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Homosexuality And The Indian

India has a tradition of benign neglect of alternate sexualities.

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In India, except for a few people belonging to the English-speaking elite in metropolitan centers, mostly in the higher echelons of advertising, fashion, design, fine and performing arts, men (and women) with same-sex-partners neither identify themselves as homosexuals nor admit their sexual preference, often even to themselves. Many men - some married - have had or continue to have sex with other men; but only a miniscule minority are willing to recognize themselves as homosexual.

 
The assertion that there are hardly any homosexuals in India and yet there is considerable same-sex-involvement seems contradictory, yet simple to reconcile. Sex between men, especially among friends or within the family during adolescence and youth, is not regarded as sex, but masti, an exciting, erotic playfulness, with overtones of the mast elephant in heat.

Outside male friendship, it is a way to satisfy an urgent bodily need or, for some, to make money. Sex, on the other hand, is the serious business of procreation within marriage. Almost all men who have sex with other men will get married even if many continue to have sex with men after marriage. Sexual relations with men are not a source of conflict as long as the person believes he is not a homosexual in the sense of having an exclusive preference for men and does not compromise his masculine identity by not marrying and hrefusing to produce children.

As a recent study (Asthana & Oostvogels) tells us, "Even effeminate men who have a strong desire for receiving penetrative sex are likely to consider their role as husbands and fathers to be more important in their self-identification than their homosexual behavior." 

The cultural ideology that strongly links sexual identity with the ability to marry and procreate does indeed lessen the conflict around homosexual behavior. Yet for many it also serves the function of masking their sexual orientation, of denying them the possibility of an essential aspect of self knowledge. Those with a genuine homosexual orientation subconsciously feel compelled to maintain an emotional distance in their homosexual encounters and thus struggle against the search for love and intimacy which, besides the press of sexual desire, motivated these encounters in the first place.

The "homosexual denial," as some might call it, is facilitated by Indian culture in many ways. A man's behavior has to be really flagrant, such as that of the cross-dressing hijras to excite interest or warrant comment. Some find elaborate cultural defenses to deny their homosexual orientation. The gay activist Ashok Row Kavi tells us about the dhurrati panthis, men who have sex with other men because the semen inside them makes them twice as manly and capable of really satisfying their wives. Then there are the komat panthis who like to give oral sex, but will not let themselves be touched. Some of these men are revered teachers, "gurus," in body building gymnasiums, who believe they will become exceptionally powerful by performing oral sex on younger men. Both will be horrified to be called homosexual. 

 In general, classical Hinduism is significantly silent on the subject of homoeroticism. In contrast to the modern notion of homosexuality, which is defined by a preference for a partner of the same sex, queerness in ancient India was determined by atypical sexual or gender behavior. Some of our contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality go back in time to ancient India, where it was the homosexual (but not homosexual activity) who evoked society's scorn. As in several other societies, such as in Middle East and Latin America, the active partner in a homoerotic encounter was not stigmatized as much as the passive partner. It was what you did, whether you were active or passive, and not with whom you did it (man or woman) that defined acceptability. The Kamasutra's man-about-town who uses the masseur's mouth for sexual pleasure is thus not considered "queer"; the masseur is.

Actually, in classical India, the disparagement for the homosexual was not devoid of compassion. The homosexual belonged to a deficient class of men called kliba in Sanskrit, deficient because he is unable to produce male offspring. The word (which has traditionally been translated as eunuch, but almost certainly did not mean eunuch) was a catch-all term to include someone who was sterile, impotent, castrated, a transvestite, a man who had oral sex with other men, who had anal sex as a recipient, a man with mutilated or deficient sexual organs, a man who produced only female children, or, finally, a hermaphrodite. In short, kliba is a term traditional Hindus coined to describe a man who is in their terms sexually dysfunctional (or in ours, sexually challenged). Kliba is not a term that exists any longer, but some of its remnant - the perception of a deficiency, and the combination of pity, dismay and a degree of disdain toward a man who is unable to marry and produce children - continues to cling to the Indian homosexual.

It is instructive that the Kamasutra, the main source of information on ancient sexuality, does not use the term kliba at all. It mentions sodomy in only one passage, and that in the context of heterosexual and not homosexual sex: "The people in the South indulge in "sex below," even anally."(2.6.49). (In general Southerners have a pretty poor reputation in this book composed in the North, and it could be that their geographical position suggested their sexual position in this passage: down under). In the Kamasutra, fellatio is regarded as the defining male homosexual act.

In Same Sex Love in India, Ruth Vanita argues that the relative tolerance, the gray area between simple acceptance and outright rejection of homosexual attraction, can be primarily attributed to the Hindu concept of rebirth. Instead of condemning the couple, others can explain their mutual attraction as involuntary, because it is caused by attachment in a previous birth. This attachment is presumed to have the character of an "unfinished business," which needed to be brought to a resolution in the present birth.

 
An Indian gay put son make up before a rally in Calcutta.
In ancient texts, folktales and in daily conversations, mismatched lovers, generally those with vast differences in status (a fisherman or an untouchable falling in love with a princess), are reluctantly absolved of blame and the union gradually accommodated, because it is viewed as destined from a former birth. When a brave homosexual couple defies all convention by openly living together, its tolerance by the two families and the social surround generally takes place in the framework of the rebirth theory. In 1987, when two policewomen in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India got "married", a cause celebre in the Indian media, the explanation often heard from those who could no longer regard them as "just good friends sharing living accommodation" was that one of them must have been a man in a previous birth and the couple prematurely separated by a cruel fate.

In ancient India, homosexual activity itself was ignored or stigmatized as inferior, but never actively persecuted.  In the dharmashastras, male homoerotic activity is punished, albeit mildly: a ritual bath or the payment of a small fine was often sufficient atonement. This did not change materially in spite of the advent of Islam, which unequivocally condemns homosexuality as a serious crime. Muslim theologians in India held that the Prophet advocated the severest punishment for sodomy. Islamic culture in India, though, also had a Persian cast wherein homoeroticism is celebrated in literature. In Sufi mystical poetry, both in Persian and later in Urdu, the relationship between the divine and humans was expressed in homoerotic metaphors. Inevitably, the mystical was also enacted at the human level. At least among the upper classes of Muslims, among "men of hrefinement," pederasty became an accepted outlet for a man's erotic promptings, as long as he continued to fulfill his duties as a married man. Emperor Babur's autobiography is quite clear on his indifferent love for his wife and his preference for a lad. We also know that until the middle of twentieth century, when the princely states were incorporated into an independent India, there was a strong tradition of homosexuality in many princely courts in north India. The homosexual relationships were much safer than relationships with mistresses whose children could be the source of endless divisive rivalries.

It seems that the contemporary perception of homosexual activity, primarily in images of sodomy, can be traced back to the Muslim period of Indian history. As we saw, the classical Hindu image of homosexual activity is in terms of fellatio. In the Kamasutra, for instance, the fellatio technique of the closeted man of "third nature" (the counterpart of the kliba in other Sanskrit texts) is discussed in considerable sensual detail. I would venture to add that one reason Hindu homosexuals regard sodomy with considerable ambivalence, exciting and repulsive at the same time, has also to do with their strong taboos around issues of purity versus pollution; the mouth is cleaner than the anus.

If male homosexuals make themselves invisible, then lesbians simply do not exist in Indian society - or so it seems. Again, it is not that Indians are unaware of lesbian activity. Yet this activity is never seen as a matter of personal choice, a possibility that is  theoretically, if reluctantly, granted to "deficient" men, the men of "third nature" in ancient India. Lesbian activity, on the other hand, is invariably seen as an outcome of the lack of sexual satisfaction in unmarried women, widows or, women stuck in unhappy, sex-less marriages. This is true even in creative depiction of lesbian activity in fiction or movies. In Deepa Mehta's 1998 movie Fire, which sparked a major controversy, with Hindu activists setting fire to cinema halls because the movie showed two women having an affair, both women turn to each other only because they are deeply unhappy in their marriages.

 In ancient India, lesbian activity is described in the Kamasutra at the beginning of the chapter on harems where many women live together in the absence of men. What the queens have is just one king, preoccupied with affairs of state, to go around. Since none of the kings can be the god Krishna, who is reputed to have satisfied each one of his sixteen thousand wives every night, the women use dildos, as well as bulbs, roots or fruits that have the form of the male organ. The implication is that lesbian activity takes place only in the absence of the "real thing." There are hints on other kinds of lesbian activity in the ancient law books: a woman who corrupts a virgin is to be punished by having two of her fingers cut off - a pointer to what the male author think two women do in bed. The harsh punishment is not for the activity itself but for the "deflowering," the heinous crime of robbing a young girl of her chastity. Not surprisingly, it seems  that female homosexuality was punished more severely than homosexuality among men; out of concern for the protection of women's virginity and sexual purity, traditionalists would say; to exercise control over women's sexual choice and activity, modern feminists would counter.

 In general, then, India has a tradition of "benign neglect" of alternate sexualities, a tradition that is very much a part of the Indian mind. The laws against homosexual activity, such as the act of 1861, are all examples of a repressive Victorian moral code. It is ironical that reactionaries, both Hindu and Muslim, who reject homosexuality as a decadent Western phenomenon subscribe to the same foreign code that is so alien to the Indian tradition. The Indian tradition of indifference or deliberate ignorance is also incompatible with the model of the Western gay movement, which is beginning to make inroads into our metropolises.  In its insistence on the politics of a gay identity, of a proud or at least defiant assertion of homosexual identity, this movement is beginning to compel the rest of society to confront the issue publicly.   

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Mike Hersee September 18, 2007 at 5:00 PM
What a valuable and enlightening article. This resonates with a number of different cultures round the world either today or throughout history, and I can see some particular relevant to a number of Biblical stories too.
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Lifestyle | Life | Magazine | August 2007

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