Role of Religion and Tradition: The Hijra Community and Bisexuality in Hinduism

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.

Sources Used:

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

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LGBTQ Community In India

The subject of LGBTQ rights has been at the forefront of many contemporary debates around the world. The hardships that the community faces due to political, legal and social prejudice, has gained attention both nationally and internationally. In the past few years, there have been many strides made towards addressing these issues. This includes: Amnesty International’s 1991 policy, which supports the rights of people who have been imprisoned due to their sexual orientation; the legalization of same-sex marriage in countries such as Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and The United States; and the UN appointment of an expert to address the violence and discrimination against people due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Homosexuality has been decriminalized in most “western” or “Euro-centric” countries; however, there are many countries that still do not recognize the rights of the community, by maintaining laws that criminalize ‘homosexual behaviour’. As of 2015, 41 out of 53 countries belonging to the Commonwealth (nations that were formerly British colonies), have laws in place that criminalize same-sex activity in some way; leading to around 92% of Commonwealth citizens living under jurisdictions that criminalize same-sex activities. Majority of these laws stem from colonial era anti-sodomy statues, which were either retained word for word after independence, or were retained and extended to create further discrimination . The debate now centers a binary between the “pro-LGBT” western nations and the “anti-LGBT” non-western countries; the irony being that some of the laws, ad attitudes criminalizing same-sex activities stem from western colonialism (Kaleidoscope Trust, 2015).

India has been deeply affected by colonialism, starting in the 1600s through the establishment of the East India Company, leading to complete British control from 1858 to 1947, ending with Indian independence. Today, India is considered one of the largest democracies, with a strong democratic and secular constitution in place; however, homosexuality is illegal in the country, and punishable by up to 10 years in prison. This is dictated by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which states:

“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 also be liable to a fine” (IPC s.377). 

This law was enacted by the British in 1860, along with the Indian Penal Code, and was retained by the government after Indian independence. S.377 is an anti-sodomy law, labeled as “Unnatural Offences”, which is extended to same-sex couples, especially “men who have sex with men” (MSM). The existence of this law is highly controversial, as it goes against the constitutional right to equality, non-discrimination and security. In 2015, a UN report on discrimination and violence against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity was addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which stated that laws that criminalize homosexual acts are a violation of international human rights; since, just the existence of these laws go against the individual right to privacy and non-discrimination (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015, p.12). UNLGBT

When looking at LGBTQ rights in India, it is important to address the context in which the community is situated. India has a complex society, mostly due to the country’s rich historical background and immense diversity. Historically, India has ties to one of the earliest civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization, and has had various religious/cultural authorities, including Muslim and Hindu rule during the Mughal Empire, and British authority through colonialism. Indian society today is a result of this history, leading to a diverse religious, cultural and linguistic communities. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikihism, Buddhism, and Jainism are six main religions that are practiced by Indians (other religions include Judaism and Zoroastrianism, Parsis). As for languages, Hindi and English are used for legislative purposes, but there is no official national language. India has more than 780 languages with 66 different scripts. According to the 2011 Indian census, there are 122 major languages spoken in the country (Singh, 2013). The presence of such diversity, has lead to deeply rooted ways of knowing and being, that challenge each other, leading to challenges when addressing certain subjects. Homosexuality and LGBTQ rights is one instance of this, where we see a tension between what is considered “Indian” thought, versus knowledge that was influenced or brought by western colonialism; especially as the law in question, that criminalizes homosexuality, was introduced by the British.

Section 377, and LGBTQ rights has gained a lot of attention in India toady, mostly due to the legal battles of s.377. The law was challenged in court by non-governmental organizations, specifically the Naz Foundation, an Indian NGO that advocates for LGBTQ right, specifically working on sexual health and HIV/AIDS issues. The case resulted in the 2009 Delhi High Court decision that decriminalized homosexuality, by repealing S.377 insofar as it pertains to same-sex activities between consensual adults. This was a remarkable victory for LGBTQ community; however, this decision was later appealed to the Supreme Court of India, resulting in the reinstatement of S.377, and the re-criminalization of homosexuality in India today. On the other hand, in 2014 the Supreme Court decided to grant transgender rights, by recognizing “Third Gender”, especially in regards to the traditional gender variant communities of India, such as the Hijra community, and established anti-discriminatory and equality provisions for those who identify as transgender or “third gender”.

What is especially interesting in this case, is the tension between having to respect traditional knowledge and culture, while at the same time being deeply influenced by colonial knowledge, globalization, and modernity. Homosexuality is not a new phenomenon in India, there is a long-standing history of gender variant communities, that have been in existence prior to colonialism. Some scholars also argue that, the homophobia that is present in India today did not originate from Indian civilization, instead has been heavily influenced by British colonialism (Hurteau, 2013). This shows a possible disconnect between perceptions of homosexuality pre- versus post-colonialism. It can be argued that, the LGBTQ community today is stuck in the middle of this tension, by having traditional gender variant communities being respected on one hand, and on the other, having homosexuality be cirminalized based on a colonial law; therefore, it could be beneficial to go deeper into the historical, political and social context of the LGBTQ community in India, in order to understand their challenges and position within Indian society.

Sources Used:

Kaleidoscope Trust (2015) Collaboration and consensus: Building a constructive commonwealth approach to LGBT rights. Retrieved from  http://kaleidoscopetrust.com/usr/resources/47/lgbtcitizenshipreport.pdf

Indian Penal Code, 1971, http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/1-50/report42.pdf

Singh, S.  “Language survey reveals diversity”. The Hindu, July 22, 2013, accessed April 24, 2017. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/language-survey-reveals-diversity/article4938865.ece

United Nations Human Rights Council (2015). Discrimination and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity: Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Report No. A/HRC/29/23) Retrieved from http://kaleidoscopetrust.com/usr/library/documents/main/final-sogi-a_hrc_29_23_en.pdf

Hurteau, P.  Hinduism. In Male homosexualities and world religions. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) 7-30

Naz Foundation v.Government of NCT of Delhi and others, WP(C) No.7455/2001 (High Court of Delhi July 2, 2009) http://data.unaids.org/pub/externaldocument/2009/20090702_section_377_en.pdf

Suresh Kumar Koushal and another v. NAZ Foundation and others, 10972 (Supreme Court of India December 11, 2013). http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/imgs1.aspx?filename=41070

National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India (Supreme Court of India April 15, 2014). http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/imgs1.aspx?filename=41411