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Sexuality & Indian Society


There are many sexual identities, orientations and perferences.  Different type of sexual orientations
Though sex and sexuality are an integral part of Indian history, scriptures, art and literature, we don’t usually hear about these in Indian context or Indian society.  This article explores WHY.  It also has my observations and insights in to sex and sexualty in Indian society.

Some of the questions people ask are -
Is this a new phenomena or a western lifestyle encroaching on our Indian ways? 
Why are some of these sexual orientations more acceptable than others?
Why are some of these sexual types reviled or rejected by society?
Are some of these 'sexual identities' nature or nurture?

ALL sexual preferences are an in-born part of a person's nature.  These ideas are not formulated by nurture.  No family will deliberately raise a child that does not conform to social norms either.  No parent would deliberately want to create such a life choice for their child. 

In an age before banks, life insurance, pensions, health plans or other ways to 'plan for old age', children were the only ‘plan for old age’.  For this reason, perpetuation of the family line was essential to secure support and succor in old age.  As a result children who were impotent, hermaphrodite, asexual, transsexual etc were seen as 'unproductive' and hence a 'burden' on the family.  Having your own children and ability to carry on the blood line was essential for survival.  Sadly as a result, families usually disowned un-reproductive children and preferred not to pass on property or business to such children.  Society termed them as 'useless' as they could not contribute to perpetuation of the human race.

Due to society's cruel view, such people usually lived a closeted life, keeping their feeling and emotions to themselves.  They often lived in perpetual fear of ‘being found out’ and ostracized by society.  Even now, in the 21st century, some countries have prescribed death penalty for homosexuals and whatever they label as 'sexual deviance'.  Often, if the pain and pressure gets too much, people often ran away and joined various ‘outcastes’ at the edge of society or killed themselves.  Circus, theater, harems, prostitution and ‘nomadic monastic life’ were often preferable to ‘living-like-this’ or committing suicide.  This was not a life anyone could or would chose for themselves.  But what else could they do in the face of insurmountable pressure from society?    

The reason WHY we 'see' more of these sexual divergences now rather than before is because in the past a lot of people did not have the chance to live the way they wanted.  Living in small communities, villages or towns, people had very little chance or choice to live as they wanted.  A lot of people lived in the closet and hid their feels believing them to be 'un-natural'.  They felt they were either possessed or cursed or 'evil'.  Only the rich could create a microcosm where they could live as they wanted without worrying about the consequences of social censor.  For the majority of them, if the person wasn't strong enough to face the society or live successfully in the closet, they either ran away or committed suicide.  
Since WII, there has been a population explosion across the globe.  With greater urbanization, people have escaped the 24x7 surveillance of community, family and friends and are able to live a relatively independent life.  Breaking away from extended family has brought financial freedom and living in nuclear families, people are able to live more or less as they want.  With greater education, female emancipation and breakdown of traditional marriage model, means people no longer see marriage as a fait accompli and people more or less live as they want.  This is especially true in the west / westernised countries.  As a result, more and more people with sexually divergent ideas have coalesced together and realized that they are not so rare or unique as they thought.  Eg - If in a village there might have been 1 such person, in a small town there might be 100 but in a city there will be 10,000 and megacities there will be a 1,000,000 of them.
This has brought about a dawn of new realisations and new organisations that wasn't possible before.  A lot of research has been carried out since the 60s and a lot of out-dated opinions have been ditched in favour of new, more enlightened approach to study and analysis of these sexually diverse ideas.  More and more people are able to voice their opinions and feelings, leading to more awareness.  With financial independence and legal acceptance, more people than ever before are able to live the life of their choice and not necessarily conform to 'social norms'.  
Sadly, public opinion and social acceptance hasn't always kept pace with research in all countries.  Too many people still live in the closet for sake of their families or for sake of 'acceptance' from their community.  Closet, by its very nature, is a claustrophobic, lonely place.  It leads to sadness, upsets and ulcers.  Occasionally, it sadly leads leads to suicides too.  

Hijada / Hijara used to identify impotence in male babies soon after birth when they visited them to sing and bless the baby.  They would advice the family to give up such a child to 'them' in order to avoid pain later in life. (read an article on Hijadas for more info)

Barbers / masseurs used to identify impotence in a groom before marriage.  They would advice the family not to go through with the marriage to save the girl a life of sexual frustration and disappointments. 

In those days, no heir would mean no one to look after you or your property in old age.  This was more acute for women.  Without a husband or a son, their wealth property were often taken over by others.  This is not just an Indian phenomena.  For example, In Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the family stands to lose their modest estate to a distant male cousin because it is a family of 4 daughters.  The mother tries to marry one of her daughters to that distant cousin so as not to become destitute in old age. 

Impotence that came later on in life (due to accident / age / stress etc) could not be predicted and hence it was seen as punishment of providence.

Homo / bi sexuality 
In ancient or even medieval India, homosexuality and bisexuality were not seen as a big deal as long as the man / woman performed their duties to the family and produced the necessary heirs.  Men could do whatever they wanted outside the home as long as they provided wealth and security for the family.

Women, especially if they had many co-wives, often had little attention from their husband.  Lesbians had enough freedom to enjoy whatever intimacy they wanted with their co-wives or maids as long as they bore children and kept their sexual activities behind closed doors.

Men who worked away from home for long periods of time such as poor laborers, soldiers, sailors etc had limited access to their wives.  If they could afford it, there were bazaar women (prostitutes) to satisfy their sexual needs.  If not, they would have sexual relations with each other.  Even if we don’t speak of it out of social sensibilities, this is well known and accepted as a norm in our society.  Even now, migrant workers lead dubious (bi)sexual lives, but we never discuss that in polite society.    


Transvestites / cross-dressers 
Actors, dancers and some artists are allowed to cross-dress as part of their job.  However, as a result, these professions were not seen as ‘reputable’ in ‘polite society’.  But once again, as long as they produced heirs to secure the family possessions (land or money), they are allowed to do whatever they wanted as part of their job.  If people did this outside their work, it was unacceptable as it was seen as a threat to traditional gender roles.  Only recently acting has become a popular career choice and only because actors can earn a lot of money. 

This being India, some cross dressers have gone so far as to create a ‘religious cult’ called Sakhi Sampradya (part of Nimbark sect).  In this sect, it is considered perfectly OK for men to behave as female companions of Shri Radha and even dress as women on a permanent basis.  


In our culture, asexuality has been elevated to the position of great self-control and termed as ‘brahmacharya’ – ie ‘to roam in the realm of the divine’ (brahaman).  I am sure for some yogis and spiritual aspirants, this is true and being ‘asexual’ requires great self control.  But for those who are asexual by orientation, they can’t see what the big deal is in the first place.

Transgender, Transsexual and
Trans people are often very frustrated and angry with the way they are perceived and treated by society.  From birth they are told by society that they are of one gender and from within they feel like the ‘other’.  This dichotomy is very painful and frustrating.  Most of the time, there is no one for them to talk to.  From the moment they ‘understand’ language, they are told what is male and what is female.  To try to negate or reverse this is seen as an uphill task.  In most Indian languages, everything – even inanimate objects have male, female or neuter gender.  To try to think otherwise is confusing as language itself won’t let you do it.  In English, it's even worse - there are only two genders.     

At a young age, transgender people usually have no one they can talk to.  Their views are often dismissed as childish fancies and their feelings are ignored.  Later in life when they are able to articulate themselves, they are threatened with social boycott and told to conform with norms for their ‘own good’.  If they persist, they are ostracized and often turned out of the family.  Often they have no choice but to join the community of hijadas, actors and travelling performers.  Living as outcasts of society, this was not an ‘easy solution’ or a ‘lifestyle of choice’ for anyone.


In Hinduism, we have a concept of Ardha-Nari-Ishvar – divine in the form of ‘half male, half female’.  This was a balance of male and female energies in a singular form.  Some saw it as a divine blessing, some as a curse.  It always depended on the person and their social / economic position.  In the west, ‘androgyny’ is now used in fashion, music and marketing to try to appeal to both genders.


In some cases, some men feel their genitals are a foreign appendage to their bodies and they can’t wait to get rid of it.  They are not transgender because they want to remain as men even after removing their penis.  Because it is socially unacceptable, and potentially life threatening, most men who feel like this do not go through with this.  As always, some do.  In some ancient cultures, castrati were seen as divinely inspired to sacrifice their genitals for higher spiritual practices.   

Till the last century, in Europe, boys with angelic voices were castrated to retain their high pitched voices.  It was a gamble that they will continue to sing like this and have a great career in the Church or the Opera.  With advance in modern science and medicine, chemical and physical castration is now a possibility.  It is still fraught with a lot of social and psychological issues.


Different terms for sexual orientations


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