This article is Part I of a three-part article series that will discuss the history of homosexuality in India in pre-colonial and colonial times and the decriminalisation of Section 377. Historians often reference back to the pre-colonial times when speaking about same-sex love and its prevalence in mythology, vernacular literature and religious text. But many oppose homosexuality based on the reasoning that it subscribes to western tendencies. Deepanshi Mehrotra, in this article, as part of this series, will debunk the ‘western idealogy’ argument, countering through literary and graphic evidence of homosexuality visible across India’s monuments and scriptures.
By Deepanshi Mehrotra, a law graduate from Symbiosis Law School in Pune, Maharashtra. Deepanshi is currently freelancing. Deepanshi is a member of the Lawctopus Writers Club.
In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality. After the judgment, there was an uproar insisting that India is adopting western ideologies and concepts of liberalism.
However, historians and mythology experts disagree. They believe that this judgment took India back to its roots, where love was celebrated and accepted in all its forms.
The Britishers proscribed consensual ‘homosexual conduct’ by introducing Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code in 1861. However, criminalising homosexuality reflected European morality based on religious beliefs (primarily Christian beliefs) more than Indian instincts.
Ancient India vindicated the presence of varied sexual orientations and the identity of transgender persons. Going by the religious texts and history, pre-colonial India seemed much more tolerant towards owning sexuality.
One of the primary arguments against homosexuality states that it defies Indian cultural values and morals, terming it unnatural. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the history of homosexuality in India and its presence in Indian values and culture. Thus, this article will dwell on the varied instances throughout ancient and medieval India to affirm that India before colonisation was not morally uptight.
History of Homosexuality in India: Speaking from Literary Evidence
The fluidity of gender, for humans and yakshas, is an acknowledged concept in ancient India. Queerness can be traced back to Indian history, from ancient epics and scriptures to medieval prose, poetry, art and architecture.
Following are certain instances accentuating the presence of homosexuality and the acceptance of homoeroticism in India.
Valmiki’s Ramayana states that when Lord Hanuman returned from Lanka after visiting Goddess Sita, he saw rakshasa women kissing and embracing women.
Krittivasa Ramayana enunciates the tale of King Bhagiratha, who was born of two women.
The text states that King Dilip had two wives, and he died without leaving an heir. Following this, Lord Shiva appeared in the dreams of the queens and told them that they would bear a child if they made love to each other. The widowed queens did as directed, and one of them got pregnant, eventually giving birth to King Bhagiratha. He is a famous king known to have brought River Ganga from heaven on earth.
Mahabharatha has the story of Shikhandini or Shikandi, who was responsible for the death of Deveratt Bhishma. She was born as a daughter to King Drupad but raised as a man. Later in her life, she took the help of a yaksha to become a man to enter the battlefield of Kurukshetra and defeat Bhishma.
Matsya Purana has an intriguing story where Lord Vishnu transitioned into a beautiful woman, ‘Mohini’. He intended to trick the demons so that gods drank all the amrut (holy water). Further, upon seeing Mohini, Lord Shiva fell in love with her, and their union led to the birth of Lord Ayyappa.
Chapter nine of Kamasutra by Vatsyayana discusses oral sexual acts, termed Auparashtika, homosexuality and sexual activities among transgender persons.
Chapter Purushayita also mentions svairini, a self-willed and independent woman engaged in sexual activities with other women. The book also references men who are attracted to the same gender.
The text refers to these individuals as Tritiya-Prakriti or the third nature.
Furthermore, Kamasutra recognises eight types of marriages. For example, the term ‘gandharva vivah’ acknowledged gay marriage or lesbian marriage. It literally translates into a union or cohabitation without the approval of parents.
The Rig Veda references the tale of Varun and Mitra, invariably cited as Mitra-Varun. They are a same-sex couple believed to be the representatives of the two halves of the moon.
Shatapatha Brahmana states:
“On that new moon night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna, and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed. Varuna is similarly said to implant his seed in Mitra on the full-moon night for the purpose of securing its future waxing.”
Other literature in Hindu mythology mentions same-sex love but disapproves of them. For instance, Narada Purana, Manusmriti, and Arthashastra provide for punishment for such actions. Regardless, it proves the presence of homosexuality in those times.
The founder of the Mughal Empire was not himself devoid of attraction towards the same sex. In his Memoir, Baburnama, Babur enunciates his attraction towards a boy named Baburi in Kabul. Babur mentioned him in his memoir and wrote the poem:
May none be as I, humbled and wretched and love-sick;
No beloved as thou art to me, cruel and careless.
Certain Sufi poetries also exhibit homoerotic or same-sex references.
For instance, Sufi Saint Bulleh Shah had pre-modern notions of sexuality and religion and portrayed them in his writings. His poems exhibited the fluidity of his sexuality and his love for his murshid, Shah Inayat.
The story of Sarmad Kashani is also famous. He was an Armenian merchant who later became a Sufi Saint. While travelling to India for trade, he fell in love with a Hindu boy named Abhai Chand. He abandoned his business and started living in Thatta with Abhai Chand as his student. Sarmad Kashani was eventually arrested by Aurangzeb and beheaded.
Another Sufi Saint Shah Hussain claims his love for a Hindu boy named Madho Lal in his works. Eventually, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were buried together in Lahore. Their remains in several texts symbolise divine love that lasted beyond their existence.
Johan Stavorinus, a Dutch traveller, wrote about male homosexuality among Mughals in Bengal in his Voyages to the East Indies. In his work, he wrote:
“The sin of Sodom is not only universal in practice among them, but extends to a bestial communication with brutes, and in particular, sheep. Women even abandon themselves to the commission of unnatural crimes.”
Besides literary evidence, Indian history has abundant visual traces of homosexuality in India. These records exist as art, paintings, sculptures throughout the country.
One such chronicle is preserved in the temples of Khajuraho. The Khajuraho temple sculptures, built by the Chandela dynasty between 950 to 1050 AD, showcase images where men expose their genitals to other men and women are erotically embracing each other.
Scholars and historians have interpreted this as an acknowledgement of homosexuality and same-sex love in those times. These sculptures stand as an assertion of the sexual fluidity of men, women and the third gender.
Thirteenth-century Sun temple in Konark in eastern Orissa, also called Surya Devalaya, exhibits similar imageries. The Sun temple is devoted to the Hindu Sun god, with the exterior covered in sculptures depicting erotic scenes from the Kamasutra.
Temples of Puri and Tanjore also portray explicit images of queer couples. Rajrani temple in Bhubaneswar has a statue depicting two women engaging in oral sex.
Images at the Buddhist monastic caves at Ajanta and Ellora depict the life of Gautam Budha. The sculptures and paintings manifest architecture of a high order. The essential aspect is that among the paintings of Budha are certain other paintings displaying sensuality and erotic scenes. These paintings portray men and women engaging in lovemaking with the same sex.
These visual records counter any and every belief associated with the absence of homosexuality from the Indian culture.
Moreover, these depictions of one’s sexuality were quite astounding for the British colonisers, who intended to control such vivid displays of sexuality. Thus, the British colonisers affected India’s understanding of sexuality beyond the proscription of ‘perverse’ sex. Among other things, they also anglicised India’s moral lens.
It is essential to understand the history associated with an issue to formulate logical arguments. Understanding and acknowledging the history of homosexuality in Indian will endow a sense of identity upon the LGBTQIA+ community in India.
It will also help remove ignorance on behalf of Indian society, which assumes homosexuality and queerness to be a western interference.
A rich history of literature exists on homosexuality and gender fluidity.
Thus, despite popular belief, homosexuality does not go against our cultural values and tradition. Moreover, the above-stated instances hold proof of the presence and recognition of the LGBTQIA+ community in India before the British.
There’s enough evidence from history and mythology to suggest that the criminalisation of homosexuality was a foreign concept and its recognition part of Indian culture.
The following two parts in the three-part article series will talk about the two moments of criminalising and decriminalising homosexuality. The second article in the series will understand how the Britisher’s idea of culpability affected India until 2018. Finally, the last piece will speak about decriminalisation, focusing on Navtej Johar judgment. It will also talk about the history of activism that led to the decriminalisation of Section 377.
- Pattanaik, Devdutt. Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You. Zubaan Books, 2015.
- Vanita, Ruth, and Kidwai, Saleem. Same-Sex Love in India. Palgrave Publishers Ltd, 2001.
- Ray, Sanjana. “Indian Culture Does Recognise Homosexuality, Let Us Count The Ways.” The Quint, 2018, www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/homosexuality-rss-ancient-indian-culture-section-377#read-more#read-more. Accessed 26 June 2021.