Book Review: “Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage In India And The West” By Ruth Vanita

Love’s Rite is a powerful piece in the realm of cultural studies that outlines the genealogy of same-sex love, same-sex friendships and same-sex suicides in the pre-modern era, with a focus on traditional Hindu literature. While Ruth Vanita makes it clear that the book is not an exhaustive history book of same-sex unions, she belabours the point that same-sex unions are not (and never were) an exclusively modern phenomenon.

The book’s introductory chapter captures the essence of the author’s main argument by detailing the pre-modern origins of same-sex marriage. Here, Ruth Vanita outlines the multiple avatars that the social construction of marriage takes in almost every society in the world that left behind written texts. From medieval India to Ancient Greece, from Rome and Egypt to China and medieval Japan (to name just a few), instances of same-sex unions have been well documented and are yet, largely unknown to the general public.

The book does two things extraordinarily well. First, it busts popular myths surrounding homosexuality, modernity, gender, marriage and same-sex unions by providing strong rebuttals to common arguments against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. What is marriage? Is homosexuality a western idea with no place in “traditional societies” like India? Why should same-sex couples seek State recognition? Is marriage always oppressive? These just a few questions that are addressed succinctly in this manuscript.

Second, the book provides poignant narrations of same-sex unions, friendships and suicides across cultures, space and time. From Plato’s fifth-century BC dialogue on love in the Symposium to the author’s own story of her same-sex wedding with her partner, Mona Bachmann, we are presented with wide-ranging narratives of same-sex love that challenges the mainstream public’s common understanding of love and relationships. Ruth Vanita’s approach towards analysing same-sex marriage is intersectional, feminist and takes a deep look at religious texts to unearth humanistic interpretations of gender and sexuality that are diametrically opposed to the modern Religious Right Wing’s narrow understanding of sex, sexuality and gender.

“In Judeo- Christian- Islamic traditions, God, thought conventionally referred to as male, is ultimately without gender. ‘God is a spirit’ (John 4:24), and, like any spirit, is neither male nor females. Angels, like Rafael and Gabriel, conventionally gendered male are also without gender or sexuality.”

(Chapter 3, page 104)

In her treatise on Hindu religion and philosophy too, Ruth Vanita claims that mainstream Hindu philosophical thought, which is heavily influenced by the Advaita Vedanta school transcends notions of the gender binary. She cites examples from other schools of thought, such as the Sankhya and Tantra schools, as well as prominent texts such as The Puranas and The Mahabharata to answer the question asked at the beginning of Chapter 3: Is the Spirit Gendered? The answer is a resounding no. A gender-fluid understanding of the spirit, it seems is the essence of pre-modern religious philosophy.

Despite providing eye-opening instances of the inclusive nature of religious scripture, where the book falters, is at its inability to explain why the Religious Right continues to deny the LGBTQ+ community in general and same-sex couples, a space within their fold. Why do most countries in Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, to this day, repeatedly cite religious scripture to justify their claims of criminalizing same-sex love? And, what can we do to change religious people’s perception towards those who identify as LGBTQ+ today? These questions, although unanswered, are worth considering.

Overall, Love’s Rite is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the cultural, symbolic and religious undertones surrounding same-sex attraction and partnerships. A lot has been written on MOC’s (Marriage of convenience), homophobia, Bollywood media and the evolution of thought surrounding same-sex love in the book as well. In addition, the book also features personal stories and heartwarming pictures of same-sex couples that have essentially taken “love’s rite” and courageously challenged homophobia head-on. While not all stories of same-sex love end with happy endings, all of them are powerful and are worth reading.

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Kanav is currently pursuing his Master's in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He identifies as queer for personal and political reasons and is extremely interested in addressing various forms of contemporary social issues and inequalities through his writing. An unapologetic nerd and gym rat, you will most likely either find him lifting 12 kilo dumbbells in the gym, or reading Foucault in the library.

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