Published on 27th September, 2020, in Mumbai Mirror.
Hindu culture forbids divorce. Yet Hindu personal laws permit divorce. Hindu culture allows gods, and men, to have many wives. Yet Hindu personal laws forbid polygamy. Does it mean Hindu personal laws are opposing Hindu culture? Or, does it mean they are being true dharmashastras, updating responsible social behaviour, i.e. dharma to suit the times (kala), the place (sthan) and the people (patra)? There are separate marriage laws for diverse communities in India, such as Hindu and Muslim. Why can’t there be a separate same-sex union law for queer people?
Dharma-shastras are guided by Vedas, and shaped by tradition and wisdom. They have changed constantly from Apasthamba to Vasishtha, Gautama to Manu to Yagnvalkya, responding to contemporary economic, political and social challenges. This dynamism differentiates dharma-shastras from the biblical idea of God’s commandment that is carved in stone. What is okay for Ram (only one wife) is different from what is okay for Krishna (many wives) as the two exist in different periods, in different contexts.
Hindu scriptures keep saying even though all life is expression of the divine (atma), the jungle is ruthless and hierarchical: Life feeds on life, and the strong on the weak. Dharma is ability to reverse this instinct, as Manu does, literally saving the small fish from big fish, in Vedic Brahmana and Puranic literature. The dharma-shastras were meant to give social expression to this civilising idea.
Thus compassion and reciprocity form the basis of dharma. This view of Hinduism that was conveniently ignored by the European translators of the Hindu scriptures, who were determined to show Hindus as savages, following jungle law, in need of European civilising. They pigeon-holed Manu as casteist. But Manu in his dharma-shastra and Chanakya in his artha-shastra state that gods appointed kings to prevent jungle law from seeping into society. Through dharma, the king (raja) prevents anarchy (arajakta).
Based on the idea of rebirth, marriage is important in dharma-shastras because it enables humans to repay their debt to ancestors by creating and sustaining the next generation. Thus rotates the wheel of life and death. Dharma-shastras see celibacy and renunciation as inferior to the householder stage (grihasthaashrama). All rishis had to marry, at the very least to produce a child. Sages like Kardama abandoned their wives after the child was born. This was allowed. But greater respect was for the man who became a hermit after his children had children of their own. For marriage was not just about producing babies — it was about feeding society, the sages, the gods, the ancestors, the family, the guest, the beggar, the stranger.
How would Hindu scriptures enable a gay man to be a householder? For children, he could adopt, as many childless kings such as Janaka did. Or he could request a woman to lend him her womb as Parasara did. Or take advantage of in-vitro fertilisation, which is how Vibhandaka fathered Rishyashringa muni.
But what about life-partner? Vedic Sanskrit has the dual pronoun, besides the singular and plural, indicating value for the pair. Sacred literature venerates the idea of bandhu (companion) and sakha/sakhi (close friend) as being greater than a mere friend (mitra). Gods always appeared in pairs. But the pair was not always heteronormative. In Rig Veda, Indra appears always with Agni or Soma. All three are male. Mitra always appears with Varuna (both are male), and both spill semen in a pot (in-vitro fertilisation?) on seeing Urvashi and father the sages Agastya and Vasishtha. In temples and household rituals, we find goddesses with female companions (Nanda-Sunanda, Chamunda-Chotila, Tara-Tarini, Jyestha-Kanishtha, Ganga-Gauri). In Agama temple literature, all gods must be married to form the divine pair (dampatya) — Shiva marries Shakti, Vishnu marries Lakshmi, but while Shiva merges with Shakti to be Ardhanareshwara, he also merges with Vishnu to be Shankar-Narayana, or Hara-Hari. With Shakti, he fathers Ganesha and Kartikeya, with Vishnu who takes the form of the female Mohini, he fathers Ayyappa. In Tantra, Lakshmi is invoked as one who adores Vishnu in his female Mohini form. Heteronormativity was never important in temple expressions. We can see them literally or metaphorically, depending on how spiritually primed we are to handle diversity and difference.
Hindu mythology celebrates the diverse. Apsaras like Menaka give birth to children but abandon them on forest floors. These children are raised by single men like Kanva. Hardly heteronormative. Women like Jatila have many husbands. Men like Bhringi prefer to adore only Shiva, rejecting Shakti. Yoginis refuse to have husbands and live in female collectives, Nath-jogis refuse to have wives and live in male collectives. There is a space for everyone, provided it is based on dharma: Compassion, reciprocity and social responsibility. Time the judiciary hears the cries of dharma to expand the Indian State to gay and lesbian couples wanting to start a household legitimately.