Anthropology: References to Homosexuality in Hindu Religion and Mythology

Homosexuality is a term that raises quite a lot of eyebrows and hush hush noises. For quite a while now, even the mention of homosexuality has been a taboo in many societies, Hindu religious society being one of them. It is something that is believed to be relatively new concept. However, Hindu religious texts and mythological stories suggest otherwise.

Homosexuality forbidden in Hinduism ?
Ancient painting of a group of women enjoying each others company

Before diving into the topic, let’s pay some quick attention to the terminologies. The term ‘homosexuality’ suggests romantic and/or sexual attraction between same-sex or gender people. The ‘LGBTQ+’ is an initialized term which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and more. The term stands for a community that consists of various gender expressions and sexual orientations.

For centuries, the concept of homosexuality has been treated as unnatural and unacceptable by Hindu societies. However, this is not how it was used to be before. In fact, in earlier times, Hindu views on homosexuality and the LGBTQ+ community were more diverse and open.

Ancient Hindu Texts

There are various ancient texts in the Hindu religion, which include the Vedas, the Shashtras, Puranas and the Epic literatures, etc.

The Vedas
The Vedas

The Vedas predate any other texts all around the world and are considered to be the roots of Hinduism. The earliest mentions of the LGBTQ+ community are found in the Vedas, which date back to at least 600 B. C. Early Vedic teachings demonstrate that ancient expressions of Hinduism accommodated homosexuality and transgender persons with much more positivity and respect than in modern years. There were over fifty terms that described non-heterosexual genders and sexualities in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tamil, including ‘Tritiya prakriti’ meaning someone who had both male and female qualities, ‘Napumsa’ meaning someone who is deficient in manhood, ‘Nastriya’ meaning someone who is deficient in womanhood, ‘Kliba’ meaning someone who is impotent with women by nature, ‘Panda’ meaning someone who is impotent with women for various reasons, ‘Shandha’ meaning he who has qualities of a woman, ‘Stripumsa’ meaning she who has qualities of a man, ‘Svairini’ meaning she who engages in sex with other women etc. And these terms are found in the Vedas, as well as Itihasa, Purana, Dharma-shastra, Kama-shastra, Natya-shastra, Ayurveda etc.

The Shushtruta Samhita, which is an ancient medical text, mentions two different types of homosexual men and further explains the concept of “Kumbhika”, meaning men who take the passive role during anal sex, and “Asekya”, meaning men who devour the semen of other men. There are also acknowledgments of transgender people and they explain further that when a man and a woman have sex, the gender and sexuality of the newly born depends on the proportion of the ‘male white seed ‘ and ‘female red seed’. Heterosexual men are born if the male white seed is stronger; and heterosexual women are born if female red seeds are stronger. When both seeds are equally strong, the child becomes queer.

The Kama Sutra, which is an ancient text about ‘Kama’ or desire and is the earliest and most important work of Kama Shastra, affirms and recognizes same-sex relations and portrays homosexual experiences as natural and joyful. There are also mentions of a third sex or ‘Tritiya prakriti’ and their freedom of marriage. Kama Sutra also mentions fellatio in heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships. And there are also mentions of ‘Svairini’ as independent women who are frequent with their own kind or others and various practices of lesbians.

The Dharmashastras, which are the books that used to speculate about appropriate human conduct, had a very casual attitude towards non-vaginal sex, be it heterosexual or homosexual.

The Narada Smriti mentions and explains fourteen different types of gender identities, which include transgender people or ‘Shandha’, intersex people or ‘Nisarga’, and three different types of homosexual men: ‘Mukhebhaga’, ‘Kumbhika’ and ‘Asekya. Similarly, the Sabda-kalpa-druma Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictionary lists and explains twenty types of gender identities, as does the Kamatantra and Smriti Ratnavali.

The Mahanirvana Tantra establishes that third-gendered people had the right to be financially supported by their family; however, they were excluded from the right of inheritance.

According to Arthashastra of Kautilya, which represents the principal text of secular law, heterosexual vaginal sex was proposed as the norm, while homosexual acts were cited as a small offence punishable by a fine.

In Manusmriti, homosexual sex was treated equally as a man having sex with a menstruating woman or having sex during the day, and as punishment they had purification rites which involved bathing with clothes on.

Puranas, Epic Literatures, Local Legends and Regional Folklores

Hindu religion is filled with stories and legends of Gods, historical characters, mythological creatures and many more. For generations, these stories and legends have been being shared, some written and some spoken. Many of these stories involve the acknowledgement of queer characters, sex-change stories and even homosexual activities. This proves that ancient Hindu civilization acknowledged homosexuality and the LGBTQ+ community in a way people refuse today.

Ramayana and Mahabharata: the Epic and the Regional Folklores

Ramayana And Mahabharata
The Epic Literatures: Ramayana And Mabharata

According to the Epic Literature of Ramayana, when Lord Rama had to spend 14 years in the forest, he requested all the “men and women” followers to return to the kingdom who had been following him to the forest. However, he was greatly moved by the love and loyalty of all the transgendered individuals who stayed behind with him; and so Lord Rama sanctioned the power of blessing on auspicious occasions like marriage, child birth and inaugural ceremonies to them.

In some versions of the Bengali Krittivasa Ramayana, there are mentions of two queens conceiving a child together with the help of Lord Shiva. In other versions, however, it was Kamadeva who blessed them with a child when they fell in love. Sage Astavakra named the new-born Bhagiratha, which means he who was born from two vulvas.

According to Giridhara Ramayana, there is a version of the story of sage Lopamudra which is different from the other two versions of the same story mentioned in the Rigveda Hymns and the Mahabharata, and involves a sex change. As the story goes, when the sage Agastya approached the king of Kanyakubja and asked if he could marry one of his daughters when they came of age, the king agreed. However, by the time the sage returned, the king had married off all his daughters, and so he dressed his son, Lopamudra, as a woman and presented him to the sage, in fear of getting cursed. According to the story, a miracle occurred and transformed Lopamudra into a woman when sage Agastya and Lopamudra got married.

In the Epic Literature of Mahabharata, there are mentions of Shikhandi, who was originally born as Shikhandini. As the story goes back, after being abducted by Bhishma and being rejected by him, Princess Amba took her life and swore to take revenge for the disrespectful behaviour towards her; and so she was later born to King Drupada as Shikhandini, who was raised as a son. Some stories suggest that she turned into a man before the War by doing penance and austerities. Others say she had been arranged to marry a female, and on the wedding night, as Shikhandini’s true identity was revealed, she was insulted by the newly wedded wife, so much so that Shikhandini fled. However, she met a yaksha who exchanged his gender with her and Shikhandini returned as a man with the name of Shikhandi and led a happy married life with his wife and children. In the Javanese telling, Shikhandi never becomes a man, but is a woman equal to men and is the wife of Arjuna. Different versions aside, Shikhandi is widely believed to be an intersex warrior.

In Mahabharata, there are also mentions of Brihannala, which was the form Arjuna took during the last year of his exile. As the story suggests, when Arjuna refused the nymph Urvashi, she cursed him to become a third gendered individual or ‘Kliba’. And so, during the last year of the exile of Pandavas, Arjuna took the name Brihannala and dressed in women’s clothing, causing the curse to take over. In the form of Brihannala, Arjuna taught the arts of music and dance to Princess Uttara, daughter of king Virata. In the Padma Purana, Arjuna also physically transformed into a woman and took part in Krishna’s mystical dance, which was only for women to attend.

In the Tamil version of Mahabharata, it is mentioned that Lord Krishna, who was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, took the form of Mohini and married Aravan, who was the son of Arjuna and the Naga princess Ulupi, in order to give Aravan a chance to experience love before being sacrificed to ensure a win in the war of Kurukshetra. It is also mentioned that Krishna remained in the form of Mohini for quite some time after the death of Aravan, mourning for him.

In both, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there are mentions of the story of Ila, a king who was cursed by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati to alternate between being a man and a woman each month but losing his memory after changing sex. It is said that during one such period, Ila married Budha, who was the God of planet Mercury. Even though Budha was aware of Ila’s alternating gender, he did not enlighten the ‘male’ Ila about their relationship, and so ‘male’ Ila remained unaware of his life as ‘female’ Ila. In the Ramayana version, Ila bears the son of Budha, where as in the Mahabharata version, Ila is called both the mother and father of the child. After the birth of the child, however, the curse was lifted and Ila was turned into a man who later fathered several children with his wife.

Puranas: the Shashtras and the Local Legends

Puranas: The Trideva and Adi Shakti
Puranas: The Trideva and Adi Shakti

In the Puranas, the Gods constantly keep changing their genders. For example, Lord Vishnu has taken the form of Mohini more than once to enchant demons and sages. As per Baul traditions, when Goddess Kali decided to become Krishna, Lord Shiva took the form of Radha. This states that the gender of Hindu Gods are nothing but fluid.

According to the Bhagavata Purana, when Lord Vishnu took the form of Mohini to trick demons and distract them from the Amrit, Lord Shiva also unintentionally got attracted to Mohini as well. In the Brahmanda Purana, it is mentioned that Lord Shiva’s wife, Goddess Parvati, hung her head in shame when she saw Lord Shiva’s pursuit of Mohini. In some Puranic stories, there are mentions of a child being born by Vishnu as Mohini, who became pregnant by Shiva.

According to the Shiva Purana, it is mentioned that Lord Shiva once masturbated to Lord Vishnu and Seven Rishis saw this happening and rushed to save the sperm from falling to the ground. After taking the sperm of Shiva, the Rishis poured it into the ear of Anjani, the daughter of sage Gautama, who conceived and later on, gave birth to Hanuman.

In Puranic stories, there are many versions of the birth of Karttikeya, the God of male beauty and battle. According to the Shiva Purana and Ramayana, as the Gods interrupted Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati’s unending embrace, fearing the outcome of it; Lord Shiva appeared before the Gods asking one of them to come forward and accept the semen, and according to the story, Agni performed fellatio on Lord Shiva and swallowed his semen. The story further goes, as Agni divested the semen into the wives of a group of sages, under Shiva’s advice, because the semen caused a burning sensation in those that ingested it. Later, the sages’ wives dropped the semen into the Ganges River, where it kept flowing to the shore from which Kārttikeya sprang. Most of the versions suggest that Goddess Parvati was his mother. In some versions, however, Ganga is said to be Karttikeya’s mother, who accepted semen from Agni and carried the unborn child. The male progenitor in the birth of Kārttikeya is sometimes said to be Shiva, sometimes said to be Agni, and in others, a combination of the two. In some myths, Agni ejaculated onto a mountain that itself was made from Lord Shiva’s divine semen, making Kārttikeya the child of two gods.

There are also many versions of the birth of Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of wisdom. The most commonly known version of it is that Goddess Parvati made a son from clay and put life in it, later being beheaded and restored with an elephant’s head by Lord Shiva. However, in a 13th-century Kashmiri text, Haracaritacintamani, it is mentioned that Ganesha was born from Goddess Parvati’s menstrual blood being washed into the Ganges, where it was swallowed by Parvati’s elephant-headed handmaiden Malini, who conceived Ganesha and gave birth to him.

In some Puranic stories, there are mentions of Samba, who was the son of Lord Krishna, as a patron of eunuchs, transgender individuals and homoeroticism. In the Mausala Purana, Samba, who was dressed as a woman, was questioned about ‘her’ supposed pregnancy and was cursed for it; and as a result of the curse, Samba gave birth to an iron pestle and mortar even though he was a male.

According to the Puranas, Agni, the God of fire, wealth and creative energy, had a same-sex relationship with Soma, the God of the Moon, even though being married to the Goddess Svaha. There are also mentions of Agni having same-sex sexual encounters that involve accepting semen from other gods.

In Vedic literature, Varuna, the God of wind and Mitra were portrayed as icons of affection and intimate friendship between males. According to some ancient Brahmana texts, Mitra and Varuna were associated with lunar phases and same-sex relations. In Shatapatha Brahmana, it is mentioned that Mitra and Varuna were the two halves of a moon; the waxing one was Varuna and the waning one was Mitra. During the new-moon night, these two used to meet and Mitra used to implant his seed in Varuna and when the moon later waned, that waning was produced from his seed. Varuna was similarly said to implant his seed in Mitra on the full-moon night for the purpose of securing its future waxing. In the Bhagavata Purana, it is mentioned that Varuna and Mitra had children through ayoni or non-vaginal sex. For example, it is said that Varuna fathered the sage Valmiki when his semen fell upon a termite mound; and later on, sage Agastya and sage Vasistha were born from water pots after Mitra and Varuna discharged their semen in the presence of Urvasi. This account is said to be arguably similar to gay couples having children through surrogate mothers nowadays.

Gods and Deities

Being a monotheistic religion, Hinduism deals with quite a long list of Gods and Goddesses, Deities, Demigods etc. According to Shastras, there are said to be almost 33 crore Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu religion; however, this fact is debated and said to be misunderstood. Many of these Gods and Deities have shown gender-non-conforming qualities, and engaged in homoerotic acts, defying gender and sexual norms way back in the days.

The Ardhanarishvara Form
The painting of Ardhanarishvara form

Ardhanarishvara and Laxmi-Narayan

The Ardhanarishvara form is an androgynous composite of Lord Shiva and his wife, Goddess Parvati. It is commonly depicted as half-male and half-female, equally split down the middle. According to Skanda Purana, the Ardhanarishvara form was born when Goddess Parvati requested Lord Shiva to allow her to reside with him, embracing ‘limb-to-limb’. It symbolizes that the principles of male and female are inseparable, and signifies “totality that lies beyond duality”, “bi-unity of male and female in God” and “the bisexuality and therefore the non-duality” of the Supreme Being. The Ardhanarishvara form conveys that God is both Shiva and Parvati, “both male and female, both father and mother, both aloof and active, both fearsome and gentle, both destructive and constructive” and unifies all other dichotomies of the universe.

A similar merger happens between the beauty and prosperity Goddess Lakshmi and her husband Lord Vishnu, forming the hermaphroditic or androgynous Lakshmi-Narayana, which is also known as Vaikuntha Kamalaja.

Harihara

Harihara is the combined sattvika characterisation of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, Hari being a form of Lord Vishnu and Hara being a form of Lord Shiva. Also known as Shankaranarayana, the Harihara form is a symbolic representation of the unity of Vishnu and Shiva as different aspects of the same ultimate reality called Brahman.

Ayyappa

God Ayyappa or Ayyappan is the Hindu God of self-control, popular in the Southern parts of India. Ayyappa is the son of Mohini, who is an Incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and Lord Shiva, and step son of Goddess Parvati.

Aravan

Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Naga princess Ulupi, got married to Mohini, who was an incarnation of Lord Krishna, before being sacrificed and offered to Goddess Kali in order to ensure a win in the War. In his honour, there is a festival of 18 days every year in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, where trans-women dress up as Aravan’s wives and re-enact the marriage and the sacrifice, and then mourn for his death.

Bahuchara Mata

Bahuchara Mata is the Hindu Goddess of chastity and fertility. According to the legends, Bahuchara Mata was traveling with her sisters, when they were threatened by the marauder Bapiya, after which Bahuchara Mata and her sisters self- immolated their breasts, causing Bapiya to get cursed with impotence until he began dressing and acting as a woman. Today, Bahuchara Mata is worshipped as the originator and patron of the hijras, transgender and intersex individuals.

Other accounts involve the stories of Minakshi Devi, the warrior Goddess; Narada Muni, the celestial celibate; the stories of the six Goswamis; Yellamma Devi, the Goddess of the Devadasis; Bhagavati Devi, the Goddess of Crossdressing; and many more.

Conclusion

In Hinduism, marriage has always been the union of two souls, and it is beyond the body. Through all the accounts mentioned above, it is clear that the Hindu religion has been anything but an ally to the LGBTQ+ community for centuries now, by acknowledging and accepting the presence of homosexuality and different gender identities. Then what changed?

Research suggests that during the colonization of British India, section 377 of the penal code was enforced throughout India, which could punish people who committed sodomy or other homosexual acts with life in prison. Before that, homosexuality was not illegal in India.

In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna states that “I am equal towards all beings; no one is hated by me and no one is beloved. Those who worship me with devotion, however, are in me, and I am in them.” If the religion and Gods themselves neither question, nor look down upon queer individuals, then why do people have to do it on behalf of them?

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