As Supreme Court scraps Section 377, a look at how ideas of karmic faiths can affirm the dignity of queer people

Editor's note: As the Supreme Court of India scrapped portions of Section 377 on 6 September 2018, Devdutt Pattanaik’s I am Divine So Are You: How Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Hinduism Affirm the Dignity of Queer Identities and Sexualities (HarperCollins India) makes for a timely read. In this chapter from the book, Pattanaik asks — How have karmic faiths been used to be hostile to the queer? This excerpt was originally published on 13 July and is being reproduced now to coincide with the ruling.


In hermit traditions of the Karmic faiths, sensuality is seen as causing bondage to the sea of materiality and entrapping man in the endless cycle of rebirths. Sex is seen as polluting and only the celibate man (sanyasi) and the chaste woman (sati) are considered pure and holy. And so an identity based on sexuality draws much criticism.

That is why in Vinaya Pitaka, the code of conduct for Buddhist monks, it is explicitly stated that the queer pandaka should not be ordained. Rules extend to women who dress like men, or do not behave like women, which we can take to mean lesbians. Jain rejection of homosexuality also stems from its preference for the monastic lifestyle. Anti-queer comments on homosexual behaviour in the Manusmriti are more concerned with caste pollution than the sexual act itself. People involved in non-vaginal (ayoni) sex are told to perform purification rites, such as bathing with clothes on or fasting. More severe purification is recommended for heterosexual adultery and rape.

Karmic faiths believe that the living owe their life to their ancestors and so have to repay this debt (pitr-rina) by marrying and producing children. This is a key rite of passage (sanskara). This is a major reason for opposing same-sex relationships, which are seen as essentially sterile and non-procreative. Sikhism states nothing against queer genders or sexuality but values marriage and the householder’s life.

 As Supreme Court scraps Section 377, a look at how ideas of karmic faiths can affirm the dignity of queer people

Devdutt Pattanaik’s I am Divine So Are You: How Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Hinduism Affirm the Dignity of Queer Identities and Sexualities

The following are ideas based on Karmic faiths that can be used to affirm the dignity of queer people:

1. There is no concept of Judgement Day in any Karmic faith. God is no judge. There is no such thing as eternal damnation for anyone, which includes queer people.

2. Nature/God is infinite (ananta). Infinity has no boundaries (rekha), no divisions (khanda). It is fluid, like a river. It includes the queer. The human mind is finite and limited and so cannot understand everything. We have to accept even that which makes no sense to us, with love for and faith in the infinite.

3. Our body, our personality and our sexuality are outcomes of their karmic burden. They are therefore natural. Wisdom lies in accepting them as such rather than fighting them.

4. Knowledge helps us accommodate the queer in society. Every society has to change its rules as per the needs of geography (sthana), history (kala) and people (patra). In the past, women were seen as inferior to men, Dalits as inferior to Brahmins, and queers as inferior to straight people. But this is considered unacceptable in modern times. We have to change with the times.

5. We have to think in practical terms:

a. How to include the queer in our family?
b. Who will take care of the queer when he/she is old?
c. How will the queer take care of old parents when they grow old?
d. How will the queer take the family name forward?

6. Problems with the queer are the same problems we face with young men and women who are increasingly choosing career over family, singlehood over marriage, divorce over staying together, and preferring to have only one child. Old religious practices are being abandoned and new ways are emerging as boys and girls marry across religions, languages, castes and communities. This adjustment is no different from adjusting with queer people.

7. Queer people can get married, for marriage is between souls (atma) that have no gender. We give too much value to the body (sharira) that can be male, female or queer.

8. No matter what our body (male, female, queer), no matter what our social status (rich/poor, educated/uneducated, married/unmarried, business/service), every human being has to cope with loneliness, sense of invalidation, and feelings of frustration and abandonment. This is universal for all creatures. Wisdom lies in helping people cope with this.

9. God is within us (jiva-atma) and others (para-atma). Through the other (para-atma) we can realise the infinite divine (param-atma). Hence the Upanishadic maxims: there is divinity within me (aham brahmasmi) and in you as well (tat tvam asi). To discover love and appreciation for the world as it is, not the way we want it to be, is wisdom. Discover God – that is wisdom and love – within you by being more generous and accepting of the queer in you and around you.

10. Everything in the eternal faiths (sanatana dharma) has a way out (upaay), nothing is fixed, provided we have open hearts, expanded minds, and are willing to ‘adjust’. We must take into account that Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Hinduism are not homogeneous. They comprise numerous sects and communities. Yet the overarching and fundamental wisdom that is common to all Karmic faiths makes ample room to accommodate the queer with innovative solutions.

As far as the state and sexuality are concerned, there is confusion. As mentioned earlier, India has deep and historic comfort with transgenders, although they continue to be on the margins of society. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, openly advocated transgender rights in August 2016. Indeed, at a grand festival in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh in June 2016, the government provided transgenders (known locally as kinnara) separate toilets. Contrast this with debates on transgender toilets in the United States and the rise of trans-phobic feminists.

Notably, in Abrahamic religions, God is avowedly masculine and so are most of his prominent prophets. There are tales of homoerotic love, like that between David and Jonathan, son of Saul, and the highlight of the discourse on sexuality dwells on the cities of Sodom and Gommorah destroyed by God for their queer and sensual proclivities.

While the third gender is acknowledged, the rest of the queer spectrum continues to be invisibilised. Thus in India, while transgenders enjoy full civic and human rights, homosexual unions continue to be criminalised under ‘unnatural sex’ laws. This homophobia can be traced to influences of conservative Christian and Islamic frameworks and to Hindu supremacists trying to reframe Hinduism along Abrahamic lines.

Therefore, it is important to emphasise the fundamental liberalism that lies at the core of Karmic faiths and articulate the strains of beliefs that affirm the dignity of queer expressions: Buddhism advocates a deep sense of shared compassion for the queer and encourages a sense of identity that is authentic and liberated from social and illusory constructions. Jainism advocates non-violence and radical scepticism and, as a result, avoids rushing to judgement about queer realities. Sikhism strongly advocates equality among genders and persons. And Hinduism celebrates diversity, which includes the queer in all of its manifestations.

Devdutt Pattanaik writes, illustrates and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. He has written more than 30 books and is a public speaker, leadership coach and management theorist.

Updated Date: Sep 06, 2018 17:53:10 IST