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ON GAY SEX, INDIA HAS ASSUMED AN ANCIENT POSITION. READ THE KAMA SUTRA

The overturning of a British-era law criminalising gay sex is not India modernising – it is returning to the liberal stance shown throughout its mythology and history

BY SHASHI THAROOR

15 SEP 2018 / UPDATED ON 20 SEP 2018
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India this month overturned a British-era law criminalising gay sex in a landmark judgment by the country’s Supreme Court, triggering a debate on a colonial relic the rest of Asia still finds difficult to shake off. But one of the curious sidelights of the judgment legalising homosexuality is that it cited modern constitutional principles to ratify conduct that ancient Indians had accepted more readily than modern ones.

The Indian ethos towards sexual difference has historically been liberal and eclectic, with neither mythology nor history revealing the persecution or prosecution of sexual heterodoxy. In fact, the Hindu epics are dotted with characters like Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, who was born female and became male; many Hindus venerate the half-man, half-woman Ardhanarishvara; and temple sculptures across India depict homosexual acts. Yet India’s political class – including its ruling Hindu nationalist party, which portrays itself as the custodian of traditional Indian values – has been favouring the British law (which the British themselves had outgrown), finally leaving it to the judiciary to set it right.

Indian LGBTI activists celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalise gay sex. Photo: Reuters
Indian LGBTI activists celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalise gay sex. Photo: Reuters

It has become quite clear that homosexuality was acceptable in pre-colonial India, that colonialism changed it, and that it’s time to change it back. While each Asian culture has its own traditions, Hinduism, the dominant cultural tradition in India, with its myths and gods, is astonishingly open-minded in accepting the sexual realities and ambiguities of the human species. This is clear from images on temple walls, sacred narratives and ancient scriptural texts.

Temples openly depicted erotica, since sensual pleasure (kama) was seen by Hindus as one of the purusharthas, the four vital expressions of human life, along with dharma (righteous conduct), artha (the pursuit of material success and wealth) and moksha (ultimate salvation). The purpose of human life is to pursue all four goals with the same commitment and to lead an existence that harmoniously integrates all four.

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The sculptures and carvings on the walls of the 12th-century Khajuraho temple in central India explicitly depict couplings that employ every conceivable sexual position, whether heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Lesbians are shown in flagrante, but then they were recognised as swarinis in the 2nd-century text on love and eroticism, the Kama Sutra, which even recognises homosexual marriage as “a union of love and cohabitation, without the need for parental approval”.

Indian revellers at the 'Kitty Su' nightclub in New Delhi celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay sex. Photo: AFP
Indian revellers at the 'Kitty Su' nightclub in New Delhi celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay sex. Photo: AFP

Indian legends cheerfully portray sexually ambiguous individuals and relationships. The mythological Bhagirathi was born of two queens who made love to each other when his father, the king, died. Varuna and Mitra were two gods depicted as a “same-sex couple” in ancient Indian scripture, always shown side-by-side. The religious text Shatapatha Brahmana mentions them as personifications of two half-moons implanting their seed in each other as the moon waxes and wanes.

Indeed, homosexual sex is mentioned without embarrassment: homosexuals and the “third gender” were widely accepted identities. In the Valmiki Ramayana, female Rakshasis are mentioned who kiss women lying on the demon-king Ravana’s bed, on whose lips still linger the taste of their master.

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The popular scholar of Indian classical literature, Devdutt Pattanaik, has written of how Indian lore is full of tales where men turn into women and women into men. Several Puranas (sacred Sanskrit writings) tell tales of Lord Vishnu who, for various reasons, becomes a woman, Mohini, and seduces sages and demons whom the gods wish to defeat.

Even personifications of the planets embrace alternative notions of sexuality: thus, in his Navagraha Kriti set of songs, the great 19th-century Carnatic music composer Muthuswami Dikshitar describes Budh (the planet Mercury) as Napumsakam, or one who is not quite male or female, since, as the love child of his adulterous mother, Tara, goddess of the stars, he was cursed by her husband, Jupiter, to be neuter.

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, India’s only openly gay prince. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation
Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, India’s only openly gay prince. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation

All this (and more) offer ample evidence that homosexual activities existed and were acknowledged in ancient India. They were accepted in the Dharmashastras, the ancient texts, as an inescapable feature of society, but that does not necessarily imply approval of homosexual conduct.

The Kama Sutra mentions homosexuals but with disdain. The ancient lawbook Manusmriti prescribes stringent punishments for male and female homosexuals. But there are very few stories of such punishments actually being carried out; their existence was intended to discourage overt homosexual practice but not to persecute it, let alone to stamp it out, since it was part of human reality.

The same was true of transsexuals. India has long recognised as a feature of its society the transgender people known as hijra s, who consider themselves neither male nor female.

Hijras have been organised for centuries into formal communities of males who see themselves as – and express themselves socially as – female, dress in women’s clothes, and are attracted to men.

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Incongruously enough, they are often seen dancing at weddings, in exchange for generous rewards.

But all this elicited imperial disapproval. The heyday of colonialism coincided with the peak of the repressive Victorian era, when hypocrisy about sex was at its peak – even piano legs had to be covered because they were, well, legs! Colonial powers, breathtakingly self-assured about the superiority of their ways, disrespected (indeed often condemned) the cultural values of the people they conquered, particularly when it related to sexual activity, and had no hesitation about imposing their “superior morality” on the “inferiors” they ruled.

Victorian Britain found “morbid sexual passion between members of the same sex” to be “unnatural” and imposed severe colonial laws punishing it. Inevitably such laws came to be seen as “right” and previous indulgent attitudes “wrong” in the very societies upon which they were imposed.

Colonial laws not only exercised a powerful influence on subjugated people, but set the standard to which colonial subjects were expected to adhere to receive the approval of the imperial authorities. As a result, these colonial attitudes were internalised by the victims. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised “unnatural” sex, was drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1839 and enacted by the British Government in 1861. Though the British left in 1947, it took India another seven decades to get rid of the prohibition. As columnist Gurcharan Das put it: “Tragically, the colonial brainwashing was so deep that this un-Indian imposition remained on our statute books for 71 years after the colonisers had left.”

Members of the LGBT community celebrate the striking down of a colonial-era law that made homosexual acts punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Photo: AP
Members of the LGBT community celebrate the striking down of a colonial-era law that made homosexual acts punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Photo: AP

Das points out that “India’s is the only civilisation to have elevated kama, or desire and pleasure, to a goal of life …. Dharma [reflects] our duty to others but … kama is a duty to ourselves. The extreme pleasure of sex is recompense for the loneliness of the human condition.” Ancient texts grapple with the nature and power of desire, some acknowledging it as the essence of life – the source of action, creation and procreation – while others like the Bhagavad Gita commend the pursuit of right action without desire for reward or personal pleasure.

India’s ancient Hindu civilisation was predicated on the idea not just of tolerance but of acceptance of difference. This is what made it both appropriate and paradoxical that the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377, written by Chief Justice Misra, cites the words “I am what I am. So, take me as I am.” (Appropriate since this is the foundational Hindu idea; paradoxical because the words are the German writer Johann Goethe’s, not an ancient Hindu philosopher’s). ■

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Writer and opposition leader Shashi Tharoor tried to amend the laws against homosexuality but failed to garner the support of fellow lawmakers. Tharoor is the author of, most recently, Why I am a Hindu

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