By: Sai Siddhaye
Just as glass, which we perceive as a solid mass, is actually an amorphous substance somewhere in between solid and liquid, culture is also ever-fluid, and actions from centuries ago still sent shock waves to our contemporary lives. As glass slowly shifts and flows over time, human cultures also flow and adapt, yet both will be unrecognizable when shattered by a traumatic force. This traumatic force, of course, is imperialism. Colonization has irreparably changed indigenous cultures worldwide, both erasing and rewriting traditional practices and beliefs. With this in consideration, trying to understand these practices becomes more complex, because the context within which they evolved no longer exists. This holds especially true in discourse about sexuality and gender. Many cultures which may appear binaristic or heteronormative today certainly weren’t so hundreds of years ago. Indeed, Foucault claimed that sexuality-based identity categories were a 19th century European construction, and did not exist prior to that. If this is true, then the political vilification of certain identity categories relies on a Eurocentric and imperialist ideology.
Let’s put this in the context of postcolonial South Asia. The figure of “the homosexual” is pivotal for many discussions of what is “quintissentially Indian”, as modern Indian culture strongly enforces hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative values that erase queerness in any form. Contemporary India–particularly Hindu nationalist theory–frames same-sex attraction and sexuality as a Western import, a regrettable product of globalization that has only recently stopped being criminal under the law (though of course it is still socially illicit). Such a characterization, of course, is far from the case; queerness has existed in South Asia for centuries, and it was an accepted part of human sexuality and pleasure before the colonial era. We can see evidence of queerness not only in South Asian languages but also in religious and historical texts and monuments. Though ‘queer’ is a modern term, it is the closest umbrella term we have to describe nonnormative sexuality. From here on out, I will be speaking about what is known today as India, but it is important to understand that the hard borders and land disputes are also a part of the legacy of the British Raj; South Asia is incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse, and the political distinction between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is a modern concept conceived during decolonization.
Many Indian scholars have studied the queer history of India and Hinduism, the most notable of whom are Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Rohit Dasgupta. They have written several books and articles about their research, including Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Vanita and Kidwai, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society by Vanita, and Digital Queer Cultures in India: Politics, Intimacies and Belonging by Dasgupta. Their studies cover a wide variety of topics, and provide an approximate timeline during which queer attraction can be analyzed.
Medieval India, according to Vanita and Kidwai, is most easily studied through the theology that was present at the time. Hindu deities were treated as genderfluid and andrygynous beings; the reincarnation of godly avatars meant that Hindu deities occupied many different bodies that were male, female, and intersex. Vatsyana’s Kamasutra, which–unlike its public perception in America–was something of a guide for spiritual life, even describes queer sexual acts purely for pleasure. Many other ancient texts also feature intimate same-sex relationships, both sexual and asexual in nature. In the Mahabharata, for example, Krishna and Arjuna are said to have a bond of friendship that goes beyond marriage or procreation, and their friendship is a very important aspect of this epic. Krishna states that “Arjuna is more important to him than wives, children or kinsmen- there can be many spouses and sons but there is only one Arjuna, without whom he cannot live”. Though the nature of this relationship is not stated, the close intimacy between these two men implies that the modern hegemonic standards of masculine friendships–and the distinction between platonic and romantic relationships–were not expected at the time. In the Kritivasa Ramayana, the sage Bhagiratha is said to be born from the sexual union of two women, blessed by the divine sanction of the god Shankar. The variance in sexuality and gender in ancient texts and understanding of divinity suggest that sexual fluidity was also not culturally taboo at the time.
This fluidity in intimacy is also present within the languages of India. The term ‘sahki’ in Sanskrit-derived languages translates to one’s close friend, yet the space the term occupies within devotional poetry describes a relationship that is much more intimate and sapphic than simply a friendly onlooker, and ancient paintings of heroines often eroticized their female friends. Because this role between friend and lover has no place in the Western cosmology, it is difficult to translate into American culture.
Many religious monuments and sites that depict same-sex eroticism still exist to this day. Konarak Temple in Odisha, for example, is a temple for the Hindu sun god Surya. This temple includes carvings and statues that depicts erotic scenes, which are sometimes queer in nature. This temple also harbors many images of group sex, suggesting that nonnormative sexual configurations was not uncommon, and that the patriarchal nuclear family did not play as big a role in Indian culture as it did today. The Khajuraho Monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples also depict same-sex eroticism, particularly among women. These temples indicate that in Medieval India, sexuality was seen as a spiritual practice, and queer attraction was not shunned in the religious tradition. As Dasgupta said, “Hinduism is content to allow opposites to confront each other without resolution, which provides a space for non-normative sexualities and same sex desires to exist”.
This acceptance of fluidity, however, did not continue after colonial interaction began to occur. In the 1700s, Britain–driven by a Victorian obsession with ‘purity’–prompted policies that regulated sexuality. This was driven in part by the large number of British men who, while in the Indian colonies, would have homosexual encounters with Indian men. Homosexuality was painted as an “oriental vice” and Indian culture demonized as “backwards”. This also seems to have been a justification for the further expansion of British imperial rule; claiming to civilize otherwise “savage” indigenous people has been a long-standing excuse for enacting colonial violence. Thus bore the rise of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1861, which made homosexuality illegal under punishment of incarceration for life. It criminalized queerness and forced any queer relationships, whether homosexual or simply nonnormative in nature, underground. This hypocritical and archaic law was only repealed in 2018, after centuries of damage to Indian culture and people. Section 377 also allowed colonial leaders to outlaw certain texts that they deemed ‘deviant’, which included some Hindu and Perso-Arabic tales and epics; such censorship allowed Britain to dictate what kind of masculinity was socially acceptable, and which actions were effeminate and therefore criminal.
Dasgupta states in Digital Queer Cultures in India that “the normalisation of heterosexual identity is a part of the processes of colonial modernity”. This includes the centuries in which the British Raj rewrote the cultural rules for masculinity and sexuality, which bore the violent heteronormativity present in India today. This is especially ironic if we analyze the pinkwashing strategies that the Global North uses to depict the Global South as unaccepting and homophobic. The cultural vilification of queerness in India is a product of colonial occupation, and denying the material impact of the British Raj on queer people in India falls into the same branch of imperialist ideology that Britain utilized to enact violence in the first place.