Did homosexuality exist in ancient India? The answer in many respects depends on what we mean by homosexuality. Do we limit ourselves only to sexual acts between members of the same sex and leave out romantic affection? Do we distinguish between those men who occasionally have sex with other men but otherwise live heterosexual lives, and those for whom their sexual preference forms the core of their identity? Do we consider same-sex intercourse that occurs in the course of a subterfuge, or as a result of frustration or desperation? And do we include liaisons involving those who consider themselves neither male nor female (for example, hijras)? Definitions are important because ‘homosexuality’ does not connote the same thing to all people. Besides, the meaning has changed over time. As has the meaning of heterosexuality.
Until early 20th century, ‘heterosexuality’ was used to refer to ‘morbid sexual practices’ between men and women such as oral and anal intercourse, as opposed to ‘normal’ procreative sex. The term homosexuality – that is so casually used today and is almost an everyday vocabulary – came into being only in the late 19th century Europe when discussions on the varied expressions of sex and sexuality became acceptable in academic circles. The term was used to describe “morbid sexual passion between members of the same sex.” It was declared ‘unnatural’ by colonial laws, as unnatural as casual sex between men and women that was not aimed at conception.
The term homosexuality and the laws prohibiting ‘unnatural’ sex were imposed across the world through imperial might. Though they exerted a powerful influence on subsequent attitudes, they were neither universal nor timeless. They were – it must be kept in mind – products of minds that were deeply influenced by the ‘sex is sin’ stance of the Christian Bible. With typical colonial condescension, European definitions, laws, theories and attitudes totally disregarded how similar sexual activity was perceived in other cultures.
There never has been across geography or history a standard expression of, or a common attitude towards sexual acts between members of the same sex. Love of a man for a boy was institutionalised in ancient Greece, amongst Samurais in Japan, in certain African as well as Polynesian tribes. Amongst some Native and South American tribes, erotic relationships between men was acceptable so long as one of the partners was ‘feminine’. For Arabs, so medieval travellers claim, ‘women were for home and hearth, while boys were for pleasure’. These cultures offer no synonym for same-sex intercourse. It was perhaps a practice that did not merit definition, categorization or even condemnation. So long as it did not threaten the dominant heterosexual social construct.
To find out if homosexuality or same-sex intercourse existed in India, and in what form, we have to turn to three sources: images on temple walls, sacred narratives and ancient law books.
What the walls show
Construction of Hindu temples in stone began around the sixth century of the Common Era. Construction reached climax between the twelfth and the fourteenth century when the grand pagodas of eastern and southern India such as Puri and Tanjore came into being. On the walls and gateways of these magnificent structures we find a variety of images: gods, goddesses, demons, nymphs, sages, warriors, lovers, priests, monsters, dragons, plants and animals. Amongst scenes from epics and legends, one invariably finds erotic images including those that modern law deems unnatural and society considers obscene. Curiously enough, similar images also embellish prayer halls and cave temples of monastic orders such as Buddhism and Jainism built around the same time.
The range of erotic sculptures is wide: from dignified couples exchanging romantic glances, to wild orgies involving warriors, sages and courtesans. Occasionally one finds images depicting bestiality coupled with friezes of animals in intercourse. All rules are broken: elephants are shown copulating with tigers, monkeys molest women while men mate with asses. And once in a while, hidden in niches as in Khajuraho, one does find images of either women erotically embracing other women or men displaying their genitals to each other, the former being more common (suggesting a tilt in favour of the male voyeur).
These images cannot be simply dismissed as perverted fantasies of an artist or his patron considering the profound ritual importance given to these shrines. There have been many explanations offered for these images – ranging from the apologetic to the ridiculous. Some scholars hold a rather puritanical view that devotees are being exhorted to leave these sexual thoughts aside before entering the sanctum sanctorum. Others believe that hidden in these images is a sacred Tantric geometry; the aspirant can either be deluded by the sexuality of the images or enlightened by deciphering the geometrical patterns therein. One school of thought considers these images to representations of either occult rites or fertility ceremonies. Another suggests that these were products of degenerate minds obsessed with sex in a corrupt phase of Indian history. According to ancient treatises on architecture, a religious structure is incomplete unless its walls depicts something erotic, for sensual pleasures (kama) are as much an expression of life as are righteous conduct (dharma), economic endeavours (artha) and spiritual pursuits (moksha).
Interpretations and judgements aside, these images to tell us that the ‘idea’ of same-sex and what the colonial rulers termed ‘unnatural’ intercourse did exist in India. One can only speculate if the images represent the common or the exception.
What the stories suggest
In Indian epics and chronicles, there are occasional references to same-sex intercourse. For example, in the Valmiki Ramayana, Hanuman is said to have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing those women who have been kissed and embraced by Ravana. In the Padma Purana is the story of a king who dies before he can give his two queens the magic potion that will make them pregnant. Desperate to bear his child, the widows drink the potion, make love to each other (one behaving as a man, the other as a woman) and conceive a child. Unfortunately, as two women are involved in the rite of conception, the child is born without bones or brain (according to ancient belief, the mother gives the fetus flesh and blood, while the father gives the bone and brain). In these stories, the same-sex intercourse, born of frustration or desperation, is often a poor substitute of heterosexual sex.
More common are stories of women turning into men and men turning into women. In the Mahabharata, Drupada raises his daughter Shikhandini as a man and even gets ‘him’ a wife. When the wife discovers the truth on the wedding night, all hell breaks loose; her father threatens to destroy Drupada’s kingdom. The timely intervention of Yaksha saves the day: he lets Shikhandini use his manhood for a night and perform his husbandly duties. In the Skanda Purana, two Brahmins desperate for money disguise themselves as a newly married couple and try to dupe a pious queen in the hope of securing rich gifts. But such is the queen’s piety that the gods decide to prevent her from being made a fool; they turn the Brahmin dressed as a bride into a real woman. The two Brahmins thus end up marrying each other and all ends well. According to a folk narrative from Koovagam in Tamil Nadu, the Pandavas were told to sacrifice Arjuna’s son Aravan if they wished to win the war at Kurukshetra. Aravan refused to die a virgin. As no woman was willing to marry a man doomed to die in a day, Krishna’s help was sought. Krishna turned into a woman, married Aravan, spent a night with him and when he was finally beheaded, mourned for him like a widow. These stories allow women to have sex with women and men to have sex with men on heterosexual terms. One may interpret these tales as repressed homosexual fantasies of a culture.
Perhaps the most popular stories revolving around gender metamorphoses are those related to Mohini, the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu. They are found in many Puranas. Vishnu becomes a woman to trick demons and tempt sages. When the gods and demons churn the elixir of immortality out of the ocean of milk, Mohini distracts the demons with her beauty and ensures that only the gods sip the divine drink. In another story, Mohini tricks a demon with the power to incinerate any creature by his mere touch to place his hand on his own head. Mohini is so beautiful that when Shiva looks upon her he sheds semen out of which are born mighty heroes such as Hanuman (according to Shiva Purana) and Ayyappa (according to the Malayalee folk lore). One wonders why Vishnu himself transforms into a woman when he could have appointed a nymph or goddess to do the needful. However, devotees brush aside even the suggestion of a homosexual subtext; for them this sexual transformation is merely a necessary subterfuge to ensure cosmic stability. He who is enchanted by Mohini’s form remains trapped in the material world; he who realizes Mohini’s essence (Vishnu) attains liberation.
In the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Mohini tells Brahma, “Any man who refuses to satisfy a willing woman in her fertile period is a eunuch.” This idea is explicit in the Mahabharata when Arjuna is deprived of his manhood after he spurns the sexual attentions of the nymph Urvashi. Consequently, the mighty archer is forced to live as a ‘eunuch dance teacher’ called Brihanalla in the court of King Virata for a year. All this suggests that in ancient India, men who were ‘unlike men’, unwilling or incapable to have intercourse with women, were deprived of their manhood and expected to live as women in the fringes of mainstream society. Perhaps this explains the existence of the hijra community in India. Like Brihanalla of Mahabharata, hijras have served in the female quarters of royal households for centuries.
Hijras are organized communities comprises of males who express themselves socially as women. They are a mix of transsexuals (men who believe themselves to be women), transvestites (men who dress in women’s clothes), homosexual (men who are sexually and romantically attracted to men), hermaphrodites (men whose genitals are poorly defined due to genetic defect or hormonal imbalance) and eunuchs (castrated men). In one of the many folk stories associated with Bahucharaji (patron goddess of hijras worshipped in Gujarat), the goddess was once a princess who castrated her husband because he preferred going to forest and ‘behaving as a woman’ instead of coming to her bridal bed. In another story, the man who attempted to molest Bahucharaji was cursed with impotency. He was forgiven only after he gave up his masculinity, dressed as a woman and worshipped the goddess.
The idea of men who are not quite male or female was known in India for a long time. Such beings were known as kliba. In the Brahmana texts, written eight centuries before Christ we learn that when the gods separated the three worlds, there was sorrow. The gods cast the sorrow of the heaven into a whore (socially improper woman), the sorrow of the nether regions into the rogue (socially improper man) and the sorrow of earth into the kliba (biologically imperfect human). In later Hindu texts such as Manusmriti, the kliba was forbidden for participating in rituals; he was not allowed to possess property. Scholars believe the kliba was an umbrella term not unlike present-day words like namard and napunsak, which could mean anything from sexually dysfunctional male to impotent man to homosexual. One text describes fourteen different types of klibas, one of whom is a man who uses his mouth as a vagina (mukhabhaga). Hijras believe that they are neither male nor female, making them the descendents of the ancient kliba (though there is no definite proof in this regard). According to hijra folklore, when Rama went to the forest in exile, he asked the men and women of Ayodhya who had followed him to return to city. Since he said nothing to those who were neither male nor female, these waited outside the city until he returned. Touched by their devotion, Rama declared that the non-man would be king in the Kali Yuga.
What the scriptures reveal
The Kali Yuga marks the final phase in the cosmic lifespan, the era before the flood of doom. Hindu scriptures state that in this age all forms of sexual irregularities will occur. Men will deposit semen in apertures not meant for them (Mouth? Anus?). According to Narada Purana: “The great sinner who discharges semen in non-vagins, in those who are destitute of vulva, and uteruses of animals shall fall into the hell ‘reto-bhojana’ (where one has to subsist on semen). He then falls into ‘vasakupa’ (a deep and narrow well of fat). There he stays for seven divine years. That man has semen for his diet. He becomes the despicable man in the world when reborn.” Clearly an acknowledgement, but not acceptance, of homosexual conduct.
In the Kamasutra, there is a rather disdainful reference to male masseurs who indulge in oral sex (auparashtika). The author of this sex manual was not a fan of homosexual activities though he did refer to them in his book. Reference, but not approval, to homosexual conduct does occur in many Dharmashastras. These Hindu law books tell us what is considered by Brahmins to be acceptable and unacceptable social conduct. Since laws are not made on activities that don’t exist, a study of these scriptures does give an insight into behaviours in ancient India that merited a law.
The Manusmriti scorns female homosexuals. It states, “If a girl does it (has sex) to another girl, she should be fined two hundred (pennies), be made to pay double (the girl’s) bride-price, and receive ten whip (lashes). But if a (mature) woman does it to a girl, her head should be shaved immediately or two of her fingers should be cut off, and she should be made to ride on a donkey.” There are no kind words for a male homosexual either: “Causing an injury to a priest, smelling wine or things that are not to be smelled, crookedness, and sexual union with a man are traditionally said to cause loss of caste.” And: “If a man has shed his semen in non-human females, in a man, in a menstruating woman, in something other than a vagina, or in water, he should carry out the ‘Painful Heating’ vow.” Further: “If a twice-born man unites sexually with a man or a woman in a cart pulled by a cow, or in water, or by day, he should bathe with his clothes on.” The ‘Painful Heating’ vow is traditionally said to consist of cow’s urine, cow dung, milk, yogurt, melted butter, water infused with sacrificial grass, and a fast of one night. Compared to the treatment of female homosexuals, the treatment of male homosexuals is relatively mild. Note that there are no threats of ‘eternal’ damnation, unlike the dogmas of Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures. There is nothing permanent in the Hindu world. There is always another life, another chance.
An overview of temple imagery, sacred narratives and religious scriptures does suggest that homosexual activities – in some form – did exist in ancient India. Though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged but not approved. There was some degree of tolerance when the act expressed itself in heterosexual terms – when men ‘became women’ in their desire for other men, as the hijra legacy suggests. The question that remains now is: how does attitudes towards homosexuals in ancient India affect modern-day attitudes? Is our approval or disapproval of same-sex affection and intercourse dependent on ancient values? And while we ponder over the questions, we must remind ourselves that the ancient sources that censure homosexual conduct, also institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.
– Dr Devdutt Pattanaik