The Section 377 of Indian Penal Code has become the focus of debates around what constitutes permitted sexual act in human beings. The article, dating back to 1870, was introduced in India by the British colonial rulers to criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature”, including homosexual acts.
The debate is whether this archaic Act should continue in present times.
Looking back into the Indian ethos we find that in Samskrt language, we find a word Napumsaka. Pumsa means male. Napumsaka means “not pumsa”, those who are not fully male either by body or in character, in other words transgenders.
We also come across another word Samalingakamin, meaning those who desire the same gender, in other words homosexuals.
The existence of these words in the language implies that such people people have lived in our culture, with their special tendencies and preferences. In acknowledging them the society also acknowledged their lifestyle.
While most languages have only 2 genders, Samskrt and other Indian languages have 3 genders in usage. Transgenders were accepted as a 3rd form of humans as Nature expresses itself in many forms.
The 3rd gender have been referred to in India by many names – Hijara in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic languages, Jogappa in Kannada, Aravani, Ali or Thirunangai in Tamil. Nangai means womanly and Thiru is an honorific title given to males. Thirunangai means male and female in one body. This word for the transgenders in Tamil Nadu implies that they are not looked down upon.
The scenario changed in 1870, when the Indian Penal code (IPC) was formulated by the British rulers. In article 377 of the IPC, non heterosexual sex between male and female humans has been classified as “unnatural” and punishable up to a period of 10 years in jail.
The Victorian puritan view that was prevalent in medieval Europe was also imposed on India through section 377 even though it was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions.
But in the last 140 years, Europe and England have opened up to have a more liberal outlook whereas India has been stuck with an outdated law that is completely alien to its ethos and jurisprudence.
The issues concerning Article 377 can be viewed from different perspectives.
It is a bodily fact that a person is born as a transgender. It cannot be expressed as a bodily defect. Mutations are a process by which evolution evolves.
While the case of physical body variations gives rise to transgenders, hormonal and mental influences also tend to determine one’s preference towards homosexuality (gay or lesbian or bisexual).
In modern parlance the homosexuals, transgenders and transvestites have all been brought under the broad term LGBT – Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgenders, to distinguish them as a community different from the heterosexual community.
While the heterosexuals look at LGBT as a deviance, the LGBT community which over the last few decades have found a global voice, express in loud and clear terms, that it is not a deviance but another way of thinking where there is no harm done to other members of the society.
In the traditional Indian view also the personal preferences of LGBT were acknowledged. The sexual minority was seen as being harmless and was allowed to live in accordance with its unique preferences. People from the LGBT community were given their lawful share, pangu of village resources. They also figured among the rightful pangudhars, stakeholders in the village.
The LGBT formed cults of their own and intermingled within themselves without intruding on the lifestyle of the rest of the heterosexual society.
The Kama Sutra also mentions that homosexuality is something that is enjoyed by its practitioners. Narada Samhita, Manusmriti and a host of other texts acknowledge the existence of such people and their personal preferences. In a few temples we find sculptures of not just heterosexual couples but of homosexual couples as well.
Literature and art thus showcase existence and tolerance of homosexuality in ancient India.
This can be seen in many depictions of Indian mythology.Everything in Nature including divine forces was attributed a gender – masculine, feminine or neuter. There are stories of two masculine divinities Hari and Hara, coming together for a purpose – to bring forth Ayyappa, another divinity with their combined qualities, principles.
But here too, for procreation, Hari or Vishnu principle takes the female form of Mohini.. The divinity Ayyappa however is commonly referred to only as HariHara Putra, meaning son of Hari and Hara.
There is another very interesting dialogue in the epic Mahabharata that took place in the month of January 3066 BCE between Bhishma and Yudhishtra. When Bhishma was on his deathbed, on a bed of arrows, Yudhishtra asks him as to, who enjoys more in the act of sex – man or woman. Bhishma then narrated the story of a king of a bygone era who had changed into a woman because he thought that it was the woman who enjoyed the sexual act more.
This incident throws light into the lives of people of yore who did consider changing their gender to enjoy more out of life.
What is even more interesting is that such a topic was discussed between two distinguished men, separated by two generations – Yudhishtra and his grand uncle Bhishma. Though it was solemn occasion with Bhishma lying on his deathbed, it was not out of the norm to discuss such matters.
This reveals to us the open and progressive social outlook prevalent in ancient India. Issues of sex, gender and LGBT were given their due place. We too, must discuss without any prejudice and come up with laws that are in tune with the times, with the nature of this land and Nature “herself.”
The other works of authors D.K.Hari and D.K.Hema Hari can be viewed at www.bharathgyan.com