Homosexuality, Hinduism & the Third Gender: An Overview

Ancient Hindu scriptures have much to say about homosexuality, both explicitly and as part of a broader third-gender category that includes all types of people described as impotent with the opposite sex. Despite recent attitudes of taboo and the criminalization of homosexuality in India, traditional Hinduism was demonstrably far more understanding and liberal in its approach.

Scriptural Terms

Several Hindu scriptures explicitly describe people with a homosexual nature. Among these, three stand out—the Narada-smriti (a first-century B.C. text of religious codes attributed to the sage Narada), the Sushruta Samhita (a 600 B.C. medical text compiled by the sage Sushruta) and the Kama Sutra (a third-century A.D. text on the art of lovemaking by the sage Vatsyayana). In its list of fourteen different types of panda (men who are impotent with women), the Narada-smriti includes the mukhebhaga (who has oral sex with other men), the sevyaka (who is sexually enjoyed by other men) and the irshyaka (the voyeur who watches other men engaging in sex). All three types are declared “incurable” and forbidden to marry women.[1]

The Sushruta Samhita similarly lists five types of men who are impotent with women and known as kliba: the asekya (who swallows the semen of other men), the saugandhika (who smells the genitals or pheromones of other men), the kumbhika (who takes the passive role in anal sex), the irshyaka (the above-mentioned voyeur) and the shandha (who has the qualities and behavior of a woman). Sushruta states that the first four types of kliba have semen and male characteristics whereas the fifth (shandha) is completely devoid of these. Furthermore, all of the first four become aroused only by “sucking the genitals and drinking the semen of other men.”[2]

In its discussion of oral sex between men, the Kama Sutra uses the term tritiya-prakriti (third sex or nature) to define men with homosexual desire and describes their practices in great detail. It divides such men into two types: those with a feminine appearance and demeanor, and those having a manly appearance with beards, mustaches, muscular builds, etc.[3] The Jayamangala (a twelfth-century A.D. commentary on the Kama Sutra) equates the term tritiya-prakriti to napumsa (impotent)[4] and the Caraka Samhita (a 200 B.C. medical text compiled by the sage Caraka) lists eight types of napumsa, one of which is the samskaravahi (who is aroused according to previous life impressions).[5] Cakrapani Datta, an important eleventh-century A.D. commentator on the Caraka Samhita, equates the samskaravahi to the homosexual kliba described by Sushruta.[6]

The Kama Sutra furthermore describes the svairini (independent woman) who engages in aggressive lovemaking with other women.[7] Lesbians and women who are either masculine or impotent with men for a variety of reasons are mentioned in the Hindu scriptures under terms such as nastriya, stripumsa, shandhi, etc. Similarly, bisexuals (kami or paksha), transgenders (shandha) and intersex types (nisarga, vakri, trnaputrika, etc.) are all mentioned and described in the voluminous Hindu scriptures of India.[8]

Homosexuality as Inborn

Hinduism honors the two primary genders—potent males (pums) and fertile females (stri)—but also acknowledges a third, less common sex (tritiya-prakriti or napumsa) considered to be a natural combination of the male and female natures resulting in impotence. Many verses throughout the Hindu canon affirm that the sex of the living entity is determined at the time of conception. They state that if the male sexual fluids (sukra) predominate at the moment of conception the child will be male, and if the female sexual fluids (sonita) predominate the child will be female. If both are equal, either male and female twins or a child of the third sex will be the result.[9]

Both the Sushruta and Caraka Samhitas confirm this fact and the former text goes even further. Sushruta describes how the homosexual asekya is conceived when the father’s semen is scanty and the transgender shandha is conceived when the father and mother reverse roles during intercourse (purushayita or “woman on top”). Several similar examples are cited for the other types of kliba.[10] Both texts assert that all three natures—male, female, and third sex—are determined at the time of conception and develop in utero up until the end of the second month of pregnancy. After that time the basic sexual nature or prakriti of the living entity cannot be changed.[11] For this reason, Narada declares the homosexual mukhebhaga and others to be “incurable.”

Social Roles

With this basic understanding in mind, ancient Hindu or Vedic culture did not punish or attempt to correct homosexuals of the third sex but rather accepted their nature as it was and incorporated them into society accordingly. Hindu texts such as the Kama Sutra, Mahabharata, Artha-sastra, etc. mention third-gender men working as domestic servants, go-betweens in the affairs of men and women, barbers, masseurs, florists and prostitutes.[12] The Kama Sutra also mentions homosexual marriages based on “great attachment and complete faith in one another.”[13] Transgenders are described as especially talented in the feminine arts of music playing and dancing,[14] and lesbians are mentioned as skilled vaisyas (businesswomen), armed military guards, domestic servants and courtesans.[15] Third-gender citizens were renowned for their special talents and often served in the homes of wealthy landholders, generals and kings.

Another role held by homosexuals, transgenders and other third-gender people in traditional Hindu society was their special nonprocreative status and association with supernatural powers. Revered astrological and omen-reading texts such as the Brihat Jataka and Brihat Samhita all mention planetary alignments at the time of conception that indicate a third-gender birth. Such births are associated with the three napumsa planets (Mercury, Saturn and Ketu) and indicate intelligence, mastery of the arts and sciences, detachment from family life, and clairvoyant abilities.[16] In Hinduism, people of the third gender are believed to hold special powers that allow them to bless or curse others, and this traditional belief can still be seen in India today.[17]

Several codes in the ancient Hindu law books protect homosexuals and other citizens of the third gender from abuse by the general public. For instance, the Narada-smriti states that people of the third sex should never be fined [18] and the Artha-sastra enjoins that parents must provide basic necessities (food, clothing, etc.) to their third-gender offspring. In cases when there are no relatives, the king is responsible for such provisions. The Artha-sastra also declares it an offense to vilify or publicly mock any man or woman of the third gender (kliba) and punishes such offenses with various small fines.[19]

Homosexual Behavior among Ordinary Males and Females

While no law in the Hindu scriptures explicitly punishes homosexual behavior between men or women of the third gender (napumsa, kliba, etc.), homosexuality among ordinary, twice-born males (pums) and young, unmarried females (kanya) is listed as a minor offense with various atonements prescribed. Homosexual behavior among twice-born (dvija or duly initiated) males is remedied by taking a ritual bath or paying a low fine; if the offense is not atoned for, loss of caste or twice-born status is the result.[20] The sexual violation of young, unmarried girls by other females is punished with even lower fines or, in some cases, corporal punishment.[21]

Homosexual behavior among the kliba, uninitiated males and adult females is not cited as a punishable offense in traditional Hinduism because apparently such acts were considered relatively harmless and discouraged only among the brahminical class, which is held to higher standards of behavior. In brahminical culture, viyoni and ayoni sex are explicitly forbidden. Viyoni refers to intercourse in an “improper vagina” (with a prostitute, lower-class woman, non-wife, animal, etc.) and ayoni refers to nonvaginal sex (masturbation, using the mouth or anus, etc.). Such acts are considered in the mode of passion, or passion mixed with ignorance, and brahmanas are expected to cultivate the higher mode of goodness (having sexual intercourse only according to religious principles, within marriage, for procreation, etc.).[22]

Hindu Gods and Gender Levity

In Hinduism, the gods and sacred deities are not bound by human codes and can often be found breaking the above-mentioned restrictions. They commonly bend gender norms and manifest multiple combinations of sex throughout the sacred Hindu texts. There are Hindu deities that are male, female or third sex; deities that manifest all three; male deities who become female and female deities who become male; male deities with female moods and female deities with male moods; deities that crossdress; deities born from two males or from two females; deities born from a single male or from a single female; deities who self-manifest; deities that avoid the opposite sex, and deities with principle companions of the same gender. All of these different combinations demonstrate the remarkable gender diversity found among the Hindu gods and it is said that everything in this world is a reflection of the original subtle and spiritual reality.[23]

Nevertheless, there are relatively few explicit examples of homosexuality found among the Hindu gods. Some of the best known instances involve the water-gods Varuna and Mitra, the latter of whom is described in the ancient Shatapatha Brahmana text as “implanting his seed” in Varuna on every new moon night in order to secure the moon’s waning.[24] Another account from the Skanda Purana involves the fire god Agni, who on one occasion swallows the semen of Siva while disguised as an ascetic. In a narrative found in both the Padma Purana and Krittivasa Ramayana, the god Siva commands two queens to make love together and blesses them to thus conceive a child. And at the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, a popular ceremony is performed wherein a young boy dressed in female attire dances before and seduces Lord Baladeva, one of the temple’s three principal Deities.[25]

More important than explicit examples of homosexuality in the Hindu scriptures are the very deep, loving same-sex relationships expressed between many of the Hindu gods and their unalloyed devotees. In the eternal friendships of Krsna and Arjuna, Ayyappa and Vavar, Kartikeya and Visakha, Yellamma-devi and Renuka, etc., the bonds of affection and attraction are declared to be greater than those held for family members, spouses, the entire world or even their own lives.[26]

Devotional Scriptures

The bhakti or devotional scriptures include the most popular and well-known Hindu texts such as Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Sri Isopanisad, Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. While these texts do not explicitly address homosexuality, their important teachings are equally applicable to all classes of men. The third gender appears briefly throughout these texts but is never explicitly defined or described in much detail.[27]

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s well-known stint as the crossdressing transgender, Brihannala, serves as a particularly notable example of the acceptance of third-gender people in ancient Hindu or Vedic society. Brihannala’s traditional role as a skilled teacher of the fine arts and her acceptance by Maharaja Virata into his kingdom are all truly exemplary.[28] In the same light, Lord Krsna stresses throughout the Bhagavad Gita that everyone should work for God according to their respective nature (svadharma), even if performed imperfectly. “To follow another’s path or to artificially suppress one’s nature,” He says, “is dangerous and ill advised.”[29] Bhagavad Gita also teaches that a person’s character is determined by individual behavior, not body-type, and that all kinds of men can attain the supreme destination. It affirms that God does not hate anyone and that spiritually advanced persons view all living entities equally, treating everyone with friendship and kindness.[30]

The bhakti scriptures furthermore emphasize qualities such as truthfulness, honesty, revealing one’s mind in confidence, compassion, inclusiveness, and so on. Sri Isopanisad, one of the most ancient bhakti texts, declares: “those who see the Supreme Lord within everything never hate anything nor any being,”[31] while the Jaiva Dharma, a more recent text compiled by Vaishnava visionary Bhaktivinoda Thakura, stresses that a Vaishnava “does not adhere blindly to the rules and prohibitions of the scriptures but follows them only when they are favorable to his practice of hari-bhajana (worship of God). If they are unfavorable, he immediately rejects them.”[32] In this way, homosexuals and other third-gender people are not excluded from devotional culture but encouraged to embrace it in ways practical for them.[33]

Negative Attitudes

In contrast to the enlightened principles expressed above, there are nevertheless also negative attitudes about homosexuality within Hinduism, especially nowadays. Such attitudes can generally be traced to religious fundamentalism or a lack of genuine spiritual advancement, both within Hinduism itself or from religious teachings introduced from outside India.

Among Hindus there is a class of priests known as the smarta or caste brahmanas. Such priests—and those who share their views—typically follow a rigid interpretation of Hinduism that places strict religious codes above higher principles such as compassion and human kindness. Smarta brahmanas adhere to a strict caste system based entirely on birth and look down upon anyone considered “lower.” Women, sudras (workers), merchants, artisans, dark-skinned people, homosexuals and countless other types are all viewed as lower and in some cases “untouchable” by the caste brahmanas.[34] Such men typically emphasize materialistic family life, the production of offspring, promotion to the heavenly planets, etc. and worship the gods only to attain such things. Smarta brahmanas and their views have existed since time immemorial but are especially prominent in the present age of Kali, a less fortunate era marked by quarrel and hypocrisy.

Another influence on Hindu attitudes toward homosexuality is Islam, which dominated northern India for over six hundred years from the eleventh to the seventeenth century A.D. The prevailing attitude of medieval Islam was to publicly disavow homosexual behavior while privately looking the other way or even engaging in it oneself. Indeed, homosexuality flourished during Islamic rule although not very openly. Another practice introduced under Islamic rule was the custom of castrating domestic manservants and slaves. Male castration was widespread during the Islamic period [35] and even today the most familiar word for eunuch in India is hijra—an Arabic term referring to immigrants fleeing western Asia. In traditional Hinduism, effeminate men of the third gender (shandha) would dress up as women and tie their genitals against the groin with a kaupina (cloth undergarment) but did not practice castration. This traditional system is still prevalent in South India. By the time the British arrived, however, the Muslim practice of male castration was still very prevalent and scholars thus mistranslated words such as kliba, shandha, napumsa, etc. into simply “eunuch.” Even today, Sanskrit-to-English terms for the third gender are typically limited to the archaic word eunuch, albeit erroneously.[36]

The Christian British left the most significant, lasting mark on Hindu attitudes toward homosexuality—attitudes that were viciously negative and remain prominent in Hinduism up to this day. The British penalized homosexual behavior in India first by hanging and then with life sentences, incorporating Section 377 into the Indian Penal Code in 1860. They also constructed educational facilities and colleges across the subcontinent that indoctrinated upwardly mobile natives into a very dark, criminal view of known or suspected “sodomites.” Nineteenth-century attitudes dubbing homosexual behavior as “unnatural,” “perverted,” “demonic,” “a mental illness,” “a chosen vice,” “shocking,” a “growing modern menace,” etc. are all Christian ideas with no foundation in traditional Hindu dogma or scripture.[37] The British also criminalized crossdressing, castration and collecting alms under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 in an attempt to eliminate the hijra and third-gender sects found all over India. Unfortunately, many of these harmful misunderstandings and attitudes have become ingrained into the modern Hindu psyche.

Modern Developments

In the 1990’s, LGBTI Indians and Hindus began a public dialog in Indian society, openly questioning their mistreatment and demanding equal rights and inclusion. Pioneers such as Ashok Row Kavi, founder of India’s first gay magazine Bombay Dost, openly declared both his homosexuality and his faith in Hinduism. Thus began the long process of reeducating Hindus about their formerly tolerant and noble past in regard to homosexuality and the third gender.

In 1999, India’s first small Gay Pride march took place in Calcutta. It would soon be followed by others of increasing strength and number. In 2001, the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association was founded to provide positive information and support to faithful LGBTI Vaishnavas and Hindus all around the globe. The Delhi High Court effectively struck down India’s laws against homosexuality (Section 377) in 2009 but they were reinstated by the Supreme Court in 2013 at the petition of various anti-gay Christian, Muslim and even Hindu organizations. This controversial decision is currently being reviewed under a curative plea. In 2014, the Supreme Court granted legal recognition and equal constitutional rights to all individuals identifying as “third gender.”[38] The justices cited India’s historic tradition of respecting such people and even questioned the compatibility of their verdict to Section 377 and the rights of other sex and gender minorities such as homosexuals. Thus the legal situation of LGBTI people in India remains under review.

In today’s world, traditional Hindu teachings on homosexuality and the third gender shine new light whereas the intolerance and mistreatment of recent centuries continues to fall by the wayside. Indeed, the chief instigators of homophobia in India, the Western colonialists, have long since packed their bags and even purged their own societies of the practice. If one were to ask various Hindu swamis and leaders about their opinions on homosexuality and the third gender, one would inevitably hear a wide range of views, both good and bad. As with other faiths, Hinduism and its scriptures can be read and interpreted variously. Nevertheless, higher qualities such as love, kindness and compassion should always be emphasized above the lower qualities of hate, cruelty and fear. That is an eternal truth and good advice for everyone!

Om tat sat.


(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, Abridged Edition, pp. 17-27)

NOTES

[1] Narada-smriti 12.15: “These four—irshyaka, sevyaka, vataretas, and mukhebhaga—are to be completely rejected as unqualified for marriage, even by a wife who is no longer a virgin.” Vataretas refers to men with no discharge of semen.

[2] See Sushruta Samhita 3.2.38-45 in the chapter entitled “The Purification of the Male and Female Reproductive Fluids.”

[3] Kama Sutra 2.9.2: “Those with a feminine appearance show it by their dress, speech, laughter, behavior, gentleness, lack of courage, silliness, patience, and modesty.” Kama Sutra 2.9.6: “Those who like men but dissimulate the fact maintain a manly appearance and earn their living as barbers and masseurs.”

[4] “The third sex is also termed napumsaka.” (The Complete Kama Sutra by Alain Danielou; Jayamangala commentary by Yashodhara, p. 183)

[5] See Caraka Samhita 4.2.17-21 in the chapter entitled “Embryological Development.”

[6] See Caraka Samhita by P.V. Sharma, Volume III, Critical Notes, p. 358.

[7] See Kama Sutra 2.8, in the chapter entitled “Virile Behavior in Women.”

8 For a complete list of 48 terms for the various types of third-gender men and women, along with their sources in Sanskrit texts, see Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, pp. 39-58.

[9] To cite one example, Manusmriti (Manu Samhita) 3.49 states: “A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child (napumsa) or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results.” See also Sushruta Samhita 3.3.4.

[10] Sushruta Samhita 3.2.38: “If the parents have exceedingly little generative fluids, their male offspring will be an asekya who will undoubtedly become aroused only by swallowing a man’s semen.” Sushruta Samhita 3.2.42-43: “If, due to illusion, a man engages with his wife during her fertile period as if he were a woman, then a shandha will be born who behaves like a woman. Conversely, if the woman engages in sex like a man during her fertile period, then, should a girl be born, that girl will behave like a man.”

[11] See Caraka Samhita 4.4.10 and 4.8.19.

[12] See Kama Sutra 2.9; Mahabharata (Virata Parva), and Artha-sastra 1.21.1, 1.20.21 and 1.12.21.

13 Kama Sutra 2.9.36: “There are also third-sex citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married together.”

[14] See Mahabharata (Virata Parva).

[15] The various professions of lesbians are especially mentioned in the Kama Sutra.

[16] For numerous astrological references on the third gender, see Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, pp. 103-123. Two examples from Brihat Parasara Hora Sastra: “If Venus occupies the seventh house and is in a sign or navamsa (one ninth of a sign) ruled by Saturn or occupied by that planet in any way, the native will ‘kiss’ the private parts of other men.” (18.13) “When a woman’s ascendant is Taurus or Libra, her rising navamsa Capricorn or Aquarius, and the planets Venus and Saturn aspect each other or occupy one another’s navamsa, the woman will be of great passion and satisfy herself through other females acting as men.” (80.50-51)

[17] This belief is well known in India and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada cites an interesting example wherein “eunuchs” bless the baby Nimai, an incarnation of Radha and Krsna, over 500 years ago in Mayapura, West Bengal. See Outline of Lord Caitanya Play, Part One, Tape no. 67-002 and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.13.106, purport.

[18] Narada-smriti 15.15.

[19] Artha-sastra 3.5.32 and 3.18.4-5)

[20] Manusmriti 11.68 and 11.175; Artha-sastra 4.13.40.

[21] Manusmriti 8.370 and Artha-sastra 4.12.20-21.

[22] The Apastambha (1.26.7), Gautama (25.7), Baudhayana (3.7.1-7; 4.1.19; 4.2.13), and Vasistha Dharmasutras all admonish snatakas (purified brahmanas) who engage in viyoni or ayoni sex and variously prescribe a ritual bath, fasting, or reciting prayers as atonement. The Narada-smriti (12.75) and Yajnavalkya-smriti (293) both offer low fines as alternatives to such atonements.

[23] In a purport to Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.4.29, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami states: “One should know for certain that nothing can exist in this cosmic manifestation that has no real counterpart in the spiritual field. All material manifestations are emanations of the Transcendence. The erotic principles of amorous love reflected in mixed material values are perverted reflections of the reality of spirit, but one cannot understand the reality unless one is sufficiently educated in the spiritual science.”

[24] The Shatapatha Brahmana (2.4.4.19) states: “Mitra and Varuna, on the other hand, are the two half-moons: the waxing one is Varuna and the waning one is Mitra. During the new-moon night these two meet and when they are thus together they are pleased with a cake offering. Verily, all are pleased and all is obtained by any person knowing this. On that same night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed.”

[25] All these pastimes and more can be found in Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, in the chapter entitled “Hindu Deities and the Third Sex.”

[26] In the Mahabharata (Sauptika Parva, XII), Lord Krsna states: “I have no dearer friend on earth than Arjuna, and there is nothing that I cannot give to him including my wives and children.” In the Drona Parva of the same text, Krsna reiterates: “O Daruka, I shall not be able to cast my eyes, even for a single moment, on the earth bereft of Arjuna…Know that Arjuna is half my body.”

[27] To cite one typical example from the Bhagavata Purana: “Any cruel person—whether male [pums], female [stri] or third sex [kliba]—who is only interested in his personal maintenance and has no compassion for other living entities may be killed by the king.” (4.17.26)

[28] See Mahabharata (Virata Parva).

[29] Bhagavad Gita 3.33, 35; 18.45-48.

[30] See the 16th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita entitled “The Divine and Demoniac Natures.” See also Bhagavad Gita 9.32, 9.29, 5.18, 11.55 and 12.13-14 respectively.

[31] Sri Isopanisad, verse 6.

[32] Jaiva Dharma, Chapter 3 entitled “Naimittika-Dharma Is To Be Relinquished,” p. 54.

[33] The Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.9.29 states: “Not considering who asked for it and who did not, nor who was fit and who unfit to receive it, Caitanya Mahaprabhu distributed the fruit of devotional service.” See also Bhagavad Gita 12.9-12.

[34] For a complete list of all the types considered impure by Smarta brahmanas, see Manusmriti 4.205-222. A similar list of persons considered unqualified to bear witness can be found in Narada-smriti 1.159-169.

[35] Slavery and male castration under Islamic rule reached its peak in India around the fourteenth century A.D. At that time, Firuz Shah Tughlaq of the Sultanate of Delhi is reported to have held more than 180,000 slaves, many of whom were castrated eunuchs. See Same-Sex Love in India by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, p. 109.

[36] In his article Homosexuality and Hinduism, Arvind Sharma expresses his doubt about this word definition as follows: “The limited practice of castration in India raises another point significant for the rest of the discussion, namely, whether rendering a word such as kliba as ‘eunuch’ regularly is correct.” In his English rendition of Narada-smriti, Richard W. Lariviere writes: “I translate the term pandaka as ‘impotent’ rather than the conventional term ‘eunuch.’ A eunuch would be easily identifiable by a simple physical examination. The term must be taken to mean, broadly, a male who is unable to impregnate a woman.”

[37] Some excellent examples of negative, colonial-era attitudes toward homosexuality in India can be found in the book Same-Sex Love in India by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. See especially the chapters entitled “The Kamasutra in the Twentieth Century” and “Hakim Muhammad Yusuf Hasan: Do Shiza (Urdu).”

[38] There is to date no legal definition for “third gender” under Indian law other than one’s own identity as such. In the twentieth century most Indians conceived of third-gender people as castrated eunuchs or hermaphrodites (intersexed), while nowadays they are generally classified as transgenders. Homosexuals are mostly perceived as disordered males or females and not part of the third gender. However, by definition of Hindu scripture, all sex and gender minorities (LGBTI) are included and protected under the third-gender banner.

Image: The sacred Vedic omkara.

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