Section 377 and Indian culture: myths don't criminalise homosexuality

Sexuality has been woven into the fabric of our mythology as much as the clichéd but ever-alluring eternal battle of good and evil.

hidden December 13, 2013 21:21:43 IST
Section 377 and Indian culture: myths don't criminalise homosexuality

By Krishna Udayasankar

Like many of us, I often turn to mythology and mytho-history in an attempt to reclaim what undeniably is a part of the culture and society around me. It’s something we tend to fall back upon when the world around us makes little sense - it was, for instance, my way of dealing with the ethos of violence against women and its indelible mark upon us in recent times. Today, I turn again to the myths, this body of constructed truisms, desperate to understand how we can hope to restrict the legal and moral notion of intimacy as an act that must follow the methods, if not the intent, of procreation.

There is no need to restate judgements and reactions, quote politicians or the public. The point here is neither to prove that criminalization of 'unnatural acts' (whatever that may mean) is a colonial anachronism nor suggest that such criminalization is justified by ancient myth - myth which remains a significant part of the contemporary culture of this country - because truly, our myths don’t.

Sexuality has been woven into the fabric of our mythology as much as the clichéd but ever-alluring eternal battle of good and evil. For the record, homosexuality has never quite belonged to either one of those camps. It just was; and that acceptance is certainly a part of our ancient fabric, along with bisexuality and transsexuality - acts that fall under the ambit of “unnatural” by virtue of their non-procreative nature. By the same definition, so do many heterosexual acts between consenting adults.

All these, irrespective of the labels we place upon them today, were boldly celebrated in ancient temple sculptures (quite unperturbed by the possibility of criminalization centuries hence). As Devdutt Pattanaik wrote in an article, “the ‘idea’ of same-sex and what the colonial rulers termed ‘unnatural’ intercourse did exist in India. One can only speculate if the images represent the common or the exception.”

Section 377 and Indian culture myths dont criminalise homosexuality


Mythology tends to be less ambiguous. A story that finds place across more than one text centres on Shiva’s overwhelming desire for Vishnu as Mohini. The consequent coupling gives us the birth-myths of Ayyappa and Skanda, and, according to the Shiva Purana, the birth of Hanuman through the womb of Anjana.

Referring to the same incident between Shiva and Vishnu, Wendy Doniger states: “...since Vishnu retains his male memory and his male essence, he can be regarded as having male homosexual relations, playing first the active role with the demons (during the episode of the churning of the ocean)...and then the passive role with Shiva.”

In a folk variant of the story, Vishnu explicitly ‘turns back’ into a man during the act, suggesting that the feminine form, such as it is employed in these stories, is more a device than it is a complete transformation. The subsequent inclusion of the celibate, sometimes androgynous “offspring” of these unions into the pantheon suggests a post-hoc rationalization, which can only be seen as further evidence of acceptance of same-sex activity - a word I use here advisedly given the recent Supreme Court judgement - in myth.

Other examples of bisexuality and heterosexuality in myth and narrative include the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition where male devotees identified with the gopikas who were Krishna's lovers and Radha's friends; the transformation of Shiva into a woman when he makes love to Parvati, for her pleasure (a tale which is found in many versions of the Ramayana), and of course, the sheer narrative beauty of the gopikas passionately embracing each other in memory of an absent Krishna in Jayadeva’s Geeta-Govinda.

Some may argue that divinity is ascribed to these situations, so elevating such acts from the ‘unnatural’ to devotional. But then, is that not the true spirit of all human love, irrespective of orientation?

Do we really need to couch the spirit in terms of devotion, impute gender transformation (as in the case of Shikandin in the Mahabharata), or use the language of heterosexual love through role-playing in order to legitimise it? When will we admit that legitimised or otherwise, bisexuality and homosexuality have been an integral and respected part of mainstream existence and consciousness in our myth and in Hindu culture?

It could also be said that anecdotal evidence can be interpreted otherwise. To read gods and heroes as those moved by prosaic and worldly impulses such as desire and affection may be to read into symbolism a factual basis that is misfit. Indeed, it is on such arguments that I have based my entire construction of the Mahabharata as an epic that tends more to lost history than magic and myth. My submission is as follows: Surely benevolence, compassion, respect and reason are the stuff of which epics and their characters are made? Then, when they are so integral to the heroes of the past, do we want to remove them from our present?

In my research and writing, I tend to value the historicity of myth but in the final example I present to you in support of a culture that has been accepting rather than narrow-mindedly normative, let me tread instead upon the borders of mytho-fiction.

The critical edition of the Mahabharata contains no reference to the human sacrifice of Aravan, nor is the event likely to appear in my book series, but it is very much a part of our folklore and popular belief. In a sense, Aravan is a man of this hour. Few instances capture the spirit of love and universality as his tale does, and I present it to you here, sans mysticism and magic. I am sure the characters do not mind that I have borrowed them for some brief moments. They are, after all, epic heroes.

The tale of Mohini

Dusk fell over the plains of Kurukshetra as the young man sat sharpening his sword, well aware that soon, he would soon have no use for it. All Aryavarta stood on the brink of a great battle, yet he would have no part in the fight that would pit brother against brother, friend against friend. Yet, he was no less a warrior than them all. The thought brought a smile he saw reflected in the blade rather than felt. It too faded away as the image in the burnished metal moved from his own to another familiar one.

He stood, turning to face the approaching man. Something about Govinda left him breathless, as it did every man and woman Aravan had heard speak of him.

“It is a good blade you have there,” Govinda began. “Pity…”

Aravan nodded, not quite sure how to react to the unapologetic admission of what was to follow at dawn - his own ceremonial beheading as an offering to the gods before the start of battle. A war of this magnitude required nothing less than a human sacrifice, and victory demanded nothing less than a human of noble blood.

Even as the commanders in Dharma Yudhisthir's camp had stood weighing human worth with precise callousness designed to find a balance that pleased the gods yet did not weaken the forces of men, Aravan, the almost-forgotten son of Partha Saysachin and the princess of a conquered territory, had stepped forward.

The proposal was immediately accepted. The entire camp had offered either their sympathies or their solemn encouragement. But then, Aravan had placed his condition, one that was yet to be fulfilled. He suspected that now Govinda had been sent to either talk him out of his insistence or be goaded into forsaking it.

Govinda, however, did neither. He asked, “Are you afraid?”

“Of what?” Aravan scoffed. “I'm a Naga, a man from the most dangerous parts of this empire. I was taught to believe that death is all there is worth living for.”

At once, Govinda's eyes darkened. Aravan did not know whether it was anger he or sadness he saw. He added, “As far as I have known, those words are true. Valour is all that matters.”

“And love? Surely, you see that wars are not fought for valour alone? Love, compassion, justice - these are the things worth living and dying for, young man.”

“How would I know?”

The sharp response drew a smile.

“Ah yes,” Govinda admitted, “what would you know of such things. The first time you saw your father was on this battlefield, and all he did was to ask you to die so that he, his brothers and his other son may live and rule, victorious. But if you will take my word for it, there is more to life. And those things are what you should be dying for, not some misplaced notion of masculinity, honour and valour.” He placed his hand, warm and reassuring, on Aravan's shoulder.

“Is that supposed to make me change my mind, Govinda?”

“No. It is supposed to make you see that I understand; that like you, I too would not wish to die without having known love, without having known that which I die for.”

Aravan looked up, not daring to put into words the question that Govinda had stirred. But he did not have to, for Govinda's eyes, dark, infinite and mysterious, already held the answer.

A little before dawn, Aravan stirred. He watched Govinda watch him as he went about his ritual bath and prayers in silence. Eventually, he said, with the lightness that came of a replete heart.

"If you'd been born a woman, your name would have been Mohini. Enchantress." He added, "Perhaps, if you'd been a woman, you'd mourn me."

Govinda ran a contemplative hand through his hair. “I am a man, Aravan. But yes, I will still mourn you.”

Aravan smiled and left the tent that they had shared for the night.

Govinda sat, unmoving as the sound of conches and gongs filled the air, the tumult of celebration and worship. Suddenly, all was quiet, save for a single dull thud as sanctified blade rent through flesh and skin to strike sacrificial stone. And then, again, there was music.

As battle drums rose to a crescendo, mingling with war cries, the thunder of horses' hooves and the rhythm of marching men, he finally let his tears fall, mourning not just the death of a man born to live, but also the end of justice and a way of life.

Suggested reading list:

"Did Homosexuality Exist in Ancient India?" by Devdutt Pattanaik, Debonair Annual Issue, 2000

Gods of Love and Ecstasy, by Alain Danielou, Inner Traditions Intl., 1992

"Bisexuality in the Mythology of Ancient India", by Wendy Doniger, Diogenes, Vol:208, 2005

Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Penguin, 2008

Krishna Udayasankar is a graduate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, and holds a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Business School, Singapore, where she presently works as a lecturer. She is also the author of the bestselling novel, Govinda (Hachette, Rs 350), the first in the Aryavarta Chronicles series of mytho-historical novels. The sequel, Kaurava (Hachette, Rs 350), was released recently.

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