Saturday, July 11, 2009

India's dislike of homosexuality is deeply rooted in its culture and religion

India's dislike of homosexuality is deeply rooted in its culture and religion


By Will Heaven World Last updated: July 11th, 2009


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Members of Delhi's gay community had something to celebrate last week. Photo: AFP

Members of Delhi's gay community had something to celebrate last week. Photo: AFP

If the name “Baba Ramdev” means nothing to you, then it is safe to you say you are not an Indian – or a yoga enthusiast. The 43-year-old guru’s international yoga camps - where he preaches a “medicine free world” - have been attended or watched on television by an estimated 85 million people worldwide, making him one of the most recognisable Indian faces on the planet. He is Hinduism’s very own Billy Graham.

But the usually peace-promoting Swami has been causing consternation this week, after he criticised the Indian high court ruling which legalised homosexuality in Delhi. The Telegraph’s Dean Nelson (South Asia editor and blogger) reports:

Baba Ramdev, who counts senior government ministers among his devotees, issued a particularly strong response. In his petition he compared homosexuals to “other anti-social groups”, and said legalisation would have a “negative effect” on the young, while increasing the prevalence of HIV/Aids.

“These are unnatural acts not designed for human beings. The decision of the High Court, if allowed to sustain will have catastrophic effects on the moral fabric of society and will jeopardise the institution of marriage itself. This offends the structure of Indian value system, Indian culture and traditions, as derived from religious scriptures,” it said.

Baba Ramdev’s petition serves to underline India’s deeply conservative attitudes towards homosexuality. But it also reminds us where those conservative attitudes are rooted: Indian values, cultures and traditions - as well as Indian religious scriptures.

In a recent book review, Johann Hari argued that it was missionaries who instilled in the colonial East a Victorian understanding of “sin”. He writes:

In Somerset Maugham’s novel Rain, a missionary complains, “I think [it] was the most difficult part of my work, to instill in the natives a sense of sin.” But they did. They succeeded. They soaked the East in a Western sense of sin, and saw it freeze up into a new frigidity.

Johann isn’t the only one. Amnesty International and the BBC seem convinced that Indian anti-gay attitudes miraculously sprung up 149 years ago. I don’t buy it. Yes, missionaries and British colonialists certainly helped to enshrine these attitudes in Indian law (the infamous “Section 377”, first drafted in 1860), but Hinduism has for centuries treated homosexual men and women with disdain.

The Manava-Dharmasastra (the laws of Manu, Hinduism’s Noah) are one of the earliest examples of Hindu textual doctrine. They describes how if a married woman is found to be a lesbian, she should have her head shaved and have two of her fingers cut off. Bizarrely, she should also “be made to ride on a donkey”. For men who engage in homosexual acts, it’s less barbaric - they simply lose their high caste, and become social outcasts.

Let’s be clear about this: Hindu traditions don’t easily die. As William Dalrymple has brilliantly explored in City of Djinns, gay men of low caste still find themselves living as Hijras in India today. They become part of the so-called “third sex” of transgender men, shunned by society, discriminated against, and often forced into prostitution.

So if homosexuality is going to be legalised all over India - and worrying HIV/AIDS statistics suggest it should be, very quickly - it will have to overcome a multitude of religious obstacles. Most of these will come from Baba Ramdev and some of his BJP-supporting allies. But you know what? Something tells me India’s 150 million Muslims aren’t going to help, either.




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