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Gays and colonial brainwashing: Learn from India’s open, exuberant past and respect those who differ from us
My son is gay and i no longer feel reluctant to admit it. He has been in a loyal, happy relationship with his partner for 20 years and my family and close friends have accepted it gracefully. I didn’t dare speak about it in public, however, for fear of bringing him any harm – that is until 12.35pm on Thursday when the Supreme Court (SC) decriminalised homosexuality. My wife and i suddenly feel as if a great burden has lifted. The chief justice’s wise words continue to ring in my ears, “I am what I am. So, take me as I am.”
For 157 years, Indians have lived under a tyrannical colonial law that was contrary to our country’s ancient spirit. Meanwhile, the English realised their mistake – that “sexual orientation is natural and people have no control over it” (as the court’s judgment said) – and they discarded the law in Britain long ago. Tragically, the colonial brainwashing went so deep that this un-Indian imposition remained on India’s statute books for 71 years after the colonisers left.
I was too young in August 1947 to understand what it meant to be politically free but i was certainly old enough to celebrate our economic independence in July 1991. And on September 6, 2018, i was not too old to applaud our ‘emotional independence’. India is a country in transition from tradition to modernity and it is just as important to speak and act freely about our emotional life as our economic and political lives. For too long we have repressed emotions and lived with patriarchal stereotypes. Secrecy is unhealthy for a wholesome society.
Although the judges quoted great Western writers in support of their historic judgment, they could also have cited classical Indian texts, which show remarkable tolerance for gender ambiguity. The epics are full of stories about men turning into women and vice versa, and they are told matter of factly without guilt or shame. There are plenty of examples in Vanita and Kidwai’s book, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History.
India’s is the only civilisation to have elevated kama or desire and pleasure to a goal of life. Along with the three other aims – artha, ‘material well-being’, dharma, ‘moral well-being’, and moksha, ‘spiritual well-being’, we are expected to cherish kama’s ‘emotional well-being’. We are constantly reminded about dharma, our duty to others but the thought escapes us that kama is a duty to ourselves. The extreme pleasure of sex is, perhaps, recompense for the loneliness of the human condition.
In the Christian tradition, in the beginning was light (in Genesis). In the Rig Veda, in the beginning was kama and the cosmos was created from the seed of desire in the mind of the One. Desire was the first act of consciousness and ancient Indians called it shakti, the source of the sexual drive and the life instinct. In contrast, desire was associated with ‘original sin’, guilt and shame in Christianity.
We blame the Victorians for the prudishness of today’s Indian middle class but lurking deep in the Indian psyche is also pessimism about kama. More than 2,500 years ago in the forests of north India, ancient yogis, renouncers and the Buddha were struck by the unsatisfactory nature of kama. The yogis sought ways to quiet this endless, futile striving. Patanjali taught us chitta vriti nirodha to still the fluctuations of the mind. The ascetic god, Shiva, burnt the god Kama when the latter disturbed his thousand-year meditation; hence, desire exists ananga, ‘bodiless’ in the mind. Bhagavad Gita’s answer is to learn to act without desire but it is difficult to achieve it when ‘man is desire’ according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Opposed to the pessimists were optimists, who thought of kama as a ‘life force’, a cosmic energy that animated the cell and held it in place. Since kama is the source of action, creation and procreation, their optimism culminated in the first millennium in Sanskrit love poetry and an erotic text of manners, the Kamasutra, which is not a sex manual but a charming, surprisingly modern guide to the art of living. In the clash between the optimists and pessimists emerged kama realists, who offered a grand compromise in the dharma texts, stating that sex is fine as long as it is within marriage.
Into this pre-modern world entered the British with a pessimistic overhang of what George Bernard Shaw contemptuously called ‘Victorian middle class morality’, and they enacted laws such as Section 377. Fortunately, a more optimistic age began in India in the 1990s when the minds of the urban young began to get decolonised, reaching a peak in 2009 with the landmark judgment of Justice AP Shah of the Delhi high court on same sex relationships.
There was a regression for a while after 2013 when the higher court reversed course, but after Thursday’s SC judgment, a new era of kama optimism has begun. It will take time for a court ruling to overcome prejudice in society, especially at a time when right-wing vigilantes appear to lose their rational faculties over ‘love jihad’, Valentine’s Day (which should be renamed ‘Kamadeva Divas’, as Shashi Tharoor has suggested) and ‘Romeo squads’ run amuck.
The SC judgment implies that to be civilised is to say: I prefer the opposite sex but I do not object to you preferring the same sex. In a free, civilised country we must learn to respect those who differ from us. The state should stay out of the bedroom and let us learn from our open, exuberant ancient traditions, where the secret to a rich, flourishing life lies in the harmonious equilibrium between the four goals of life.
Gurcharan Das, September 12th 2018