[Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of several essays and books on Hindu lore. His book ‘Man who was a woman and other queer tales from Hindu Lore’ was published by Haworth Press, USA. This essay was first published in Debonair Anniversary Issue, 2001.]
Did homosexuality exist in ancient India? 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.
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.
Interpretations and judgments aside, these images do tell us that the ‘idea’ of same-sex and what the colonial rulers termed ‘unnatural’ intercourse did exist in India. One can only speculate if the images represent the common or the exception.
What the stories suggest
In Indian epics and chronicles, there are occasional references to same-sex intercourse. For example, in the Valmiki Ramayana, Hanuman is said to have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing those women who have been kissed and embraced by Ravana. In the Padma Purana is the story of a king who dies before he can give his two queens the magic potion that will make them pregnant. Desperate to bear his child, the widows drink the potion, make love to each other (one behaving as a man, the other as a woman) and conceive a child. Unfortunately, as two women are involved in the rite of conception, the child is born without bones or brain (according to ancient belief, the mother gives the fetus flesh and blood, while the father gives the bone and brain). In these stories, the same-sex intercourse, born of frustration or desperation, is often a poor substitute of heterosexual sex.
More common are stories of women turning into men and men turning into women. In the Mahabharata, Drupada raises his daughter Shikhandini as a man and even gets ‘him’ a wife. When the wife discovers the truth on the wedding night, all hell breaks loose; her father threatens to destroy Drupada’s kingdom. The timely intervention of Yaksha saves the day: he lets Shikhandini use his manhood for a night and perform his husbandly duties. According to a folk narrative from Koovagam in Tamil Nadu, the Pandavas were told to sacrifice Arjuna’s son Aravan if they wished to win the war at Kurukshetra. Aravan refused to die a virgin. As no woman was willing to marry a man doomed to die in a day, Krishna’s help was sought. Krishna turned into a woman, married Aravan, spent a night with him and when he was finally beheaded, mourned for him like a widow. These stories allow women to have sex with women and men to have sex with men on heterosexual terms. One may interpret these tales as repressed homosexual fantasies of a culture.
Perhaps the most popular stories revolving around gender metamorphoses are those related to Mohini, the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu. They are found in many Puranas. Vishnu becomes a woman to trick demons and tempt sages. When the gods and demons churn the elixir of immortality out of the ocean of milk, Mohini distracts the demons with her beauty and ensures that only the gods sip the divine drink. In another story, Mohini tricks a demon with the power to incinerate any creature by his mere touch to place his hand on his own head. Mohini is so beautiful that when Shiva looks upon her he sheds semen out of which are born mighty heroes such as Hanuman (according to Shiva Purana) and Ayyappa (according to the Malayalee folk lore). One wonders why Vishnu himself transforms into a woman when he could have appointed a nymph or goddess to do the needful. However, devotees brush aside even the suggestion of a homosexual subtext; for them this sexual transformation is merely a necessary subterfuge to ensure cosmic stability. He who is enchanted by Mohini’s form remains trapped in the material world; he who realizes Mohini’s essence (Vishnu) attains liberation.
An overview of temple imagery and sacred narratives does suggest that homosexual activities – in some form – did exist in ancient India. Though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged but not approved. There was some degree of tolerance when the act expressed itself in heterosexual terms. The question that remains now is: how does attitudes towards homosexuals in ancient India affect modern-day attitudes? Is our approval or disapproval of same-sex affection and intercourse dependent on ancient values? And while we ponder over the questions, we must remind ourselves that the ancient sources that censure homosexual conduct, also institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.