DID HOMOSEXUALITY EXIST IN ANCIENT INDIA?
By Devdutt Pattanaik
The answer in many respects depends on what we mean by homosexuality. Do we limit ourselves only to sexual acts between members of the same sex and leave out romantic affection? Do we distinguish between those men who occasionally have sex with other men but otherwise live heterosexual lives, and those for whom their sexual preference forms the core of their identity? Do we consider same-sex intercourse that occurs in the course of a subterfuge, or as a result of frustration or desperation? And do we include liaisons involving those who consider themselves neither male nor female (for example, hijras)? Definitions are important because ‘homosexuality’ does not connote the same thing to all people. Besides, the meaning has changed over time. As has the meaning of heterosexuality.
Until early 20th century, ‘heterosexuality’ was used to refer to ‘morbid sexual practices’ between men and women such as oral and anal intercourse, as opposed to ‘normal’ procreative sex. The term homosexuality – that is so casually used today and is almost an everyday vocabulary – came into being only in the late 19th century Europe when discussions on the varied expressions of sex and sexuality became acceptable in academic circles. The term was used to describe “morbid sexual passion between members of the same sex.” It was declared ‘unnatural’ by colonial laws, as unnatural as casual sex between men and women that was not aimed at conception.
The term homosexuality and the laws prohibiting ‘unnatural’ sex were imposed across the world through imperial might. Though they exerted a powerful influence on subsequent attitudes, they were neither universal nor timeless. They were – it must be kept in mind – products of minds that were deeply influenced by the ’sex is sin’ stance of the Christian Bible. With typical colonial condescension, European definitions, laws, theories and attitudes totally disregarded how similar sexual activity was perceived in other cultures.
There never has been across geography or history a standard expression of, or a common attitude towards sexual acts between members of the same sex. Love of a man for a boy was institutionalised in ancient Greece, amongst Samurais in Japan, in certain African as well as Polynesian tribes. Amongst some Native and South American tribes, erotic relationships between men was acceptable so long as one of the partners was ‘feminine’. For Arabs, so medieval travellers claim, ‘women were for home and hearth, while boys were for pleasure’. These cultures offer no synonym for same-sex intercourse. It was perhaps a practice that did not merit definition, categorization or even condemnation. So long as it did not threaten the dominant heterosexual social construct.
To find out if homosexuality or same-sex intercourse existed in India, and in what form, we have to turn to three sources: images on temple walls, sacred narratives and ancient law books.
What the walls show, Construction of Hindu temples in stone began around the sixth century of the Common Era. Construction reached climax between the twelfth and the fourteenth century when the grand pagodas of eastern and southern India such as Puri and Tanjore came into being. On the walls and gateways of these magnificent structures we find a variety of images: gods, goddesses, demons, nymphs, sages, warriors, lovers, priests, monsters, dragons, plants and animals. Amongst scenes from epics and legends, one invariably finds erotic images including those that modern law deems unnatural and society considers obscene. Curiously enough, similar images also embellish prayer halls and cave temples of monastic orders such as Buddhism and Jainism built around the same time.
The range of erotic sculptures is wide: from dignified couples exchanging romantic glances, to wild orgies involving warriors, sages and courtesans. Occasionally one finds images depicting bestiality coupled with friezes of animals in intercourse. All rules are broken: elephants are shown copulating with tigers, monkeys molest women while men mate with asses. And once in a while, hidden in niches as in Khajuraho, one does find images of either women erotically embracing other women or men displaying their genitals to each other, the former being more common (suggesting a tilt in favour of the male voyeur).
These images cannot be simply dismissed as perverted fantasies of an artist or his patron considering the profound ritual importance given to these shrines. There have been many explanations offered for these images – ranging from the apologetic to the ridiculous. Some scholars hold a rather puritanical view that devotees are being exhorted to leave these sexual thoughts aside before entering the sanctum sanctorum. Others believe that hidden in these images is a sacred Tantric geometry; the aspirant can either be deluded by the sexuality of the images or enlightened by deciphering the geometrical patterns therein. One school of thought considers these images to representations of either occult rites or fertility ceremonies. Another suggests that these were products of degenerate minds obsessed with sex in a corrupt phase of Indian history. According to ancient treatises on architecture, a religious structure is incomplete unless its walls depicts something erotic, for sensual pleasures (kama) are as much an expression of life as are righteous conduct (dharma), economic endeavours (artha) and spiritual pursuits (moksha).