Queer love in Indian Archives
The Indian archive lists several examples of queer love via 3 notable patterns – (1) Through companionship, which frequently leads to a life of celibacy or the formation of deep connections. (2) The trope of rebirth, as justified in Somadatta’s Kathasaritsagara, where Somaprabha falls in love with the beautiful princess Kalingasena and attributes this love to her previous birth. (Vanita, 2008) (3) Gender Fluidity, a relatively typical circumstance since Hindu deities were multidimensional and fluid in their form, and one of their notable characteristics was ‘their multiplicity and variability.’ As a result, a deity can take any form – masculine, female, neuter, or even non-human.
This can be evidenced by Vishnu’s Mohini Avatar who in a dalliance with Shiva gives birth to Lord Ayappa. (Vanita, 2008), (Dasgupta, 2011). Popular sources like Vatsyana’s Kamasutra, not only described but even prescribed ‘queer’ sexual practices such as ‘auparishtaka’ or mouth congress. What is important to consider about this text is that sexual practices discussed do not necessarily head towards procreation but rather pleasure (Burton, 1994). Legends and stories honour the Bahuchara Mata, the goddess of the Hijras or transgenders. The Hindu philosophical concept of the presence of the “Tritiya Prakriti,” or third nature, is also found in ancient Indian literature (Chakraborty, 2018). In Kritivasa, we can observe that the sage Bhagiratha’s birth is credited to the sexual union between two females. Bhagiratha’s father died before he was conceived and his birth was only possible through divine sanction of the god Sankara (Vanita, 2008).
The late mediaeval period also has a vast amount of literature on same sex love, particularly between males (Dasgupta, 2011). For instance, Scott Kugle discusses the relationship between the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna and his slave Ayaz. His research celebrates Mahmud not as the conqueror but as the lover (Kugle, 2002). In the verses, translated by Kugle from Zulali Khwansari’s Mathnawi-yi Zulali, show Mahmud deeply in love with Ayaz. Ayaz was a slave purchased by Mahmud who played a significant role inside the court. In the ‘ghazals’ (poems), he is a symbol of the perfect love that people seek breaking the colonial stereotype of all queer love being pederastic (Kugle, 2002; Dasgupta, 2011).
Influence of colonial policies
The absence of colonial influence was one of the primary reasons why queer narratives were substantial in Ancient India. With the onset of the British Raj, the policies of sexual regulation in the colonies were driven by a Victorian ‘fanatical purity campaign’ (Bhaskaran, 2002). This includes the instatement of the infamous anti-sodomy law of 1860 that states that –
‘ Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to fine’
Prior to the enactment of this law, queer sexuality was accommodated if not approved. Through a series of education and legal changes, the British hegemony in India instigated a series of attacks on homoerotic writing. The British not only policed literary imagery’s hallways, but they also characterised homoerotic love as a “criminal behaviour.” Thomas Babington Macaulay, who developed the colonial education system that would educate South Asians “civilisation” based on British Victorian patterns, also helped shape legislation that labelled sodomy and other acts of love between males as “unnatural” and rendered them illegal offences. (Kugle, 2002; Dasgupta, 2011).
The spread of such unfettered homophobia permeated all sectors of modern Indian society, resulting in a mass impact of internalised homophobia. Despite the monumental verdict that repealed Section 377, queer culture goes almost unnoticed at all levels of Indian academia. A recent UNESCO report on sexual orientation and gender identity-based bullying in Tamil Nadu revealed some troubling statistics. Sixty percent of those polled were tormented in middle and high school, 43 percent were sexually harassed in elementary school, and just 18 percent reported these instances to school officials. 70% of those who were bullied experienced anxiety and sadness, as well as a loss of focus in their schoolwork. Sixty-three percent reported poor academic achievement, and an incredible 33 percent dropped out of school (Nivedita Srivastava, 2020). Although queer icons like Oscar Wilde, Selma Lagerlof, Alan Turing, and more are heavily featured in school curriculum, their queerness is very selectively ignored thus adding the facet of queer erasure alongside the lack of inclusion.
A way forward
Queer discourse in education can prove to have the following benefits.
1. Creating a safe space for queer identities
Opportunities for identification are especially crucial for LGBTQ students, whose erasure serves as a reminder of their marginalised position since it is via identification that we (partly) establish identities and become culturally legible to ourselves and others. Queer education can also contribute to empathy among the non-LGBTQ students to see the world through different eyes, enlisting their empathy contributing to safe spaces (Gray, 2021).
2. Moving Beyond Rainbow tokenism
The executive bodies are often seen following rainbow tokenism, which may simply be described as the practise of making merely a token or symbolic effort to safeguard the queer community’s interests. Private schools, for example, have had the choice of not adopting comparable programmes while being in line with pledges made to the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development to incorporate sexuality education within their curricula (Basu, 2021). Actually, renovating the education curriculum to fit queer narratives would finally push the envelope over rainbow tokenism and contribute to real progress.
3. Infusion of queer inclusiveness and gender expansiveness
Educating the general populace can actively spearhead conversations about the lgbtqia+ community and accelerate the pace of inclusion. It can normalize the communities that transcend the illusionary gender binary and other non-conforming sexualities. Furthermore, proper education has also been seen to foster healthy opinions about the community. For example, distancing from the image of queer individuals being harbingers of sexually transmitted diseases.
As India heads into the modern era as a global player it is important to note that it is high time, we focus on the well-being of the marginalized communities. Inducing queer discourse into mainstream education is only the first step towards correcting centuries of injustices and building a just and equal society.
Basu, P. (2021, August 12). Queering Indian Educational Spaces: We Need To Hold Schools And Policy Makers Accountable. Feminism in India.
Bhaskaran, S. (2002). The Politics of Pentration: Section 377 and the Indian Penal. In R. Vanita, Queering India: Same Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. London: Routledge.
Burton, R. (1994). The Kama Sutra. London: Penguin .
Chakraborty, A. (2018). Queer Literature in India: Visible Voices of the Sexual Subalterns. nternational Journal of Science and Research.
Dasgupta, R. K. (2011). Queer Sexuality: A Cultural Narrative of India’s Historical Archive. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 20.
Gray, J. (2021). Addressing LGBTQ erasure through literature in the ELT classroom. ELT Journal, 142–151.
Kugle, S. (2002). Sultan Mahmud’s Makeover: Colonial Homophobia and the Persian-Urdu Literary Tradition (Queering India) . London: Routledge.
Nivedita Srivastava, M. D. (2020, July 13). The Perils of Being Queer in Indian Schools. The Baston.
Vanita, R. a. (2008). Same-Sex Love in India : A Literary History. New Delhi: Penguin Publishers.
Acknowledgement: The contents of this article are heavily influenced and referenced by the readings of Rohit K Dasgupta’s Queer Sexuality: A Cultural Narrative of India’s Historical Archive.
Author Information: Pujith Pemmineti (He/Him) is a social and digital associate at the Commonwealth Society of India and an agent of change who actively contributes to instigating reform in the areas of inclusivity, creativity and sustainability. You can find him @pujithhhh on Instagram.
Suggested Citation: Pujith Pemmineti. 2022. ‘Trailing Queerness in the Indian Academia’, Think Pieces Series No. 28. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.com)