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Traces of Homosexuality Found from Hindu Epic Ramayana to Present Day Battle for Homosexuality

Traces of Homosexuality Found from Hindu Epic Ramayana to Present Day Battle for Homosexuality

Homosexuality refers to both attraction and sexual behavior between people of the same sex or sexual orientation. In the 19th century a German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert coined the term ‘homosexuality’. Although the term is new, discussions about sexuality in general and in particular same-sex attraction have often been found in philosophical discussions ranging from Plato’s Symposium to contemporary queer theory.

Since the history of cultural understandings of same-sex attraction is relevant to the philosophical issues raised by those understandings, it is necessary to briefly review some of the social histories of homosexuality. Arising out of this history, at least in Western cultures and history, is the idea of natural law and some interpretations of the law as forbidding homosexual activities.

Homosexuality in India

Homosexuality in India has been a subject of discussion since ancient periods and the Hindu texts have taken their positions regarding homosexual characters and themes. Rigveda, one of the four canonical sacred texts of Hinduism, like all forms of universal diversities, has recognized homosexual and transsexual dimensions of human life.

The temples of Khajuraho consist of images of women embracing other women and men displaying their private parts to each other. Scholars generally explained this as an acknowledgment that people in ancient times also engaged themselves in homosexual activities.

Homosexuality in Mythology

The Ramayana by Valmiki describes the sight of Lord Rama’s devotee and companion Hanuman, who have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing other women of their community. In another place, the epic Ramayana narrates the tale of a king named Dilip, having two wives and died without an heir.

The story further tells that Lord Shiva appeared in the dreams of the widowed queens, who engaged themselves in homosexual activities and had a child. He was the famous king Bhagirath who is famous to have “brought River Ganga from heaven to earth”. Several other scriptures and tales of Puranas in Hinduism have witnessed homosexual activities. These include the greatest epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Matsya Purana.

The Narada Purana contains references to facts that might be classified as “unnatural offenses” described in Section 377. Although the Purana does not approve of “unnatural offenses”, the references prove that they were in practice.

Even Arthashastra by Kautilya, a treatise on politics mentions homosexuality. However, the book makes the duty of the king for punishing those who are indulging in homosexuality and expects the rulers for fighting against the “social evil”.

The famous law code, Manusmriti provides punishment for homosexual men and women. Manusmriti states that if a girl is involved in homosexual activities she was liable for a fine of two hundred coins along with ten whiplashes. However, if a mature woman on a girl performs the same, she received a severe punishment, which included either her head would be shaved or two of her fingers would be cut off.

In the case of homosexual males, Manusmriti states that homosexual activities between men lead to loss of caste and engagement with non-human females or other such activities the man is liable for punishment as per the “painful heating vow”.

The ninth chapter of the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, which was composed around the 4th century BC, also talks about different sexual activities including homosexuality and similar activities among transgenders (tritiya prakriti). The book, however, doesn’t favor homosexuality of any kind.

Ancient Indian texts, inscriptions, and paintings on the temple walls don’t approve the homosexual activities, but the repeated references acknowledge the existence of such activities in those days.

Timeline Batlle of Homosexuality

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which was introduced in 1861 during the colonial period of India, is an act that criminalizes homosexuality. Section 377 referred to homosexuality as “unnatural offenses” and states whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any woman, man, animal or child shall be punished with life imprisonment. However, in a historic verdict, the Supreme Court of India on September 6, 2018, decriminalized Section 377, allowing gay sex among consenting adults in private. The SC ruled that consensual adult gay sex isn’t a crime, further stating sexual orientation is natural and people fail to have control over it.

Two Non-Governmental Organizations ((NGOs), Naz Foundation and AIDS Bedhbhav Virodh Andolan were the first to challenge the colonial-era law in the Delhi High Court in 2001, but both petitions were dismissed by the court. In July 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized sex between consenting adults belonging to the same gender, holding it in violation of Articles 14,15, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Article 14 of the IPC guarantees equality before the law, Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sex, caste, or place of birth, and Article 21 guarantees the protection of life and personal liberties.

The apex court commenced the hearing on fresh writ petitions challenging the re-criminalization of consensual gay sex between two adults, thereby rejecting the center’s plea seeking postponement of the proceedings by four weeks.

However, the judgment of the High Court was overturned in 2013 by the SC after finding it to be “legally unsustainable”. The court also crushed the petitions filed by Naz Foundation. The next year, in 2014 Supreme Court directed the government for declaring ‘transgender’ a ‘third gender’ and including them in the OBC quota.

LGBTQ activists filed five petitions a couple of years later in 2016, in the Supreme Court claiming their “rights to sexuality, sexual autonomy, choice of sexual partner, life, privacy, dignity, and equality, along with the other fundamental rights guaranteed under Part-III of Constitution, are violated by Section 377”.

In August 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right under the Constitution, as well as observed “sexual orientation, is an essential attribute of privacy”. The five-judge constitutional bench consisting of Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwikar, D Y Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra reserved its verdict on July 17 after hearing various stakeholders for four days including gay rights activists.

On September 6, 2018, the apex court bench announced that consensual adult gay sex is not a crime, and Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution contradict the present view of Section 377 and stated that Section 377 would stay in force relating to sex with minors, non-consensual sexual acts, and bestiality.

Battle Continues

Child rights activists criticized the Delhi High Court verdict of decriminalizing homosexuality on the ground that Section 377 was required for handling cases of child abuse. However, the enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012 removed the requirement and imposition of Section 377 stating that POCSO is more child-friendly and more stringent. The section also included consensual sexual activities of adults such as oral and anal sex in private which were treated as unnatural and punishable.

The apex court heard the petitions filed by journalist Sunil Mehra, chef Ritu Dalmia, dancer Navtej Jauhar, hoteliers Aman Nath and Keshav Suri as well as business executive Ayesha Kapur along with 20 former and current students of IITs. In their view, decriminalization of consensual between two consenting adults belonging to the same sex declared the IPC section 377 as illegal and unconstitutional.

The petitioners coming from various parts of the nation and belonging to diverse religions, ages, sex, and other backgrounds, stated that IPC section 377 legitimizes the stigma associated with sexual orientation and its expression as something essential and fundamental. The Supreme Court scrapped Section 377, thereby decriminalizing the 158-year-old colonial law that criminalized consensual gay sex.

Coming out, as LGBTQ-positive has never been easy, even though society is supportive and protective of community rights. This begins with accepting oneself, followed by asserting that identity to the world. Judicial reforms create an enabling platform for coming out, but social realities don’t necessarily change in sync, hence the battle is fought as much inside the courtrooms as inside drawing rooms, classrooms, and meeting rooms.

Ayaan Syed, a Bengaluru-based LGBTQ positive activist shares the sentiment, admits that coming out should be forced by circumstances, and states that each needs to find the right time for making the decision.

A New Beginning

One of the most affecting stories that emerged on September 6 was of a 25-year-old Arnab Nandy, a Mumbai-based technology professional who came up as gay in a Facebook post. Nandy was found seated between his parents, while his mother was planting a kiss on his cheek and his father was beaming at the camera holding up a poster stating “MY SON IS NOT A CRIMINAL ANYMORE”.

Nandy was out since he was 23 but stated the same to his mother three months before the ruling. However, the breaking of the news was not an easy one for his family as his father was a government employee and worried about IPC Section 377.

Nandy says, “I didn’t want to come out to the entire world unless my parents were ready to fight for it”. The post not only went viral, but some people supported the post so much that they even put it up as their WhatsApp display picture.

Having grown up in a conservative family, though fortunate to have supportive friends in college and colleagues in workplaces, Nandy was reluctant in dismissing anyone as a homophobe. Shortly after the ruling of Section 377, the publisher of the independent imprint Yoda Press, Arpita Das spoke on social media about celebrating the victory with her 13-year-old “queer” daughter Amalia. Arpita’s post created ripples of praise along with denunciation and accusations of bad parenting.

On September 8, 2018, Arpita wrote an article in The Quint, where she addressed these responses with clarity that makes it essential for reading for all parents. She states, “Feeling queer has nothing to do with being in a sexual relationship. It’s about understanding where you stand in terms of your preference, identity, and desire”.

A Delhi-based clinical psychologist, Nupur Dhingra Paiva, who works mostly with young people states that the last few years of activism around LGBTQ-positive issues have provided 13-14-year-olds with a narrative that they can engage in. Until recently, the binary of being identified as a boy or a girl was the only concept available to children, which has now ceased.

The struggle for sustaining the momentum of the reading down of the IPC Section 377 must begin at the grass-root level. While Syed and his associates are trying their best for convincing the local schools and colleges for organizing workshops on gender and sexuality for young adults and millennials, several other organizations are working for pushing through the policy changes.

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