Published on 16th May, 2021, in Mid-day.
Scholars never talk about the homoerotic, homosocial and homosexual tales found in the ancient Buddhist Jataka collection. When men live together, even as monks, in a solitary spiritual pursuit, it is natural that some men would bond and become very close friends. The relationships were not always sexual, obviously, but were clearly cause of much deliberation. While there was condemnation of sexual activity as indicated by the monastic laws (vinaya) against men with homosexual tendencies (pandaka), there was no condemnation of the very evident same sex attachment as indicated by the Jataka tales.
Baka-Brahma Jataka, for example, tells the story of an old monk who falls sick and is unable to digest royal food served by the king himself, until he is reunited with his young companion, whose simple millet gruel restores his health. This story is retold in the Kesava Jataka. Both the Cullahamsa Jataka and Mahahamsa Jataka retell the story of a golden alpha gander caught by the royal hunter. His wives, the geese, run away, but his male companion, the beta gander, refuses to leave his side, risking death, earning the admiration of the hunter and the king.
Buddha’s senior most disciples were Sariputta and Moggallana, always seen as a pair. They joined Buddha’s monastic order at the same time, always sat to Buddha’s left and right, and even died at the same time, dreading life without the other. It seems their relationship inspired Jatakas such as Citta-Sambhuta Jataka of two friends, who were together over multiple lives: as birds, as deer and as humans. In the final life, one friend becomes a king, while another chooses to be hermit. After many years, the king realises the hollowness of royal comforts and finds comfort only when he re-joins his hermit-friend.
In the very similar Sonaka Jataka, the king’s royal life is compared to a crow’s who sits on a dead elephant’s carcass, floating down the river, to enjoy the bounty of meat. By the time he is done enjoying the feast, he realises he has floated far into the sea, away from the shore, with no hope of rescue. It almost seems like a metaphor for the secure, socially sanctioned heterosexual married life that many gay men choose out of fear of loneliness.
In Siri-Kalakanni Jataka, a young man is forced to marry his guru’s daughter, and he abandons her in the forest, as he is not interested in her. She is so beautiful that a king makes her his queen, and he remains a poor sweeper, content in his poverty.
Kacchapa Jataka is about gay sex abuse involving a monkey, who has sex with a sleeping monk and then finds himself being caught awkwardly when he tries to do the same with a tortoise. In contrast, Manikantha Jataka is a story of gay love and loss. A naga or serpent-being called Manikantha, with a jewel on his hood, falls in love with a young man, coiling around him passionately every evening. The young man, however, fears this relationship and drives Manikantha away by asking for his precious naga-jewel. But then the young man suffers as he pines for what he spurned away.
In later traditions, Buddha’s doorkeepers were the fierce Vajrapani, and the graceful Padmapani, both male, bearers of the thunderbolt and the lotus, metaphors in Buddhist Tantrik literature for masculine and feminine energies. For the queer eye, such images can be very empowering.