Same-sex love in classical Indian literature
by Sheo S Rai
It is often said by ignorant and/or homophobic people that same-sex
relationship and love is a Western import. The term “Western”
itself is an anomaly as it assumes that the West is a monolithic entity;
but that’s another issue.
In this essay, I will reveal that same-sex relationship and love is not an alien import but rather has existed in Indian society throughout the ages . That ironically, it was homophobia that was an import from the ‘West’ rather than homosexuality. Same-sex love has existed in Indian society and culture and this can be seen if one were to do a literature survey.
This essay will have three parts, each
touching on the literature of era, each giving a sampling of the works of
the particular era. You will notice that a lot of religious texts
will be quoted as well as religious icons will be mentioned. The
reason for this is that when one talks about Indian culture and
literature, one cannot get away from the spiritual aspect. Indian
society is deeply intertwined with it, be it with Buddhism, Hinduism,
Islam, Jainism or Sikhism.
I. Ancient (Before 8th C) and Medieval (8th to 18th C) Sanskritic, Buddhist & Jain Traditions
Friendship & Marriage
Friendship between same-sex (predominantly between men) was often expressed in intimate terms. An example of this closeness is the relationship between Krishn and Arjun.
Krishn says to Arjun:
On the last night before returning to Dwarka:
So sacred was friendship that it used the same symbolism as the seven circambulations made around the sacred fire during a Hindu wedding. Saptapadam hi mitram or seven steps taken together constitutes friendship. Ram and Sugriv walked round the fire seven times to seal their friendship .
A prominent character in the Mahabharat, Bhisma, was actually quite against it. He said that a man goes to a woman “for the sake only of offspring” as a one who overcomes all difficulties. He also mentioned that sex and marriage came when the human race degenerated.
In the five books of the Panchatantra, what is to be noted is that all the characters (animals of different species) are male and form close friendships. In one story, friendship triumphs marriage.
Births Other Than Natural
The obvious heterosexual pairing is absent in various instances. Sometimes it takes the form of being born from the elements and sometimes from same-sex unions or designs. Sita (Ramayan) and Draupadi (Mahabharat) were born from the earth and fire respectively. Jarasandh was born as two halves from two women and later joined by a demoness (Mahabharat). Kartiki was born by Agni swallowing Shiv’s sperm and hence is also know is Skanda from the verb skandri  (Shiv Puran ). Ayappan was born out of the union between Shiv and Vishnu in the form of Mohini (Bhagawat Puran). The latter depicts the fluidity of gender. Ganesh was born outside of the womb (Shiv Puran).
Shiv ordered two women to have sex in order to have children after their husband died. Hence Bhagirath (meaning of the two vulvas) was born (Krittivas’s Ramayan).
Dual mothering is also another form free from same-sex pairing. Agni is also known as dwimatri or of two mothers. The gender of firesticks in Sanskrit is female. Friction, not penetration produces fire.
And then, among the many sex change stories, there are two that stand out – Sikhandi and Brihinala from the Mahabharat. Sikhandi was a woman in the previous birth reborn to avenge a wrong done to her. Popular TV depicts Sikhandi as an effeminate man. Bhisma recognised the woman in him and refused to wield a weapon against him. Bhisma said:
Brihinala was the name of Arjun when he, along with his brothers, spent their last year in exile in incognito. He was a hermaphrodite – he had a man’s physique with a woman’s disposition.
Apart from the above two, another transformation stands out – Vishnu in the form of Mohini. In addition, there was also a term kimpurush, a “what man” – a being that would be a man in one month and a woman in another.
Gender as a Construct
The Vimalakirtinirdesa, in Mahayana Buddhism, relates about a monk, who after being turned into a woman by a goddess and then back to a man, is asked whether he felt anything different, anything innate about being a woman. He reveals that nothing about gender is innate. The goddess explained:
If there is nothing innate about gender, then is heterosexuality the one and only way?
Patajali’s grammar  and Jain texts talk about the concept the third sex with various ambiguous subcategories such as kliba, pandaka and napunsak. These have been part of the Indian worldview for nearly 3,000 years.
Other examples of explicit same-sex love and desire
Jain philosopher, Sakatayana, in the Strinirvanaprakaran said that a person was capable of being aroused by the same-sex, opposite sex or even a non-human animal. Going further, Jain thinkers said that there were three types of desires – from men, women and the third sex. Hence desire was fluid and transient.
The Kamasutra  specifically caters for all inclinations. The book is instructional and not prescriptive. It says that one should act according to local customs and one’s own inclinations and desires. It specifies three types of genders – pums prakriti, stri pakriti and tritiya prakriti – men, women and the third sex. The third sex was further broken down to various categories which included manly and effeminate gays and manly and effeminate lesbians. It is interesting to note that the book says that manly gays who hid their desires fulfilled them by working as masseurs and hairdressers. It even describes how masseurs work their clients to a achieve orgasm for both of them.
During this period, homoerotic men were mentioned in a non-pejorative way. There were poets who wrote about their love for adolescent boys, sultans in love with their male slaves and Sufi mystics who pined for their lord like female lovers. Gay men were well integrated into the culture of cities like Delhi.
An example of a long term relationship was that between poet Mukaram Baksh and Mukkaram. After the former’s death, the latter observed a period of mourning observed by widows.
Sufi mystics believe in personal experience not dogma. To them, same gender love could transcend sex and therefore not distract them from the ultimate aim of gnonsis. They would adopt a female persona in their poems and songs when writing about God.
Urdu poets neither celebrated or denigrated homosexual love to the exclusion of other types of passion. Marriage was seen as a legitimate sphere of sexual activity but not of experiencing erotic energies. As long as a man fulfilled his duties of a householder, he was free to seek sexual pleasure and emotional involvement elsewhere. Hence erotic commitment was not a threat to marriage. One poet, Abru , when to such an extent to reject heterosexuality saying:
He who prefers a slut to a boy, is no lover, only a creature of lust.
Here are some examples same-sex attraction, love and liaisons:
Amir Khusrao, mystic poet-musician, mourned his mentor’s, Chishti saint Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia’s, death:
Sultan Qutbuddin Khalji, like his father Alauddin Khalji, were in love with their slaves. Qutbuddin’s slave was Khusrao Khan. Wrote a writer of their times:
When hauled before a king to explain a charge against him for dancing with crossdressers, said the mystic Akhi Jamshed Rajgiri:
Mughal emperor Babur wrote in his memoirs the Baburnama:
When Mughal emperor Jehangir asked poet-scholar Mutribi Samarqandi whether a fair young man was more beautiful than a dark one, the latter replied when he saw a dark-skinned youth:
He then saw a fair-skinned youth and said:
III. Modern Indian Materials (19th to 20th C)
There were basically two developments that occurred during this period. The first was the rise of the homophobic voice in literature and the second, the sexual love between women becomes more prominent while that between men is drastically reduced.
There are five words for homoerotically inclined women – dugana, zanakhe, sa’tar, chapathai and chapatbaz.
Rekhti, poetry written by male poets in the female voice and using female idioms, became prominent in the late 18th and 19th C but in the 20th C, its was labelled as obscene.
An example of women loving women can be seen below. This is not imitating heterosexual love. Although a dildo is mentioned, there is an emphasis on kissing, petting, passionate embraces and clitoral stimulation. Shaikh Qalandar Baksh puts it in the following words:
It must be noted that in pre-colonial India, not a single person was ever executed for homosexual behaviour. In contrast, gays were vilified, tortured and/or executed. In 1860, the anti-sodomy law came into being and incorporated in the Indian Penal Code (Section 377). While this proved to be progressive for Britain because the killing stopped, it was retrogressive for India. British educators and missionaries denounced Indian culture. The educated Indian elite became their agents – while not condemning the culture, they did not reject puritanical Victorian values which were put on a pedestal. In fact they claimed that Indian culture was originally similar to the Victorian one, which was both anti-pleasure and anti-sex.
The homophobia was so internalised by educated Indians that Pandit Madhavacharya in 1911 introduced the Kamasutra by saying that people should read the book for the right forms of love making and avoid the wrong ones.
However despite all the attempts by prudes, life went on and same-sex love survived in literature. One example is by Vikram Seth:
Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, a respected Muslim theologian, placed heterosexual and homosexual desire on the same plane.
Many examples on same-sex love and relationships exist in Indian history. I have done injustice by only quoting a few. What was love so sublime has been tarnished by modernity. Like in many other instances, what is glaring is ignored. Despite the various examples of same-sex love in Indian literature, people choose to ignore it as it causes them discomfort or worse, cognitive dissonance.
Gays and lesbians are not special. They have been made so by homophobia.