Queerscope | Being Queer in Ancient India

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Queerscope  is a bi-monthly column that aims to look at queerness and its aspects, in concern with modern culture as well as lessons from queer movements across the world.

The Indian constitution does not punish individuals for how they are born. Every queer individual in India is witness to the journey endured to achieve this basic right. In academic interest, it is pertinent to study the journey of queer expressions across the timeline in Indian society. This article aims at giving an insight into ancient India and her attempts to study queerness.

Medical Studies on Queerness in Ancient India:

It is commonly believed that a medical analysis of alternate gender expressions or queerness is the contribution of the west. However, Indian medical texts such as the Caraka and Suśruta Saṃhitās authored by Caraka and Suśruta respectively, discuss the topic in detail. Scholars attribute these texts to the first two centuries of the Common-Era.

In the context of embryology and genetic variations, Caraka and Suśruta inter-alia include the following:

  1.       The dvirẽtas – An intersex person. i.e. having the genitals of both male and female
  2.       The nãrasa̩n̩d̩ha or a strĩches̩h̩tikãkarã – The effeminate male – a gay man
  3.       The nãris̩an̩d̩ha  – The masculine female – a lesbian woman
  4.       The asekya purus̩a – A man who obtains pleasure from oral sex with another man
  5.       The kumbhĩka – The anal receptive man (colloquially, a ‘bottom’)

The context in which queerness is discussed is that of impotency and other variations during the birth of a child. It is comprehensible that queerness was viewed as a deviation from ‘normalcy’. Thus, it was predominantly a hetero-normative society, with the acknowledgement of alternate gender and sexual identities. It is also evident that ancient India perceived alternate sexuality as a birth trait and not as a behavior/habit that is acquired by a person.

It is also interesting to note that homosexual men are grouped under three categories being effeminate, orally pleasured and anally pleasured, however all homosexual females are grouped under a single category.

Among the categories of sexual activities of homosexual men, Suśruta’s text frowns upon the practice of anal intercourse. It is described as an acquired taste and not inherent. It says that only the unchaste prefer such intimacy. Thus, even medical texts were not completely devoid of judgments.

These texts attribute ‘erroneous’ intercourse as the reason for the birth of a child with such characteristics. Gender roles in a heterosexual intercourse are fixed and stereotyped. The man is expected to be on top of the woman while ejaculating. These treatises on medicine and sexuality written two millennia ago perceived that if this role is reversed, and through that intercourse, a fetus is conceived, it might be born as a queer individual.

Though there may be many fallacies in these texts when compared with the vast body of research and knowledge available to the medical world today, it is to be acknowledged that a profound thought on sexuality and the scientific temper to study the same as part of a medical text existed before 2000 years.

The kãmasũtram̩ and Queer sexual expressions:

The text of kãmasũtram̩ (literally; “formulae of desire”) is a text composed by Vãtsyãyanã. Scholars attribute it to the 4th century CE. In this vast text on eroticism, all non-binaries are classified as the third gender. There are instances where the same adjective of ‘Third Gender’ is alternatively and freely used for gay men, lesbian women and transgender persons. As is the case with the earlier medical texts, the kãmasũtram̩ also considers the genetics of such people as varying with those of heterosexual people and does not classify homo-erotica as a practice acquired by taste.

It is interesting to note that gender binary classifications are made to queer individuals also. It is said that there are two types of queer people, those who wish to be females and those who wish to be men (in sexual union). Effeminate homosexual men are said to imitate a woman’s dress, grace, emotions, delicacy, timidity etc. It is to be noted that though lesbian sexual activities are discussed, they are not as vividly described as those of gay/transgender sexual activities.

The kãmasũtram̩ says that queer people find pleasure in oral sex and describes the 8 fold procedure for performing the same in the context of a male. The practice of orally pleasuring a person of the same gender is seen as a common practice. Three poems in classical Sanskrit meter are quoted in this regard.

  1.       “Even young men, who usually are domestic helpers and wear polished earrings indulge in oral sex with other men.”
  2.       “In the same way, certain men in the cities, who care for one another’s well being and have established trust on each other, perform this among themselves.”

The Commentary on kãmasũtram̩ called the jayaman̩galã quotes a poem for lesbians indulging in oral sex;

  1.       “In their dwelling places, in the absence of any tools to excite each other, women who trust each other excite one another with their mouth in their vaginas.”

The cities in 4th century India certainly had people of the same gender who trusted and cared for each other and who were sexually active in their relationships. This fact was not concealed, but was discussed in a canonical text with poems dedicated to their lives in classical meters of the Sanskrit language. This helps us understand the history of homosexual relationships, beyond the physical sphere. Usage of terms which indicate caring for each other’s welfare, built trust etc., suggest emotional bonding between two people of the same gender.

Vishwanath Temple, Khajuraho. Source: Scroll.in

The manusmr̩iti̩, Caste and Queer rights:

Much of the social fabric of ancient Hinduism in India relied on the prescription of laws written by men like Manu and Parãs̩arã. Manu is variedly attributed from 2nd Century BCE to 4th Century CE by different scholars.

Manu’s code of law is strictly casteist. While Manu views homosexual intercourse between two men as inappropriate, the punishment for the same is not the same for men from different castes. Manu writes that an intercourse between two men renders them outcaste, i.e. outside the society of the time, hence isolating them. However, later in the same chapter he adds that a Brahmin alone is acquitted of sin if he takes a bath, while being dressed in his clothes.

Itihãsãs and Purãn̩as:

Hindu mythologies are innumerable. They have multiple queer character portrayals. However, they are shrouded in mysticism, fantasy and stories that do not enable a reader to gauge the societal framework based on them. Today however, these stories are interpreted to the whims and fancies of authors who wish to reflect their thoughts on these scriptures, rather than adopting evidence based hypothesis approach.

Medieval India:

Queer expressions are abundant in the medieval period in India. The devotion movement across India, like those of the southern ãlwãr poets (7th -8th Centuy CE), ksẽtr̩ayyã’s telugu songs (15th Century CE), and many traditions, especially in the krs̩n̩a cult have multiple alternate gender expressions in their poems and traditions which have to be studied separately. Temple sculptures, Miniature paintings, court texts, living traditions of alternate gender expressions and cross dressing (of both the deity and the devotee) are in vogue across India even today.

India Today:

While the journey of rights and acceptance of queerness in India has neither been white nor black throughout history, the sense of denial of existence or denial of rights is a complex function of conditioning based on the rules of both indigenous smriti laws and the imposition of Victorian morality in the minds of Indians for centuries. Legal acknowledgement is by no means social acknowledgement. It is for the latter that the community should strive with the hope that there is positively a better day ahead.

Prathik Sudha Murali is a blogger at One Future Collective.

Disclaimer: Views shared in this article are personal and may not represent that of the organisations.

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