Asian Same Sex Relationships

It is often said by ignorant and/or homophobic people that same-sex relationship and love is a Western import. The term “Western” itself is an anomaly as it assumes that the West is a monolithic entity; but that’s another issue. Same-sex love has existed in Indian society and culture and this can be seen if one were to do a literature survey.

In ancient times friendship between same-sex (predominantly between men) was often expressed in intimate terms.

An example of this closeness is the relationship between Krishn and Arjun. Krishn says to Arjun: Thou art mine and I am thine, while all that is mine is thine also! He that hateth thee hateth me as well, and he that followeth thee followeth me! … O Partha, thou art from me and I from thee. (Vana Parva)

On the last night before returning to Dwarka: Krishn of great energy proceeded to the apartments of Dhananjay. Worshipped duly and furnished with every object of comfort and enjoyment, Krishn of great intelligence passed the night in happy sleep with Dhananjay as his companion. (Aswamed Parva)

So sacred was friendship that it used the same symbolism as the seven circambulations made around the sacred fire during a Hindu wedding. Saptapadam hi mitram or seven steps taken together constitutes friendship. Ram and Sugriv walked round the fire seven times to seal their friendship . A prominent character in the Mahabharat, Bhisma, was actually quite against it. He said that a man goes to a woman “for the sake only of offspring” as a one who overcomes all difficulties. He also mentioned that sex and marriage came when the human race degenerated. In the five books of the Panchatantra, what is to be noted is that all the characters (animals of different species) are male and form close friendships. In one story, friendship triumphs marriage.

The Kamasutra specifically caters for all inclinations. The book is instructional and not prescriptive. It says that one should act according to local customs and one’s own inclinations and desires. It specifies three types of genders – pums prakriti, stri pakriti and tritiya prakriti – men, women and the third sex. The third sex was further broken down to various categories which included manly and effeminate gays and manly and effeminate lesbians. It is interesting to note that the book says that manly gays who hid their desires fulfilled them by working as masseurs and hairdressers. It even describes how masseurs work their clients to a achieve orgasm for both of them. During the medieval period, homoerotic men were mentioned in a non-pejorative way. There were poets who wrote about their love for adolescent boys, sultans in love with their male slaves and Sufi mystics who pined for their lord like female lovers. Gay men were well integrated into the culture of cities like Delhi.

An example of a long term relationship was that between poet Mukaram Baksh and Mukkaram. After the former’s death, the latter observed a period of mourning observed by widows. Sufi mystics believe in personal experience not dogma. To them, same gender love could transcend sex and therefore not distract them from the ultimate aim of gnonsis. They would adopt a female persona in their poems and songs when writing about God. Urdu poets neither celebrated or denigrated homosexual love to the exclusion of other types of passion. Marriage was seen as a legitimate sphere of sexual activity but not of experiencing erotic energies. As long as a man fulfilled his duties of a householder, he was free to seek sexual pleasure and emotional involvement elsewhere. Hence erotic commitment was not a threat to marriage. One poet, Abru, when to such an extent to reject heterosexuality saying: He who prefers a slut to a boy, is no lover, only a creature of lust.

During the modern period,there were basically two developments that occurred.The first was the rise of the homophobic voice in literature and the second, the sexual love between women becomes more prominent while that between men is drastically reduced. There are five words for homoerotically inclined women – dugana, zanakhe, sa’tar, chapathai and chapatbaz. Rekhti, poetry written by male poets in the female voice and using female idioms, became prominent in the late 18th and 19th C but in the 20 th C, its was labelled as obscene. It must be noted that in pre-colonial India, not a single person was ever executed for homosexual behaviour. In contrast, gays were vilified, tortured and/or executed. In 1860, the anti-sodomy law came into being and incorporated in the Indian Penal Code (Section 377). While this proved to be progressive for Britain because the killing stopped, it was retrogressive for India. British educators and missionaries denounced Indian culture.

The educated Indian elite became their agents – while not condemning the culture, they did not reject puritanical Victorian values which were put on a pedestal. In fact they claimed that Indian culture was originally similar to the Victorian one, which was both anti-pleasure and anti-sex. The homophobia was so internalised by educated Indians that Pandit Madhavacharya in 1911 introduced the Kamasutra by saying that people should read the book for the right forms of love making and avoid the wrong ones. However despite all the attempts by prudes, life went on and same-sex love survived in literature. One example is by Vikram Seth: Some men like Jack and some like Jill; I’m glad I like them both; but still I wonder if this freewheeling really is an enlightened thing – or is its greater scope a sign of deviance from some party line?

In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight What is my status? Stray? or Great? Many examples on same-sex love and relationships exist in Indian history. I have done injustice by only quoting a few. What was love so sublime has been tarnished by modernity. Like in many other instances, what is glaring is ignored. Despite the various examples of same-sex love in Indian literature, people choose to ignore it as it causes them discomfort or worse, cognitive dissonance. Gays and lesbians are not special. They have been made so by homophobia.


About Naufal Khan

Publisher & editor of Indian Spice.