In India today, there are some who believe that homosexuality is an abnormal behaviour and therefore should not be supported. In 2013, after the Supreme Court of India ruled to reinstate section 377, criminalizing homosexuality, the BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party: the Hindu nationalist political party who are currently in power) chief, Rajnath Singh stated, “Gay sex is not natural and we cannot support something which is unnatural” (TNN, 2013). Many within Indian society view homosexuality as mentally abnormal, and morally wrong (Singh, 2016). As the “issue” of homosexuality is framed in medical or psychiatric terms, it leaves room for corrective therapy programs to be used, in order to “cure” homosexual behaviour. Section 377 has existed for a long time within Indian history, and continues to have adverse effects on the LGBTQ community in the country.
However, Indian society has strong historical roots prior to colonialism, so how was homosexuality viewed at this time, and is there a disconnect or change in Indian thought or law pre- versus post-colonialism? Some scholars claim that, the homophobia we see in India today did not originate from Indian civilizations, instead was due to the adoption of colonial laws, such as s.377 (Hurteau, 2013: 18). But what is interesting is the role of religion within the “Indian” concept of homosexuality; specifically in regards to, the gender variant Hijra community, and “bisexual transformations” of gods within Hindu epics.
Hijras are considered to be the “third gender” of India, as they are said to be neither man nor woman. They are biologically men, who dress in female clothing, through which some abandon sexual desire by undergoing gentile emasculation (Reddy, 2005). When questioned about why Hijras go through this procedure hijras state:
“There was ones a king who asked a hijra to show him her power. The hijra clapped her hands three times and immediately the door of the palace opened automatically, without anyone touching it. Then the king said, “Show me your power in some other way.” By the side of the road there was a thorny cactus. The hijra just took the thorn of the cactus and emasculated himself. He showed the king that he had the power. The hijra just stood there with blood oozing out and raised his hands with his penis in it, then the king realized the power of the hijras” (Nanda, 1999: 24).
This story shows the powerful connection that Hijra community has to traditional Indian culture, and the respect they should receive through their power in society. The procedure of genital emasculation is connected to the goddess Bedhraj Mata, also known as Bachuchara Mata (translated as Mother Goddess) (Reddy, 2005: 2). Bachuchara Mata is a key icon of devotion for the hijras, who are often present in temples that worship her, acting as servants of the gods and to bless worshippers that visit (Nanda, 1999: 25). Bachuchara Mata is connected to male impotency, which has significant relations to the hijra community. The goddess is said to appear in the dreams of impotent men to encourage them to conduct genital emasculation, dress in female clothing, and act as her servant (Nanda, 1999: 25).
There is also a strong religious component to the behaviours of the Hijra community. The community believes that they possess the power to grant fertility to newlyweds and newborns. This speaks to the traditional and ritualistic role of hijras within society, as they are often seen giving their blessings, and performing during weddings and other auspicious events (Reddy, 2005). Many often see hijras on the streets of cities, where they clap their hands, begging for money; if you don’t give them any money they would put a curse on your life, and if you do they give you their blessing. Many within Indian society believe in this power. The power is said to emerge from the ritual of emasculation (Nanda, 1999). The power to bless and curse also comes from one of the most prominent gods in Hinduism, Krishna. The story states that Krishna transforms into a woman to defeat the demon Araka. As Araka gains strength from his chastity, in order to weaken him, Krishna transforms as a beautiful woman and marries the demon. Three days after the marriage a battle breaks out through which Krishna kills Araka and reveals himself (Doniger, 1999: 265). As Krishna reveals himself to the other gods he states “there will be more like me, neither man nor woman, and whatever words come from the mouths of these people, whether good [blessing] or bad [curses] will come true” (Doniger, 1999, p.265).
This shows the strong connection that religion and Indian tradition has to gender variance. Regardless of this strong connection, in India today Hijras and other gender variant communities are viewed as outlaws. Many are forced to beg, or go into sex work in order to make a living. This has changed since the Supreme Court established and recognized “third gender” status, which lets those belonging to gender variant communities to have jobs and get an education; however, some argue that there has not been enough change yet. Many states still have not implemented policy that would increase job opportunities, or education seats, leading to many who are still stuck working within terrible conditions.
This connection to religion is not limited to the Hijra community, or other gender variant communities present in India, but also through, what Wendy Doniger (1999) classifies as, bisexual transformations of Hindu gods.
In one of the key epics of Hinduism, the Mahabharata, Doniger tells us the story of lord Vishnu transforming into a woman (Doniger, 1999: 264). In the story, there was a battle between the gods and the demons, where the demons had obtained the juice of immortality, amrita, and the gods needed to get it back. In order to do so, Vishnu turned himself into a beautiful woman, Mohini, to entice the demons into giving it back. Shiva was curious as to how Vishnu gained the elixir back from the demons, and asked Vishnu to show him. As Vishnu, transformed into a woman, Shiva was so infatuated by the transformation, and overwhelmed with lust “he grabbed her [Mohini] with some difficulty and embraced her again and again” (Doniger, 1999: 264). Certain variations to the story state that in the middle of the encounter Mohini turns back into Vishnu, but Shiva continues to have sexual intercourse (Doniger, 1999). This story describes, homosexual sex between Vishnu and Shiva. Through this interaction a God is born, Mahashasta, seen as the son of Shiva and Vishnu (Doniger, 1999).
By outlining the religious and traditional connections between homosexuality and Indian thought, we can see that homosexuality is not a new phenomenon for Indian society. It also shows the difference between how views towards homosexuality were altered by the British with the establishment of S.377. It is important to note that there is no clear evidence showing that homosexuality or gender variance were viewed as completely normal prior to colonialism; however, by having a strong link to religion, it could be argued that gender variant communities were respected as part of Indian society.
Hurteau, P. Hinduism. In Male homosexualities and world religions. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) 7-30
Reddy, G. With respect to sex: Negotiating hijra identity in South India. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Nanda, S. Neither man nor woman: The hijras in India. (Belmont: Woodsworth Publishing, 1999)
Doniger, W. Splitting the difference: Gender and myth in ancient Greece and India. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
TNN “Homosexuality no natural, won’t back it: BJP chief” The Times of India 15 Dec. 2013: Web. 26 Apr. 2017. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Homosexuality-not-natural-wont-back-it-BJP-chief/articleshow/27377472.cms
Singh, P. (2016). Between legal recognition and moral policing: Mapping the queer subject in india. Journal of Homosexuality, 63(3), 416-425. doi:10.1080/00918369.2016.1124700