The legacy of colonization in South East Asia has had a long-lasting impact on the political and social development of India in the present. This essay will attempt to trace how British colonization instilled the logics that allowed for the rise of a violent, cis-heteronormative, hyper-masculine form of Hindu Nationalism that attempts to not only purge those of other religions but anyone that represents forms of deviancy from normative interpretations of gender and sexuality. Instead, I argue that this colonial interpretation of Hinduism is a reading detached from actual scripture, and by re-reading such texts from a decolonized, queered perspective, it is possible to dismantle colonial architectures and work towards a more liberatory future.
Before analyzing the present, it’s important to trace the colonial histories that have situated modern India. There are two big turning points in colonial history that have led to the instantiation of anti-queer violence: Selective translations of religious texts and sodomy laws.
There are two predominant tracks of Hindu religious practices: The “Great Tradition” and the “Little Tradition”.1 The “Great Tradition” is a series of texts produced by members of the Brahmin caste that were the elites of Indian society. On the other hand, the “Little Tradition” was the texts read and the practices performed by the common people and those of lower castes. The texts that were chosen and made permissible to be translated, reprinted, and mass distributed were texts from the “Great Tradition” because it instilled social hierarchies among Indian populations that made it easier for colonial forces to divide and conquer people, but also reproduced forms of iconographic manhood. One way that the “Great Tradition” texts divided people was by self-servingly defining Brahmins as the intelligent gatekeepers of knowledge that must be valued and calling poorer, darker-skinned Indians as Dalits that must be subservient to Brahmins. This framing precluded the ability for swaths of Indian people to be able to collectivize against colonial forces and allowed for British occupation to further cement its control.2 But it was not enough for the British to solidify its governance; it had to ingrain its ideology into the Indian people. The “Great Tradition” constructed a notion of manhood whereby forms of masculinity produced had to fall in line with notions of aggressiveness, power, and domination, while women were expected to follow notions of femininity whereby they were subservient to the masculine subject. For example, in the epic Mahabharata3, a king named Drupada had offered up the hand of his daughter, Draupadi, in marriage to whichever person of royal blood could lift an immense bow and shoot a spinning target in the ceiling by only viewing its reflection in a pool of water. The justification for this is that a “true man” that would be a suitable husband for Draupadi would be skilled in the art of warfare but also strong and masculine enough to protect his daughter. What is also constructed in this story is a view of womanhood as someone that is fragile, must be protected by men, and as an object that can be gifted away as a prize. This is just one of the many examples within the “Great Tradition” that reify static understandings of gender. The choice to replicate this strand of thinking was an attempt by the British to internalize Eurocentric social paradigms of decency, gender, and manhood. This was exactly what happened! In the wake of such imposition, the Brahmins created law books called Dharmashastras that created notions of “appropriate human conduct”4 that explicitly marked queer practices of sex as criminal and worthy of punishment because they were not following what their pre-ordained gender roles were.
Extending the civilizing force of the British empire, they created new sodomy laws to control people’s sexual habits. The basis for sodomy law lies in the “[B]ritish administrators officially organized a prostitution apparatus, with Indian women as prostitutes, specifically to prevent same-sex acts between British soldiers … [w]hen the prostitution solution proved ineffective to deter their peers' queer practices, British administrators … punished British m+m5 same sex with imprisonment of up to seven years”.6 Soon after, the British imposed a similar law in India known as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that declared “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal would be punished with imprisonment or fines”7 The text of this Section of the IPC makes two important assumptions that become the framework for how homosexuality is viewed in India. First, it assumes homosexuality is “against the order of nature.” Secondly, it equates homosexuality with forms of beastiality. By framing queer sexual practices as deviant, unnatural, and animalistic, the IPC frames such people as savage and devoid of humanity, in an attempt to civilize the hyper-erotic orient towards Euro-Christianical Victorian norms of sexuality.8 The legacy of the IPC radically shaped how Indian society viewed queerness and instilled forms of homophobic paradigms into the fabric of the nation.
This colonial legacy has structured how modern iterations of Hindu Nationalism have played out. The Bhraministic logic creates a notion of entitled Hindu men that are deserving of citizenship and will be the stewards of the new Indian future. As of late, India has seen a resurgence of Hindu Nationalism as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has grown in political power and occupies important positions of governance. This marked an important shift where nationalist zeal shifted from a supposed “utopic imaginary” towards the very literal governing apparatus that would shape the material instantiations of violence. The result is that the imposition of such violent queer repression became ingrained and indoctrinated into the machinations of statecraft. For example, BJP member of parliament Subramanian Swamy openly declared that “Homosexuality is not a normal thing. We cannot Celebrate it. It's against Hindutva”.9 Here we can see the remnants of the colonial architecture whereby queerness is viewed as savage and unnatural. In the wake of western countries granting recognition to gay marriage and passing a slew of laws that protected the rights of queer individuals, the Hindu Nationalist movement has attempted to frame queerness as something that is foreign, that was an invention of colonial paradigms.10 The impact of this has been the rise in anti-queer violence, a widespread AIDS crisis among queer people, and discriminatory hiring practices that trap queer populations into poverty.
However, such framings of Hinduism as representative by the BJP politics are in fact more Eurocentric that privilege the perspective of the colonizer erasing how queerness has always existed in Indian society and in fact are heralded in Hindu Scriptures. The most obvious example of queer sexual practices being in Hindu scriptures can be seen in the Kamasutra chapted “Auparishtaka”11 The text outlines practices of oral sex that could be performed between two males:
Under the pretence of shampooing, a eunuch of this kind embraces and draws towards
himself the thighs of the man whom he is shampooing, and after this he touches the joints
of his thighs and his jaghana, or central portions of his body. Then, if he finds the
lingam12 of the man erect, he presses it with his hands and chaffs him for getting into that
state. If after this, and after knowing his intention, the man does not tell the eunuch to
proceed, then the latter does it of his own accord and begins the congress. If however he
is ordered by the man to do it, then he disputes with him, and only consents at last with
The following eight things are then done by the eunuch one after the other:
The nominal congress13
Biting the sides14
Sucking a mango fruit19
In this section of the Kamasutra, what is revealed is everything that British colonial rule had to repress. An unapologetic break from Puritan Victorian understandings of sexuality that explicitly includes queer sex as a way to fulfill spiritual attachments. In fact, the fluidity of human sexuality becomes something that is valorized for attaining a higher state of existence.21 In works of the Hindu Tantra,22
“the basal chakra lies in the perineum (between the anus and the phallus/vagina) of the human body where the kundalini, the serpentine power of enlightenment is said to lie (or sleep) in a coiled-up state. The sexo-yogic methods of Tantric discipline seek to arouse this power and make it shoot up the spine, through the six chakras, straight up to the cerebrum in the brain […] There is a whole ritual connected with anal penetration through the narrow gate opening into the labyrinth (in the man the intestine). In Tantric yoga, the centre of Ganesha--the guardian of the gates - is found in the region of the rectum. The male organ, in directly penetrating the area of coiled-up energy, may help its brutal awakening and thus provoke a state of enlightenment and sudden perception of realities of a transcendental order.23
These forms of queer subjectivities weren’t solely limited to the terrain of sexuality but also of gender. For example Siva, the god of destruction but also reproduction, is depicted as half-male and half-female, that is heralded as the ultimate state of being because it is the unification and blurring of the distinction between masculinity and femininity.24 Even in texts widely popularized by the “Great Tradition” like the Ramayana itself, there can be no justification for queerphobia on the basis of Hinduism because Lord Rama explicitly states, “man, queer25, woman, even plants and animals, free of meanness, full of devotion, are all equally dear to me.”26 What these readings of the scriptures prove is that Hindu Nationalists of today and the Colonial Powers of the past created an incorrect reading of Hinduism, that cherry-picked parts of the scripture to serve their own prejudiced ends.
Ultimately, the social paradigm of cis-heteronormativity that structures modern Indian society today can be traced to the legacy of British Colonialism. Whether it was through the imposition of anti-queer sodomy laws or the selective translation of Hindu Scriptures, what was instilled into post-colonial India was the understanding of queerness as being something that was deviant and unnatural. As India continued to develop into its post-colonial society and saw the growing trend of queer visibility rising in the West, Hindu nationalist organizations used that in combination with isolated readings of Hindu texts to justify the expansion of queerphobia. However, that is an incorrect representation of what Hindu scripture actually says, and a close reading of the scriptures reveals a long-standing history of queer presence and inclusion within the Hindu tradition. The power of such a queer reading of Hinduism is that it destabilizes the authority by which modern Hindu nationalists have been able to enact anti-queer policies and the widespread dissemination of queer hate in Indian communities. Instead, such a reading suggests that true Hindu patriotism27, that follows scripture and re-asserts sovereignty away from colonial powers, follows from constructing a society inclusive of queer people.