Question: What is the Vedic view of the śāstras on homosexuals and their love for each other?
Answer: I have not read anything specific about it in the core śāstra, such as the Upaniṣads, Purāṇās, and Itihāsas. There are some stories about sex changes, such as that of Śikhaṇḍī, a sort of transgender male, who was the son of Drupada, born as a girl but later changed into a male by the blessings of a Gandharva. But after he became a male, he acted as a male and not a mixed personality. Another story is that of King Sudyumna who turned into a female because he entered into a territory where every male would turn into a female by the power of Śiva. Later, when requested by his guru, Śiva gave him the facility to be consecutively a male one month and a female the next month. Even in this condition he acted his/her roles suitable to his/her gender. In fact, while female, she became pregnant by Budha, the son of Moon, and that is how the Moon dynasty of kṣatriyas came into existence on earth. However, these stories do not imply that being non-hetrosexual is punishable. Thus, we find no clear instructions for homosexuals. So it seems to me that most of the principles of dharma pertaining to roles in the social system (varnāśrama) enunciated in the core śāstra are not particularly relevant to homosexuality.
The non-core śāstra, like Kāma-sūtra, however, does depict homosexuals functioning normally in society. Homosexuality is not outrightly rejected. In fact, it is interesting to note that in Sanskrit language, nouns and pronouns have three genders, i.e., masculine, feminine, and neuter. This is true not only of sentient beings but also for inert objects. Therefore a third gender is easily acceptable to a person whose values spring from Sanskrit literature.
Question: Can this attraction said to be natural?
Answer: It depends what you call natural. The dictionary meaning of the natural is, “Existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.” According to this definition it is natural. However, it may not be considered as normative or accepted in a particular society. This seems to be the case with Vedic society because in dharma-śāstra such as in Manu-smṛti there is an injunction to perform atonement if one engages in sex with same gender. For example, Manu-smṛti (11.174) says that if a man has sex with another man, then he should take shower with clothes on. The implication of the statement is that sex between two men is not considered normal. Another verse from the same text (8.67) says that if one engages in crooked sex one will fall down from one’s jāti. The word used here is jaihmyaṁ, which can mean deceptive, crooked or abnormal. It could include homosexuality. There are similar statements in Mahābhārata that seem to disapprove of sex between men. The words used are viyoni maithuna (13.145.53). This could mean sex (maithuna) other than vaginal (viyoni). Thus it could refer to anal or oral sex. Śiva tells Pārvatī that one who performs such an act will be born impotent. A similar statement is made in the next verse (13.145.54). The words used are prakīrṇa-maithuna. It is not clear what the word prakīrṇa means here. Common meanings of this word are scattered, dispersed, mixed, confused, loose, and miscellaneous.
Even in Kāma-sūtra, which was written to give knowledge about how to enjoy sex life, homosexuality is not encouraged much. The ninth chapter of the second division deals with oral sex between non-heterosexuals who are designated as a third order of humans called the ‘tṛtīya prakṛti’ or third nature. These third nature persons are of two types, those of the female type who dress like women and those of the male type who dress like men, “dvividhā tṛtīyāprakṛtiḥ, strīrūpiṇī puruṣarūpiṇī ca” (2.9.1).
The author Vātsyāyana goes on to say that “she,” who behaves like a woman, is to be employed for oral sex (tasyā vadane jaganakarma tadaupariṣṭakaṃ āchakṣate, 2.9.3). They were paid sex-workers, such as courtesans (vaiśyāvat charitaṃ prakāśayet, 2.9.5) .
For the male type who has the sexual desire for males but cannot make his nature very evident, ‘he’ should take to the profession of a masseuse and by thus coming into contact with males, satisfy them through oral sex (2.9.6–10). In this context the act of oral-sex, aupariṣṭiaka, is described in detail.
After describing various divisions of oral sex, Vātsyāyana in the Kāma-sūtra concludes that just because it is described in śāstra, thatdoes not mean oral sex should be practiced. The text then gives an example of dog’s meat. In Āyurveda there is a description of the good qualities of dog’s meat but says that does not mean that one should eat it (2.9.41,42). One may raise a doubt that if oral sex is not recommended then why is Vātsāyana describing it? He describes oral sex because sex is the subject of his book and therefore, he covers all varieties of the act. Some types he recommends and others he does not. If he did not describe oral sex, then people may have doubt whether it is proper or not proper.
From all these references, and from absence of any direct stories of homosexual people in Purāṇās and Mahābhārata, it seems that homosexuality was not considered normal in Vedic society. However, it was not condemned severely because Manu did not prescribe severe atonement for the homosexual act except for taking bath with clothes on.
We can further investigate śāstra to understand the purpose of male and female union. According to dharma-śāstra, the primary purpose is for procreation and not sexual enjoyment. That of course is the ideal and certainly not the observed reality. Dharma-śāstra set the standard knowing well that people in general are not at this prescribed level. Indeed, if they were, there would be no need to set the standard. In the varṇāśrama system, a brahmacāri, vānaprastha and sannyāsī were forbidden to have any sexual relationship. Sexual relation was only allowed in the gṛhastha āśrama, and the purpose of marriage, as clearly stated, was to produce a child. For this reason, in the smṛtis it is said that when the wife has taken bath after her menstrual period and approaches the husband for union, the husband should not refuse her. Otherwise he incurs sin. There are stories in the Purāṇās about a man uniting with a woman even outside of marriage only for procreation, for example Parāśara and Satyavatī, Vyāsa and Ambikā and Ambālikā.
Thus, sexual union between homosexuals does not get any mention in smṛti śāstra, the books that delineate dharmic principles. In the Gīta, Kṛṣṇa says He is kāma that is not opposed to dharma. In numerous verses, He recommends restraining kāma (Gīta 3.37–41, 5.23, 5.26, 16.10,11,21) Out of the four human pursuits, sex falls under the category of kāma. But kāma without dharma has no scope in smṛti śāstra. As stated above, even kāma–śāstra is not prescribing sex between men or between women. It describes it but ultimately is not in very much favor of it. So the conclusion is that although the ideal is to have sex only for procreation, that was not the reality. Otherwise, kāma-śāstra would have no purpose. Furthermore, in the modern society such an ideal may be completely impractical because there is no training of brahmācarya in the first phase of life, as was the custom when society followed the Varnāśrama system. It was easy for householders to follow the ideal of dharma-śāstra, having been trained in brahmācarya-āśrama. It would not be out of place here to mention that brahmacarya has its own pleasure which is much superior to sexual pleasure. Once someone has tasted brahmācarya, after taking to gṛhastha-āśrama, he would easily follow the principle of dharma-śāstra, i.e., having sexual union only for procreation. I would consider the story of union between Diti and Kaśyapa as an example.
To me it appears that the disapproval of kāma without dharma in the śāstra is about heterosexuals and not about non-heterosexuals. Why do I think so? Because the kind of sex that is abnormal for heterosexuals is normal for non-heterosexuals and if they are forbidden to engage in sex that is normal to them, then they have to repress it. However, śāstra is not in favor of repression, as Kṛṣṇa says, “All living beings follow their acquired nature. What can repression accomplish?” (Gītā 3.33) He also calls a person hypocrite who controls the senses externally but dwells on sense pleasure within the mind (3.6). Those who are born with a non-heterosexual disposition cannot overcome it by repression. Just as heterosexuals are allowed to marry and engage in sex as per śāstra, there should be a provision for the third group, tṛtīya prakṛti.
In this regard Garbhopaniṣad says, “If the father’s seed is more potent, the child becomes male; if the mother’s seed is stronger, the child becomes female. If the seeds are equal, the child becomes ‘neither male nor female’, napuṁsaka.” In the eleventh chapter of Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, Sanātana Gosvāmī gives many details about union between husband and wife. He also gives a list of the constellations (nakṣatra) during which mating would produce a tṛtīya-prakti. So some persons are naturally born as napuṁsaka. The ancient Hindu society, as is evident here, did not consider the homosexuals as perverts or sinners. The term tṛtīya prakṛti or third nature describes them as being a natural class in itself. Then the principles of dharma in relation to sex that are meant for heterosexuals do not apply to them. People with the third nature are an exception to general rules. They were not expected to follow heterosexual norms of behaviour. They cannot be blamed for being what they are. And for this reason, accepting their nature, they were not excommunicated or purged from human societies. They were given a place in it and were to be protected and prevented from harm by the state. The Artha-śāstra byCāṇakya, which was a guideline for kings to rule their country,prescribes a fine for those who persecuted such third nature persons (3.18.4)
While accepting third nature persons, ancient Hindus gave them a special place in the social order. They were designated as part of the class of courtesans and performers of music and dance. It may be noted that the word courtesans did not have the same connotation as at present. They had a place of honor in the society. When Kṛṣṇa returned to Dvārakā from Hastināpura, the residents of Dvārakā headed by Vasudeva and other Yādavas came to receive Him at the main gate of the city, keeping an elephant in front, accompanied by brāhmaṇas, who were reciting Vedic hymns. There were also hundreds of courtesans (SB 1.11.19). Some of them may have belonged to the third category of gender. It is important to understand that certain objects, such as elephants, the plantain plant, sprouted grains, a pot full of water, or brāhmaṇas chanting Vedic mantras are considered auspicious. Interestingly courtesans were also considered auspicious.
Until around the tenth century prostitution was a legal profession, taxed and protected by the state. According to dharma–śāstra texts, third category people, as part of the class of courtesans, musicians, dancers, and performers, had legal protection and their incomes and their sustenance ensured.
In this regard, one can also consider the case of Arjuna, who lived as Bṛhannala for one year. When he had gone to svarga to help Indra, he was cursed by the Apsara Urvaśī to become a napuṁsaka (“not male”) for one year. When he lived with the Pāṇḍavas incognito, he took advantage of this curse and disguised himself in the court of King Virāṭa as Bṛhannala, dressed as a woman and belonging to the third category. He worked as the music and dance teacher for princess Uttarā and lived in the ladies’ quarters. While living as Bṛhannala, he/she was respected as a teacher.
In some sense, however, their position was not respectable because it was out of the varṇa order or varṇabāhya. But they also had the freedom of having no obligation to adopt or raise children or to perform rituals for ancestor worship, a major obligation for varṇa Hindus. Thus, they had a more free life, not bound by so many rules of dharma–śāstra.
Usually, they were called kinnaras or hijaras and were accorded a separate jāti or guild. Even at present, they visit houses to ‘bless’ on the occasion of auspicious events, such as the birth of a child and people do not ridicule them. They are given donations in exchange for their blessings.
It may also be pointed out that impotent or sperm-count deficient men continue to be part of usual varṇas and jātis. They could also beget children by having another man impregnate their wife, just as Kuntī was impregnated by the devās to produce Yudhiṣṭira, Bhīma and Arjuna through Dharma, Vāyu, and Indra respectively, because her husband Pāṇḍu was cursed that if he cohabited, he would die. This process of getting children by another man is called niyoga. It is forbidden in Kaliyuga, along with sannyāsa, and horse sacrifice.
Question: Does that mean that such attraction between men or between women is wrong all together?
Answer: I would say that it is not wrong because it is natural, although not normal from the perspective of the smṛtis. Here I would like to add that the smṛtis are like the modern state constitution or law. In the olden days, kings used to rule by following smṛti, but as you know, law is modified or amended as per requirement and circumstance. Therefore, it is possible that if the smṛti authors had to write smṛti today, seeing the present situation of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, they would probably include a section for them. My guess is that in traditional Vedic society, the number of LGBT was minimal, and thus the issue did not draw the attention of the authors of the smṛtis. Possibly, due to changes in food, water, and air due to man-made chemicals, genetically modified grains, vegetables and fruits as well as the changing lifestyle of people, more non-heterosexual people now take birth or acquire a homosexual tendency. This is just my conjecture. I have don’t have any scientific basis for it.
As an aside, at present in India, a petition has been filed in the Supreme Court to repeal section 377 of the Indian constitution, which considers a homosexual act as a crime. [The makers of the modern Indian Constitution borrowed heavily from the constitution of western democratic countries]. Similarly, those who are guardians of smṛti at present need to reconsider and make a clear statement about those who are not heterosexual.
Question: Is there place for same-sex marriage in the Vedic system?
Answer: No. As said above, marriage had the purpose to produce a child, who would participate in dharma. Same-sex marriage would not serve this purpose. So it did not fit in the Vedic system, but as said above, the kinnaras or hijaras used to live together—a so-called live-in relation. And as an aside, recently there was news in India that a kinnara contested an election and won.
Question: What if a devotee is homosexual?
Answer: A person should not be denied the ultimate goal of life merely because of his/her sexual orientation. As far as bhakti is concerned, it is not dependent on the sexual orientation or gender of a person and therefore there are no separate rules in bhakti-mārga for homosexuals. Unlike jñāna-marga, bhakti is not a path where sex has to be renounced. Truly speaking, marriage is part of the varnāśrama system and not of bhakti. Even when a heterosexual male and female devotee get married, it is done according to varnāśrama principles, which can be modified according to Vaiṣṇava theology. Bhakti is meant to transcend sexual orientation because ultimately bhakti is related with the ātmā and not with the body. However, since now we have a physical body, we cannot disregard its needs, but the needs have to be fulfilled within the scope of Vaiṣṇavism, which is to accept everything favorable for Kṛṣṇa’s service and to reject that which is unfavorable. Since Vaiṣṇavism is not the mainstream spiritual orientation of modern society, we cannot expect the state government to formulate specific laws for Vaiṣṇavas. There are also many Vaiṣṇava groups even within one sampradāya, who have divergent views. I would therefore suggest that it is up to the leaders of a particular group to formulate guidelines for their adherents. It is not possible to just have one universal principle regarding LGBT, since there are differences even within one sampradāya on profound spiritual principles. As said above, bhakti is not dependent upon one’s sexual orientation. Therefore, a LGBT should not be discriminated against just because of gender. Rūpa Gosvāmī makes it clear that every human being has a right to practice bhakti. Therefore, there must be a provision to accommodate every human being in the bhakti system.
Question: What is the Vedic view on polygamy involving heterosexuals?
Answer: Polygamy was allowed but it was not a standard. There was no strict rule to be monogamous. But monogamy was more practical. Many famous kings described in the Purāṇas as well as in later history were monogamous. In the olden days, as you may be aware, there were many wars amongst kings and many soldiers were killed. As a result, there was a disproportionate number of women in society. This was one of reasons why polygamy was allowed, but this is not the case today.
As said above, the purpose of marriage was to have progeny. Sometimes, if a man could not have a child with his first wife, he would accept another wife. Polygamy was more prevalent amongst kṣatriyas than the other varṇas, probably because it is kṣatriyas who got killed in the wars and thus there were more women than men. Some kṣatriyas also considered it as a sign of their prowess and valor to have more than one wife.
When you are free within, then nobody can make you a slave. When you are not free within, then nobody can make you free. Your unconscious mind will keep on troubling you and you will be a slave to your mind. If you make your mind your servant, then you are the king and you can really enjoy. You should try to uplift yourself using your mind, not degrade yourself.
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