Once Upon A Pride

“Vikriti Ekam Prakirti”

As written in the ancient scriptures, that we love to boast about, the above phrase translates literally to “what appears unnatural is also natural.” And yet we seem to deem homosexuality as something unacceptable when our very own holy texts say nothing against them and are rather more inclined towards acceptance. As India slowly begins to accept queer communities, we recount the stories of queer love found within these texts, in these same scriptures cited to justify the bigotry so seemingly entrenched in our societies. 

People prefer to honor Patroclus and Achilles as the flag bearers of LGBTQ depiction in ancient times, but let me tell you about something much older: the Mahabharata. As uncanny as it may seem, there are similarities between Arjuna and Krishna, just as there were between the Greek cousins, including the fact that they were also relatives. The famous archer and his beloved charioteer have had plenty of heart touching encounters throughout these epics. Their bond is clearly depicted as something that transcends marriage,procreation and most other societal expectations. Bhagvad Geeta, the most widely read Hindu text, is nothing but the conversation between the two. 

Now, rebirth is a rather interesting concept in our culture. In a way, it renders all social constructs two people may have or have had around them in their previous lives useless. This leads me to draw out another instance from the Mahabharata, the story of Shikhandi. For those unaware, he was the soldier responsible for the death of Bhisma, the son of Ganga blessed with the gift of being able to decide his time of death. Bhisma, when looking to find wives for his brothers to produce heirs to the throne of Hastinapur, abducted Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, the three daughters of the king of Kashi. Upon knowing that Amba already had a lover he lets her go, but on returning she gets rejected by her lover and is left with nowhere to go. Thus Amba decides to take revenge on Bhishma for ruining her life and curses that she will be the reason for his death. 

And so she is reborn as the daughter of King Dhrupada, Shikandini. She later on prays to become a man and then goes on to fight for the Pandavas in the battle of Kurukshetra and finally becomes the reason for Bhishma’s death. There’s another version of this story where Shikandi is born a man but later transitions into a woman upon remembering their past life as Amba. Rebirth has also proven to be a way to legitimize same-sex desire as once reborn in a situation where the hurdles offered by conflicting gender, caste or class are removed, one can confess their love all the more openly as demonstrated in the Kathasaritasagar, where Somaprabha falls in love with the beautiful princess Kalingasena and attributes this love to her previous birth. ‘I am sure she and I were female friends in the previous birth. My mind, which is overwhelmed by affection for her, tells me so’.

Another instance of a lesbian relationship can be found in the Ramayana, whereupon the untimely death of King Dilip left his two wives childless. Desperate for a successor they prayed to Lord Shiva who instructed them to engage with each other and with his blessings one of them would give birth to a child. He was named Bhagirath since he was born due to the activity between two female reproductive organs. And yes he’s the king responsible for bringing back the river Ganga to earth. Before his birth there was no water left in the oceans or rivers since Rishi Agastya had decided to gulp it all, They certainly managed to keep things wet around, still

Let us not forget the binding of the bed, Vatsyana’s Kamasutra. The book refers to lesbians as Swarinis and it’s written how they would marry and raise kids in society. It also refers to a segment of gay men as Kibas, since they were impotent against women partners due to their homosexual tendencies. The book goes on to say that the Vedic system recognized eight different types of marriages, and that a homosexual marriage between two gay men or two lesbians fell under the category of “Gandharva,” or celestial variety, which is defined as “a union of love and cohabitation, without the need for parental approval.” 

About 20 different sexual orientations are listed in the Sanskrit lexicon Shabda-kalpa-druma, the Kamatantra (a handbook of love), and the Smriti-ratnavali (a compilation of Vedic rules) by Vacaspati. Similar to this, the Narada Smriti describes 14 different categories of sexual orientations, including three different categories of homosexual males (Mukhebhaga, Kumbhika, and Asekya), transgender persons (Sandha), and intersex people (Nisarga). Even the destroyer, Lord Shiva got slayed by the looks of the majestic maiden Mohini, who was an avatar of Vishnu to distract the asuras from getting the Amrit. Lord Shiva knowing very well of who Mohini was, actively pursued and later on they gave birth to Lord Ayappa. Gender fluidity is an age-old concept which even the greatest of gods in the Hindu mythological pantheon practice. 

These representations and references are not only bound to ancient scriptures but are even more abundant in the literary works of recent times. From the 14th to 15th century, several poets and writers prayed to gods and wrote songs and verses about their immeasurable love for them. There was a shift in how people perceived these deities; they were now being treated as lovers, establishing a new form of intimacy beyond the regular social constructs. Many of the poems written by the likes of Surdas and Tulsidas when read outside of the spiritual context, will seem like the poets are yearning for an absent male lover. 

“These eyes thirst for a vision of Hari

Wanting to see the lotus-eyed one

Grieving for him day and night”

These incidents weren’t exclusive to Hindu culture alone, as the early onset of Arabic culture in India was one of the most liberal and progressive times in India with regards to the LGBTQ community. Invasions led by Muhamud of Ghazana led to the establishment of an Islamic culture in India. Apart from his vigor and wisdom he also had a slave called Ayaz. Their relationship was immortalized in the form of poems often called Muhamud-Ayaz poems. They celebrated him as the lover and not as the conqueror for his own heart was conquered by Ayaz.

“Mahmud set a cup beside him and a decanter before him Full of burgundy wine, as if distilled from his own heart He filled the cup with wine like his love’s ruby lips Entangled in the curls of Ayaz, Mahmud began to lose control”

Shibli Nomani, a famous Urdu scholar likes to point out how the Arabic soldiers fell in love with each other since they were away from women and home. In most of the Arabic ghazals, the gender of the beloved is unknown. Love has been at the center of spiritual Sufi poetry from that time. Riddled with homoerotic metaphors, many sufis argued that only same-gender love could transcend sex and thus not distract the seeker. 

The word Amdarparasti, was translated by Tariq Rahman and consists of ‘Amdar’ meaning a beardless boy and ‘Parasti’ meaning worship, thus meaning the worship of beardless boys. The likes of Abru Shah Mubarak and Mir Taqi Mir openly mentioned their beloved as a male and prayed to him. They talked explicitly about their attraction to men, focused on what young men possessed that they found appealing, and shared their heartbreaks.

“Your beauty was deceptive and O! to such extent

Even after you matured this wonder never went”

“How do you lust over that Atish-baz oh Mir

That even your mouth seems to be salivating as such”

This manner of admiration towards the men was referred to as ‘Shahid-bazi’, translating to love for the boys. Another form of ghazal that became popular after the 16th century was ‘Rekhti.’ Regarded by historians as the lesbian voice of urdu poetry, this form was introduced by  Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangin. Through Urdu Rekhti poetry, the erotization of the Sakhi (female friend) achieved its pinnacle in India throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Rekhti poetry could be considered a counter-discourse to the conventional male-centric Urdu ghazals because it projects the lived realities of women.

“Why did you tie on this dildo, dear du-guna

It hurts and pains, I fear for my womb”

Another genre of Rekhti poetry that dealt heavily with female sexuality was called Chaptinama. ‘Chapti’ means the activity of sticking, clinging or rubbing and the term ‘dogana’ is used to indicate this activity between women as well as referring to the women engaging in the activity.

“Where is the pleasure in men,

compared to pleasure, du-guna, in Chapti”

“When she came to take fire, an attraction took hold;

The neighbour lady lit a fire in my heart

If you don’t mind, may I seize a handful or two?

Young lady, greens grow in every bed of yours!”

The colorful past of our culture is riddled with references and instances of homosexuality and other forms of love. If anything, it tells us how the ancient society was more accepting and open to the community as opposed to the one we have been living in for the past few centuries or so. 

Fighting homophobia, sexism, and other forms of discrimination is necessary, as is modifying preconceptions, prejudices, and social norms in favor of greater acceptance. India has a rich history of LGBTQ stories and customs, which has greatly influenced the larger gay culture. Our nation was colonized by ideas of homophobia and transphobia which we have the right and responsibility to eradicate, starting with ourselves. 

“There is no word in our language to describe what we are or what we feel for each other.”

This is what Sita says to Radha in the 1996 film Fire. It tells the story of two lesbian women stuck in hopeless marriages confiding in each other as they explore their sexuality. When something as new as barely 30 years old could gather up negative reviews and general hatred from the society, where the artists can’t even put a name on a homosexual relationship, one must wonder how far we should go.

I hope I have managed to show you how accommodating our older societies used to be and how much we have deviated from the texts which we preach with the utmost belief and sincerity. These peeks into the history of gay affirmation demonstrate the fallacy of the notion that Indian “values” and “morals” are incompatible with queer love. 

“Some men like Jack

and some like Jill;

I’m glad I like them both; but still…

In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight

What is my status?

Stray? or Great?”

Feeds NITT

The official college magazine and media house of NIT Trichy.

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