Did You Know?
How Indian History and Mythology Celebrated Queer Love
Queer characters in Indian mythology are not restricted to tokenistic representations but are crucial in taking important narratives forward and even celebrating them.
Believe it or not, queer love wasn’t always taboo in Indian society. The proof is in Indian mythology, which celebrates same-sex unions and dates back thousands of centuries.
There’s the story of Mitra and Varuna, which not only gives queer Hindus gods to worship, but also showcases the depths of affection. Both are considered Sun gods and the relationship between them is portrayed as that of intense love. They are often depicted riding a shark together, or side-by-side on a golden chariot drawn by seven swans. The ancient text Bhagavata Purana even mentions how these two male gods had a child when their semen fell on a termite mound, often cited as a beautiful example of surrogacy with a mythological touch to it.
In some versions of the Bengali mythological text Krittivasa Ramayana, we also see the story of two queens who fall in love with each other and magically birth a child, by the blessings of Lord Shiva, when one of them is widowed.
While it’s easy to think that such progressive ideas are foreign ones, many Indian historians and mythologists have challenged the idea that everything queer is imported from the West. In this context, Sundeep Verma, an Indian mythologist, says that he was surprised when he came across the video of a conservative, UK-based anchor deriding the fact that there were just too many sexualities these days.
“He was annoyed that there were about a hundred sexualities,” said Verma. “But in Indian mythology and history, it was always a part of our history and our scriptures.”
Verma explained that the Sabda-kalpa-druma, a Sanskrit dictionary, lists 20 types of sexualities, as do the Kamatantra (manual of love) and Smriti-ratnavali (summary of Vedic laws) of Vacaspati. “The Narada Smriti similarly lists 14 different types of sexual orientations such as trans people (sandha), intersex (nisarga), and three different types of homosexual men (mukhebhaga, kumbhika and asekya) depending on their orientation. It also states that men who behave like women, or women who behave like men, are determined as such at the time of their conception in the womb,” Verma said.
However, queerness was not approached as something foreign, or out of the box, even in Indian history and mythology, said Madhavi Menon, professor at Ashoka University and the director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality.
“In Indian mythology, there is a celebration of the multiplicity of desires because desires refuse to be pinned down to or by any identities,” she said. “If you look at the sculptures on the Khajuraho temple, you will see multiple groupings of men and men, women and women, and more. This was a standard narrative and we don’t have any history that says this was shocking or blasphemous.”
She added that the ancient treatise on erotic love, the Kamasutra, might have a separate chapter on queer love but it’s not separate from human existence. “Everywhere you look in Indian culture and history, you will see lots of such examples that may not be necessarily named openly but precisely resist the regime of knowing [even though they] exist everywhere.”
Even in medieval India, the examples of queer love are aplenty without labelling them as such. “The wonderful medieval poet Mir Taqi Mir talks about the ‘boys of Delhi with their caps awry enough to drive their lovers mad.’ He doesn’t say, ‘oh, by the way, I’m homosexual’ or that they are. So, there is a sense that this is part of the fabric of desire he sees in Delhi and is participating in.”
Alka Pande, an art historian and museum curator who taught Indian arts and aesthetics at Panjab University for more than a decade and whose major fields of interest are gender identity and sexuality, and traditional arts, said that love always existed in boundless forms across Indian mythology.
“We see the story of Hari and Hara, two men, who gave birth to Ayappa, a god. Similarly, there is a story of Brihanala, where Arjuna (a character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata) dressed in drag to teach the arts to a princess. So, we have had queering of characters across our epics and mythology.”
So then what explains the present homophobia despite a rich heritage of inclusivity? Pande said that Victorian prudery and conservative ideas of morality are behind regressive attitudes around queerness and queer love.
According to Menon, the British waged a war against excesses of any kind – in eroticism, religions, food and everything in between. “Sadly, a lot of people in the Indian subcontinent swallow the British version of the subcontinent as being the way we always were,” she said.
Pande said that in the History of Sexuality series of books by Michael Foucault, we see how piano legs and sandwiches were covered up (due to their assumed suggestiveness) in the Victorian era. “But we, Indians, have always celebrated sexuality and sensuality as even gods are approached as lovers.”
For Indians, understanding and validating the many hues of being queer, thus, should come naturally. These glimpses of queer-affirmative history show us that the assumption that Indian “values” and “morals” are somehow antithetical to queer love is an unfounded one.
Source: Arman Khan, VICE.
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