Excluding Gays and Lesbians from Vedic Culture

By Amara dasa



Since time immemorial and within all cultures of the world, gays, lesbians, transgendered and intersexed people have been described, acknowledged and even accommodated within society.  From the “mahu” and “aikane” of Polynesia to the “berdache” of Native American tribes; from the “sekhet” of prehistoric Egypt to the “eunouchos” of ancient Greece and Rome; from the “saris” of the Israelites to the “mu’omin” or trusted men of the Syrians; from the traditional third-gender roles of aboriginal tribes in Africa such as among the Mbo people of Zaire to the palace and harem guards of the Arabs and Chinese; from the cross-dressing entertainers of Manila and Bangkok to the “hijra” and “jogappa” dancers and temple priests of North and South India; right down to our own modern gay and transgendered communities in San Francisco, London and Sydney—persistent and unmistakable “third” or alternative gender subcultures have always naturally existed in one form or another.  This is true regardless of whether their members were positively accommodated or negatively suppressed within each of their respective societies.  By all accounts, these various third-gender subcultures have always displayed a prevalence of homosexual behavior and cross-dressing.  Their members were typically not involved in sexual procreation, and some were even known to commit themselves to castration (or, nowadays, transsexual operations and corrective surgery).   



Social Denial


To suggest that homosexual people were somehow excluded or left unnoticed by India’s ancient Vedic civilization and its Sanskrit texts is neither reasonable nor fair to that great culture.  India’s ancient literatures are comprised of voluminous texts and their priestly authors were well known for their detailed accounts of all sciences, both godly and mundane.  It is highly unlikely that they would omit or overlook any aspect of human nature.  Rather, we see in the Kama Shastra full accounts of both men and women who are “tritiya-prakriti” or “third-sexed” by nature and described as homosexual.  Their different categories, methods of employment, and various sexual practices are all fully described.  Ruth Vanita, an associate professor at the University of Montana and author of “Same-Sex Love in India” writes: “If late nineteenth-century European sexologists invented such terms as “Invert,” “the third sex,” and “homosexual,” the Kamasutra’s term “the third nature” refers to a man who desires other men.  Whether the man concerned is feminine looking or masculine looking, the Kamasutra emphasizes that this external appearance makes no difference to his desire for men.”  The “Kamasutra” of Vatsyayana so dominates the field in terms of Sanskrit texts representing the Kama Shastra that most scholars of ancient Indian culture restrict their studies exclusively to it.  In his important commentaries on this work, the famous pandita Yashodhara of the twelfth century adds: “The third sex [‘tritiya-prakriti’] is also termed neuter [‘napumsaka’].”  “Napumsaka” is a Sanskrit term equal to “kliba” and “sandha” in Vedic texts, but while early British and English scholars translate this word only as “eunuch” and “neuter” in their dictionaries, Yashodhara clearly also assigns it to the third-natured people portrayed in the Kamasutra as homosexuals.           


“What is this?” you might say.  “Homosexuality described in the Kama Shastra?”   Yes, most certainly, but then some people will always counter: “Then we will not accept this Kama Shastra.  We will accept its sister texts like the Dharma and Artha Shastras, or texts such as the Jyotir and Ayur Shastras, but we will not accept the Kama Shastra since it mentions that homosexuality existed in Vedic times.”  As soon as we reach this point it quickly becomes obvious that something more is at play here, something known as “social denial.”  Some people are so uncomfortable with homosexuality and gay and lesbian people that they refuse to believe that such persons were ever mentioned or studied by past civilizations.  They deny or hide any references made to them and disassociate themselves from their presence as far as possible.  This exclusion of gay and lesbian people often requires such persons to “demonize” homosexuals and keep them silent or hidden.  In severe cases they will even impose legal restrictions against them or apply violence in order to keep them out of sight.  In this particular case, gays and lesbians are being excluded from their place in Vedic culture and history, either deliberately or due to a general lack of knowledge about the third sex category.



Silence by Castration


The attempt to castrate, silence and otherwise remove homosexual people from human society is nothing new.  In Hitler’s Germany, for instance, homosexuals were systematically arrested, castrated and sent to death.  In many backward countries of the world today, gay and lesbian people are still regularly arrested, imprisoned, coerced into castration or put to death.  These are gross examples, but there are equally effective subtle ones in which gay people are removed or hidden away from the public arena.  One common example of this within modern-day Indian culture is the popular notion that homosexuals did not exist in Vedic times.  According to this theory, the Vedic third sex referred only to “eunuchs” (castrated men) or “neuters” (people born without sex organs).  Because homosexuality is so detestable in their view, they surmise that it couldn’t possibly have existed during a more enlightened Vedic India.    


This misconception is highly inaccurate and was perpetuated by early British authors and translators who were not only uneducated in terms of gender variance, but also unwilling to portray it fairly, if at all.  Today’s scholars are gradually abandoning this notion as society becomes more familiar and honest about gender-variant issues like homosexuality, transgender identity, and various intersexed conditions, the three major groups of people that comprise the third-sex class.


The present-day “hijra” or “eunuch” class of Northern India is unquestionably comprised largely of homosexual and transgendered people, with only a very few who are truly intersexed (born with ambiguous genitalia).  This has been documented through years of research and personal interviews conducted by professionals like Dr. Serena Nanda, the Professor of Anthropology for the City University of New York.  Despite this fact, most people in India still persist in believing that all hijras are born hermaphroditic or intersexed.  In her book “Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India” Nanda writes: “There is a widespread belief in India that hijras are born hermaphrodites and are taken away by the hijra community at birth or in childhood, but I found no evidence to support this belief among the hijras I met, all of whom joined the community voluntarily, most often in their teens.”  She also writes: “There is absolutely no question that at least some hijras—perhaps even the majority—are homosexual prostitutes.  Sinha’s (1967) study of hijras in Lucknow, in North India, acknowledges the hijra role as performers, but views the major motivation for recruitment to the hijra community as the satisfaction of the individual’s homosexual urges…” 


That even modern-day Indians are reluctant to view hijras or “eunuchs” as homosexual, preferring to see them only as hermaphrodites or “sexless,” indicates a type of popular social denial and ignorance that has undoubtedly been going on for quite some time.  If people are unwilling to acknowledge the presence of homosexuality even within the modern-day “eunuch” class, then it should come as no surprise that they would also refuse to acknowledge its existence within India’s historical past.  For the same reason, one will not find accurate or honest translations in Sanskrit dictionaries for any of the various words describing third-sex people such as “kliba,” “napumsaka,” “sandha,” etc.  Even today these words are defined simply as “eunuch” (a castrated man), despite the fact that no evidence supports any system of castration in pre-Islamic India.  In his article “Homosexuality and Hinduism,” Arvind Sharma expresses his doubt about this word definition as follows: “the limited practice of castration in India raises another point significant for the rest of the discussion, namely, whether rendering a word such as “kliba” as “eunuch” regularly is correct…”



Biological Indications


Since homosexuality has been recorded throughout the animal kingdom and within various world cultures, whether civilized or aboriginal, it is much more likely to be a persistent biological phenomenon (a third sex) rather than a modern-day anomaly or social deviation.  Recent scientific studies also indicate that the three main categories of the third sex (i.e. homosexuality, transgender identity, and intersexed conditions) are indeed most likely natural biological variations.  Scientists have unquestionably proven that most intersexed conditions are caused by variances in the balance of male and female hormones during early fetal development.  They also widely suspect that homosexual orientation and transgender identity are similarly caused during the early neurological development of the fetal brain.  This is according to the American Psychological Association’s “1998 Public Interest Report,” the point being that homosexual orientation, transgender identity, and anatomically intersexed conditions are most likely interrelated biological variations of nature (“prakriti”), as similarly portrayed in the Sanskrit text of the Kamasutra.  As a biological occurrence, the third sex would certainly have been just as prevalent during Vedic times as it was anywhere else.


It is also important to note that estimates place chronic intersexuality as occurring in approximately one in every 36,600 births; transgender identity in about one in every 6,000 births; and homosexuality in about one in every 20 births.  This is according to medical statistics taken from 1955-1998 by the University of California at Davis and Brown University.  The disparity between the different groups in terms of sheer numbers gives us an idea as to the natural composition of the third gender social class as a whole, with homosexuals being by far the most prominent, followed by transgenders and then the intersexed.



“A Rose By Any Other Name…”


Anyone familiar with modern GLBTI (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexed) communities and people will immediately recognize the correlation between them and the Vedic descriptions of the third sex.  This is because their third-gender qualities and behaviors are universal and, especially nowadays, quite well known.  Despite the differences in language and terminology, such people have basically remained the same by nature throughout time and place, just like the two primary genders themselves.  I highly doubt if it will be possible to conceal the gay and transgendered people of Vedic literature under such inaccurate words like “eunuch” or “neuter” for much longer; not without being ridiculed or considered old-fashioned and unrealistic.     


Sanskrit words like “kliba,” “napumsaka,” “sandha,” etc., were most likely used to refer to anyone of the third nature whether they were homosexual, transgendered, or intersexed.  I am not saying that “kliba” means only homosexual, but that rather it can indicate a person from any of these three categories, all of whom are sexually impotent and neutral in regard to women.  To insist that it only refers to the smallest group of intersexed people, or to castrated men in a society where castration was not practiced, is conveniently small-minded and misleading.  Most Sanskrit words have many different meanings and can be used in a variety of ways.  In general, it is the purpose of language to express and identify things as clearly as possible.  In the case of the Mahabharata, for instance, Brihannala is clearly described as a transgender male, that is to say, a man who dresses, lives and identifies as a woman.  Therefore it would be more accurate in this case to translate “kliba” as “transgender” rather than use the outdated word “eunuch.”  To my knowledge there are no descriptions of Arjuna being physically castrated or transformed into an intersexed person, but there are descriptions of him displaying typical transgendered behavior.  Either way, it is actually not important to me whether Brihannala was homosexual, transgendered or intersexed.  Rather, I am concerned when people feel the need to emphasize that Brihannala was definitely not homosexual, or that the word “kliba” cannot in any case include the homosexual people of the third sex.   


In the Bhagavad-gita verse (2.3), there is a hidden meaning in Lord Krishna’s usage of the word “klaibyam.”  Arjuna had recently been living as a “kliba” or transgender male, and therefore Krishna is warning him that if he presents himself as weak on the battlefield, his enemies might consider that he is perhaps still transgendered.   It is also interesting to note that while Sanskrit dictionaries define “kliba” as “Impotent, emasculated, a eunuch; unmanly, timorous, weak, idle, a coward,” these very same meanings are implied today in the popular modern usage of the word “gay” among heterosexual men and schoolboys.  From their perspective, being called “gay” or “homosexual” is synonymous to being labeled “effeminate,” “unmanly,” “weak,” etc., exactly like the Sanskrit word “kliba” of ancient times.  A coincidence? 


Another interesting point to note is that before the word “homosexual” was coined in the late nineteenth century, homosexuals were in fact called “eunuchs” in the English language.  Homosexual slaves and servants were frequently castrated during the medieval period, especially within the wealthy and influential Islamic countries of that time, and homosexual behavior was sometimes punished in Europe and even colonial America by castration.  In other words, the term “eunuch” is more or less just an old-fashioned word once used to describe homosexuals and others who were impotent with women for whatever reason.  I suggest that we move away from such archaic, outdated terms and employ the more appropriate and descriptive ones commonly used today.           


All in all, like Arvind Sharma and many other scholars, I find it difficult to accept that the word “kliba” can only refer to the so-called “eunuchs” of the past and not to the actual homosexual, transgendered and intersexed people that we know exist at present.  Srila Prabhupada himself was quite displeased and frustrated with the inaccurate and archaic term “eunuch,” and he expressed this dissatisfaction in his taped conversation with Hayagriva dasa when describing the “eunuch” dancers in Lord Caitanya’s pastimes.  I suggest that the “Monier-Williams” Sanskrit dictionaries update their books to specifically include homosexuals, transgenders and the intersexed within their definitions of the “napumsaka” or neutral third sex, but I assume they will continue to avoid this uncomfortable issue for some time to come. 



Everyone is Important


In conclusion, one must decide whether the Vedic third sex refers only to people without sex organs, or if it also includes those who are impotent in terms of lacking any desire for the opposite sex.  If one accepts only the former, then he must discard the evidence of the Kama Shastra and deny any placement for homosexual and transgendered people within Vedic society.  In reality, no natural category or class of people has been excluded from Vedic culture or its historical past.  In Krsna consciousness no one is to be neglected or excluded—there is room for all.  As Srila Prabhupada so nicely writes:  “…even the ‘candalas,’ or the untouchables, are also not to be neglected by the higher classes and should be given necessary protection.  Everyone is important, but some are directly responsible for the advancement of human society, and some are only indirectly responsible.  However, when Krsna consciousness is there, then everyone’s total benefit is taken care of.”


(Krsna Book, Vol. I, Chap. 24)