Hinduism Homoeroticism in Hinduism
by
Ruth Vanita
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0223

Introduction

Homoeroticism is represented in Hindu texts from the epic period (c. 500 BCE–200 CE) onward. Same-sex relations are explicitly depicted in temple sculptures in the first millennium CE and discussed in legal, medical, and erotic treatises from the 1st century BCE onward, in tones varying from somewhat disapproving and dispassionate to humorous and pragmatic. More frequently, close same-sex friendships that last a lifetime and that rival cross-sex relationships in intensity and intimacy are celebrated in the same type of language that appears in contexts of cross-sex romance. Same-sex relations are sometimes depicted as running parallel to cross-sex relations in the life of an individual; at other times, they are subordinated to the latter. In the Sanskrit epics, the Purāṇas and story cycles, miraculous sex-change becomes one of the ways that same-sex desire is expressed and absorbed into the institution of marriage. The story cycles of the gods and goddesses depict them as able to manifest in male as well as female forms and also as simultaneously male and female. One of Śiva’s forms is Ardhanārīswara, the god who is half woman. This can be read as emblematic of his inseparability from his wife Pārvatī, but can also be read as expressive of the inherent bisexuality of all beings. Bhakti or devotional poetry, lyric, epic, and hagiographic, deals largely in bridal mysticism. In one unique set of Bengal versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, two women are depicted having divinely planned and blessed sexual relations that result in the birth of a heroic child. In sum, Hindu written texts and art up to the colonial period depict and discuss same-sex relations without euphemism or virulence. After British rulers passed the antisodomy law, many educated Indian social reformers and nationalists began to express a new aversion to elements of their heritage, including polytheism, polygamy, and sex outside marriage, including same-sex relations. For the first time, it became unacceptable to write about same-sex relations in polite literature. This continued through the first half of the 20th century. Some Hindu gurus continued to express tolerance and several Hindu priests from the 1980s onward are recorded as performing same-sex marriages in various parts of the country. Hindu gurus today take a variety of positions on the subject, as do Hindu political leaders and organizations.

General Overviews

Varying in scope, length, and approach and directed to differing readerships, these overviews include both scholarly and popular works. Devi 1977 is a short, early popular paperback discussing the status of homosexuals in India and contains a significant interview with an important Hindu priest. Danielou 1984 is a survey of Hindu concepts and deities, accompanied by photographs of ancient temple sculpture. Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan 1991 (ABVA), in the format of a report, discusses the legal and social status of Indian homosexuals, with a brief survey of Indian history, including a short overview of Hindu texts and contexts. Thadani 1996 is a short, nonscholarly book looking at representation of lesbian desire in ancient and modern India, focused on some Hindu texts and art works. Hoffman 1983–1984 argues for the flexibility of gender and sexualities in Hindu scriptures. Vanita and Kidwai 2000 contains translations and analyses of extracts from Indian texts, including ancient, medieval, and modern Hindu works. Wilhelm 2003 is a short book by a Vaishnava monk advocating rights for homosexuals based on the author’s redefinition of the concept of a third gender found in some ancient Hindu texts. Menon 2018 is a popular book about desire, including same-sex desire, in Indian, especially Hindu, traditions.

  • Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan. “Culture, Heritage and Homosexuality.” In Less than Gay: A Citizens’ Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India. Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, 48–54. New Delhi: Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan translates to Anti-AIDS Discrimination Campaign. Pioneering and passionate but unscholarly and sometimes inaccurate survey of ancient Hindu texts. Written for the general reader.

  • Danielou, Alain. Gods of Love and Ecstasy. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1984.

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    Thoughtful exegesis of the stories and iconography of the Hindu gods by a pioneering scholar. Points out numerous little-noticed homoerotic features, for example, that one of Kṛṣṇa’s names, Madanmohan, means, the one who enchants the God Kāma, churner of hearts. French edition 1979.

  • Devi, Shakuntala. The World of Homosexuals. Delhi: Vikas, 1977.

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    Pioneering book for a general readership, remarkable for containing the first interview with a Hindu priest, Srinivasa Raghavachariar, at the major temple in Srīraṅgam. He answers questions about homosexuality with theories based in Hindu doctrine, for example, that bodies change in each incarnation but souls do not; therefore, souls who were united in former births seek each other out in this birth. Written for the general reader.

  • Hoffman, Richard J. “Vices, Gods, and Virtues: Cosmology as a Mediating Factor in Attitudes toward Male Homosexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality 9.2–3 (1983–1984): 27–44.

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    Argues that polytheistic religions take a more flexible view of gender roles and a more holistic view of sexuality than do monotheistic religions and that this is the reason Hindu texts have not denounced and Hindu societies have not persecuted homosexual activity in the same way as some Judaic, Christian and Islamic societies have.

  • Menon, Madhavi. Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2018.

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    Discussion of desire of all kinds, including homosexual desire, organized around a number of themes. Includes intermittent discussion of Hindu texts, sites, and practices. Written for general readers.

  • Thadani, Giti. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. New York: Cassell, 1996.

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    Imaginative and sometimes insightful but unscholarly and often inaccurate discussion of female same-sex desire depicted in ancient Hindu texts and sculpture.

  • Vanita, Ruth, and Saleem Kidwai. “‘Introduction: Ancient Indian Materials.” In Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. Edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, 3–35. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2000.

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    Traces the literary history of the representation of same-sex desire in premodern Hindu texts, in a dozen Indian languages, with extracts from texts in various genres written over a period of more than 2,000 years. Addresses patterns of representation, continuities, and discontinuities in various genres and periods, emphasizing how texts speak to one another over time. Updated edition published in 2008 (New Delhi: Penguin). Also see “Introduction: Medieval Materials in the Sanskritic Tradition” by Vanita and Kidwai (pp. 65–79).

  • Wilhelm, Amara Das. Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex. Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2003.

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    The author is a priest of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and founder of GALVA (Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association). He argues that all LGBT people belong to the third sex, which is recognized in ancient Hindu texts. Although the texts describe this sex as consisting of men who desire men or males born intersexed, Wilhelm expands it to include all LGBT people. He thus analyzes sexuality and desire as a concomitant of gender identity.

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