Queer Sexuality and Indian Culture

Indian Mythology, Queer 21 Comments

First Published in Times of India, 3 July 2009

In his navagraha kirti, the great 19th century Carnatic music composer, Muthuswami Dikshitar describes Budh (the planet Mercury) as Napumsakam or one who is not quite male, or female. He alludes to a story in the Puranas where Brihaspati (the planet Jupiter) discovers that his wife Tara (the goddess of stars) is pregnant with the child of her lover, Chandra (the moon-god). He curses the love-child to be born neuter. Budh later marries Ila, a man who becomes a woman when he accidentally trespasses into an enchanted grove. From that union springs the Chandra-vamsa, or the lunar dynasty of kings. So says the Mahabharata.

As in the story of Ila, Indian lore is full of tales where men turn into women and women turn into men. Narada falls into a pond, becomes a woman, discovers the meaning of worldly delusion or maya. Shiva bathes in the Yamuna, becomes a gopi, a milkmaid, so that he can dance the raas-leela with Krishna – an idea that has inspired the temple of Gopeshwarji in Vrindavan. At a short distance from Ahmedabad, is the temple of Bahucharji, the rooster-riding goddess, where once it is said there was a pond that turned a woman into a man, a mare into a horse and a bitch into a dog. The pond has dried up, but women still visit this shrine seeking a male child. They seek the blessings of bhagats (some call them hijras) who, though men, believe they are women and choose to live their life wearing a sari.

Near Pondicherry, in the village of Koovagam, every year the transgendered alis dance and sing in memory of an event that took place during mythic times. Aravan, the son of Arjuna and his serpent wife, Ulupi, had to be sacrificed to ensure victory of the Pandavas at Kurukshetra. But he refused to die without a taste of marriage. As no woman was willing to marry a man doomed to die the following dawn, Krishna took his female form, Mohini, became Aravan’s wife, spent a night with him and then wailed for him as his widow when he was beheaded.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, there are descriptions of Rakshasa women who kiss women on Ravana’s bed on whose lips lingers the taste of their master. In the Krittivasa Ramayana is the story of two widows who drink a magic potion and, in the absence of their husband, make love to each other and end up bearing a child without bones (traditionally believed to be the contribution of semen).

How does one interpret these stories? Are they gay stories? They certainly shatter the conventional confines of gender and sexuality. Ancient Indian authors and poets without doubt imagined a state where the lines separating masculinity and femininity often blurred and even collapsed. Though awkward, these were not stray references. Such tales were consistent and recurring, narrated matter-of-factly, without guilt or shame. Such outpouring has its roots in Indian metaphysics.

As the wheel of rebirth turns, Indians have always believed, the soul keeps casting off old flesh and wrapping oneself anew. Depending on one’s karma, one can be reborn as a tree, as a rock, as a bird, a beast, a man, a woman, a man with a woman’s heart, a woman with a man’s heart, even as a god or demon….endless possibilities exist in the infinite cosmos. The wise see masculinity and femininity as ephemeral robes that wrap the sexless genderless soul. The point is not to get attached to the flesh, but to celebrate its capabilities, discover its limitations, and finally transcend it.

The question before us is: does the human mind have the empathy to include gender and sexual ambiguity in civil human society? It does. In every Yuga new rules come into being that redefine world order. Mahabharata mentions a Yuga when there was no marriage – women were free to go any man they chose. This changed when Shvetaketu instituted the marriage laws. We have lived through a Yuga where we left unchallenged laws of old imperial masters that dehumanized and invalidated sexual minorities. This has to change – hopefully now.

  • pranav

    good article.

  • Harikrishan


    I respect your point of view and each citizen/human being has right to express his/her views.
    In similar line, I too have right to express my views (which is more general and representative of society):

    => Homosexuality like theft and sexual relationship with more than one partner is a disease. These are unethical, uncivilized activities and this is the reason that 99% Indians (at least)don’t approve it.
    => No one need any doctor’s, scientist’s view to prove the above statement.

    If you have any other queries, we can discuss.

    • A little compassion sir….it is so easy to dismiss, exclude and exterminate people…..but I guess, if that is your choice, one has to respect that….

    • Jyoti Iyer

      To each his own. But to the homosexuals I’m sure the heterosexuals are unnatural…

  • MJ

    It is correct that we find the mentioning of such stories pointing towards homosexual behavior even in ancient India.

    But what I am still unable to accept that it wasn’t considered an anomaly ? I read somewhere that ancient scriptures prescribed not to have intercourse on 11th and 13th night after women menses else a homosexual would be born. If the homosexuality was considered very normal they would have never made this point.

    The focus on karma theory and related idea “hate the sin not the sinner”, made the homosexual acceptable in the society but like I said earlier it was not something that anyone wanted to be.

    Please let me know your view on the same either her or in some of your other article.

    • Sin is not a Hindu word….a little more compassion will make the society a bit more tolerant….

  • Satish Rao

    No one is talking about being mean to them. But homosexuality goes against the basic premise for which sex exists. That is reproduction.

    To categorize homosexuals as a class of people is a disservice to them. It is an anamoly among people and should be treated that way.

    I think the ancient scriptures does two things, records what does happen in the world and prescribes good or bad tag on them. Homosexual incidents is a recording and almost never is it prescribed as desirable as far as I know.

    • Sex is not just for procreation. If that was case, then sex after children would be banned.

    • Shiva

      @Satish Rao: The premise of your argument is fundamentally flawed in case of humans. All animals do not feel the emotional equivalent of what humans do when they have sex. They have sex to only reproduce, and at certain times of the year (Mating Season). Humans are one of the few species who are above the notion of mating season and have emotions or feel pleasure while making love. Thus, we use the term to make love for humans in addition to have sex.

      If the primary purpose of sex was to reproduce then nature would not have created us any different from other animals. And I believe in a fundamental law: What nature creates cannot be unnatural!

  • Aashish

    Came to your site after reading your article on rediff, rebuffing Baba Ramdev’s views. The above article was quite interesting to read. I would like to know more about the ancient scriptures and their relevance in today’s life….not just sexuality, but other spheres too.

  • One often thinks that stories from scriptures gives sanctions to things that are unnatural. Unfortunately, defying your own (running) uotes, you pick up loose incidents in Mahabharata / Ramayana to support your favouring views on homosexuality. Homosexuality is real. One cannot push it under the carpet. At the same time we must understand that the sexual urges by nature are meant for the process of procreation. Instead, human beings, have glamourised the process of sexual intercourse ( I mean Mallika Sheravat, etc.,. ) Homosexuality is unnatural, unnecessary for procreation, people having this urge, need their minds to get formatted. The least they can do to maintain decency, is not bringing their perversion out of their bedrooms. Shame!!!

  • You say, sex is not for procreation. Sexual urge is for procreation only. If you watch creations other than human beings, they indulge in sexual intercourse, only with opposite sex and give birth to offsprings. Man has to build relations for sex only for this purpose. Other wise, it is obsession. Human beings have restricted their sexual activity for few children, naturally speaking thay can have more till their time of fertility exists. If not, apply the rules of the society, have restricted sex with your designated wives. Homos are perverted, not natural. Please do not make this an accepted behaviour. It is pollution.

  • I am amazed at the way you have put up so many examples, I do agree with your views and do agree also that what happens is surely for a cause, let the blamers do their pull why not the people live happily as before???

  • Durga

    Indian ( hindu) mythological texts provide a multitudinous view of life emphasising the evolutionary aspect of universe.There is no right or wrong.Things are as they are.But in this bewildering variety of pulsating Energy many combinations are possible.For humans ,of course a desirable course of action is also chartered by sages as per their personal predilections.Absolute fredom of independent ideas galore is the general rule.
    But EKAM SAT VIPRAH BAHUDHA VADANTI is also emphasized.

  • Fantastic! It is very heartening that so many views are being percolated towards a issue so very very private. Knowledgs brings in scientific temper and with that temper it is very easy to digest scientific and non-scientific things. Please continue with this endeavour.

  • Avi


    Again, if sexual intercourse was for just procreation, around 80% of the heterosexual couples should stop having sex. There would be no need for contraception – if you are going to use contraception, then it is “unnatural” sex, as it does not result in procreation. This entire premise is completely out-of-current-reality. Also, your argument that “other creations” in nature “indulge in sexual intercourse, only with opposite sex” is wrong – there have been around 1500 documented species of the animal kingdom that have exhibited homosexuality. For every argument that one can come up, there is a valid, logical explanation provided by the scientific community explaining homosexuality. Keeping all this aside, no one has the right to decide what is “criminal” or “illegal” or “perverted”, as long as it does not hurt other people.

    Dr. Pattnaik,
    Great series of articles! Thank you.

  • Rakesh

    I found the articles and comments to be quite good.They throw light on an important social (and personal) issue in a scientific and rational manner (to a great extent).

    1. In my opinion, Dr Pattnaik is right when he says that no one has any right to decide what is criminal or perverted or illegal, as long as it does not hurt anyone. When we ourselves are not perfect, who are we to decide what is right? Yes, we can object when we are harmed by something or someone in some way.

    2. At the same way, just because it is not criminal does not mean that it is okay or it is not an anamoly. frankly speaking, I don’t know whether it is an anamoly or not. Neither should it be glamourised. But what I do understand is that in our journey towards transcendence, such urges need to be won over. Even the normal sex urges need to be moderated/regulated in our journey towards higher goals. If that is the spirit, then perhaps we should try to control our urges after procreation, but of course, not doing does not make it criminal, or illegal. So is the case with homosexuality.

    3. Empathy is required not only for homosexuals, but even an actual criminal, who needs to be transformed.

  • @R Prakash: May be it is time for you to go see a doctor – and that of a head! Quotes from the Ramayan or Mahabharata are not stated to support homosexuality at all. Understand that it cannot be chosen. It is there in the person from birth and only latent, which sometimes needs an expression to be realized. You speak of formatting minds, well if only hearts, minds, bodies and souls were excel sheets, then may be we could get them formatted. You claim to be straight isn’t it? Then go the other way – Let’s format your mind (in your own words). Would you be able to? No one is bringing their so-called perversion out of the bedroom. I am certain you do not see the likes of us making out or having sex in public areas and if you did, then I am only heading to wonder that what were you doing there in the first place? You speak of pollution. I will tell you what is pollution. Pollution is when a woman is raped. Polltion is when a child is abused. Pollution exists when there is terrorism. Pollution is not about two men loving each other. Pollution is not about two men who are adults wanting to have sex with each other. Pollution is only in your mind. Sorry. Let’s just repeat one word of yours: Shame!!

  • I doubt anyone here actually what its like to be a homosexual. I most certainly don’t.Then, as long as two men love each other ans have sex by mutual consent, what is the problem? People talk of remedies like “Go to a psychiatrist” or “They are unnatural, they need counselling.” Has anyone, anyone even stopped for a moment to think what those two people, those two guys with feeling and a heart undergo when they face such treatment? Is it their fault that they are homosexual? It is within them from birth, irreversible. Moreover, what kind of society is this anyway, where people ignore a man who beats and tortures his wife, women and children being forced into slavery, labour and prostitution, while making such a roar about homosexuality? Format a mind? Just what kind of a person would say that. Humans are given the greatest gift of all, that of individuality. To “format” would mean to brainwash. Then how exactly are we different from the Nazi social system? How are two men in love harming others? As long as people keep pointing fingers and passing prejudiced comments and persecuting humans for doing absolutely nothing harmful, lives of so many people will be destroyed. I hope you people are ready for that guilt.

  • Rashmi

    Looking at the reactions and statements, I can think of only one sentence : From Prajapati has come the question, from Prajapati will come the solution!!!!!

  • sai

    The wise see masculinity and femininity as ephemeral robes that wrap the sexless genderless soul.
    fabulous !!! Our soul, our self, sexless, genderless is a realm of possilities and potential. Tap in, realise your potential and live…