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July 12, 2003   VNN8214  

India's Slow Descent Into Homophobia


EDITORIAL, Jul 12 (VNN) — 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.


Vedic India

Generally assumed to have ended with the dawn of the Kali-yuga age or just over five thousand years ago. 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.

Post-Vedic India

Vedic culture slowly declines over several thousands of 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 Manu-smriti 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.

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 non-violence and human equality. Buddhist teachings reject the Vedas, and Buddhism itself reaches a peak in India around the time of Christ.

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.

Hindu-Muslim co-existence

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 ravishing most of Asia during this time. Hindus and Muslims co-exist 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 50,000 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 to raise families of their own. By the late1400's, India is world-renowned for its exotic treasures and wealth, and European kingdoms clamor for a way to reach her lands. During the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the Spanish entrepreneur Columbus accidentally discovers the Americas while searching for a new shipping route to India.

The Mughal Empire

The Islamic Mughal Empire, established in northern India in 1526, ends much of the peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims with its new brand of Islamic extremism. Enforcing strict religious codes that have already suffocated much of the Middle East and Western Asia, 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 criminalize homosexuality during this period. Homosexuals are punished under extreme Islamic law by flagellation or death, and this is accomplished by burning the victims alive, stoning them, collapsing walls upon them, or impaling their rectums with hot iron rods. Fortunately the Mughal Empire, along with the rest of the Islamic world, soon declines in the 1600's when new advances in world trade 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 torture and the execution of both men and women. People accused of homosexual acts are often put in the pillory and pelted with garbage until half dead.

British Rule

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 antisodomy 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 execution and torture, 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 cross-dressing 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 they 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 antisodomy laws, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality for all of its citizens. India, on the other hand, continues to cling to such laws without considering its own native culture or traditions. Imposed labels such as abnormal, unnatural, and unhealthy 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, normal and healthy behavior for those born of that orientation. As Western 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.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Views On Homosexuality in India

The influence that Victorian British scholars and educators had in creating the current homophobic environment of India cannot be underestimated. Many professional and religious authorities growing up in India during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were heavily indoctrinated with homophobic stereotypes and views by Victorian educators, and these outdated ideas persist down to this very day. While most people will consider these views outrageous by today's standards, India continues to enforce laws based upon such fallacies. The result is that millions of gay and transgender Hindus are stigmatized as social deviants and forced to live their lives in self-hatred and shame.

The following excerpts have been taken from academically recognized books that were printed and read in India during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these books are still taken as authoritative references today.

Mothers and fathers in Western countries, who are lovers of knowledge, are so careful of their children that at night they even tie the child's hands to their sides, so that during the night, the child should not inadvertently touch its lower organs and spoil its health. When one's own hand can be harmful for oneself, what use can a legal enactment or imprisoning the body be? (Pandit Madhavacarya's Kamasutra, 31, published in 1911)

The Reason for the Present Disasters

The present government has laid down severe penalties for unnatural fornication and the subjects fear these penalties, but who then are the immoral ones who practice unnatural immorality? We are not told how to recognize them, but in the section on oral sex, the author of the Kamasutra has drawn a portrait of their activities and has also introduced us to their identity, saying, 'Usually, this act is performed by shandas' (a term used for people of the third sex).

These evil practices are spreading among young men today like an infectious disease. If these tendencies were removed from their hearts by good education, they could become healthy, disease-free, good-charactered heroes, who would adorn the country by their lives.

Such boys do not engage solely in oral activity, they also engage in another type of unnatural fornication. People involved in theatre commonly are puppets of that type of vice. They all pretend to be pure, though. On one occasion, a fight with daggers broke out between students of a college over such an affair. (Pandit Madhavacarya's commentaries on the ninth chapter of the Kamasutra)


Therefore it is necessary to discuss those beings who are neither men nor women. Eunuchs exist not only in India and in the East but also in Europe and America. In India the eunuchs are formally organized. There is complete agreement and unity among them and they are constantly intent upon expanding their community. You can well ask what sort of wretched person would want to join the community of these hijras. You might not know but there are countless such men who are counted as men but whose emotions are exactly the same as those of women. In their hearts they wish that they were with an attractive man, one with large dark eyes, a rosy and glowing complexion, red lips and a beautiful moustache, one who would take them in his arms, hold them tight and make love to them. They are constantly in search of such a man. European doctors have mentioned such cases in their medical books. The moment they get the opportunity, men with such feelings join the community of hijras.

Since there are men who prefer to love men and who find satisfaction in it, there is no reason why there should not be women who dislike men and prefer other women. Therefore there are women who to all intents and purposes are free from the qualities of women and have manly qualities. Such women are well built and slightly fair with a muddy complexion. Desire and lust drips from their eyes. They laugh often and prefer masculine manners. They stride along with their heads held high and they try to make friends with beautiful women. Gradually they entrap them in their magic and get closer to them. Simple respectable women, trusting them as other women, accept their love and friendliness as affection. Slowly they start kissing and petting. Finally they seduce them towards illicit relations. If by chance or in the course of joking and playing, a woman falls into their hands, we should take this as the end of that poor creature. These illicit relations develop so fast that in a couple of months the poor woman starts looking as if she suffers from tuberculosis. The simple one turns into the unbought slave of the manly, shameless one. Eventually, the woman loses her health and finds a place in the grave. The shameless one then starts to entrap some other woman. I have treated one such woman. This woman admitted to her crimes in detail but I cannot describe them here because they are obscene. (Hakim Muhammad Yusuf Hasan's Do Shiza, a popular medical book on sexual science, originally published sometime around 1900 in Lahore, India)

The Existence of Eunuchs is Dangerous

Do not allow eunuchs or hijras to enter the house. If the existence of lewd women is a danger, so is the presence of eunuchs. Eunuchs may corrupt the thoughts of respectable women with their poisonous conversation. Therefore it is not wise to let them come into the house or to make them guard women. Instead, it is an invitation to the corruption of respectable womenÉ (Hakim Muhammad Yusuf Hasan's Do Shiza, 132-35, 3rd ed.1934)

(Much of the material for this article is from the book Same-Sex Love in India, by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai)

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