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social sciences

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Hinduism is the dominant religion of modern India. It is a polytheistic religion that evolved from the Vedic religion of ancient India. Hinduism emerged in response to Buddhism and Jainism, movements beginning in India ca 500 B. C. E. that rejected the caste (rigid class) system, a salient marker of Vedic religion and still an integral part of Hinduism today. Despite its retention of the caste system, Hinduism has been affected by aspects of Buddhist and Jain religions, particularly an emphasis on non-violence.

Traditional Hinduism contained certain prohibitions against behavior. Nevertheless, there has been great variation in Hindu thought regarding sexuality. The definition of Hindu dharma, or right conduct, has been debated in various Hindu texts for thousands of years, and has been tied to caste, locale, stage of life, and individuality. Colonialism also affected Hindu attitudes toward gender variance and sexual deviance.

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Caste, Homoeroticism, and Penance

During the Colonial period, the British chose to enforce the ancient Laws of Manu as the Hindu civil code, and this particular text has therefore enjoyed greater influence in modern Hinduism than it may have otherwise. The Laws of Manu 11.58 and 11.174 state that men who participate in anal intercourse are "traditionally said" to lose caste, but also prescribe that a man who has shed semen in another male perform penance. Ruth Vanita suggests that penance replaced the loss of caste as a punishment for anal sex in ancient Hinduism. Given that Manu's text is a compilation of many contradictory scriptures, this is certainly plausible.


There may have been a difference drawn between the man who shed his semen and the man who received that semen, however. Today, men who take a passive role in sex with other men may lose caste and become hijras. They are not untouchables, however. Hijras occupy an in-between space in rigidly patriarchal, sex-differentiated Hindu society. They proclaim themselves to be "neither man nor woman" and band together in communal groups as a unique sub-caste.

While today some hijras label themselves as gay, others are intersexed persons and barren women. Those who are biologically male generally join the hijras because of a lack of procreative sexual desire and eventually undergo ritual castration.

As devotees of a Hindu mother goddess, hijras are thought in traditional Hinduism to hold the power to make others impotent with their curses, or to make them sexually potent through their blessings. They sing and dance at Hindu birth ceremonies, and demand payment in return for their conferral of potency upon the newborn child. Many also work as prostitutes.

Passive/Active Contrasts in Hindu Thought

Men who have sex with hijras generally do not identify as gay. In modern India, the partner who penetrates retains his masculine identity. The penetrated partner, to the contrary, is seen as effeminate or . While hijras are eunuchs, many female-to-male prostitutes, known as jhankas or zenanas, keep their genitals and stereotypically take a passive role in sex. Other men take a passive role in anal sex but dissimulate. Parks, in particular, are venues for clandestine same-sex male encounters.

The Indian men who frequent these parks are differentiated by a host of native terms in various Indian languages that note their preferences for active or passive homosexual sex and whether they prostitute themselves. Terms such as gay and queer may take on different meanings in Hindu contexts than they would in a Western venue, although there is a small, emerging Western-style glbtq subculture in the larger cities of India.

Hindu Mythology

Hindu mythology contains many stories where miraculous sexual transformation allows homoerotic desire in both men and women to be enacted as heterosexual behavior. Hindu folklore may mirror reality, where both male and female homosexual behavior is often gender-differentiated. Such a hypothesis may oversimplify Hindu reality, however. There are stories of dual goddesses mating in Hindu cosmology, in addition to representations of gods and goddesses.

The Kama Sutra and Male Homoeroticism

The Kama Sutra, written in approximately the third century C. E., describes a "third nature" (2.9.1). The third-natured male, like a hijra, is described as wearing clothing perceived as appropriate for women, and providing oral sex to male customers (2.9.2-5). Masseurs who dress as men also provide oral gratification (2.9.6-24). Ancient Sanskrit medical texts identify fellatio, along with masculinity in women and impotence, as markers of essential, pathological sex/sexuality/gender difference.

Oral sex techniques are both prescribed and admonished by Vatsyayana, the author of the Kama Sutra. Vatsyayana states his "opinion" that it is not a sin to have oral sex with a prostitute, only other persons (2.9.27). He further notes that "Opinions differ on the matter of purity between the authority of moral codes, occasional local customs, and one's own feelings. One should therefore behave according to one's own inclinations" (2.9.34).

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