Sunday afternoons are proverbially meant for relaxation and time with that simultaneously oddest and most ‘natural’ of social institutions called ‘the family’. And what better way apparently to relax than to watch the Euro 2020 Final between England and Italy, both vying yesterday, July 11, for the trophy after a long drought: Italy last won it in 1968 and England last won any major international football tournament in 1966 when it lifted the World Cup with a 4-2 defeat over Germany. England has never owned the European Cup. But England is nothing if it is not a football nation: however, though it is scarcely alone in its passion, its fans are singular in having earned a notoriety all their own. Indeed, the American journalist Bill Buford wrote in 1990 an engaging book on football hooliganism, Among the Thugs, focusing largely on English football fans from Manchester United with whom he traveled to many matches. He found these football hooligans, whose devotion to their team rivals in intensity the religious feelings that the devout have for their faith, also shared some traits with those English who are affiliated to the white nationalist party, the National Front. More pointedly, as he was caught in riots among these football fans in 1990 in Sardinia where the World Cup was being played, he unexpectedly found the violence to be ‘pleasurable’. Violence, he wrote of these football fanatics, ‘is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria’ that shares ‘many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically-produced drugs.’Continue reading
First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race
A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before. The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Continue reading
(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”
The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19. The diary is taken by social historians to be Continue reading
(First in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
The social, economic, and political turmoil around the COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic presently sweeping the world is unprecedented in modern history or, more precisely, in the last one hundred years. Before we can even begin to understand its manifold and still unraveling ramifications, many of which are bound to leave their imprint for the foreseeable future, it is necessary to grasp the fact that there is nothing quite akin to it in the experience of any living person. Fewer than 5500 people have died so far, and of these just under 3100 in the Hubei province of China. There have been hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, wars, genocides, civil conflicts, insurrections, epidemics, droughts, earthquakes, and other ‘natural disasters’ that have produced far higher mortality figures. About 40 million people are estimated to have died in World War I; in the Second World War, something like 100 million people may have been killed, including military personnel, civilians, as well as those civilians who perished from war-induced hunger, famine, and starvation. Weighed in the larger scheme of things, the present mortality figures from COVID-19 barely deserve mention. And, yet, it is possible to argue that what is presently being witnessed as the world responds to the COVID-19 is singular, distinct, and altogether novel in our experience of the last one hundred years.
The Lower House of the Indian Parliament, The Janata Sabha (People’s House), was witness to an extraordinary debate yesterday afternoon, September 12. More than 72 years after Britain was forced out of India, a number of Indian Parliamentarians from the ruling party, HOPE, provoked what at first was furious outrage when they argued that the time was wholly ripe to bring colonialism back. Some members of the Indian Trotskyite Communist Party (ITC), joined by lawmakers from other opposition parties, started pounding their desks in fury and shouted, “Shame! Shame!” Thereupon, the Parliamentarians from the ruling party at once hastened to add that they had been grossly misunderstood. Speaking on behalf of the group advocating for colonialism, the former Raja of Piplinagar put forward the case eloquently if succinctly: “Britain has shown that it is wholly unfit to govern itself. White heathens have made quite a display of their buffoonery; they act like children, unnecessarily inflicting wounds on themselves. They say that their House of Commons is the Mother of Parliaments, but no one understands motherhood as well as we Indians do. Long before Parliament was invented, we had village republics where people peacefully governed themselves.” Before he could go on any further, the House erupted in cheers.
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.
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).
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)