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A Sampler of Same-Sex Love in India

Monday, December 24, 2018 - 08:00

I wish I had time to go into more detail about the individual readings collected in this volume, rather than simply summarizing the explanatory material. But if you have any interest in finding out more about the rich history of same-sex relations on the subcontinent--especially before the colonial era--it would be worth tracking down this volume. The editors are working from within their own cultures and have personally created many of the translations included here.

I'm particularly happy to cover this book in the week before the podcast presents a story set in 10th century India involving a devdasi and a seamstress. Many of the themes discussed in Vanita & Kidwai's collection are present in the setting of Gurmika Mann's "At the Mouth", which I hope you will take the opportunity to listen to.

In many parts of the world, the cultural experience of same-sex love struggles against both local prejudice and persecution--often a direct consequence of colonialism, and not a "home-grown" attitude"--and against Western constructions of "the homosexual experience" that assume (or even impose) a specific type of cultural understanding, while excluding other ways of understanding same-sex love from the modern "queer" experience. It's a joy and delight to find scholarly work on non-Western histories that is written by academics working within their own cultures, who have managed to navigate around both types of challenges. Too often, that work is being done by a small number of scholar, and too often they are talked over by the Western queer studies establishment while simultaneously being ostracized by institutions in their own cultures who have yet to untangle the legacy of colonial prejudices.

And for me, in identifying publications to cover, the difficulties include identifying those scholars and their works in the first place, and struggling to have enough understanding to present them in the same critical fashion that I do the more euro-centric material. I'm always happy to take recommendations for publications on cultures and regions of the world that I haven't covered yet.

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Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai, eds. 2000. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. St. Martin’s, New York. ISBN 0-312-22169-X

This is an anthology of literature, rather than an analytic text. The organizing principle for selection is examples of love between men or between women who are not biologically related. Literary texts often don’t overtly show the truth of relationships or how those participating in the relationship understood themselves, but they can show how such relationships were represented and expressed.

The passionate attachments represented in these readings may or may not be sexual, but that applies to similar male-female relationships as well. The focus here is on love, not necessarily sex, and the distinction is not treated as important. It also should be noted that same-sex relationships were considered compatible with participation in male-female marriage and with procreation. (Though, at least in the legendary material, procreation doesn’t always require the former.) Only in modern times has an expectation developed that a heterosexual spouse will also be a person’s primary emotional outlet. This collection is also not concerned with depictions of sex that have no emotional or erotic content, for example, the use of sex in power dynamics or same-sex rape.

For the purpose of this collection, “India” is defined geographically, even though the writers of the material often wouldn’t have seen that as their identity.

Same-sex history is often studied in a gender-segregated way, due to the different experiences of men and women. But some approaches identify common factors, hence the decision to include both in this volume. And some of the included texts support the idea of looking at men’s and women’s same-sex experiences together in the context of Indian history, for example, the Kamasutra’s catalog of sexual practices suggests parallels, and texts involving cross-dressing and gender ambiguity are most usefully considered in a common context.

The editors have found no evidence that same-sex love generated significant disapproval or persecution before the 19th century (i.e., before the colonial period) thought it was often treated as inferior to male-female love, or simply ignored.

All the texts in this collection are translated into English (except those originally written in English, of course) and represent most of India’s major languages. The volume has been arranged roughly chronologically. In order to avoid the problem of bias or bowdlerization, the editors have done their own translations of the Hindi and Urdu texts, as well as most of the Persian ones, and have worked closely with the translators for other languages.

There is a discussion of how sexual terminology is handled, both in the discussion and in translating the texts.

The material is presented in three periods: Ancient, covering ca. 1500 BCE through the 8th century CE; Medieval, covering the 8th century up to the British colonial period (roughly the late 18th century); and Modern, covering the period beginning with British rule. There are some absences and asymmetries in the source material, in part due to differences in availability and in part due to access, based on the editors’ own cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The collection is aimed at general as well as scholarly readers and tries to challenge the myth that same-sex love is a “Western import” to India.

Ancient Texts

This material tends to focus on the ideals of friendship and the intertwining of same-sex friendships with male-female relationships. Many are stories of divine heroes and their extended families. They deal with the relationship between friendship and marriage, or with asceticism and friendship. A prominent motif is miraculous births, including birth from a single parent (female or male) or from a same-sex couple (of either sex), or with the nurturing of a child by a same-sex couple. A related motif may be group marriages or group parenting where same-sex relations are included. Creation myths in the Rig Veda regularly include dual mothers or a group of mothers. Another motif is pairs of mothers who co-nourish each other’s children.

Same-sex relationships may involve or arise from cross-dressing or sex-change situations. A cross-dressed woman may enter into a relationship with another woman, but commonly there is also an element of supernatural sex-change, especially involving the intercession of a forest spirit. A relationship may begin as the marriage of two women and then subsequently involve one of them becoming a man.

In sex-change stories where women become men, the change is generally permanent, while in those where men become women, it is often temporary (for the purpose of procreation) and then later reversed. These gender-change motifs are treated differently in the medieval period.

In Buddhist texts, sex-change may be a symbol of liberation from the expectation to marry. Religious communities were often gender-segregated and the same-sex attachments that developed within them were felt to be less “worldly” than male-female relationships. Gender may be treated as an illusory construct (in some ways, like the modern idea of gender as performance) but within a system that aligns “male” with “enlightened”. This created a space for allowing non-heterosexual relationships.

Sexual categories in legal and medical literature had a different approach. There was a long tradition of recognizing a “third sex”, primarily for men who desired men. Legal texts about sexual crimes tended to focus on sex with an inappropriate subject or with the loss of virginity, and women’s actions were considered less problematic than men’s. Same-sex acts are treated as a minor issue unless rape or loss of virginity was involved. Most same-sex acts were not treated as criminal. Compare,  for example, with cross-caste sex acts which were far more stigmatized.

Pseudomedical theories addressing the causes and consequences of same-sex desire are contradictory and unsystematic. This literature provides some terminology for same-sex topics, but nothing that suggests an established concept. They also reflect a general tolerance for same-sex desire. There is more distinction made between sexual activity and celibacy than between same-sex or male-female relations.

Erotic and medical texts provide some explicit references to same-sex acts. Women are described participating in embraces, oral sex, and gender play.

The motif of re-birth is sometimes used to justify unexpected love or desire, whether same-sex or cross-caste. Attachment in a former life was thought to carry over to persons who, in their current incarnations, would be considered inappropriate partners.

(I won’t be listing the specific texts and their contents in detail.)

Medieval Texts

While the ancient texts are represented only by Sanskrit literature, in the medieval period there are several different cultural traditions to consider, in particular, the introduction of Islamic culture, but there is a general diversity of regional and religious cultures. Arabic, Persian, and Urdu traditions join Sanskrit, and the topics include religious stories, epics, historical chronicles, and devotional poetry. Some specific genres include the Bhakti tradition, involving mystical loving devotion to a specific deity (that is, one selected from a number of options, not a type of monotheism).

The medieval literature includes commentaries on older texts. The Puranas introduce a new pantheon who edge out the Vedic gods, among other religious shifts. The everyday observance of sexual taboos coexist with stories of divinities who exist outside those taboos. There is a re-emergence of veneration of mother goddesses which provides a context of bonds between female divinities.

The literature continues themes of sex change and of the children of same-sex couples (of any gender) as well as same-sex marriage.

The depiction of devotional relationships to divinities is more fluid. For example, the female Janabai mystics envisioned god as a loving female companion.  Religious monasticism often took the form of marriage resistance, but did not preclude sexual relations and allowed for same-sex relations. Female devdasis entered into a spiritual marriage to a deity (either male or female) and lived outside the marriage structure. This sometimes resulted in matrilineal religious communities.

The emphasis on procreation in marriage could be used to sanction same-sex marriages that produced offspring (either miraculously or via sex-change). Love between women was also depicted in the context of polygynous marriage, and stories told of female lovers marrying the same man in order to stay together, or love developing between co-wives after the marriage.

Within the Persian/Urdu tradition, there is a significant increase in same-sex material in the later medieval period, but it is overwhelmingly male-oriented and associated with Islamic culture. Islamic legal traditions were officially against same-sex relations but cultural traditions contradicted this and elevated love between men. Islamic communities in India did not adhere to conservative Islam, possibly in part due to being always in a minority position. The Sufi tradition focused on love as the core of spirituality. A common poetic motif was for male poets to use a female voice to address a male beloved.

Modern Texts

A great deal of the introduction to this part of the book covers they ways in which British colonial culture altered attitudes toward same-sex love, as well as discussing recent social and political activism.

One curious genre is that of Rekhti poetry, an Urdu form in which a male poet writing in a female voice addresses love poetry to a female beloved. Scholars disagree on the extent to which this reflects the lives of women in same-sex relationships as opposed to the male imagination, but material from the courtesan tradition of “aliyan” (female friends) suggests that women performed Rekhti poetry for each other, and accounts of female same-sex relationships from colonial reports include terminology that matches the vocabulary of Rekhti poetry. So the tentative conclusion is that the genre has some use for understanding women’s lives.

There is a discussion of sexual techniques as reflected in this literature. Then a long discussion of changes in same-sex culture in India under British rule. Modern fiction has introduced a number of tropes that reflect the realities of same-sex relationships, such as the married woman who yearns for her (female) childhood sweetheart. But western influences have also introduced negative depictions of same-sex relations.

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