Homosexuality and the Hindu society

As a Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice TS Thakur agreed to hear the curative petition filed by gay rights activists and NGO Naz Foundation against the very apex court’s December 11, 2013 judgment upholding validity of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and the January 2014 order, by which it had dismissed a bunch of review petitions, the homosexuality debate is back again. As ‘intellectuals’ of all sorts are rooting for repealing the controversial section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, it is imperative upon us to first understand what homosexuality is, and how differently has Hindu society viewed and treated it, before forming any views on homosexuality and also commenting on the section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

Homosexuality:

Homosexuality (from Ancient Greek ὁμός, meaning “same”, and Latin sexus, meaning “sex”) is romantic attraction, sexual attraction or sexual behavior between members of the same sex or gender. Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics, while gender refers to behaviors, roles, expectations, and activities in society. Sex refers to male or female, while gender refers to masculine or feminine. The differences in the sexes do not vary throughout the world, but differences in gender do. In sociological terms ‘gender role’ refers to the characteristics and behaviours that different cultures attribute to the sexes. What it means to be a ‘real man’ in any culture requires male sex plus what our various cultures define as masculine characteristics and behaviours, likewise a ‘real woman’ needs female sex and feminine characteristics.

Transgender:

Throughout history, the trans gendered person has existed and it wasn’t until Abrahamic religions began to exert their “understanding” on the non-believers that people began to shun them, as it is basic human nature to shun what is not understood, and this often turns to fear of the unknown i.e. xenophobia. There was no definable cause for the trans-gendered person, so this fear was natural even though misplaced. While trans-gendered individuals are now often lumped in with gay folk under the “LGBT” umbrella (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender), there are certain differences in experience that are important to understand. Historically the G&L community was accepting of trans folk, and over the years became more inclusive of them, but there are important differences. Trans-gendered individuals (and I’m speaking of mostly, but not exclusively transsexuals here) experience gender dysphoria, whereas gays and lesbians do not.

It is, at this juncture, crucial to understand that the trans-gendered community is different from homosexuals and they face a whole lot of problems which homosexuals seldom do. Also a trans-gendered person need not necessarily be homosexual as well.

 

Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture.

 

Homosexuality, Hinduism, and the third gender:

Ancient Hindu scriptures have much to say about homosexuality, both explicitly and as part of a broader third-gender category that includes all types of people described as impotent with the opposite sex. Despite recent attitudes of taboo and the criminalization of homosexuality in India, traditional Hinduism was demonstrably far more understanding and liberal in its approach.

Scriptural terms:

Several Hindu scriptures explicitly describe people with a homosexual nature.  Among these, three stand out—the Narada-smriti (a first-century B.C. text of religious codes attributed to the sage Narada), the Sushruta Samhita (a 600 B.C. medical text compiled by the sage Sushruta) and the Kama Sutra (a third-century A.D. text on the art of lovemaking by the sage Vatsyayana).  In its list of fourteen different types of panda (men who are impotent with women), the Narada-smriti includes the mukhebhaga (who has oral sex with other men), the sevyaka (who is sexually enjoyed by other men) and the irshyaka (the voyeur who watches other men engaging in sex).  All three types are declared “incurable” and forbidden to marry women. [1]

The Sushruta Samhita similarly lists five types of men who are impotent with women and known as kliba: the asekya (who swallows the semen of other men), the saugandhika (who smells the genitals or pheromones of other men), the kumbhika (who takes the passive role in anal sex), the irshyaka (the above-mentioned voyeur) and the shandha (who has the qualities and behavior of a woman).  Sushruta states that the first four types of kliba have semen and male characteristics whereas the fifth (shandha) is completely devoid of these.  Furthermore, all of the first four become aroused only by “sucking the genitals and drinking the semen of other men.” [2]

In its discussion of oral sex between men, the Kama Sutra uses the term tritiyaprakriti (third sex or nature) to define men with homosexual desire and describes their practices in great detail.  It divides such men into two types: those with a feminine appearance and demeanor, and those having a manly appearance with beards, mustaches, muscular builds, etc. [3] The Jayamangala (a twelfth-century A.D. commentary on the Kama Sutra) equates the term tritiyaprakriti to napumsa (impotent)[4] and the Caraka Samhita (a 200 B.C. medical text compiled by the sage Caraka) lists eight types of napumsa, one of which is the samskaravahi (who is aroused according to previous life impressions). [5]  Cakrapani Datta, an important eleventh-century A.D. commentator on the Caraka Samhita, equates the samskaravahi to the homosexual kliba described by Sushruta. [6]

The Kama Sutra furthermore describes the svairini (independent woman) who engages in aggressive lovemaking with other women. [7] Lesbians and women who are either masculine or impotent with men for a variety of reasons are mentioned in the Hindu scriptures under terms such as nastriyastripumsashandhi, etc.  Similarly, bisexuals (kami or paksha), transgender (shandha) and intersex types (nisargavakritrnaputrika, etc.) are all mentioned and described in the voluminous Hindu scriptures of India. [8]

Hinduism honours the two primary genders—potent males (pums) and fertile females (stri)—but also acknowledges a third, less common sex (tritiya-prakriti or napumsa) considered to be a natural combination of the male and female natures resulting in impotence.  Many verses throughout the Hindu canon affirm that the sex of the living entity is determined at the time of conception.  They state that if the male sexual fluids (sukra) predominate at the moment of conception the child will be male, and if the female sexual fluids (sonita) predominate the child will be female.  If both are equal, either male and female twins or a child of the third sex will be the result. [9]

Both the Sushruta and Caraka Samhitas confirm this fact and the former text goes even further.  Sushruta describes how the homosexual asekya is conceived when the father’s semen is scanty and the transgender shandha is conceived when the father and mother reverse roles during intercourse (purushayita or “woman on top”).  Several similar examples are cited for the other types of kliba. [10]  Both texts assert that all three natures—male, female, and third sex—are determined at the time of conception and develop in uterus up until the end of the second month of pregnancy.  After that time the basic sexual nature or prakriti of the living entity cannot be changed. [11] For this reason, Narada declares the homosexual mukhebhaga and others to be “incurable.”

#LGBT community in a Hindu Society:

With this basic understanding in mind, ancient Hindu or Vedic culture did not punish or attempt to correct homosexuals of the third sex but rather accepted their nature as it was and incorporated them into society accordingly. Hindu texts such as the Kama Sutra,Mahabharata, Artha-sastra, etc. mention third-gender men working as domestic servants, go-between in the affairs of men and women, barbers, masseurs, florists and prostitutes. [12] The Kama Sutra also mentions homosexual marriages based on “great attachment and complete faith in one another.”[13] Transgenders are described as especially talented in the feminine arts of music playing and dancing, [14] and lesbians are mentioned as skilled vaisyas (businesswomen), armed military guards, domestic servants and courtesans. [15] Third-gender citizens were renowned for their special talents and often served in the homes of wealthy landholders, generals and kings.

Another role held by homosexuals, transgenders and other third-gender people in traditional Hindu society was their special nonprocreative status and association with supernatural powers. Revered astrological and omen-reading texts such as the Brihat Jatakaand Brihat Samhita all mention planetary alignments at the time of conception that indicate a third-gender birth. Such births are associated with the three napumsa planets (Mercury, Saturn and Ketu) and indicate intelligence, mastery of the arts and sciences, detachment from family life, and clairvoyant abilities.[16] In Hinduism, people of the third gender are believed to hold special powers that allow them to bless or curse others, and this traditional belief can still be seen in India today. [17]

Several codes in the ancient Hindu law books protect homosexuals and other citizens of the third gender from abuse by the general public.  For instance, the Narada-smriti states that people of the third sex should never be fined [18] and the Artha-sastra enjoins that parents must provide basic necessities (food, clothing, etc.) to their third-gender offspring.  In cases when there are no relatives, the king is responsible for such provisions.  The Artha-sastra also declares it an offense to vilify or publicly mock any man or woman of the third gender (kliba) and punishes such offenses with various small fines. [19]

Homosexual behaviour among ordinary males and females:

While no law in the Hindu scriptures explicitly punishes homosexual behavior between men or women of the third gender (napumsa, kliba, etc), homosexuality among ordinary, twice-born males (pums) and young, unmarried females (kanya) is listed as a minor offense with various atonements prescribed. Homosexual behavior among twice-born (dvija or duly initiated) males is remedied by taking a ritual bath or paying a low fine; if the offense is not atoned for, loss of caste or twice-born status is the result. [20] The sexual violation of young, unmarried girls by other females is punished with even lower fines or, in some cases, corporal punishment. [21]

Homosexual behavior among the kliba, uninitiated males and adult females is not cited as a punishable offense in traditional Hinduism because apparently such acts were considered relatively harmless and discouraged only among the Brahminical class, which is held to higher standards of behavior. In Brahminical culture, viyoni and ayoni sex are explicitly forbidden. Viyoni refers to intercourse in an “improper vagina” (with a prostitute, lower-class woman, non-wife, animal, etc) and ayoni refers to non-vaginal sex (masturbation, using the mouth or anus, etc). Such acts are considered in the mode of passion, or passion mixed with ignorance, and Brahmans are expected to cultivate the higher mode of goodness (having sexual intercourse only according to religious principles, within marriage, for procreation, etc). [22]

Devotional Scriptures:

The bhakti or devotional scriptures include the most popular and well-known Hindu texts such as Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Sri Isopanisad, Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. While these texts do not explicitly address homosexuality, their important teachings are equally applicable to all classes of men. The third gender appears briefly throughout these texts but is never explicitly defined or described in much detail. [27]

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s well-known stint as the crossdressing transgender, Brihannala, serves as a particularly notable example of the acceptance of third-gender people in ancient Hindu or Vedic society. Brihannala’s traditional role as a skilled teacher of the fine arts and her acceptance by Maharaja Virata into his kingdom are all truly exemplary. [28] In the same light, Lord Krishna stresses throughout Srimad Bhagavad Gita that everyone should work for God according to their respective nature (svadharma), even if performed imperfectly. “To follow another’s path or to artificially suppress one’s nature,” He says, “is dangerous and ill advised.” [29] Srimad Bhagavad Gita also teaches that a person’s character is determined by individual behavior, not body-type, and that all kinds of men can attain the supreme destination. It affirms that God does not hate anyone and that spiritually advanced persons view all living entities equally, treating everyone with friendship and kindness. [30]

The bhakti scriptures furthermore emphasize qualities such as truthfulness, honesty, revealing one’s mind in confidence, compassion, inclusiveness, and so on. Sri Isopanisad, one of the most ancient bhakti texts, declares: “those who see the Supreme Lord within everything never hate anything nor any being,” [31] while the Jaiva Dharma, a more recent text compiled by Vaishnava visionary Bhaktivinoda Thakura, stresses that a Vaishnava “does not adhere blindly to the rules and prohibitions of the scriptures but follows them only when they are favorable to his practice of hari-bhajana (worship of God). If they are unfavorable, he immediately rejects them.” [32] In this way, homosexuals and other third-gender people are not excluded from devotional culture but encouraged to embrace it in ways practical for them. [33]

 

To conclude, there shall not be an iota of doubt vis-à-vis acceptability of the LGBT community in a Hindu society. Not only the #LGBT community is accepted by the Hindu society and Hindu scriptures as they are, but also their rights are safeguarded. In essence, Hinduism and hence the Hindu society grants much more than mere de-criminalization of homosexuality or dignity to the #LGBT community as the Hindu society rather accepts them as its normal members…

References:

[1] Narada-smriti 12.15: “These four—irshyaka, sevyaka, vataretas, and mukhebhaga—are to be completely rejected as unqualified for marriage, even by a wife who is no longer a virgin.” Vataretas refers to men with no discharge of semen.

[2] See Sushruta Samhita 3.2.38-45 in the chapter entitled “The Purification of the Male and Female Reproductive Fluids.”

[3] Kama Sutra 2.9.2: “Those with a feminine appearance show it by their dress, speech, laughter, behavior, gentleness, lack of courage, silliness, patience, and modesty.” Kama Sutra 2.9.6: “Those who like men but dissimulate the fact maintain a manly appearance and earn their living as barbers and masseurs.”

[4] “The third sex is also termed napumsaka.” (The Complete Kama Sutra by Alain Danielou; Jayamangala commentary by Yashodhara, p. 183)

[5] See Caraka Samhita 4.2.17-21 in the chapter entitled “Embryological Development.”

[6] See Caraka Samhita by P.V. Sharma, Volume III, Critical Notes, p. 358.

[7] See Kama Sutra 2.8, in the chapter entitled “Virile Behavior in Women.”

[8] For a complete list of 48 terms for the various types of third-gender men and women, along with their sources in Sanskrit texts, see Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, pp. 39-58.

[9] To cite one example, Manusmriti (Manu Samhita) 3.49 states: “A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child (napumsa) or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results.” See also Sushruta Samhita 3.3.4.

[10] Sushruta Samhita 3.2.38: “If the parents have exceedingly little generative fluids, their male offspring will be an asekya who will undoubtedly become aroused only by swallowing a man’s semen.” Sushruta Samhita 3.2.42-43: “If, due to illusion, a man engages with his wife during her fertile period as if he were a woman, then a shandha will be born who behaves like a woman. Conversely, if the woman engages in sex like a man during her fertile period, then, should a girl be born, that girl will behave like a man.”

[11] See Caraka Samhita 4.4.10 and 4.8.19.

[12] See Kama Sutra 2.9; Mahabharata (Virata Parva), and Artha-sastra 1.21.1, 1.20.21 and 1.12.21.

[13] Kama Sutra 2.9.36: “There are also third-sex citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married together.”

[14] See Mahabharata (Virata Parva).

[15] The various professions of lesbians are especially mentioned in the Kama Sutra.

[16] For numerous astrological references on the third gender, see Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, pp. 103-123. Two examples fromBrihat Parasara Hora Sastra: “If Venus occupies the seventh house and is in a sign or navamsa (one ninth of a sign) ruled by Saturn or occupied by that planet in any way, the native will ‘kiss’ the private parts of other men.” (18.13) “When a woman’s ascendant is Taurus or Libra, her rising navamsa Capricorn or Aquarius, and the planets Venus and Saturn aspect each other or occupy one another’s navamsa, the woman will be of great passion and satisfy herself through other females acting as men.” (80.50-51)

[17] This belief is well known in India and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada cites an interesting example wherein “eunuchs” bless the baby Nimai, an incarnation of Radha and Krsna, over 500 years ago in Mayapura, West Bengal. See Outline of Lord Caitanya Play, Part One, Tape no. 67-002 and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.13.106, purport.

[18] Narada-smriti 15.15.

[19] Artha-sastra 3.5.32 and 3.18.4-5)

[20] Manusmriti 11.68 and 11.175; Artha-sastra 4.13.40.

[21] Manusmriti 8.370 and Artha-sastra 4.12.20-21.

[22] The Apastambha (1.26.7), Gautama (25.7), Baudhayana (3.7.1-7; 4.1.19; 4.2.13), and Vasistha Dharmasutras all admonish snatakas (purified brahmanas) who engage in viyoni or ayoni sex and variously prescribe a ritual bath, fasting, or reciting prayers as atonement. The Narada-smriti (12.75) and Yajnavalkya-smriti (293) both offer low fines as alternatives to such atonements.

[23] In a purport to Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.4.29, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami states: “One should know for certain that nothing can exist in this cosmic manifestation that has no real counterpart in the spiritual field. All material manifestations are emanations of the Transcendence. The erotic principles of amorous love reflected in mixed material values are perverted reflections of the reality of spirit, but one cannot understand the reality unless one is sufficiently educated in the spiritual science.”

[24] The Shatapatha Brahmana (2.4.4.19) states: “Mitra and Varuna, on the other hand, are the two half-moons: the waxing one is Varuna and the waning one is Mitra. During the new-moon night these two meet and when they are thus together they are pleased with a cake offering. Verily, all are pleased and all is obtained by any person knowing this. On that same night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed.”

[25] All these pastimes and more can be found in Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, in the chapter entitled “Hindu Deities and the Third Sex.”

[26] In the Mahabharata (Sauptika Parva, XII), Lord Krsna states: “I have no dearer friend on earth than Arjuna, and there is nothing that I cannot give to him including my wives and children.” In the Drona Parva of the same text, Krsna reiterates: “O Daruka, I shall not be able to cast my eyes, even for a single moment, on the earth bereft of Arjuna…Know that Arjuna is half my body.”

[27] To cite one typical example from the Bhagavata Purana: “Any cruel person—whether male [pums], female [stri] or third sex [kliba]—who is only interested in his personal maintenance and has no compassion for other living entities may be killed by the king.” (4.17.26)

[28] See Mahabharata (Virata Parva).

[29] Bhagavad Gita 3.33, 35; 18.45-48.

[30] See the 16th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita entitled “The Divine and Demoniac Natures.” See also Bhagavad Gita 9.32, 9.29, 5.18, 11.55 and 12.13-14 respectively.

[31] Sri Isopanisad, verse 6.

[32] Jaiva Dharma, Chapter 3 entitled “Naimittika-Dharma Is To Be Relinquished,” p. 54.

[33] The Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.9.29 states: “Not considering who asked for it and who did not, nor who was fit and who unfit to receive it, Caitanya Mahaprabhu distributed the fruit of devotional service.” See also Bhagavad Gita 12.9-12.

 

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