Hindu fundamentalists in India are vandalizing theaters showing Girlfriend, a Bollywood movie that focuses on a lesbian relationship. What does Hinduism have to say about homosexuality?
Not that much, really. None of the sacred Hindu texts, such as the Vedas or the Upanishads, contain a straightforward condemnation of homosexuality akin to that found in Leviticus 18:22. The frankest reference comes in the Laws of Manu (in Sanskrit, the Manusmrti), one of the dharmasastra texts that lists religious laws. There is a lone verse that reads: “A twice-born man who commits an unnatural offence with a male, or has intercourse with a female in a cart drawn by oxen, in water, or in the day-time, shall bathe, dressed in his clothes.” (A “twice-born” man is one of a higher caste.) The importance of the Laws of Manu, however, is hotly debated by Hindu theologians; lower-caste Hindus, in particular, question whether the text was written by Brahmins in order to reinforce the social status quo.
But as Indian cinema owners can attest, the religion’s lack of textual condemnations doesn’t necessarily mean that all Hindus are tolerant of homosexuality. Far from it—homosexuality remains a taboo topic throughout much of India. Many Hindus frown upon gay and lesbian liaisons, in part because of the religion’s emphasis on the sanctity of marriage and its strong disapproval of premarital sex. Religious conservatives point out one of marriage’s chief functions is to produce progeny so as to perpetuate the family line.
More liberal Hindus counter that the religion wasn’t always so intolerant. Scholars who subscribe to this theory point to an incident in the Mahabharata in which the god Krishna dons women’s clothing. In addition, the Vedas frequently mention people who belong to a “third sex,” which some readers have interpreted as a not-so-veiled reference to gays and lesbians in ancient society. And the erotic Kama Sutra—not a sacred text but an instruction manual written sometime between the first and sixth centuries A.D.—further supports the contention that homosexuality was somewhat acceptable at one point; the book contains a lengthy section on homosexual fellatio.
The bottom line is that, while Hinduism may be construed as being more tolerant toward homosexuality than the three Abrahamic faiths, gays and lesbians still face serious prejudice in India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, though rarely enforced, states that homosexual acts are punishable by life in prison.
And some Hindu conservatives take great offense when their gods are associated with any hint of homosexuality. In 1999, for example, the World Vaisnava Association protested the airing of an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess that featured Krishna as a character. The episode, the group claimed, was blasphemous because Krishna was seen helping Xena and her female sidekick, Gabrielle. Not that the duo were lovers, of course—at least any more than Batman and Robin were.