Beginning this week, our class is leaving Ancient Greece and Rome to travel to other ancient civilizations, and I’m excited to introduce you to some incredible scholars who study LGBTQ+ history across the world.
First, to teach the history of same-sex love and gender nonconformity in India, I interviewed Ruth Vanita, Professor of English and the co-director of South & South-East Asian Studies at the University of Montana. Professor Vanita is the co-founder of India’s first nationwide feminist magazine, Manushi, and the author of several books including Same-Sex Love in India, a collection of translations from 15 Indian languages spanning 2000 years.
Professor Vanita began by telling me that one of the most important themes of Ancient India was friendship, the most important type of relationship. “Marriage is a form of friendship,” she explained. “Marriage could be polygamous or polyandrous or monogamous at different times and places, but individuals had intense and close relationships with others as well as their spouses, with siblings, and with friends.”
In Indic religions, (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism), experiences in earlier births influence these bonds. “This is a common explanation given for all kinds of relationships,” she explains, “both approved ones and those which may be socially disapproved. The philosophical understanding is that repressing emotions will not work; they will burst out again at a later time.”
“Everything changes all the time,” says Vanita. “Social categories, such as class, ‘caste,’ gender, physical appearance, disabilities, and all bodies and minds change both within a lifetime and from one birth to the next. The only thing that persists over lifetimes is attachment.”
Since an individual could be reborn with a different gender and remain attracted to the same person, it follows that Indian philosophies might embrace same-sex love. Ruth confirmed this, acknowledging that “same-sex love was openly depicted in painting and sculpture, and often celebrated. [It] was written about in many genres – lyric poetry, narrative poetry, stories, letters, and histories.”
These records date back to the first century CE, and one of the most famous examples comes from the Kamasutra, the first treatise on eroticism in the world:it devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of same-sex desire. “The author divides men into two kinds – those who desire women and those who desire men. The latter are then further divided into those who are masculine-appearing (with beards and mustaches) and those who are feminine-appearing. He advises masculine-appearing ones on ways to find male partners. They can work as flower-sellers, masseurs, or hairdressers. This is followed by a detailed description of male-male oral sex, which is compared to the process of sucking a mango.” The Kamasutra endorses same-sex unions with a “close friend when both trust each other completely.” It also mentions, if briefly, same-sex desire between women.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a subgenre of Urdu-language poetry called chaptinama (which translates to “lesbian narrative”) was devoted to the topic of love between women. “Many poets wrote this type of poetry. Most of them were Muslim men and several were famous and popular poets. One writer [even] describes rituals that women performed to get married to each other.”
“Later, this kind of poetry was labeled obscene and immoral,” Ruth explains. “Much of it was destroyed and the rest remained out of print.” She recounts the difficulty of finding and translating this poetry which she includes in her book Gender, Sex, and the City. “The little that was in print up to 2010 was heavily censored. I had to search for this poetry and copy it out from manuscripts by hand. Poetry by women in this genre has disappeared.”
I asked Vanita about the presence of trans and non-binary figures in Indian literature. “The best-known example is Shikhandin from the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata,” she told me. “This character is a princess, Amba, who kills herself in the hope of being reborn as a man so that she can kill another man whom she sees as her enemy. She is then reborn as a princess, Shikhandini, but she has a miraculous sex-change and becomes a man, Shikhandin.”
Professor Vanita discusses Shikhandin in her upcoming book The Dharma of Justice in the Sanskirt Epics, but this isn’t her favorite character because the character is motivated purely by vengeance.
“I prefer some other epic characters who undergo more than one miraculous sex-change or temporary sex-changes,” she explained. One of these is “King Ila, who is a man for six months and a woman for six months of every year, and has children both as a man and as a woman.” Another is “Bhangasvana, who experiences being a man and a woman, but when asked says s/he would prefer to be a woman because women experience more intense pleasure in sex, and also are more affectionate.”
Though the history of same-sex love in India is as vast and diverse as the country itself, the British occupation of India in the 18th century threatened its tradition of acceptance. “The new government wreaked vengeance by smashing flourishing urban cultures,” Vanita explained. “They enacted new laws that [threatened] Indian social and sexual arrangements. One of these was the anti-sodomy law (1861) which made male-male sex punishable with death or imprisonment. They also enacted laws that categorized courtesans (who were highly accomplished and educated women) as prostitutes. ”
The British also enforced a new education system that taught educated Indians to be ashamed of their culture. “Urban Indian men stopped wearing bright colors, cosmetics and jewelry. [They] grew ashamed of certain aspects of our culture, literature and art, and destroyed or hid much of it. They grew ashamed of polygamy, polyandry and same-sex love, and insisted that Indians had always been heterosexual and monogamous.”
This wave of Puritanical values and cultural erasure lasted over a century. “Homosexuality was never mentioned in class when I was in school and college,” Vanita said. “Most people were convinced (and many still are convinced) that homosexuality was an import from the West and was alien to Indian culture. The fact is that not homosexuality but modern homophobia was an import from the West. This ignorance is now gradually beginning to be dispelled.”
If you’re interested in reading more about the LGBTQ+ history of India, Professor Vanita has recently published a historical novel called Memory of Light, a love story between two courtesans. She has previously written and edited several scholarly books, a few of which can be accessed below: