LGBTQIA+ Depiction in Ancient Indian Texts
The modern understanding of sexuality pertaining to homosexuality has evolved from ancient to contemporary times. From finding reference or toleration in some ancient societies to being demonised and criminalised in several historical backgrounds, and finally now gaining acceptance and recognition as a natural variation of human sexuality in contemporary times with the increasing nature of liberalisation and progress.
Heterosexual and heteronormative human life finds depiction in several ancient Indian texts. However, this blog mainly aims to highlight the depiction of the non-heteronormative lifestyle and its presence in ancient Indian mythologies along with texts and mention in folktales, though spoken more subtly than directly.
Homosexual or bisexual interactions between gods have always been depicted in Indian mythology. Various, saints, demigods, and incarnations of the Lord are associated with gender transformation and diversity, which include:
- Deities that are hermaphrodite (half man, half woman)
- Deities that manifest in all three genders
- Male deities who become female, or female deities who become male
- Male deities with female moods, or female deities with male moods
- Deities born from two males, or from two females
- Deities born from a single male, or from a single female
- Deities who avoid the opposite sex, and
- Deities with principal companions of the same gender
MENTION IN FOLKTALES
Our favourite folktales, like Ramayana and Mahabharata, also find references to several homosexual transactions. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Lord Rama’s devotee and companion Hanuman is said to have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing other women.
The Mahabharata has an interesting story about Shikhandi, the feminine or transgender warrior of the time responsible for the defeat and killing of Bhishma. Shikhandi was the daughter of King Drupada, who raised her as a prince to take revenge on the Kurus, the rulers of Hastinapur. Drupada even got Shikhandi married to a woman. After her wife discovered the reality, she revolted. Shikhandi henceforth lived like a hermaphrodite.
Gods of Sex!
Additionally, there were special ‘Gods of Intimacy’ – Mitra and Varuna are gods of ‘Great Intimacy’ and are often mentioned together in Vedic literature. (And no, contrary to our assumptions, they did not preach sex!) Mitra controled the ocean depths and lower portals while Varuna ruled over the ocean’s upper regions. Several overt depictions of homosexual imagery also exist. For example, the sculptures in the Khajuraho temple of Madhya Pradesh
are known for their overt homosexual imagery; a temple is popularly believed to have been built sometime around the 12th century.
Furthermore, in the context of contemporary times, when members of the LGBTQ community are striving for legal recognition to be able to establish a marital bond, what is interesting to note is that under the Vedic System, eight different kinds of marriages were recognized, and out of those, a homosexual marriage between two gay men or two lesbians were classified under the “Gandharva” or celestial variety – “a union of love and cohabitation, without the need for parental approval”.
CONCLUSION AND RELEVANCE TO CONTEMPORARY TIMES
All of these different examples demonstrate the remarkable amount of gender variance found within the ancient texts. In India, people of the third sex—homosexuals, transgenders, bisexuals, hermaphrodites, transsexuals, etc.—identify with these deities and worship them with great reverence and devotion. Along with that, they arrive en masse to celebrate the large holidays and festivals connected with them. Traditionally, such people were associated with these divine personalities due to their combined male and female natures. They were included in the various religious ceremonies and viewed as auspicious symbols of peace, good fortune, and culture.
Additionally, many scholars consider the numerous myths concerning gender change to be a manifestation of patriarchal cultures’ desire to control the sexuality of women but project a positive valuation of women and femininity.
However, what is imperative to note is that these depictions might indicate a normalised and progressive understanding of a homosexual lifestyle, however, they serve a different purpose. Such interactions were most usually considered purely ritualistic or had purposes other than sexual pleasure, which sets apart the understanding of homosexuality. Additionally, these depictions when seen in the light of the current debates on homosexuality, the homoerotic encounters, and intersex or third-gender characters are very often found in the epics, the Puranas, and regional folklore, highlight the resistance to sexual norms and the commonly perceived gender binary. However, even though there are references to homosexual transactions, there are few literary sources that directly talk about homosexuality.
FOR FURTHER READING
Amara Das Wilhelm’s book “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex“, compiles years of extensive research of Sanskrit texts from mediaeval and ancient India, and proves that homosexuals and the “third gender” were not only in existence in Indian society back then, but that these identities were also widely accepted.