By: Sindura Vuppu
It was not until I turned sixteen that I stepped into the world of political and social issues. I grew up in ignorance and indifference with limited exposure. My friends and I were clueless about issues like the marginalization of certain groups. When I finally educated myself, I recognized the unfairness in the way the LGBTQ+ community is treated in India. I felt ashamed of our ignorance. Was it always like this? One day, I discussed this with my mother. She mentioned the “Hijras”, transgender women, whom I’ve seen beg for money in groups. Many people, mostly young men, get uncomfortable and feel sexually victimized by the Hijras. These Hijras are disowned by their parents at a young age, after which it is almost impossible for them to find a decent job. Some become sex-workers to men who cannot afford a cis woman, and most generally choose to stay within the transgender community and earn a living by begging in groups. When their requests for money are met, the Hijras give us their blessing since they are thought to have the “power to bless or curse fertility”(Biswas). They show up at auspicious ceremonies like the celebration of the birth of a child, and lovingly hold the baby in their arms to bless them. The same people who treat them as “untouchables” rejoice over their blessing. If this is an age-old tradition, the discrimination does not make sense. To learn more about the LGBTQ+ involvement in Indian history and Hindu mythology, I went online.
Hindu mythology is a major source of ancient India’s attitude towards gender fluidity and sexual identity. Ardhanarishvara, a form of Lord Shiva that I grew up worshipping, is a mix of Shiva and his wife Parvati. The form has both male and female elements divided equally, therefore creating a genderless deity. “Parvati wished to share Shiva’s experiences,” says Kavita Kane in her article on LGBT themes in Hindu mythology, “and thus wanted their physical forms literally to be joined to show that the inner masculine and feminine coexist and can coalesce” (Kane). This non-binary form was and still is revered for the powerful message is conveys. This isn’t the only instance where Lord Shiva exhibited gender and sexual fluidity. Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe, takes on the “feminine” form called Mohini, who Shiva, the destroyer, falls in love and procreates with. Although the mythological texts say that Mohini was a female form, many scholars interpret their relationship as a same-sex one. Mahabharata, which is considered one of the greatest epics of all time, narrated the story of the great warrior Arjuna, who took refuge in the harem of a king’s court for a year as an eunuch teaching singing and dancing. Even as someone who is considered a tough and masculine war hero, Arjuna’s “feminine” eunuch form is one of the most significant facets of his character in the epic. I grew up listening to these stories and marveling over their greatness. They act as moral stories that children are encouraged to read. These deities are revered as examples of dharma and righteousness.
Hindu mythology isn’t the only source of LGBT significance in Indian history and culture. In her article on LGBT themes in Indian history, Amy Bhatt notes, “Indeed, in India’s 16th-century Mughal courts, hijras and eunuchs often held positions of high esteem as advisers or emissaries between men and women.”(Bhatt). Eunuchs were accepted and even revered by the common folk. They were important and trusted caretakers of the harems of the kings, as we can see in warrior Arjuna’s case. Homoeroticism has also been celebrated in ancient Indian literature. “In the Kama Sutra, India’s famed erotic guidebook,” Bhatt writes, “the character Svairini is described as as a liberated woman who lives either alone or in union with another woman.” (Bhatt).The Khajuraho group of Temples in Madhya Pradesh, The Sun Temple of Konark, and several other monuments in India also have homoerotic sculptures engraved on their walls. After finding so many inclusions of the LGBT+ community in ancient India, one cannot help but wonder where the respect and tolerance went. When did the Indian people start marginalizing them and calling their existence “unnatural”? There is an answer to this question: the British colonization.
In 1860, Lord Macaulay, the President of the Indian Law Commission authored section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (Biswas), therefore imposing Victorian values on its biggest colony. Under the British Raj, homosexuality was criminalized. In addition, they described eunuchs that served in royal palaces as “ungovernable”. “Commentators said they evoked images of “filth, disease, contagion and contamination,” writes Soutik Biswas in his article titled “How Britain tried to ‘erase’ India’s third gender” (Biswas). The British also had the conception that the “Orient” were “Overly erotic and over-sexed” and would “corrupt” young colonial officers (Han). The two hundred years of rule which left India in great economic and cultural depression is believed to have been the primary cause of the conservative and marginalizing shift in Indian societies. So, how is India recovering from this and reforming its social, political, and judicial system on this particular issue?
On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India declared Section 377 unconstitutional, therefore overturning a 157-year old ban, and decriminalizing consensual homosexual sex, after the government’s first recognition of the law’s barbaric nature in 2009. The Court stated that “the inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone… Those perceived by the majority as ‘deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracised”(Misra). There has been enormous LGBT activism in the sex-workers community as well, “to change perceptions of sexuality, embracing diversity among the ranks of members of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (the largest Sex Workers’ union in India)” (Misra). Under a legislation that was recently passed in India, transgender people are allowed to change their legal gender post-sex reassignment surgery and have a constitutional right to register themselves under a third gender. However, this law has not been received well for various reasons: lack of medical benefits, addition of bureaucratic layers and red-tapism for legal recognition, and the lack of detail on matters such as marriage, adoption, and social security benefits (Pathak). Activists are pushing for amendments to this bill, and for additions and improvements to other LGBTQ+ laws. But such issues don’t get resolved easily. Along with the fight for change comes the fight to stay the same.
Many Indians, mostly middle-aged and elderly Hindus, believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of Hinduism that portrays homosexuality as a “reprehensible Western import”(Bhatt). But on exploring some great Hindu mythological epics, it is quite clear that Hinduism is more liberal than the “western” (or Victorian) beliefs. Moreover, the significance of the community can be seen throughout Indian history and culture. I think it is time we revisit our history and re-interpret some of the lessons it teaches. It is time we recognize the unfairness in the way the LGBTQ+ community is treated, and join the fight against injustice and for reform.