Published on 15th December, 2013, Sunday Times
Following the Supreme Court judgment upholding IPC Section 377, I was invited by a few regional TV channels to speak on the issue of homosexuality and Hinduism. I was deemed an expert as I have written many books on Hindu mythology, including retellings of Mahabharata and Ramayana.
In most places, I encountered something very peculiar: it was assumed I would welcome the Supreme Court judgment and condemn homosexuality as unacceptable in Hinduism. They were quite surprised (many pleasantly) when I did not do so.
That got me thinking: why is it assumed that Hindus, by default, would condemn homosexuality? Is it because of Baba Ramdev’s caustic rant? Didn’t they see Sri Sri Ravishankar’s tweet saying homosexuality is not a crime in Hindu culture?
The problem is not so much with Hinduism as it is with the popular understanding of religion. Religion is seen as anti sex. Sex is seen as a diversion and distraction from the spiritual path. The Bible tells tales of men like Samson losing divine power when they fall for the sensual charms of women like Delilah. Buddhism visualises Gautama overpowering the daughters of Mara, demon of desire, in his quest for enlightenment. Puranas inform us of how Shiva opens his third eye to set aflame Kama, god of sensuality. Celibacy has traditionally associated with holiness. Sex is permitted only within the confines of marriage. Sex for pleasure is seen as dirty, anti-social, even evil.
So it follows that sex that has no procreative aspect, sex that can only be for pleasure, such as that between two men or two women, or with someone who is intersex or transgender, and sex that does not involve reproductive organs, must be bad, anti-spiritual, anti-religious, the work of the Devil. The British reinforced this view by creating the ‘sodomy’ law, referring to the biblical city of Sodom that was destroyed by God as it was rife with sexual deviations. Subjects of the British empire, Hindus included, were keen to distance themselves from all such things vile; they were determined to prove themselves pure, even if it meant wiping out or denying their own legacy.
But Hinduism had a peculiar problem. Most religions implement themselves through rules. But not Hinduism. Rules in Hinduism are always restricted to a particular community (sampradaya) and there are thousands of such sampradayas. There is no pan-Hindu rule. What binds it then? To understand this we have to appreciate two aspects of Hinduism: shruti and smriti.
Shruti refers to cosmic vibrations of eternal ideas heard by sensitive open minds. Smriti refers to rules springing from human memory that takes into consideration needs of desha (land), kala (time) and guna (personality of people). Rules are supposed to be contextual, responding to history and geography and communities. When Smriti becomes rigid (caste laws, for example) society stagnates and stinks. Shruti allows Hindus to redefine and relook at smriti that has outlived its utility, change it to suit changing times, so that it brings happiness to all.
Happiness whether it is sukha (joy), shanti (peace) or samruddhi (prosperity) then can be seen as the goal of Hinduism. How do we get it? It is here that Hinduism distinguishes itself from most religions. It does not give a single answer.
Just as different plants finds nourishment differently, just as every animal seeks its own kind of food, every human walks his or her unique path, sometimes seeking guidance of a guru. Since everyone has unique physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities, nothing can really be standardized for humans, not even the idea of God. So, in Hinduism, God is both outside and inside, formless (nirguna) and of myriad different forms (saguna): mineral, plant, celestial body, animal, half-animal, half-human, male, female, even half-female. Diversity is thus embedded. Subjectivity is thus celebrated. And all attempts confine it with rules is resisted.
This fluid architecture is what enabled Hinduism to stay relevant throughout its 4000-year history. Fluidity means wisdom needs to be valued over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, affection over righteousness, love over rules. This means there can be no room for homophobia in Hinduism, much to the irritation of those Hindus who desperately want rules to control even the private bedroom habits of consenting adults.