A wide spectrum of ideas and thoughts about homosexuality have been expressed, viewed, and experienced by Hindus. Hinduism acknowledges that there are three sexes; male, also known as Pumsa-Prakriti, female, also known as Stri-prakriti and a third sex called Tritiya-prakriti (Wilhelm 4). These categorizations are not only based on physical characteristics but are determined by the entire being. That is, Hindus looked at the physical body, the subtle psychological body and the individual’s social interactions or procreative status (Wilhelm 4). A person who falls under the category of Tritiya-prakriti is either homosexual, transgender or intersexed.
The third sex has mainly been excluded from modern day Hinduism due to Great Britain’s negative views seeping into the cracks of society (Wilhelm 4). When Great Britain was the major power and dominated India, homosexuality was viewed as sinful, horrific, and not to be mentioned. India and many other societies were influenced by this view and negative connotations were associated with same-sex relationships. These associations became the norm. Although the third sex is not widely acknowledged by society today, many texts share ideals and beliefs regarding marriage, lifestyle, and overall rules, not only for heterosexual peoples, but also for people that fall under the category of third sex. In this article, I will also describe and explore the discussed view on homosexuality, same sex marriage and same sex intercourse that is elaborated through multiple Hindu texts. I will shed light on modern day Hinduism versus historical Hindu society and discuss whether or not the Hindu religion is relatively more tolerant to same sex behavior.
Homosexuality was essentially an underground form of behavior that was brought to light within many Hindu texts (Carpenter and Isterwood 5). The Bhavisya Purana states that scriptures dealing in religious law and behavior were transmitted from Lord Brahma to Manu and later created into four smaller texts sages; Manusmrti, Narada-smrti, Brhaspati and Angiras and others (Wilhelm 70). In the Dharma Sastra, the third sex is considered to be natural or something that is involuntarily embedded into an individual (Wilhelm 72). Therefore, no verses punish the third-gender citizens for their natural instincts, but some digressions towards homosexual behavior are discussed; found in the Manusmrti.
The stance taken by Dharma literature regarding homosexuality is not opposing nor is it entirely supportive (Yarhouse and Nowacki 40). The Dharma Sastras value heterosexual marriage and acknowledge the existence of other forms of sexuality. Although homosexuals are included in the text, Hindus still attempt to restrain them with fines, regarding sexual activity, without overly condemning them in religious or moral terms. An individual’s caste also plays a huge role. High caste men who have intercourse with other men are punished more than lower class individuals that do the same; for woman, the opposite order applies (Sands 9). Individuals might avoid homosexual relations all together in some instances to protect their family’s name, caste, etc. The Manusmrti declares that homosexual intercourse involving a Brahmana or twice born male results in the loss of caste unless atoned for by a ritual bath (Wilhelm 72). As for women, the only concern that is discussed by the Manusmrti is the violation of a young, unmarried girl. The violator would be punished to the same degree as a heterosexual male that forced himself on a young girl (Wilhelm 73). Other texts, such as the Arthasastra, are devoted to the basis or secular law and material success which, forbid intercourse. In this text, male homosexuals are to be prescribed punishment more so than females, but neither female nor male homosexuality is as strictly sought after in the Arthasastra as they are in the Dharma texts. The Laws of Manu or Manusmrti is a central text that prescribes a harsher punishment for female homosexuals than male homosexuals (Sands 9).
The Dharma Shastra text clearly forbids the marrying of impotent or a third-gender man to a woman (Wilhelm 76). There are eight types of marriages or Vivaha stated in the Manusmriti: Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Asura, Gandharva, Raksasa and Pisacha. Homosexual individuals would often engage in casual love, but were sometimes known to have a gandharva marriage to one another. The Kama Sutra states, “there are also third-sex citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married (parigraha) together” (Kama Sutra 2.9.36). The Baudhayana Dharmasutra also states that the first four are lawful for a Brahmana but the Gandharva form of marriage is for all since it flows from love (1.20.16). Gandharva was a union of cohabitation and love recognized by common law, but no parental consent or religious ceremony was needed to achieve this label. The sacrament of marriage in Hinduism was the joining of two families not two individuals. Conservative Hindu’s believe that only romantic love can be shared between a man and a woman, thus when two people of the same sex participate in sexual activities, it is only a result of lust (Yarhouse and Nowacki 40). Therefore, Gandharva is not regarded as a marriage but more of a friendship, in which lust is involved.
The Brhapati on the other hand was compressed into one of the four smaller texts to encompass politics, economy, and prosperity; they were called the Arthasastra. The Arthasastra regards it as a crime to vilify men and women of the third sex, and if a person of the third sex is mocked in public by an individual or group, they were fined (Wilhelm 80). It also states that an impotent man of the third gender will not receive any of the family’s inheritance, but if he has a progeny that is not impotent, they may receive some of the family’s inheritance. However, the family must supply their third gender relatives with food and clothing (Wilhelm 81). Therefore, the impotent man would still be somewhat looked after by his family, but may refrain from making it known that they are not attracted to the opposite sex for want of an inheritance. As for certain homosexual behaviors, the Arthasastra states that relatively small fines are to be given if certain behaviors are exhibited. For example, if a young unmarried girl is deflowered by a woman, the girl must pay a fine of 12 panas, if she was a willing participant and of the same varna, but the woman would pay double that. If the girl was unwilling, the violator must pay 100 panas plus the girl’s dowry (Wilhelm 81). These rules were put into place to resolve the issues in Hindu society, whereas in other religious societies, homosexuality was not discussed and individuals would not know what to do. Overall, the third sex was viewed as a part of historical Hindu society, and was integrated into these texts as a result.
Verses regarding the understanding of sexuality, behavior, and practice were set aside by Nandi and forming the text called the Kama Sastra. In this text, the term Tritiya-prakriti is used to describe homosexual and transgender behavior within Hinduism along with the various Sanskrit words such as, Svairini and Kliba, which put individuals into certain homosexual categories. Lesbian, or Svairini, refers to an independent and liberated woman who has refused a husband and earns her own livelihood. She may live either alone or with another woman and the texts describes the various types of homosexual behavior. The act of purushayita is when a couple switches roles and the woman goes on top, penetrating the male using her finger or a dildo (Wilhelm 9). These same acts occur between Svairini. There are, eight different types of penetration known as, purushopariptani, that are described so that similar acts can occur between two females. Therefore, the Kama Sastra acknowledges that the Svairini, although in some cases looked down upon in society, should be able to participate in sexual acts (Wilhelm 90). Lesbians were readily accommodated into the third gender society and ordinary society. They were allowed to engage in all means of livelihood, such as trade, government, and entertainment (Wilhelm 9). Gay men, or Kliba, can refer to any type of impotent man, but, in this case, it is used to describe men who are completely un-attracted to woman (Wilhelm 10). Kliba’s are described in the Kama Sutra regarding oral sex. Heterosexual males are not recommended to have oral sex and it is forbidden to Brahmanas. However, it is acknowledged as a natural practice among third sex individuals who are not engaged in celibacy.
Gay men, who take a passive role in oral sex, are specifically known as mukhebhaga or asekya (Wilhelm 51). There are two different types of gay males described by the Kama Sutra, the first being the feminine male. These individuals usually keep a womanly fashion with long hair but are not to be confused with males who dress up as females ( i.e. transvestites) (Wilhelm 10). Gay males who fall under the feminine category were often hired by aristocratic women and usually very good at entertainment, most notably dancing. Their presence was also considered to be auspicious and their blessings were welcomed at religious ceremonies. The masculine gay male is not as recognizable as the feminine homosexual male (Wilhelm 11). They would keep a masculine body type, grow out moustaches or small beards and would often wear shiny earrings. They were also talented in a different way and would often serve as house attendants to wealthy vaisyas (merchants) or as ministers to the government officials. Gay males who were practicing celibacy were also allowed to become temple priests despite their sexual preferences.
In modern day society, homosexual terms that are used to describe gay or lesbian citizens have been inaccurately translated by individuals to impose puritan ethics upon Hindu literature, where they did not otherwise exist (Wilhelm 7). When Great Britain colonized India, the term homosexuality was first coined and writers labelled it as a “sin” or “horrific” and it became an orientation that was not to be spoken of (Wilhelm 9). This idea has crossed over into modern day Hinduism. The third-sex is unspoken of in modern day Hindu society and many individuals are forced into arranged marriages, where parents force their children to be straight (Sands 9). Same sex marriages also continue to be illegal in India (Sands 13).
Despite these negative views, acceptance of gay pride marches and events are evident in urban areas such as Mumbai, which holds the largest gay pride march in the country. However, the majority of the population does not approve (Sands 6). Given all the information, it appears that even though the Hindu religion has acknowledged same sex behavior in their texts, historically Hindus have been more tolerant than other religions towards homosexuality. That being said, restrictions and rules were upheld and continue to be/are continually upheld so that the religion can have the structure, so third sex individuals are not necessarily viewed as equals in society, especially not in modern day society. The question remains: will Hinduism go back to the way it once was and include third sex individuals into their society, or will they form a new idea and ideals about homosexuality on their own?
Jeffrey S. Siker (2007) Homosexuality and religion: An encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut, London: Geenwood press.
Takhar, S (2018) Hidden desires: Hinduism and Sexuality. London South Bank University.
Stephanie Kaye Nowacki., Mark A. Yarhouse (2007) The Many Meanings of Marriage: Divergent Perspectives Seeking Common Ground. Virgina beach: Regent University.
Amara Das Wilhelm (2008) Tritya-Prakriti: People Of The Third Sex. Understanding homosexuality, transgender identity and intersex conditions through Hinduism. Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Corporation.
Anthony Copley (2006) Apiritual Bloomsbury. Hinduism and Homosexuality in the lives and writings of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood. Langam: Lexington books.
References and further recommend readings
Kalra, Gurvinder (2016) “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 5:121-26. DOI:10.1080/17542863.2011.570915
Mehta, J.M (2009) Four Spans of Human Life: Ashram Vyavastha. Daryaganj: Hindoology Books.
Penrose, Walter (2001) “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a ‘Third Nature’ in the South Asian Past.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3-39. Accessed February 7, 2016.
Doniger, W., Sudhir Kakar, and Vatsyayana (2002) Kamasutra: Oxford world’s classics. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Related topics for further investigation
1) The Hijra
2) The Aravani or Ali
3) The Jogappa
4) Marriage equality
5) Homosexuals rights in india
This article was written by: Maria Fanning (November 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.