Homosexuality in Ancient India
Prof Bharat Gupt, a classicist and dharmashastra scholar held a talk at Delhi’s Habitat Centre on November 25 on “Hindu View of Homosexuality”. He examined the issue along with a fellow speaker and discussant Dr. Come Carpentier of France. He observed that talking about the Rights of the Homosexual/Gay individuals seems to be one of the major agendas of social reforms in India today. Many people think that ancient Hindu ideas were entirely compatible with the views of modern European and American notions.
Therefore, it was imperative that one goes to see the classical texts to collect evidence on the status and life of homoerotic individuals in ancient India. One hears all the time, he said, the usual sentiment that as Hinduism is a very tolerant culture, that it was totally open to homosexuality and that it was more modern than the moderns. Many people argue, like the scholars of the Hare Krishna order, that as Hinduism believes that every human being is part of Supreme Being Brahma, homosexuals cannot be considered as beings of lower category. They also think, with out any evidence, that in the Vedic age, homosexuals were fully integrated into social and monastic orders. Prof Gupt said that most of these sentiments are uninformed.
Talking about the textual evidence, Prof Gupt mentioned that the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, does define a third order of humans called the ‘tritiiyaa prakriti’ or third nature. This third nature persons are of two kinds, one of the female kind and the other of the male sort (“dvividhaa tritiityaaprkritih, striiruupinii purusharuupinii ca.” 2.9.1). Vatsyayana goes on to say that “she”, who behaves like a woman, is to be employed for oral sex (“tasyaa vadane jaganakarma tadauparisht. akamm aachakshate” 2.9.3). She was a paid sex-worker like a courtesan (“vaishyaavat charitam prakaashayet” 2.9.5) . For the male kind who has the desire for males but who cannot make his nature very evident, ‘he’ should take to the profession of massage-giver and thus coming into contact with males satisfy them through oral sex (2.9.6-10). In this context, the act of auparishtaka is described in detail in the Kamasutra.
The ancient Hindu society, as is evident here, did not consider the homosexuals as perverts or sinners. As the term, tritiiya-prakriti or third nature describes them, they are being themselves, they are being natural. This is the primary difference between the Christian and the Hindu attitude. Christianity did not accept the third nature and hence imposed a punishment on their activities.
For the Hindu social order the homoerotic were not expected to follow the heterosexual norms of behaviour. So they cannot be blamed for being what they are. And for this reason, accepting their nature, they were not excommunicated or purged from human societies. They had to be given a place in it and they were to be protected and prevented from harm by the State. The Arthashastra prescribes a fine for those who persecuted a homoerotic person (3.18.4) and it does not prohibits making of eunuchs even in the conquered population by a king by castrating captured males of the vanquished (13.5.13). Thus Hindu society accepted the third nature of persons who were born with it and did not want to replicate them for any purpose of social engineering. Prof Gupt said that Christians promoted homosexuals to practice religious castration and Muslims profusely castrated the vanquished populations to create classes of menial and warrior slaves. Dr. Come Carpentier pointed out that modern corporations want to promote homoeroticism as homosexuals bereft of the burden of families, are great consumerists and hence great customers.
While accepting the third nature persons, the ancient Hindus gave them a special place in the social order. They were designated to be part of the class of sex-workers and performers of music and dance. As till around the 10th century, prostitution was a legal profession, taxed and protected by the State and enshrined as duty of the king in the dharmashastra texts. The homoerotics, as part of the class of courtesans, musicians, dancers and performers, had the legal protection and their incomes and their sustenance ensured. This position was certainly not respectable and was disadvantaged, as it was of a lower category. In fact, it was out of the varna order or varnabaahya. But they also had the freedom/advantage of not having any obligations of adopting/ raising any children or performing the rituals for ancestor worship which was a major obligation for the varna Hindus. Difficult for us to imagine today, it was a free life in a major way.
Prof Gupt pointed out that ancient Hindu society envisaged marriage as primarily devoted to procreation and raising of able and educated individuals who would contribute to society by performing duties to living and the ancestors. While pleasure (rati) was one aspect of sexuality, dharma (obligations) and artha (commerce) and moksha (liberation) were the other three. As the kinnars were not capable of doing obligations they were made into a special class and given a jati or guild. It may also be pointed out that many homoerotics, impotents or sperm-count deficient persons continued to be part of usual varnas and jatis. Ways were found to provide them heirs, one method being niyoga.
Coming to the present day situation, Prof Gupt said that historical developments have jumbled up the ancient solution. The Islamic intervention in the medieval period altered the status and social acceptability of the homoerotic class. The performing arts of theatre and dance were now taboo in urban life and prostitution lost its legal and respectable status though still preserving itself as a repository of music and dance. However, homoerotics had a much greater employment in harems of Sultans and Rajas and a connection with espionage as of yore.
It is the British who delivered the stroke of grace for the homoerotics. The Biblical and Christian prejudice against sodomy turned the kinnars of India into criminals. It delegitimised the profession they had earlier and prevented them from taking to a new one. As Indians have been too slow to alter the Criminal Procedure Code, the section stating punishment for homoerotic contact has not been still eliminated from Indian Law. It should be soon done away with the traditional freedom restored. But the dismemberment of these people from social order created by the British cannot be restored so easily. It would take some serious research to find out what are they now tending towards as professions. At a cursory glance one may say they are to be found a lot in fashion and film industry.
Prof Gupt, then commented upon the contentious issue seizing the arena of debate, whether gay marriage should be legalised or not. He expressed his candid opinion that while gay cohabitation should not be illegal, persecuted or even frowned upon, giving the same rights to gay cohabiters as to the married heterosexuals couples is not advisable. Some difference between gay partnership and heterosexual marriage is necessary. He argued that children adopted by gays are very likely going to acquire a gay syndrome. This is going to be unhealthy for the institution of family which is already under many threats and is almost on the verge of extinction in Europe and America.
Dr. Come Carpentier made the most revealing suggestion that Western fascination with homoeroticism is based on consumerism. Under the garb of providing equality, the same right lobby is going to create greater instability, as gay marriages do not hold any particular assurances of stability. He agreed that adopted children of gays are very likely to be gay and thus we create unnatural gays. He pointed out that in Russia, President Putin has explicitly stated that the country is under a population decline and they need more children, which gay marriages are not going to provide. Dr.Carpentier said, that gays are asking for unrestricted cohabitation, then property inheritance and finally all the parity with non-gay marriage.
The talk was followed by a very animated and prolonged discussion. Many in the audience believed that there should be no discrimination and as increasing the population was no longer a necessity in the modern world, gay marriages are in no way detrimental to society while others felt it was not at all desirable.