivaishnava Acharyas — Pillai Lokacharya was of the view that all forms of sensuality and self-enjoyment are incompatible with our essential nature which is to find our delight in and be a source of pleasure to Krishna alone. According to this view any form of sexuality whatever it may be is, equally an obstacle!
But in an imperfect world and in this imperfect human incarnation, we should at least try and maintain the highest Dharmic standards in all our relationships with whomsoever they may be.
Let us finally consider only the magnanimity, compassion and highmindedness of our teacher Ramanuja, who can never be accused of puritanism or prudishness! On a pillar of a mandapa in which he used to teach in Srirangam there is a carving of a woman being pleasured by a dog! He and thousands of other Srivaishnavas and acharyas would have seen this carving and never mentioned it in anyway. Surely if he, or subsequent acharyas had found it offensive they would have ordered its effacement? The fact that it was ignored by every one of them and has existed for thousands of years can surely lead one to conclude that they all had a very healthy sense of humor!
Following their example we should abandon judgment of others and rather practice loving kindness and compassion to all beings.
– First published on http://history-of-hinduism.blogspot.in