Sexuality: The Hindu Experience

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Words | Navishkar Ram

Sexuality and sensuality are concepts which are not foreign to the South Asian imagination. Taken broadly, sexuality and the exploration of ‘sensualness’ within the South Asian historical and social experience is both broadly understood, yet socially often suppressed. In India and some parts of South Asia, the long-standing Hindu traditions and cultural practices have often acknowledged the existence of a third gender: that of the Hijras or ‘Kinnar,’ as they often prefer to be called.

‘Kinnar’ society is deeply embedded with ancient creation myths, and stories which are rooted in the Hindu mythological tradition. They can be found in almost every South Asian country, with small but vibrant communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Despite this, the ‘Kinnar’ experience discrimination, verbal and physical violence and overt and politically motivated hatred on a daily basis. This is despite their often integral role in smaller communities and their position as an officially recognised third gender. 

Throughout history, sexuality has played a significant role in South Asian communities and within the wider South Asian sphere. It certainly continues to, albeit unspoken, underneath the thick veneer of socially conservative mainstream Indian society. Hindu culture specifically is both conservative and extremely progressive. In its entirety, Hinduism provides a basis for both worldviews to exist in cohesion with each other. In terms of sexuality too, Hinduism is a remarkably progressive religious and cultural tradition, with texts like the ‘Kama Sutra’ forming an important component of the wider spiritual characteristic that defines Hindu belief. 

It can be said that the experience of the ‘Kinnar’ mirrors much of the attitude of modern Hindu families toward sexuality, in that the exploration of sexuality is evident though is largely treated as something that is ‘swept under the rug’ despite its salience. 

In my experience, sexuality was always something that appeared in our legends and was something that was also explicitly discussed in certain texts and stories. Though it was something the often socially conscious and conservative modern Indian families would not discuss. At least openly. 

Much like most families in western contexts, sexuality isn’t often the topic of discussion around the dinner table, and for good reason. But, does that mean it shouldn’t be? Why shouldn’t sexuality and specifically the role of gender and of identity formation for young gay, bisexual, lesbian or other queer people be openly discussed by South Asian families? It could come down to the fact that within the South Asian community, there lives another tradition. The tradition of silence. 

Young queer South Asian teens and adults often go their entire lives without discussing their sexual orientation with the people closest to them; their families. This can be detrimental to their psychological wellbeing in more ways than one cares to imagine. Suicide is a common consequence, as is self-harm. 

What does this all go to say of family roles in the South Asian context? That discussion and open dialogue are needed now to help sustain strong familial ties. That openness around the role of sexuality in Hindu myth is discussed with adults and within friendly circles. Communication born from a common interest and observance of Hindu religion and culture can bear fruits that mean families are bonded far stronger than ever before. Parents and their children have a role to play. Listen, discuss, learn and grow. Perhaps then the tides of uncertainty and of loss and deprivation can be turned, and greater communal resilience is achieved. At least as much as can be used to reveal the plight of communities in distant lands who suffer every day and continue to go unwanted. 

Change must first begin at home; family is the basis for this change, and one whose potency is beyond measure. 

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