Ancient India’s acceptance and accommodation of many forms of eroticism within its culture, including homoeroticism, has been well documented in early Sanskrit writings, art and architecture. This makes modern-day India’s sexual puritanism and homophobia, which reached its zenith in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all the more astounding. In today’s world, India has been relegated to the level of the most backward countries in the sphere of personal liberties, and one might wonder how such a drastic change could ever have come about. Through careful examination, India’s long and troubled past reveals a gradual descent into puritanism and homophobia due to caste consciousness and foreign religious influence. The following is a brief timeline summarizing the history of India and its deteriorating attitude toward people of the third sex.
According to most Hindu astrologers, the Kali Yuga age began on February 20, 3102 B.C. and the period prior to this is generally referred to as the Vedic Age. At this time, many forms of sexuality are accommodated within India’s native culture such as polygamy, prostitution, sexually explicit art, courtesans, etc. Homosexuality is recognized as a separate and third nature (tritiya-prakriti). Third-gender citizens are fully incorporated into society, most notably within the artisan and monastic communities. References to homosexuality and transgender identity in Vedic texts such as the Kama Shastra and Mahabharata are among the oldest in the world, and scriptures like the Bhagavata Purana date their compilation to approximately 3000 B.C.
After the advent of Kali Yuga, Vedic culture slowly declines over several thousand years. A strict caste system develops based on birth and body type, causing the social structure to become very rigid. Priests are more ritualistic and less humanistic. They are known as smarta-brahmanas and become extremely arrogant and abusive of the lower classes, declaring them “untouchable.” Scriptures such as the Manusmriti and other ritualistic texts are corrupted during this time. The ancient Vedic rites are misused, and sacrifices are employed as an excuse for rampant animal slaughter.
The Buddhist Period
Beginning approximately 500 B.C., Buddhism gradually spreads throughout India. Vedic culture has degraded to such an extent that the population of India eagerly embraces Lord Buddha’s teachings of nonviolence and human equality. Buddhist teachings reject the Vedas, and Buddhism itself reaches a peak in India around the time of Christ.
The Gupta Period
This period begins about 300 A.D. The influence of Buddhism over India gradually wanes and is eventually driven out by Sankaracarya, who reinstates the authority of the Vedas. That authority is later reinforced by other great acaryas such as Ramanuja and Madhva. During this period, a renaissance of India’s Vedic philosophy and culture blossoms. Resurgence in the construction of Hindu temples begins around the sixth century, where one invariably finds a multitude of openly erotic images, including many depicting homosexuality. The temples of Khajuraho and Chapri serve as striking examples. The sage Vatsyayana also recompiles the Kama Shastra during this time.
Islamic Invasions Begin
In the closing years of the tenth century, armed Islamic migrants begin to move into northern India from regions west of the Hindukush Mountains such as Afghanistan and Persia. This starts an invasion that culminates in the establishment of kingdoms in North India ruled by Muslim overlords. The meeting of Islamic and Hindu cultures is gradual, and each ethnic group flourishes. The construction of Hindu temples climaxes between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, particularly in southern India where Islamic influence remains virtually non-existent.
Originally confined to military centers, Muslim migrants carrying Perso-Turko-Arabic traditions quickly disseminate into large urbanized areas within northern India. This is further accelerated by a mass migration of scholars, poets and elite administrators from other Islamic kingdoms to the west. These migrants are seeking refuge from the depredations of the Mongols who are ravaging much of western Asia in the thirteenth century. Hindus and Muslims coexist peacefully during this period, and there is a great cultural exchange between the two ethnic groups that lasts for centuries. Muslim clerics are free to interpret religious doctrine according to their own discretion and rarely punish homosexuality. On the contrary, it flourishes and is well documented within popular poetry from that time. Muslim migrants also introduce the Middle Eastern practice of castration among homosexual slaves and servants. Domestic slavery existed to a small extent in pre-Islamic India but now becomes an enormously profitable enterprise. Early sultans are heavily dependent on slaves as both soldiers and laborers. Alauddin Khalji (1296—1316) of the Sultanate of Delhi, for instance, is recorded as owning fifty thousand slaves, and Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1357—1388) owned 180,000. Of these, a good number are castrated eunuchs who command a high price. They are considered to be the most reliable and trustworthy of servants since they did not marry and raise families of their own. By the late 1400s, India is world renowned for its exotic treasures and European kingdoms clamor for a way to reach her lands. During the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the Genoan entrepreneur, Columbus, accidentally discovers the Americas while searching for a new shipping route to India.
The Mughal Empire
The Islamic Mughal Empire, established in North India in 1526, ends much of the peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims with its new brand of Islamic extremism. Enforcing harsh anti-pagan codes, these invaders forcibly convert or kill Hindus, plunder their wealth and destroy villages, temples and religious deities. Not surprisingly, they also begin to mistreat women and persecute homosexuals during this period. Homosexual behavior is punished under extreme Islamic or Shari'a law through either flagellation or death, which is accomplished by stoning, collapsing a rock wall upon, or throwing off a high point anyone found guilty. Fortunately the Mughal Empire, along with the rest of the Islamic world, soon declines in the 1600s when new advances in world commerce through ocean shipping rob them of their formerly prosperous monopoly on India’s trade.
The Trading Companies
Bypassing Muslim traders, European shipping posts along India’s coastlines flourish and establish powerful trading companies and ports. In 1757, the British East India Company becomes the dominant European trading company in India, a reign that will last for an entire century. After losing America to the colonists, the British are free to focus all of their attention on India. At this time in Christian England and Europe, the criminalization of homosexuality has reached its peak and “unnatural fornication” is routinely punished by hanging or garroting both men and women.
In 1857, widespread rebellion breaks out in India against the British East India Trading Company. The rebellion is brutally crushed by the British Navy and in 1858, India is officially incorporated into the British Empire. Two years later, the anti-sodomy law of 1860 is enforced upon the entire empire that now includes India. The law, which remarkably is still in place in India today as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, reads: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to fine.” This law was taken to be an improvement for Great Britain, which had previously punished homosexuality by hanging, but for India it was a great step backward since Hindu culture had never previously criminalized homosexuality. The British also enact legislation outlawing castration and crossdressing in an attempt to eliminate the eunuch class that had thrived under Islamic rule. Despised by the British, eunuchs are forced into the darkest shadows of society where they must now live as outcastes. Also during this time, puritan scholars translate India’s Sanskrit texts into English but omit or hide any reference to homosexuality because it is shocking to them. By British estimation, India was a backward country with a barbaric culture and primitive religion. The British Empire would impress upon the Hindus their Christian values and educate them in proper, civilized behavior while simultaneously exploiting their country’s resources for another full century.
In 1947, after considerable struggle through civil disobedience, India achieves political independence, and the British Empire is dismantled. However, as a country, India is culturally scarred in many ways. Most Indians believe that their ancient Hindu culture is inferior to modern Western civilization. They take their heritage to be something shameful and worth abandoning. Mahatma Gandhi, educated in England, sends squads of his disciples to smash the erotic representations on the ancient temples of Khajuraho and Chapri. Only the poet, Rabindranath Tagore, manages to stop them. Pandit Nehru attempts to halt the publishing of photographs that depict sculptures showing homosexual relations, claiming that such vices are due to Western influence. In fact, it is his own perception of vice that has been influenced by the West.
On to the Future
In 1967, the United Kingdom repeals its outdated anti-sodomy laws, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality for all of its citizens. India, on the other hand, continued to cling to such laws without considering its own native culture or traditions. Imposed labels upon homosexuality such as “deviant” or “unnatural” are of relatively very recent origin in India and not rooted in traditional Vedic or Hindu thought. Indeed, the very inventors of these labels, Euro-American psychologists, have already retracted them and come to the conclusion that homosexuality is natural and normal behavior for those born of that orientation. As modern culture and science gradually adopt a more open and realistic approach in dealing with its homosexual citizens, it is expected that India will eventually follow. Indeed, India's Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual relations in 2018.
By Amara Das Wilhelm. Copyright GALVA-108
Image: Erotic sculptures decorate the walls of an ancient temple in Khajuraho, India.