*Homosexuality, the Hindu Past, and the Problem of Colonialism—A Few Notes

Part II of Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India

(in three or four parts)

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, portions of which criminalized all same-sex relations between adults, has rightly been described as a vestige of colonial-era legislation.  For that matter, much of the legislative and administrative apparatus through which India is governed today, including the Indian Penal Code, is a legacy of colonial rule.  The Indian Penal Code was drafted by a commission that, as I mentioned in Part I of this essay, was led by Thomas Macaulay, rather more infamous as the author of the Minute on Education of 2 February 1835 which, if I may it put this way, formally inaugurated the regime of English language in India.  Macaulay’s ambition was to facilitate the rise of a class of intermediaries educated in English who would help in the machinery of governance.  By most accounts, he succeeded admirably well; indeed, according to the most critical perspectives on this question, the colonization of India by a certain elite, steeped in the ideas that were part of Macaulay’s intellectual inheritance, continues apace.

The long history of same-sex relations is well outside the purview of the present essay, but the “inheritance” of the West of which I speak included “An Acte for the Punishment of the Vice of Buggerie” (1533), passed during the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) whose love for fornication with women—six wives, and doubtless many other women with whom he shared his bed—conjoined with the sexual attitudes of the time, might help explain in part why an act that would penalize sodomy was passed into law.  Most histories of Section 377 do not look past the Indian Penal Code, and show no awareness of the fact that Macaulay and the Commission did not create the IPC from a vacuum.  The Criminal Law (India) Act of 1828 had already specified “buggery” as a capital offence, adding that penetration rather than completion of the act, marked by “emission of seed”, was sufficient to procure conviction.  England’s own Buggery Act would go through various twists and turns, and by Macaulay’s time was known as the Offences against the Person Act (1828).  Buggery, as it was still known at that time in common parlance, and even in legal usage (thus Act 24 & 25 in Victoria’s reign, 1861, which make reference to “the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal”), remained a capital offence in England until 1861.  Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (passed in 1860, put into effect in early 1862), let us recall, specified as much as a term of life imprisonment for “unnatural” acts of intercourse between men, or between a man and an animal.


India’s history of same-sex relations outside the colonial fold remains a complicated one.  Let us dispense immediately with the most cliched example of Hinduism’s real or purported permissiveness towards the question of sexuality: I refer, of course, to the Kama Sutra.  A few years ago, Interfaith Radio, Los Angeles, interviewed me for the segment on “Homosexuality and Hinduism” in the series on “Gay in the Eyes of God”.  My interviewer stated quite emphatically at least twice that a text such as the Kama Sutra, which may be dated to around 200-300 CE, would have been quite impossible in the West.  The word she used to describe the likely attitude of the West towards the Kama Sutra until perhaps a few decades ago was “scandalous”.  The Kama Sutra is far more than a manual of love-making, but this is not the place to describe its place within the purusarthas, or the four ends of life as described in Hindu texts:  kama (love), artha (economy, material well-being in this world), dharma (conduct, duty, virtue), and moksha (liberation or spiritual emancipation). Suffice it say that it has some exciting bits, some charming and naughty parts, and some boring parts—something of the nature of sex, perhaps?  As I have advised my undergraduate students who have taken my introductory course on Indian civilization, they would be well-advised to have an orthopedic surgeon standing by if they are adamantly determined on attempting all the sexual positions described in the Kama Sutra.  The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, borrowed a good deal from other manuals on love-making, which were extant at that time and have since been lost.  It is certainly true that there is nothing comparable to the Kama Sutra from that time period, or even from centuries later, in the West—though there is, of course, an erotic literature from antiquity, of which we find ample evidence in the love poems of Sappho, or in the celebration of the mystery and beauty of sexual love in the Song of Songs [also known as Song of Solomon], even if it was read by Church fathers and others as an allegory of God’s love for Israel.


Khajuraho:  Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.  Source:  https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/

Proponents of the idea that Hindu culture has an easy-going attitude towards sexuality almost invariably also point to the famous temple complexes at Khajuraho and Konark, though the preponderant number of the sculptured figures in erotic poses or positions are not engaged in homosexual or lesbian relations.  The Lakshmana temple in the Khajuraho complex which can be dated to the 10th century has a frieze where a man is clearly seen performing oral sex on another man, but should one read this as decisive evidence of the wide acceptance of homosexuality in India?  Perhaps the “evidence” is less conclusive than one would like to think so, and this apart from the question of how one might interpret the large Khajuraho group of monuments as a whole.  To understand why that is the case, we can return, albeit briefly, to the Kama Sutra.  Chapter 9 of Book Two is the portion that is most germane to a consideration of whether the acceptance of homosexuality was widespread in Hindu culture.  Its subject matter is “Auparishtaka”, or what the Victorian-era rake and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton, described as “Mouth Congress”, that is oral sex.

While the text is unequivocally clear in its description of fellatio, the interpretation of the character of the parties to the act can vary immensely.  It is not commonly realized that ancient Indian texts, not only philosophical works such as the Upanishads but even law treatises (dharma sastras), sex manuals (kama sastras), and works of grammar (vyakarana), were almost always read with one or more commentaries at hand.  The commentator’s gloss could be critical.  However, a modern reader, even without a commentary, might find much room for ambiguity.  A translator such as Burton rendered the male sexual partner of a man as a ‘eunuch’, though the term used in the Sanskrit is generally tritiya-prakriti, ‘of the third gender’.  The two men in a homosexual relationship are more accurately described as having more ‘masculine’ or more ‘feminine’ characteristics.  A more contemporary translator such as Alain Danielou, The Complete Kama Sutra, is more sensitive in rendering the Sanskrit terms in colloquial English, though it doesn’t help when he speaks of oral sex as “buccal coition” (for example, KS 2.9.25, 28).  There is more than the suggestion that many homosexual relations were quite undesirable, and the evidence of verse 40 from Part I, Chapter Nine seems quite unimpeachable:  “The various forms of buccal coition should be avoided by Brahmans, men of letters, ministers and other government officials, as well as by those who have become famous.”  The insinuation here is that while homosexual relations will doubtless be encountered, men of a certain class standing should certainly refrain from them.  On the other hand, Vatsyayana was entirely willing to go the entire length in accepting homosexuality as part of the order of nature, and taking it as a fact of life that some men are attracted to other men and may be inclined to choose them as life partners:  “There are also citizens [men], sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married [parigraha] together” (KS 2.9.35).


Mural at Mattanchery Palace, Fort Kochi:  Shiva and Mohini are locked in embrace (left), while Parvati, the consort of Shiva, looks at them astride a white bull (right).

In this vein, one might summon a great deal of other textual and visual evidence.  The Puranic literature is prolific in the stories of sexuality:  in my radio interview from more than five years ago to which I have adverted above, I offer some additional pointers.  There are stories of gods seduced by beautiful women, gods making out with other gods (if unknowingly), men who become pregnant, men and women who cross-dress, and more.  The culture of pre-modern India certainly cannot be accused of prudishness, whatever else one may say of it; yet, it is also unmistakably the case that all this seems nearly impossible to divine from the present state of India, where heterosexual marriage exercises an oppressive crush, monopolizing social life, societal norms, and the imaginary of the nation in every domain.  My own reading suggests two formulations which I am hopeful may be of some use in contemporary discussions of homosexuality in India and, in particular, the nature of the “Hindu inheritance”.  There is no singular Hindu view of homosexuality, even if both the proponents or detractors of the view that Hinduism was hospitable to same-sex relations are convinced that the truth is unequivocally on their side.  One might plausibly argue that homosexuality, on the evidence of Puranic literature, should not necessarily be viewed as the opposite of heterosexuality but rather as constituting something of a continuum with it.  Secondly, and more decisively, the Hindu past furnishes no evidence of homophobia.  If some critics should construe Hindu texts as not celebratory of homosexuality, they are nevertheless recognizably more accommodating of views and lifestyles outside the norm of what these days is termed heterosexual normativity.  Those who are now committed to obstructing the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the IPC, and one hopes that their numbers will be insignificant, would do well to bear this in mind.


(to be continued)

8 thoughts on “*Homosexuality, the Hindu Past, and the Problem of Colonialism—A Few Notes

  1. A fundamental truth about homosexuality is that it does not allow for the creation of offspring. Thus, all the groups in which it is encouraged have seen their populations decline or flatline. Though there is certainly precedent for homosexuality in the Hindu past, the attempt to reintroduce it now is certainly an attempt by elements hostile to the Hindu community to lower the Hindu population. If we allow that to happen it would be a travesty.


  2. My best guess is that Homosexuality in India was just something that occurred in their society before the British arrived. While it probably wasn’t encouraged, I don’t think that Pre-British India society frowned upon on same-sex couples. Current policy seems to be shaped from a Western point of view. The ideas of a relationship has changed over the last few centuries as the population has exploded. The idea of criminalizing homosexuality in India doesn’t help the population problems that have occurred in India that continues to plague the nation.


  3. Not only was homosexuality an accepted facet of Indian culture and way of life, but gender identity used to be a much more fluid concept before the arrival of the British as well. Hijras – eunuchs, transgender, and nonbinary individuals – used to be well-respected members of Indian society and were revered as fairly influential members of Mughal courts. However, under British rule and the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the hijras were denoted as a “criminal tribe” subject to monitoring. The strict penalization and criminalization of nonbinary and transgender identities can tangibly be seen even to this day, in the present stigmatization of these communities. It seems as though the fluidity of identities was not entirely appreciated by and compatible with the British manner of enumerating and rigidly categorizing Indians into distinct groups, so as to facilitate the process of colonization.


    • The general sense of what you say is correct. However, the Hijras do not come from one community, and therefore it is incorrect to say that the Hijras were denoted a “criminal tribe” under the 1871 act. I know that this claim has been made in the Wikipedia article but that is far from being an authoritative source. Some but not all Hijra communities were so stigmatized.


  4. The essay “Homosexuality, the Hindu Past, and the Problem of Colonialism –A Few Notes,” posted on September 10, 2018, illustrates the complexity of homosexuality in pre-colonial Indian culture and Hinduism; and how colonial rule still governs Indian laws in contemporary circumstances, specifically Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes that all same-sex relations between adults. However, the depictions of homosexuality and sex within Hinduism, ancient art, and literature are very much apparent and celebrated in many forms. Evidence insinuates the remitments of colonial rule in India today due to Westernized cultural norms and beliefs. As discussed in Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism, “Hill Stations: Pinnacles of the Raj,” British colonialism within India encompassed far more than the procurement of estate and the extension of British trade and commerce throughout the country, but rather the ownership of knowledge, codified law, communications, syntax, and systems of society and institution (Lal 1). This strengthens the argument that although the country has liberated itself from British rule, the laws within India today are non-reflective of Hinduism and Indian cultural practices, but rather are profoundly impacted by colonization that has survived throughout Indian history to prevail an authoritarian and oppressive nature. This also evidently mimics how compelling the British rule of colonization transpired and resides in nations across the globe, along with how prosperous the empire was at expansion.

    Additionally, this is maintained by Karl Marx, who indicated that England’s conquest of India was both adverse and regenerating. While Britain fortuitously implemented the foundation of Westernized society and revived the population, it also dramatically defeated Asian culture and disciplines (Marx 46). Therefore, the open expression and fluidity of homosexuality and sex that had long survived the rule of Westernized beliefs are now inherently embedded in modern codified law in India today.


  5. It seems highly unlikely that a pre-British Indian society would have been outright opponents against same sex marriage/realtionships. The concept of same sex relationships being viewed as wrong or “sinful” takes deep roots from a Western perspective that Indian culture was most likely not rooted in. In terms of evidence I think the Lankshmana temple in the Khajuraho complex is probably not definitive evidence, but it is encouraging evidence to show that before the British arrived the concept of homophobia in Indian culture was not a prominent ideal. Also, because of the Lankshamana temple it leads me to believe that sexuality was a much more fluid concept within Indian culture.


    • Hi Matthew,
      I think it is important to recognize that even in the West there have been societies across a large span of time which took a very different view of homosexuality. Ancient Athens is often mentioned, for example, in this connection. Plato and his followers held the view that the highest or purest form of love was between two men. Greek vases (which are on display, incidentally, in the Getty Villa in Malibu) show men involved in homosexual relationships. The picture is quite complex, but the point here is that the intolerance which became part of the fabric of Western civilization was, so to speak, “exported” to much of the world. The proponents of the Enlightenment do not like to entertain such a point of view.


  6. While pre-colonial India expressed a degree of tolerance towards same-sex couples, that tolerance itself appeared to be limited in which it insisted men in higher castes and high positions of authority should refrain from these relationships. Yet they still clearly existed. Perhaps more importantly, it did not criminalize same-sex relations until the imposition of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the British. In criminalizing same-sex relations and making it a punishable offense serious enough to warrant capital offense, however, the British altered conceptions of what was considered tolerable and intolerable through their own perceptions.

    The way in you which you phrased its lasting effect on modern day India “where heterosexual marriage exercises an oppressive crush, monopolizing social life, societal norms, and the imaginary of the nation in every domain” stood out to me the most with the specific word choice you used. Using ‘oppressive’ and ‘monopolizing’ made me reflect on how embedded heterosexuality is in modern Western culture that I would not have thought of it in these terms immediately, nor how restrictive they are, because of how heterosexuality is normalized in Western society that we often do not think to question it because it has become the “default” or “standard” norm in our society.


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