Published on 22nd July, 2018, in Bangalore Mirror.
Dhol, gavar, shudra, pashu, nari; sakal tadan ke adhikari.’ (‘Drums, uneducated people, ‘low’ castes, animals, and women deserve a beating to straighten up and get their act together.’)
This quote from the 16th century Ramcharitmanas of Goswami Tulsidas is hurled repeatedly at anyone saying anything good about Hinduism to prove that it is patriarchal, misogynistic and casteist. But few quote the following lines, from the same text:
‘Nar, napunsak, nari, va jiva, chara-char koi; sarva bhav bhaj kapat taji, mohe param priya soi.’ (‘Men, queers, women, even plants and animals, all living creatures who abandon malice and approach me with affection are dear to me.’)
Ramcharitmanas is an Awadhi text that retells the story of Ram and establishes him as God. It plays a key role in the bhakti traditions of North India. Most North Indians assume it is the fundamental text of Hinduism annoying Hindus from West, East, and South India who have their own sacred texts in their own local languages. But we do live in times where Hindi calls the political shots and all other regional languages have to surrender to its privileged position.
Be that as it may, it is interesting that many young educated people who have never really been exposed to Tulsidas’ magnum opus know the first verse that projects Hinduism in a poor light. They are not exposed to the second verse. Is that deliberate?
The first verse contains the words of Varuna, the sea-god, who is mocked by Ram, to whom the verse is addressed. The second verse is spoken by Ram himself to the wise crow Kakabhusandi. The lesser god (deva) speaks of hierarchy and oppression, the greater God (bhagavan) speaks of equality and diversity, acknowledging even the queer. Which verse defines Hinduism?
Most curiously, both Leftists and Rightists insist that the verse that celebrates hierarchy defines Hinduism – Leftists criticise this, Rightists defend it. Neither really wants to acknowledge the wisdom of Hinduism, for that will take the wind out of each other’s politics. So neither quotes, or is even aware of, the latter verse. This selective understanding of the faith by elites as well as goons, on both sides, who control social discourse is the tragedy of Hinduism.
I keep hearing celibate and celebrity male Hindu monks and mystics and self-proclaimed media-endorsed Hindu leaders insisting that homosexuality is not part of Hinduism, only transgender people are. Of course, that does not mean they will give transgender people any real power or resources. It is just lip-service.
They will say that Vedanta does not support homosexuality. When they say this, they are turning Hinduism into an Abrahamic faith like Islam, Christianity and Judaism where God’s permission is sought to be true to one’s feelings. The Hindu leader is thus cleverly positioning himself as God’s messenger, which is not a Hindu concept at all.
Hinduism celebrates nature (prakriti) and all that it offers: nara (male), napunsak (queer), nari (women), plants and animals. In nature, all kinds of sexuality exists. As per botanists, most plants have male and female organs simultaneously. As per zoologists, hundred species of animals, in different contexts, display same-sex behaviour, and same-sex parenting. As per psychiatrists, human sexuality is complex and there is tension between biological urges and social values. Human society (sanskriti) struggles to accommodate this diversity, and, like a farmer who controls the farm and declares certain plants to be weeds, humans filter nature’s diversity as per their whims and wisdom. Isn’t the last part of this sentence flawed: In a patriarchal society, the human gardener will value men over women, priests over sweepers, heterosexuals over queers. It will rather curiously consider celibacy to be holy, and not unnatural (though it is, as per many scientists). In wisdom, mind is expanded, and all options are accommodated – heterosexual, homosexual, and room is made for men, women, transgenders and intersex, celibate and polyamorous, single parent as well as multi-parent and same-sex-parent family.
As the nun Sulabha tells Janaka in the Mahabharata, ‘The resident of the body (dehi) has no gender. The body (deha) has many genders and desires.’ The hermit rejects the body and wealth and seeks dehi. The householder finds the wisdom to celebrate the diverse manifestation of deha as an expression of dehi. Deha is an outcome of karma over which we have no control. Dehi is a witness observing how, in ignorance (avidya), we get agitated and seek control over diversity and establish hierarchy.
Today we have celibate monks who love money (but of course have not a penny ‘officially’ in their name), telling young boys and girls and queers and their parents how they should have sex, and with whom. They are giving themselves power, and establishing hierarchy, which is not the wisdom of Vedanta.
Ancient India has over 50 words for non-normative queer sex, gender and sexualities in Sanskrit and Prakrit. One of them is napunsaka! They are all jiva-atma (individual souls) who are dear to Ram who embodies param-atma (cosmic soul). That matters more than the opinions and prescriptions of politicians, activists, and babas.