One of Hinduism’s core teachings is that every being is Divine or a reflection of Divine qualities, regardless of one’s outer attributes. Given this central tenet, Hinduism has a strong theological foundation on the matter of LGBT rights.
Aside from the humanitarian imperative to offer equal treatment to all, the Hindu American Foundation believes that this and other fundamental and ancient Hindu teachings may allow Hindus to more openly embrace LGBT rights and marriage equality.
However, colonial era attitudes towards LGBT rights have left a lasting impression on Hindu society in India and, by extension, on the American Hindu community. The matter is further complicated by the fact that sexuality in general is frowned upon and rarely discussed openly in today’s Indian society.
Hindus need to face the challenge of recognizing attitudes that are a result of a colonized mindset, lack of understanding, and other prejudices, and endeavor to place the issue of LGBT rights squarely within a careful understanding of the history and teachings of their ancient Hindu ethos.
As Hindus around the world grapple with the issue of LGBT rights, HAF suggests that the following should be key considerations:
- Hindu teachings hold the inherent spiritual equality of all beings, regardless of outer attributes. As such, Hindus should not reject or socially ostracize LGBT individuals, but should accept them as fellow individuals on their paths to moksha (freedom from the cycle of birth and death).
- Hindus should understand and accept scientific and medical conclusions that LGBT orientations occur naturally in a percentage of most life forms; and that these are neither acquired habits, nor a disorder, handicap, or disease to be cured.
- Hinduism’s soaring spiritual essence should not be conflated with social practice, and the tradition allows for the understanding and interpretation of customs to change over time. Various historical spiritual texts are testament to such changes, and even in ancient times, smriti never advocated broad-based, harsh punishments for homosexuality.
At HAF, we believe that it is important for Hindu leaders, both religious and lay, to work within our scriptural framework to evolve a uniquely Hindu perspective on LGBT rights, rather than follow existing social mores which may be influenced by other factors.
A Hindu Approach to LGBT rights
While the equal religio-spiritual potential of all individuals is key to understanding a Hindu basis for dignity for LGBT persons, so too is the way in which Hindu religious texts and teachings are approached.
There are two different sets of Hindu religious texts: (i) the Sruti, which are scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads that are believed to enunciate eternal truths; and (ii) the Smriti, which are books like the Manu Smriti and Yagnavalkya Smriti that detail socio-religious laws and customs bound by time, place, and circumstance.
Smritis, by their very nature, are time bound and subject to change, and such bifurcation between eternal truths and socio-religious customs underpins HAF’s approach to LGBT rights.
Hindu sruti texts don’t address sexual orientation at all or indeed social issues in general. They state that every being is an eternal soul, or atman, incarnate, and that the ultimate goal of life is moksha. Moksha is attained by one’s real self, or atman, which is distinct from one’s physical body and personality (ego), as well as outer attributes such as race, community, gender, and sexual orientation.
Progress towards moksha comes through yogic spiritual practices (selfless service, loving devotion of God, simple living, prayer and meditation, etc.), and its attainment implies, amongst other things, completely transcending material desires and impulses, including sexual ones.
To put it provocatively, an LGBT person who lives selflessly and has mastered his or her impulses (sexual or otherwise) is actually closer to moksha than a non-LGBT person who is led about by their desires.
Thus, Hindus cannot point to anything in the sruti texts that supports treating LGBT persons as being inferior to non-LGBT persons, let alone supports their persecution.
The smritis, some of which are socio-religious codes from particular eras in Hindu history have imbibed the perspective of the srutis and have never advocated broad-based, harsh punishments for homosexuality.
Professor Arvind Sharma, a Hindu academic1 at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, states in his essay on homosexuality and Hinduism: “It appears from the foregoing account that, save for the emphasis on renunciation, Hinduism is a sex-positive religion in relation to all the other…ends of human life….”
The Manusmriti, which has come under considerable criticism from many quarters for its regressive pronouncements on community and class (caste), does express mild opposition to homosexuality, but prescribes such quixotic punishments as bathing in public with one’s clothes on. The most stringent punishment, that of cutting off two fingers (or shaving the head and riding a donkey), is prescribed for an older woman who has a relationship with a young virgin. But the concern here is on virginity, not homosexuality. The exact same punishment of cutting off two fingers (plus a fine of 600 panas of gold) is prescribed for a man who violates a virgin woman just a few verses earlier.
The Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata mention several characters who demonstrate a range of sexual orientations and gender identities, including Shikhandi, Chitrangada (wife of Arjuna and mother of Babruvahana), and Brihannala. None of these characters are discriminated against because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Rather, they are all treated with respect, and judged by their abilities rather than their sexuality.
Several other ancient works such as the Arthashastra (a treatise on politics and economics) and the Kama sutra have numerous mentions of LGBT individuals in various professions free from any persecution.
Thus, not only do the srutis lay absolutely no bar on moksha for LGBT persons, the codes of conduct of ancient India as well as other smriti texts seem to have largely ignored LGBT people, rather than persecute them; or positively focused on their abilities, rather than their sexuality or gender.
What about marriage as a religious rite?
India has a centuries history of wedding rites for hijras, transgender people who have long been recognized in Hindu texts and society, and more recently, the Indian Supreme Court, as third gender. In recent years, some Hindu priests and same-sex couples in the US and around the world have adapted and found acceptance in traditional Hindu wedding rituals.
The Saptapadi is a key marriage ritual that enunciates seven vows of an ideal Hindu marriage. The vows remind every couple about the true purpose of a life partnership: (i) nourishing one another; (ii) growing strong together; (iii) fulfilling spiritual obligations; (iv) working towards happiness and fulfillment through mutual respect; (v) working for the welfare of all living beings through raising virtuous children; (vi) praying for bountiful seasons which they may go through together, just as they would share their joys and sorrows; and (vii) praying for a life of understanding, loyalty, and companionship not only for themselves, but also for universal peace. The four circumambulations around the ceremonial fire, which is also a part of most Hindu weddings, symbolize the couple’s commitment, both together and as individuals, to the four pursuits in life: dharma (right action), artha (prosperity), kama (material pleasure), and moksha.
While a government may regulate the legal right to marriage, marriage as a religious rite obviously falls within the realm of religious freedom.
HAF firmly holds that sampradayas, temples, religious leaders, and priests have an inalienable right to define marriage in conformity with their traditions, as they continue to interpret and reinterpret them over time.
But because Hinduism has no central authority that controls theology, and values a tradition of interpretation according to time and space by those qualified and with spiritual competency (adhikara), different groups and individuals may move (or not move) at a varying pace on a religious sanction of a rite as fundamental as marriage.
As religious rites of same-sex marriage continue to evolve (or in some cases, not), HAF agrees with the US Supreme Court that governments should not discriminate in the matter of marriage as a legal right or social contract.
HAF supports marriage equality for all Americans and submitted amicus briefs in various US courts, including the US Supreme Court, to this end.