The LGBTQ movement in India


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IN Ancient India, there were over fifty words for non-heterosexual gender and sexualities in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil: napunsaka, kliba, kinnara, pedi, pandaka. These references are found in veda, itihasa, purana, dharma-shastra, kama-shastra, natya-shastra, ayurveda, of the Hindus, as well as in Jain agamas and Buddhist pitakas. Today most are still used in local languages but in a pejorative way.

This reveals how we have forgotten ancient Indian heritage of recognizing, and accommodating, third gender and queer sexualities, and have submitted to Victorian morality. This colonization of the mind was reflected in IPC Section 377 that saw non-heterosexual non-procreative sex as ‘against the order of nature’. This outdated law was finally read down by the Supreme Court on 6 September 2018. Now it is time to reclaim our ancient Indian heritage.

Same-sex love is a strong part of Indian tradition and needs to be distinguished from same-sex attraction. The former is affectionate, bordering on the romantic, but is not sexual. Krishna and Arjuna, for example, referred to each other as sakha, or beloved friends. One can speculate that society separated procreative sexual love from the romantic love. The former was for husbands and wives, for the sake of children. The latter was between sakhas and between sakhis.

Most religions implement themselves through rules. But not Hinduism. Rules in Hinduism are always restricted to one community (sampradaya) and there are thousands of such sampradayas. There is no pan-Hindu rule. This fluid architecture is what enabled Hinduism to stay relevant throughout its 4000 year history. Hinduism never prescribes. It simply describes. In all times, homosexuality exists. In all times, the wise include the different, and the unwise don’t.

The idea of Judgment Day (qayamat, in Urdu) is found in Abrahamic mythology and even in Greek mythology, in mythologies that believe in one life; hence believe there is a right way to life than one single life.

Hinduism, however, is based on many lives. So, when someone says that homosexuality is not ‘approved’ by Hinduism, they are missing the whole point of Hinduism. Hinduism is based on karma. You cannot but express the fruit of your past actions (karma phala). If you are supposed to be gay, you will be gay. If you are supposed to be transgender, you will be transgender. The question is will society support it? Our choice of action can be either rooted in love, or hatred. That is in our choice. Exclusion is not love.

In Abrahamic mythology, God is decidedly masculine. In Hindu mythology, God is simultaneously formless, rock, plant, animal, masculine, feminine, and queer. Queer examples include Shiva who becomes a milkmaid (Gopeshwara) to dance in Krishna’s raasleela, Vishnu who becomes a damsel (Mohini) to enchant the gods and demons. There is no ‘one’ way for all. Different gods, for different people with different tendencies and disposition. But they are all forms of the same God. This is unity in diversity.


There are Greek myths of transgenders, such as the tale of Tiresias who becomes a woman when he kills a female snake. But these are not dominant themes. Likewise, homosexuality is not a dominant theme in Hindu mythology, though tales like that of Shudri-Brahmini tirtha do indicate lesbian love.

There is a creature called Navgunjara, the nine-part beast, and is described in vivid detail in Sarala Das’ Oriya Mahabharata. A beast that looked like it had been created by fusing nine animals. Arjuna thought it was a monster. He raised his bow ready to shoot this beast. Then he saw that the creature held a lotus in its hands. He stopped. He remembered what his friend, Krishna, had once told him. ‘Don’t be so arrogant to assume you know everything. The human mind is finite but the universe is infinite.’ Arjuna lowered his bow and bowed his head. He realized this beast was no monster; it was a symbol of the divine: what humans cannot dream of exists in the reality of God.

Now compare this tale with that of the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature described in Greek mythology. Sighting the Chimera was an omen of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters, particularly volcanoes. Incidentally, it lived in ‘Asia’, was female, and was destroyed by the Greek hero Bellorophon, who rode the flying horse Pegasus. Such was the impact of this monster that its name ‘chimera’ came to mean foolish fantasy.

Two cultures – both imagined creatures that did not fit into a neat little box. But one culture saw it as divine and miraculous; the other saw it as diabolical and monstrous. One saw it as a symbol of infinity; the other saw it as the harbinger of chaos. For one, the world offered myriad possibilities. For the other, the world was static, finite and anything beyond the known and understood was a threat.


Buddhists and Jains spoke at length about different kinds of bodies and attractions as they sought to filter out queer people from monasteries and privileged celibacy. In monastic orders, like Buddhism and Jainism where celibacy is celebrated, sexual desire – be it homosexual or heterosexual – is an obstacle to the spiritual path. In Charvaka, or materialistic traditions, the intrinsic nature (svabhava) of living creatures must be respected and celebrated, rather than judged.

Sex discomforts many people. In many religions, pleasure is the opposite of God. In Vinaya Pitaka of Buddhism, the queer ‘pandaka’ was not allowed to be ordained as he was seen as ‘hypersexual’. This idea that spiritual growth happens when one suppresses desire is a strong one in monastic orders that dominate world religions.

In Jain scripture we see a far more refined understanding of gender and sexuality. One recognizes that the body can be male (purusha), female (stri) or queer (napunsaka). Sexual desire in male (purushaveda) is equated with forest fire, in female (striveda) is equated with dung fire so least intense, and sexual desire in queer people (napumsakaveda) is equated as settlement fire, so most intense, an idea that is mirrored in Buddhist texts too, and the reason for preventing queer people from becoming monks. Further, there is a classification based on the object of attraction: male, female or queer. This can be seen in all three types of genders.

In Buddhist literature, greater importance is given to behaviour, rather than to biological markings so we hear of men who have sex with men, or women who behave like men. There is also reference to active (padisevati) and passive (padisevavati) homosexual acts. In Buddhist mythology, ‘pandakas’ or homosexuals were not allowed to be monks. So, there was discrimination in Buddhism. But no one talks about this as we prefer to imagine Buddha as secular and inclusive, which is not quite true. He rejected the sexual, especially the feminine and the queer.


In Hinduism, gods dance and sing and enjoy theatre, and sit on swings with lovers that are part of many festivals. The monastic and pleasure schools of Hinduism have always competed and complemented each other, but since British times, the pleasure school has been eclipsed. Monastic orders by their very nature frown on beauty, song and dance. Such groups will always exist. That is the meaning of diversity – different views. Wisdom is enabling all to coexist despite cantankerous debate.

Shikhandi embodies all queer people – from gays to lesbians to Hijras to transgendered people to hermaphrodites to bisexuals. Like their stories, his story remains invisible. But the great author, Vyasa, located this story between the ninth night and the tenth day, right in the middle of the war. This was surely not accidental. It was a strategic pointer to things that belong neither here nor there. This is how the ancients gave voice to the non-heterosexual discourse. Homosexuals have always existed in the world of the divine but more often than not man-made society has chosen to ignore, suppress, ridicule, label them aberrants, diseased, to be swept under carpets and gagged by laws such as 377. They have been equated with rapists and molesters, simply because they can only love differently.

In the 15th century, Goswami Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas has a line spoken by Ram to Kakabhusandi, ‘Nar, napunsak, nari, va jiva, charachar koi; sarva bhav bhaj kapat taji, mohe param priya soi.’ – 7.87k (‘All men, queers, women, plants and animals are all equally dear to me, if they approach me with devotion and without malice.’) Some will say that Vedanta does not support homosexuality. When they say this, they are turning Hinduism into an Abrahamic faith like Islam, Christianity and Judaism where God’s permission is sought to be true to one’s feelings. The Hindu leader is thus cleverly positioning himself as God’s messenger, which is not a Hindu concept at all.

Hinduism celebrates nature (prakriti) and all that it offers: nara (male), napunsak (queer), nari (women), plants and animals. In nature, all kinds of sexuality exist. According to botanists, most plants have male and female organs simultaneously. As per zoologists, hundred species of animals, in different contexts, display same-sex behaviour, and same-sex parenting. As per psychiatrists, human sexuality is complex and there is tension between biological urges and social values. In wisdom, the mind is expanded, and all options are accommodated – heterosexual, homosexual, and room is made for men, women, transgenders and intersex, celibate and polyamorous, single parent as well as multi-parent and same-sex parent family.


Construction of Hindu temples in stone began around 6th century AD. Construction reached its climax between the 12th and the 14th century when the grand pagodas of eastern and southern India such as Puri and Tanjore came into being. On the walls and gateways of these magnificent structures we find a variety of images: gods, goddesses, demons, nymphs, sages, warriors, lovers, priests, monsters, dragons, plants and animals. Amongst scenes from epics and legends, one invariably finds erotic images including those that modern law deems unnatural and society considers obscene.

These images cannot be simply dismissed as perverted fantasies of an artist or his patron considering the profound ritual importance given to these shrines. Some scholars hold a rather puritanical view that devotees are being exhorted to leave these sexual thoughts aside before entering the sanctum sanctorum. Others believe that hidden in these images is a sacred Tantric geometry; the aspirant can either be deluded by the sexuality of the images or enlightened by deciphering the geometrical patterns therein.

According to ancient treatises on architecture, a religious structure is incomplete unless its walls depict something erotic, for sensual pleasures (kama) are as much an expression of life as are righteous conduct (dharma), economic endeavours (artha) and spiritual pursuits (moksha). Interpretations and judgements aside, these images tell us that the ‘idea’ of same-sex and what the colonial rulers termed ‘unnatural’ intercourse did exist in India. One can only speculate if the images represent the common or the exception.


In the Puranas, God changes gender constantly: Every god has a female Shakti: thus Vinayaka has Vinayaki, Varaha has Varahi. Shiva becomes Ardhanareshwara, or half a woman, to make the Goddess happy. He becomes Gopeshwar – milkmaid or cow-girl form of Shiva – to join Krishna in the raasleela. When Kali decides to become Krishna, Shiva takes the form of Radha in Baul traditions. Vishnu becomes the damsel Mohini to enchant demons and sages.

Medical texts, such as Shushruta Samhita, subscribe to the Tantrik belief that when a man and woman have sex, the gender and sexuality depends on the proportion of the male white seed and female red seed. If the male white seed is stronger than heterosexual men are born; when the female red seed is stronger, then heterosexual females are born. When both seeds are equally strong, the child becomes queer (kliba, napunsaka, kinnara). Sanskrit texts on astrology, architecture and music all refer to three genders: male, female and queer. Thus the condition is seen as physiological, not pathological.

The Dharmashastras clearly value heterosexual marriage and sex that results in production of sons. However, they do acknowledge, albeit grudgingly, the existence of other forms of non-vaginal sex, heterosexual as well as homosexual, and seek to restrain them with fines and penance, without overtly condemning them in religious or moral terms.


With the Supreme Court of India decimalizing homosexuality in no uncertain terms on 6 September 2018, will companies include ‘sexuality’ as part of their diversity policy? Few show signs of implementing the NALSA judgment of the Supreme Court that recognized transgender as the third gender. So theoretically a talent will be turned away because of his or her sexuality, or his or her gender. If we cannot embrace difference, how do we expect to be innovative and creative in the global ecosystem? People build a company and people come in all shades: all kinds of gender, sexualities, religions, languages, race, ethnicity and castes. It is human tendency to form cliques and prefer homogeneity. Such an ecosystem will not hire the Tim Cooks of the world who are different. And so such an ecosystem will not hire one of the corporate world’s most successful chief operating and chief executive officer.

The American Psychiatric Association specified ‘homosexuality’ wasn’t a mental illness in 1973. Modern queer activism is often attributed to the Stonewall riots of 1969, in New York City. Some historians suggest that a new era of the gay rights movement began in the 1980s with the emergence of AIDS, which devastated queer leadership and shifted the focus for many, from matters of LGBT rights to those of existence and pragmatism.

In India, in 2009, the Delhi High Court decision in Naz Foundation v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi found Section 377 and other legal prohibitions against private, adult, consensual, and non-commercial same-sex conduct to be in direct violation of fundamental rights provided by the Indian Constitution. But on 11 December 2013, the Supreme Court set aside this order and outlawed all homosexual activity.

Ashok Row Kavi’s NGO, Humsafar Trust, has reported that two-fifths of homosexuals in the country had faced blackmail after the 2013 ruling. There now are many avenues for the queer community in cities for meeting and socializing. These include Gay Bombay, Good as You and Harmless Hugs.

On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality by declaring Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional. The court unanimously ruled that the individual should be allowed to have consensual relationships, and form an identity that should be protected by fundamental rights.


Kinnar or Kinnar literally means what-men and is the closest Sanskrit word for transgenders. In ancient Hindu scriptures, such as the Puranas, there are references to kinnars serving as musicians in the celestial palace of Indra, king of the Devas and ruler of the sky. However, there is also a divine aspect attributed to them – evidenced by the line of devotees outside their akhara. Outside the realm of the festival too, kinnars are believed to have the power to ward off the evil eye.

What makes the transgender akhara particularly subversive in the context of the Kumbh Mela is the perception that they may not be celibate – as many of them are forced into sex work. The kinnars argue that poverty has driven several members of the transgender community to prostitution, especially those who are thrown out by their families. The response to the akhara in the Ujjain Kumbh has been overwhelming. Thousands of people fell at the feet of the transgenders led by Lakshmi Tripathi, who was declared the Mahamandaleshwar of this spiritual gymnasium. They were also denied the right to participate in Shahi Snan as they were seen as a subversive group, rather than a traditional one.


Problems with the queer are the same problems we face with young men and women who are increasingly choosing career over family, single-hood over marriage, divorce over staying together, and preferring to have only one child. Old religious practices are being abandoned and new ways are emerging as boys and girls marry across religions, languages, castes and communities. This adjustment is no different from adjusting with queer people. Hopefully, parents will not force their gay and lesbian children into loveless marriages with heterosexual partners that destroy not one but several lives, of the spouse as well as the children born. Corporates will expand their diversity policy to include sexuality so that gays and lesbians do not have to hide the truth for fear of being kicked out of the job. We don’t mind admiring ‘openly gay CEO’ Tim Cook of Apple, but we will resist hiring him despite his obvious merit.

Old age homes will be created by shrewd entrepreneurs where gays and lesbians who have lived single lives can find loving refuge in the twilight years of their lives.

Families will realize the value of having a gay uncle and a lesbian aunt around them who do not fit the norm of what it means to be a man or a woman. They will create diversity in the family ecosystem, provide an alternate way of looking at life and love.

Schools will teach children that it is okay to be different and how to deal with friends who are different. Teachers will be sensitive too, and supportive of, the effeminate boy or the masculine girl in class, who may or may not be homosexual, but are often teased by others. We will have the maturity to not be incensed by the RSS and All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s petulant desire to ‘control family values’.


In 2013, the problem was not so much with Hinduism as it is with the popular understanding of religion. Religion is seen as anti-sex. Sex is seen as a diversion and distraction from the spiritual path. Celibacy has traditionally associated with holiness. Sex is permitted only within the confines of marriage. Sex for pleasure is seen as dirty, anti-social, even evil.

The verdict in 2018 was long overdue. How can sex between consenting adults in private be criminal? It revealed a perverted mindset from the Victorian era and denied the Indian principle of ‘kama’ or pleasure as a key aspect of human existence. Controversy exists only in the minds of people who wish to control what others are and have to do, as they are not at peace with who they are and what they do. Life is about working in ecosystems that can be simultaneously nourishing and hostile. Ask any tree in the forest.