By Sandhya Maddali
India has a very rich and long history beginning with ancient societies like the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Not much is known about early views on homosexuality and the LGBTQ+ community in these civilizations, but with the emergence of the Vedic age came ancient Hindu texts which contained references to homosexuality and the “third gender.”
This concept of a third gender, or “Tritiya Prakriti,” is a novel part of Hindu philosophy. Members of this community do not subscribe to the binary notions of gender or sexuality. Indeed, there are many instances in which the Hindu gods identified with this community as well — the story of Aravan, for example, where Krishna (a Hindu deity described as the punisher of human deeds) turns into his woman form, Mohini, in order to marry the hero Aravan before his death.
Another example of the exploration of homosexuality in Indian culture can be seen in the Kamasutra, an ancient text which talks in depth about same-sex intercourse. There is also a 12th century temple named Khajuraho which features a wide range of sculptures that explore the fluidity of sexuality. Furthermore, there exist various other texts that mention homosexuality and Tritiya Prakriti. Some contain contradicting views, but viewed holistically, they suggest that Ancient India viewed the concept of gender and sexuality on a spectrum, much as we do today.
Though there isn’t much record of India’s subsequent political leaders’ views on the LGBTQ+ community, their actions showed examples of open-mindedness and tolerance in other avenues.
During the time of India’s next major era, the Delhi Sultanate, many powerful Muslim leaders expressed attraction towards other men, as evident in various accounts and memoirs. Though Sharia Law declared sodomy illegal, famous rulers like Alauddin Khilji expressed desires and attraction towards men. The subsequent Mughal rulers also viewed homosexuality in the same way. In fact, Babur, the first Mughal emperor, expressed an obsession with a man.
The criminalization of homosexuality came into play when Britain conquered India. The new rulers created Section 377, which essentially labelled sexual relations between two consenting adults of the same gender as “unnatural.” The British Raj also enacted laws to eradicate and criminalize the “Kinnar” community, which is essentially a community of intersex, eunuch, and transgender individuals.
It was only recently that Section 377 was declared void in court and India began to recognize the Kinnar community as a “third gender,” which effectively afforded them basic rights and protections. It is clear that India still has a very long way to go in terms of destigmatizing homosexuality and being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, both in a cultural and legislative sense.