Monday, February 27, 2006

Homosexuality in India

Approximately 13.5 million men in India are supposed to be homosexual. Now I could be entirely off on this number as I am not entirely sure how accurate my source is. But its an intelligent estimate nonetheless. Additionally, I'm not sure if thats a large or small number.

I'm always amazed when journalists question individuals on TV about gay activism, (and these are usually college youth mind you, much like me) and they state categorically that they have lots of friends who are gay and are very much comfortable with their homosexuality. Then immediately, as if to clear any confusion, they emphasize that they themselves are straight, but that they are cool being around homosexuals.

Hmm....I've been in Mumbai for about 15 years, before shipping myself off to a sparsely populated town in freezing upstate NY, and I have never had a gay friend. Well, one, and he too came out of the close after joining a fraternity in his second year. Now, it could be because I'm not as gregarious as I thought I was, but it always struck me as strange that all of those guys on TV knew so many gay people and I didn't know a single one. It wasn't that I felt left out or anything...don't misunderstand me, it was just a phenomenon I didn't understand since very few of those 13.5 million people have come out of their closets because its obviously not very easy being gay in India.

Despite having been raised in a fairly liberal environment, surrounded by highly educated individuals, I still felt claustrophobic, not being able to freely talk and discuss rather sensitive topics. I can't even relate to what it must feel like actually being gay in a society that condemns homosexuality and decrees homosexual acts as illegal. To have to hide something as cardinal as ones own sexual orientation is a frightening thought but to subdue it, force oneself to marry one from the opposite gender and procreate is unfathomable. Yet it is what often happens.

The threat of social ostracization would be sufficient to keep anyone locked up in his or her closet, pretend to lead a normal life and die guilty with that secret. And now add to that the possible continous harrasment both through extortion and physical humiliation by anyone who stumbled across this secret and the threat of imprisonment by the police under Section 377 of the IPC. Now in India the rich can still buy themselves safety, but what about the rest ? They are driven underground.

But ignoring all of that, at a far more basic level, I want to know why homosexuality is so taboo in India ?

In the land of the kamasutra one would imagine that sex and consequently sexual orientation would be a rather mundane topic rather than a highly controversial one. Why do hindu activists burn posters of Fire which is based on lesbianism ? Is homosexuality an alien phenomenon to us Indians ? Is it so distant from our culture that it is shunned as the topic which must not be talked about ?

The kamasutra, an instruction manual on the art of love, as ancient as it is internationally famous, has a section on male homosexual intimacy. It also concedes that female homosexual acts do occur but does not condone them. The manusmriti also discusses female homosexuality in great detail and severely chastises it. But then again manu thought of women fairly lowly, as an asset for man, like land and cattle and also preached the caste system. Also in Yashodara's Jayamangala (as stated in Wikipedia) there are descriptions of same sex marriages. Though these marriages are not religious they are societally accepted. In addition, texts such as the "narada smriti" forbade homosexuals from marrying women, quite in contrast to what occurs in modern times. (This link also provides an insight on the issue)

The only claim I am making is that homosexuality existed as is documented by these texts.

Additionally, there exists evidence that apart from males and females a third gender existed in those times, and homosexuals must have formed a fairly large part of it. Even the upanishads and the puranas refer to this third gender.

What about all of the gods and their constantly changing genders. Even Krishna, Brahma and Vishnu among numerous others have done so.

Khajuraho was built by thousands of artisans at a time when temples like it were being built all over, for close to a century. Kings and wealthy merchants were among the patrons of these religious institutions. Yet the walls depict exquisite carvings of wild orgies, among all - men, women, gods and animals. The fact that such a beautiful temple was built adorned by these sculptures is proof of the liberal culture that existed at the time.

So despite homosexuality being an indisputable part of our culture why do we refuse to accept it? Why do we let puritanical british laws still restrict us? Why do hindu organizations protest homosexuality as being anti-hindu, when it is evident that hinduism itself is perhaps the only religion that in no way condemns it?

I have no answers to these questions and would appreciate any enlightenment.

Personally, I can only say that it is a crime to stifle something as innocent and beautiful as love regardless of gender. Homosexuality exists and with time a lot more individuals will muster the courage to openly embrace their sexuality. Section 377 needs to be amended to allow consenting gay couples to be rid of the fear of harrasment.

India's beauty and strength lies in its pluralism, in ethnicity, religion, language, culture and I believe also in sexual orientation.


At Mon Mar 06, 07:04:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger Tugga said...

I have a question that relate sto the often brought up question of Khajuraho and the paintaings depicted therein. If 1000 years from now, if I were to watch Eyes Wide shut, would I be correct in making a conclusion that "wild orgies" were a reality of day-to-day life in the early 2000s? The only conclusion I might make is that such practice did exist, to a lesser or greater extent. Can I necessarily conclude that it was a practice necssarily condoned by society in general? Or, if you were to find pornographic material, say, a 1000 years from now, would you actually believe "the princess and the stable boy" story?
So, the point I make is this; while I'm no prude and have absolutely no issues about open display of erotic and titillating images, it is naive to justify it as having the approval of our ancient culture.

At Mon Mar 06, 11:41:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger Mumbai Monsoon said...

I never intended to state or be interpreted as having stated that homosexuality was approved by society as a whole back then. Actually, I doubt it. Though a thorough examination of the texts might reveal that society was more accepting, its hard to make any definitive conclusions. But homosexuality did exist in India. And that is a fact that cannot be disputed and that is my only contention; That homosexuality is not a new phenomenon to Indian culture.

But still don't you find it curious that I am not talking about a few surviving pages of a rare manuscript or some temple that was hidden away, but one that was prominent, pivotal, and that has always been thronged by devotees for centuries.

I mean, if I, a 1000 years later, were to find a city with billboards that advertised pornographic websites and adult theaters built in busy market areas, then it wouldn't be terribly wrong to assume that, perhaps in its society, pornography was indeed accepted. I don't think comparing such a prominent temple to a rare Kubrick movie is quite an accurate comparison.


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