In honor of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, I am posting this article that briefly explains the various causes for the homophobia and transphobia that infects modern Hinduism and Gaudiya Vaisnavism today. The article comprises Chapter 7 of the new abridged version of “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex.”
NEGATIVE ATTITUDES IN MODERN HINDUISM
The various negative attitudes toward LGBTI or third-gender people found in Hinduism today is surprising when we take into account its traditionally tolerant approach. What follows is a short summary of these faulty attitudes and their origins. The first three involve natural prejudices that can occur in any society whereas the latter two are based on foreign (Islamic and Christian) religious teachings and theories. While many Hindu gurus and acaryas can be heard expressing these outdated attitudes even today, such approaches are unenlightened at best or completely untrue and opposed to Vedic teachings at worst.
Fear of Differences
Conditioned souls are inclined to harbor fear and prejudice against anything different, unusual, less common, unknown, etc. This is especially evident in children, who can often be seen bullying peers that are new, obese, racially or ethnically different, effeminate, etc. Ideally, culturally advanced societies have systems in place to safeguard against these natural prejudices. These include good parenting, attentive educational systems and exemplary civil/religious leadership. When the above-mentioned safeguards are absent or lacking, however, natural prejudices can run amok in society causing great harm and dissention.
Another natural but potentially harmful attitude found in all societies is machismo or the excessive emphasis of masculinity, physical strength, power, etc. While the male ego and exploitive propensity are natural in this material world, they should not be allowed to go unchecked. Societies with rampant machismo are prone to social oppression, violence and war. They tend to vilify or demean women, gay men and anyone else viewed as “weak” or “inferior.” Hindu scriptures specifically protect the third sex from vilification and ridicule (Artha Shastra 3.18.4-5), indicating that machismo and other natural prejudices existed in Vedic times but were ideally kept in check. There are several examples in Vedic texts wherein men are ridiculed for being third gender, even when they are not. (Srimad Bhagavatam 10.50.43-48 and 10.76.29, 31)
When the rules of any religion are over-emphasized or misused to oppress others, such practices immediately become mundane and detrimental to society. In Hinduism, ritualistic priests (smarta-brahmanas), materialistic devotees, over-zealous neophytes and other similar types of religious people are susceptible to this kind of negative attitude. They place undue emphasis on the material body, birth or caste of others and look down upon a wide range of people including women, sudras (workers), dark-skinned races, the uninitiated, etc. Smarta-brahmanas impose innumerable strict rules that are impractical or even impossible for ordinary men to follow and consequently exclude many people from the Hindu faith. Regarding the third sex, Hindu fundamentalists typically dismiss such people as sinful, lusty or in the mode of passion. They fault them for not engaging in procreation and family life, which from their perspective is all-important and without exception. This negative attitude stands in direct contrast to the approach of enlightened spiritualists who view everyone equally as spirit-soul and engage whatever propensities they have in the service of God.
Muslims ruled over much of northern India for eight centuries and their influence over LGBTI attitudes in Hinduism was one of conflicted conservatism. India and the ancient world as a whole were quite liberal in regard to homosexuality and crossdressing but this came to a gradual end with the spread of Christianity and Islam, whose teachings condemned it. Under Muslim rule in India, homosexuality was publicly disavowed but nevertheless flourished behind closed doors. In regard to crossdressing, Islamic culture introduced and popularized the practice of castration among transgenders and house servants. Known as hijras in Arabic, they became the face of the third sex in medieval and early-modern India, holding a relatively dignified place in society. From the tenth century CE to the present, Islam grew increasingly conservative in India and around the world. This trend was also reflected in Hinduism as the two faiths competed against each other for moral superiority.
British colonialists had the most negative impact on Hindu attitudes toward LGBTI people and this impact continues to stain the religion up to this day. Based on the Christian “two-genders-only” theory and biblical edicts, Great Britain criminalized both homosexuality and crossdressing for the first time in India’s history. Under the new laws and with its vast educational system, British colonialists instilled extremely vicious social attitudes and misinformation about LGBTI people upon India’s upper class and youth. These attitudes were consequently incorporated into the Hindu psyche and persist up to today, even though they directly contradict traditional Vedic teachings and scripture. Listed below are some of the negative attitudes and beliefs that were spread into Hindu culture under British rule:
- Homosexuality is unnatural. Christian teachings assert that homosexuality and crossdressing are unnatural, manmade perversions that go against the order of nature. Traditional Vedic teachings, however, explain that everything is part of the natural world. Hindu scriptures explicitly mention a third nature or sex (tritiya-prakriti) that, while less common, involves natural same-sex attraction and transgender identity. Vedic medical texts such as the Sushruta and Caraka Samhitas describe how all three sexes are biologically determined at conception and established during the first two months of embryological development.
- Homosexuality does not exist in the animal kingdom. British colonialists of the Victorian Era believed there was no homosexuality among animals. This fallacy is easily disproved by simple observation and science, but many old-fashioned Hindus still cling to the myth as an argument against LGBTI people. Vedic medical and astrological texts, however, cite several instances of third-gender animals (such as elephants and snakes) with mixed male and female qualities.
- Homosexuality is a curable disorder. British colonialists taught that homosexuality and transgender identity were disorders that could be “cured” by forcibly adopting traditional male or female roles. For example, a gay or lesbian could be cured by marrying an opposite-sex partner, or a transgender could be cured by forced adherence to strict male or female roles, dress and identities. Later on they also asserted that homosexuality could be cured through various tactics such as hypnotherapy, chemical castration or electric shock. Hindus adopted these practices and also added a few quackeries of their own; for instance, the idea that homosexuality can be cured through breathing exercises, yoga or Ayurvedic potions. Vedic medical texts, however, assert that homosexuality and transgender identity are inborn and cannot be changed after the second month of embryological development. The Caraka Samhita specifically condemns the idea of giving third-gender men aphrodisiacs (vajikarana) as a means of making them potent with women.
- Homosexuality is acquired or chosen. British colonialists believed that since homosexuality and transgender identity were unnatural disorders, they must have been acquired in some way or chosen at some point. Thus they concocted all types of theories: the person was exposed to homosexuality at an early age, raised in a home with an absent father or overly-assertive mother, subjected to childhood trauma, sexually abused and so on. Another idea was that due to severe lust, irresponsibility or overindulgence with women, some men choose to become homosexual. These concocted theories are easily disproven through simple observation and science, and no Vedic texts support or suggest such claims. In the Ayur Shastra, homosexuality and transgender identity are discussed only in chapters on embryological development and never in sections concerned with psychological disorders or mental illnesses.
- Homosexuality and crossdressing are sinful. Victorian Era Christians viewed homosexuality and crossdressing as horrific sins against nature and God, but Hinduism presents a more mild and rational view. Homosexuality and transgender identity are listed as a third sex or nature in Vedic texts and not as a third vice or sin. Thus we find homosexuality and crossdressing addressed much differently in traditional Vedic Hinduism.
- Homosexuality and crossdressing should be criminalized. British colonialists criminalized homosexuality in India, first by hanging and then with imprisonment for life. Vedic law books, however, take a completely different approach. Homosexual behavior is prohibited only for brahminically-initiated males or when young, unmarried girls are involved. Non-brahmanas, men of the third sex and adult women are not included in the prohibitions. Furthermore, the atonement is relatively mild and involves taking a ritual bath or paying small fines. Crossdressing was similarly outlawed by the British but traditional Hinduism never had any problem with it.
- One should not associate with homosexuals and transgenders. The British colonialists believed that homosexuals and transgenders were bad association. They feared that through such association, any person (especially small children and young adults) could become influenced and turn homosexual or transgender themselves. In Hinduism, smarta-brahmanas typically view the third sex as in the mode of passion or low class and thus avoid their association. Enlightened spiritualists and Vaisnavas, however, are equally friendly to all and associate with others according to their spiritual advancement (not material body-type). In fact, it is a Vedic custom to invite people of the third sex into one’s home for blessings during auspicious events such as marriages or birth ceremonies.
- Homosexuality should not be openly discussed. One of the tactics employed by British colonialists to suppress homosexuality was to make the topic socially unacceptable for discussion. They believed that talking about homosexuality gave credence to it and made people more tolerant. They also feared that children or young adults would become homosexual simply by hearing about such topics. This contrasts greatly with traditional Hinduism, which considers homosexuality inborn and consequently non-contagious. Traditional Vedic teachings stress that knowledge and discussion are helpful whereas ignorance and lack of communication are harmful. In Vedic society, young adults of marriageable age were fully educated in the Kama Shastra before entering household life and these scriptures discussed all aspects of human sexuality, including homosexuality.
- Homosexuality is a modern-day occurrence. British colonialists believed that homosexuality was a modern phenomenon dangerously on the rise. They feared it could ruin society. Traditional Hinduism, on the other hand, considered homosexuality a less common but relatively harmless aspect of nature. Nowadays, many Hindus believe that homosexuality is a symptom of Kali Yuga (the present age of quarrel) and was not present in Vedic times. They also believe that each and every member of society should marry the opposite sex and procreate, otherwise the world population will become dangerously depleted. None of these ideas are supported by the Vedic scriptures, however.
- Homosexual marriage is shocking. In the Victorian Era, homosexual marriage was unheard of. Even the thought of it was completely absurd and shocking. In Vedic culture and many other ancient civilizations of the world, however, homosexual marriages of various types were known. The Kama Shastra mentions third-gender marriages between two men or two women based upon “great attachment and complete faith in one another.” (Kama Sutra 2.9.36) This is not surprising for those who view LGBTI people as fellow human beings with all of the same needs and emotions.
- Homosexuals and crossdressers are demonic. British colonial Christians viewed homosexuals and crossdressers as ungodly and demonic. They considered their behavior evil, Satanic and condemned by God. Traditional Hinduism, on the other hand, viewed homosexuality and crossdressing in a light-hearted fashion with little concern. LGBTI people, with their mixed male and female qualities, were associated with third-gender deities and believed to have special powers. At most they were considered by smarta-brahmanas to be lower class (as artisans and dancers) or in the mode of passion (as practitioners of oral sex) but never evil or demonic. The sixteenth chapter of Bhagavad Gita defines both the divine and the demonic natures, and nowhere therein is any particular gender, race or body type characterized as demonic. Rather, people are determined as divine or demonic by their individual qualities and personal behavior alone.(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, New Abridged Version, pp. 119-124)