Growing up in Bangalore in the fag-end of the 20th century, I was largely unaware of what homosexuality was. Perhaps it was my naïveté. But it's also true that it wasn't a topic of discussion on television, in the newspapers, or among friends. Possibly the only time I heard the word "gay" in all of my schooling was in Wordsworth's poem "The Daffodils" (A poet could not but be gay/ In such a jocund company). Later on, Hindi movies - that seemingly innocuous spreader of ridiculous stereotypes - taught us that "gay" was something to laugh at. It is only in the last ten or twelve years that there has been serious discussions about LGBTs.
As a culture, India has been influenced by Victorian morality for about 150 years now. Far more than religious reasons, homosexuality has been seen as a taboo because of our cultural mindset. But let us take a look at what the major religions have to say about homosexuality.
One may question as to why it should even matter what is said in a religious text about an issue that we are facing today in our country - criminalising homosexuality. The answer simply is that religion is so closely intertwined with law and culture that we are better off understanding the roots of the issue than ignoring them.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was formulated 156 years ago. When we see the statement of Sec 377 - Unnatural offences - Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished… - we are struck by its similarity to what is said in the New Testament. Romans 1:26-27 says, "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly…" The basic premise being that homosexuality is unnatural. And therefore punishable; eg in Romans 1:29-32 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, homosexuality is counted among the grave offences, including murder, theft, and whore-mongering - and all these are said to be deserving of the death punishment.
In the Old Testament, the pronouncement is crystal clear. Leviticus 18:22 says that homosexuality is an abomination. Leviticus 20.13 pronounces the death punishment - "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."
In the Qur'an, however, it is not so straightforward. There are a few verses that suggest that indulging in homosexual acts amounts to crossing the line but there is no clarity on what sort of legal action must be taken. For instance, 7.80-81 refers to the declaration of Lut ("Lot" in the Biblical tradition) and quotes him saying, "For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds." 26.165-66 mentions that if a man ignores all those who has been created for him (ie women) and approaches another man, then it is a transgression of all limits. The premise being that homosexuality is unnatural and arisen purely due to lust.
Some scholars use verses from the Hadith texts to apply the punishment for adultery in the cases of homosexuality because technically speaking, any act of sexual intercourse outside marriage is adultery and there can never be a same-sex marriage according to the Islamic tradition.
In Hinduism, although there seems to be some variation with regard to the details, there seems to be little/no opposition to homosexuality. The Vedas don't have much to say about this topic (as also, incidentally, the foundational works of Buddhism). We know from some episodes of the Puranas and Itihasas that homosexual relationships were part of the stories, the most popular one being the union of Shiva and Vishnu (in the form of Mohini) to give rise to Aiyappa. Similarly, we find references to homosexuality (and bisexuality) in the Kama Sutra and in the esoteric practices of Tantra. We also find evidence for it in many temple sculptures - the ones at Khajuraho being well-known.
But this comes with a small caveat. PV Kane mentions in the History of Dharmaśāstra that for unnatural offences or offences against the order of nature, Arthashastra 4.13; Yajnavalkya Smrti 2.289, 293; Vishnu Dharmasutra 5.44; and Naradasmrti 15.76 provide fines of 12, 24, 100, 500 paṇas. Also, we find in Manusmṛti 8.370 certain punishments for an older woman who has sex (using force) with an unmarried girl. These instances could potentially be interpreted as anti-homosexuality but that seems rather opposed to the spirit of the smrti literature, and the Hindu tradition, which is not too concerned about this practice. It is worth noting here that there is little doubt of the Hindu tradition's regard and inclusivity with respect to transgenders and eunuchs.
While the hope is that the Supreme Court will decriminalise homosexuality, there should also be a thrust to revise Sections 375 and 376, making them gender-neutral. In India, if a man is raped by another man, the only section of the Indian Penal Code that can be immediately invoked is Sec 377, which will, technically, send both the rapist and the victim for a long spell in prison. And strangely enough, there is no law in India that can protect a woman who is raped by another woman, unless of course the woman is part of a gang, in which instance Sec 376D is used.
2. The Bible (King James Version)
3. Nooruddin, Allamah. The Holy Qur'an. Tr. Omar, Amatul Rahman and Omar, Abdul Mannan. Hockessin: Noor Foundation - International Inc., 2002
4. Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra (Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law). Vol. III Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1946. p 534