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, or freedom from the cycle of birth and death. 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, caste, 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 a slave to 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 caste, does express mild opposition to homosexuality, but prescribes such quixotic punishments as bathing in public with one’s clothes on.2 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.3 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 earlier4. Notably, there is also no such punishment in the case of two older women. Prof. Arvind Sharma also points out that if traditional Balinese culture is taken to represent an older and at least a trans-Indian form of Hinduism, the Hindu attitude to homosexuality is one of mild amusement bordering on indifference.5
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. And stories such as Lord Ayyappa (born to Shiva and Vishnu as Mohini) indicate the mystical and subtle approach that Hinduism adopts towards matters of gender in varying contexts.
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 the LGBT phenomenon, rather than persecute them; or positively focused on their abilities, rather than their sexuality or gender.