Chakra Discussions

Book Informs Same-sex Marriage Debate

by Amara das

Posted April 8, 2006

Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West
By Ruth Vanita
370 pages, softcover - Rs. 295 (Penguin India)
or 288 pages, hardcover - $65 (Macmillan)

Same-sex marriage is becoming a reality both in India and the West. Hundreds of couples are literally "tying the knot" in wedding ceremonies both public and private, with family approval or not, and increasingly with the blessings of officiating Hindu priests. Ruth Vanita examines this phenomenon from a religious, social and human perspective.

While most Hindus remain opposed to same-sex unions, this is changing. A Shaivite priest from India, asked to perform a wedding for two women in 2002, hesitated but agreed: "Though he realized that other priests in his lineage might disagree with him, he concluded, on the basis of Hindu scriptures, that, 'marriage is a union of spirits, and the spirit is not male or female'."

Srinivasa Raghavachariar, a priest of the major Vaishnava temple in Srirangam, had a similar response: "The sex may change but the soul remains the same in subsequent incarnations; hence, the power of love impels these souls to seek one another."

Swami Bodhananda Saraswati, the founder of the Sambodh Foundation, had this to say on same-sex marriage: "Different priests may or may not perform same-sex weddings -- it is their individual choice."

Ruth Vanita quotes Swami B.V. Tripurari, a Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasi: "My opinion regarding gay and lesbian devotees is that they should be honored in terms of their devotion and spiritual progress. They should cultivate spiritual life from either a celibate status, or in something analogous to a heterosexual monogamous situation. . . . I believe that Hinduism originally held a much more broadminded view on sexuality than many of its expressions do today."

Of course, not all opinions are so favorable. Swami Pragyanand of Avahan Akhara, for instance, said: "Gay marriages do not fit with our culture and heritage. All those people who are raising demand for approving such marriages in India are doing so under the influence of the West. . . . We do not even discuss it." Gay Hindus can "vote with their feet" by avoiding priests with negative attitudes, such as the one above, and seeking out those with more compassionate and inclusive viewpoints.

Love's Rite presents an array of material that will help this emerging debate. It is well written and thorough, but quite easy to read, exploring questions such as: how is marriage defined, and by whom? Is the spirit gendered? What happens to couples when they are forcibly separated or pressured into unwanted marriages?

Vanita examines the recent phenomenon of suicides of couples encountering violent opposition to their relationships. Not all of the relationships end tragically, though; some gain the support of families and local villages. Indian law does not require marriage licenses, and the majority of marriages conducted in India are not directly registered with the state. Family and community support in India is slowly increasing: "More intriguing than parents who oppose same-sex marriage are those who come around to supporting it. . . . The family members quoted in the newspaper reports represent themselves as wanting to make their daughters happy, and becoming convinced that they would be happy only if they married one another."

In 2001, a Hindu priest of the Sri Vaishnava lineage conducted a commitment ceremony for a Hindu lesbian couple in Sydney, Australia. He mentioned that in the Ramayana, a partnership ceremony between Lord Rama and Sugriva is described whereby Hanuman lights a fire and the two friends exchange vows, circle the fire together, etc. -- very similar to a Vedic marriage ceremony. The priest was of the opinion that such a ceremony was appropriate for gay couples. Other Hindu priests model their same-sex weddings after gandharva or vivaha types.

The book contains many nice summaries of tradition and philosophy, especially in regard to ancient textbooks and their many gender-bending narrations. The reader is treated to three renditions of the story of Maharaja Bhagiratha's miraculous conception by two females -- a Bengali edition of the Padma Purana and two separate versions of the Krittivasa Ramayana. There is an interesting examination of same-sex love between females as recorded in Rekhti, Indo-Muslim literature from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Love's Rite explores marriage arrangements of gay men and lesbians to opposite-sex partners. Vanita writes: "Large numbers of people live as apparently traditional heterosexuals, while secretly engaging in homosexual liaisons or leading lives of quiet desperation." Vanita fails to provide scriptural evidence supporting or contradicting this modern-day practice. For instance, the Hindu concept of svadharma, or living according to one's own nature and duty, seems to disagree with it, and verses forbidding the marriage of homosexual men to women can be found in texts such as Narada-smrti. The story of goddess Bahucara, who curses her husband for dishonestly marrying her (he refuses her love and goes to other men instead), also comes to mind. Nevertheless, Vanita recognizes the embedded tradition as highly questionable: "Among the gay Indians I know who have entered heterosexual marriage without telling their spouses, almost all have been plagued by fear, guilt, shame or regret."

This book will greatly assist anyone wishing to better understand the difficult topic of same-sex marriage. For most, the question will not be solved until one day, a beloved friend or relative faces this issue in a personal way, as exemplified in the book's final chapter: After a devotee's trip to India was cancelled when it was discovered he was gay, the late Bhakti Tirtha Swami wrote: "Recently, I have been making so much more effort in trying to open up my heart to be more available in understanding and serving all Vaishnavas. . . . After hearing of Damodara's suicide . . . I must say that I have seen the light. . . ."

Vanita quotes San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who, while presiding over that city's civil disobedience against California's discriminatory marriage laws in 2004, said: "Put a human face on it. Let's not talk about it in theory. Give me a story. Give me lives." In this light, I offer many thanks and pranams to Ruth Vanita for doing just that -- she addresses the important debate of same-sex marriage from a perspective not only scholarly, but deeply personal.

Editor's Note: This review is abridged from a longer original article, available in its entirety at Click Here