A large number of studies that delve into the ancient Hindu scriptures to look for acceptability, or at least instances of lesbian behavior often come up with a priceless observation…things haven’t changed much for same-sex relationships for women over millennia.
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If one were to study Indology as a discipline, one would find that most interpretations of the ancient ideologies bear a clear stamp of western prudishness. The reason, most of these studies were academically done by European intelligentsia in the most prudish of their historical period. It is also very natural that topics like sexual relations and alternate sexuality is not discussed as commonly as lifestyle or philosophy contained in these texts. So, if one wants to know about the acceptance levels of homosexuality, particularly lesbianism in ancient India, one has no option but to go through starched collars and monocle reeking studies of great Western Indologists. Very few Indian scholars would care to elaborate on this, certainly not the moth eaten ones. It follows that there is very little material available on this extremely interesting subject in Indian academic circles, and more so, even lesser works are available that could allow one to come to a definitive conclusion.
The term `lesbian’ itself does not seem to exist in ancient India, since it is western in origin. So the only information can be from descriptions of same-sex relationships, whether man and man or woman and woman. Of these, man to man relationships find much more mention and even acceptance (if it is only to chart out what’s punishable and what’s not). That, understandably, does not take away from the fact that lesbianism existed and even flourished in ancient India. There are many evidences for this, and even punishments charted out (though in a lower voice), in the texts.
Any Indian or otherwise, who has had the pleasure of seeing the temple carvings in a remote village in Central India, Khajuraho, knows what the others have missed. That India is the birthplace of the Kama Sutra seems be a puny observation when compared with the sensuality of these bas reliefs, huge, imposing, beautifully carved temple sculptures of men, women, celebrating the erotic, sexuality in all its forms, alternate or otherwise. There seems to be no sense of holding back, or any kind of hesitation in this ocean of sensual love. If one were to consider these sculptures an indication of sexuality among ancient Indians, then one can wisely shake their head and say…Yes, they were right on TOP (no pun intended). The sheer magic of a sculpture that brings alive sexual intercourse in its most intimate form, yet fails to look obscene, is to be seen to be believed.
The sculptures in Khajuraho make no distinction between same-sex erotica and heterosexuality. This could make one believe, there was certainly more to same-sex love in ancient India than meets the eyes of the academicians.
However, we have to believe the interpretations of The Manu Smriti (the oldest text of Indian philosophy, in the Vedas), to be clear on the acceptance of lesbianism in the society, which seemed to be miniscule. It is no secret that the Vedic culture, in its most ancient form was gyno-centric – placing the female power on a pedestal, worshiping and consecrating the female form as in no other culture. But even then, accepting their sexuality was not done, most of the females in this form, were sacred, great as wives, sisters, pure as the drive snow… or as consorts, meant for procreation but little else. The Manu Smriti, the most powerful and authoritative scripture in the oldest and most expansive of the Vedas, doles out punishments to aberrant sexual behavior, punishable by the law. Interestingly, a man, in Manu’s opinion, indulging in homosexuality has to bear the punishment of bathing with all his clothes on, while a woman found guilty of the same act, has a much higher price to pay (not to mention social shame). If it is between two virgins, the `Seducer’ virgin has to pay a monetary fine as well as bride price for the girl she seduced, and receive a lashing. A mature woman caught seducing a virgin shall have her head shaved; fingers (two) cut off and is made to ride through the town on a donkey. (Surely the most interesting part in this judgment will be the process of determination as to who seduced whom!!!!) The laws of Manu gives many variations on punishment to aberrant sexual behavior, which can be safely classified under – non-procreative sexual behavior… as against sexual contact for begetting children.
By the beginning of the first millennium, the Indian society was more or less patriarchal. The acceptance of female sexuality also diminished steadily till the tenth century, when it all but disappeared, largely due to repeated and sustained Islamic invasions. But this period is also distinctive in that it saw the rise of the Kali pantheon; again the emergence of female power – but this was more of a Brahminical reaction to Islamic religious forces. This rising had nothing to do with respect for women or even the acceptance of their individuality, but more to do with countering the widespread conversions to Islam. India, at that time, was burdened with social evils and for the lower classes of the society, conversion meant some reprieve.
This new awareness completely refused to recognize the existence of female sexuality, let alone accepting lesbianism. The sole purpose of women as sexual beings was for procreation, and any kind of non-procreative sex (especially by women), was, in their minds, non existent. Female sexuality, in the collective social mind, became a property of the man she was married to, and hence, theoretically, lesbianism ceased to exist.
With the coming of the Europeans, more havoc was wrecked on this already warped outlook, because they brought with them the distinction between various classes of women. There were the good, wives and mothers in the Indian context, and there were those western women who drank wine and danced with men not their husbands – basically Eastern spirituality versus Western materialism. This led to further pushing of sexuality of the Indian woman to the dark corners of the social mind…and except for a few enlightened intellectuals who talked openly of widow remarriage and women’s education (which were considered sins during that period), no one thought of female sexuality as existing. The powerful Goddess pantheon was all but wiped out and Goddesses became nothing but consorts, properly wedded and bedded.
In contemporary India, there are many surprising facts that owe their surprise to the efforts of various agencies to brush them under the carpet and firmly keep them there. While gay rights and homosexuality is of course an issue for those whom it matters, lesbianism is still not mentioned openly. There are men activists but very few women activists. There are rights for a gay marriage, but scarcely any female couple has exchanged vows in India, openly that is. It would seem that centuries of brushing under the carpet has put the fact of lesbianism and female sexuality firmly in the dark recesses of Indian minds. Not even with the glorious revival of sexual rights in other fields, the right to dignity, the right to education, profession or financial freedom, can women ask for their most fundamental right – the right to be sexual beings…and if they prefer to love another woman…well, that much worse.