In a historic judgment delivered on June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of making the United States of America the 23rd country that allowed same-sex marriages. In India, a few years back, the Delhi High Court had struck down the 150-year-old Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thus legalising consensual homosexual activities between adults. However, to the dismay of many, the Indian Supreme Court, which has had a distinguished record in recent times of ensuring fundamental rights and liberty are not taken away by the state, overturned the Delhi HC decision. While the matter is expected to come up for hearing once again before the Supreme Court, the issue of "gay rights" seems to have divided the nation.
Those opposing the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships among consenting adults include a number of "conservative Indians" led by various religious heads who call this sexual choice "unnatural". One of the most vocal opponents of the gay movement is Baba Ramdev, a friend and supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has an opinion on every issue, from calling actresses promiscuous, to saying homosexuality is a disease that can be cured. Unfortunately for those with different sexual choices, this issue seems to unite priests, babas and maulanas from different faiths, who never seem to agree on anything except this one topic. And one often finds them in television studios, giving sound bites on how homosexuality is against the "great Indian culture".
Indian mythology has several stories of alternate sexual choices or even of men turning into women or vice-versa. Shiva bathes in the Yamuna and becomes a gopi so that he can participate in raas-leela with Krishna. Another tale is that of Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Ulupi, who had to be sacrificed to ensure the Pandavas' victory in the war. However, Aravan did not want to die unmarried. As no woman wanted to marry a man who would die the next day, Krishna took his female form, Mohini, became Aravan's wife, spent the night with him and then mourned for him next morning - as his widow - when he was killed.
Mohini, the female avatar of Lord Vishnu, is worshipped throughout Indian culture. Amongst her other stories in the Puranas is how Shiva and his wife Parvati visit Vishnu's home, where Shiva asks Vishnu to take on the Mohini form so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu smiles and takes the form of the gorgeous Mohini. Overcome by lust, Shiva chases Mohini as Parvati hangs her head in envy. From their coupling is born the god Maha-Sastha. Then there is another story of Vishnu who takes the form of Mohini to save Shiva's life from a demon that was chasing him. Mohini enchanted the demon Bhasmasura and made him touch his own head, thus reducing him to ashes, saving Shiva's life. In Shiva Purana, the birth of Hanuman is attributed to the union between Shiva and Mohini. The Mahabharata also has, in one of its stories, the episode when the great archer Arjuna goes to visit his father, god Indra, in Amravati while in exile. There he spurns the advances of Urvashi who, at being rejected, curses him to become a eunuch. His father - the king of Devas - modifies the curse, so Arjuna loses his manhood just for a year, and advises him to live the curse in the 13th year of exile when the Pandavas are expected to be in hiding.
Another chapter from the Mahabharata is the story of Budh (the planet Mercury), which is neither male nor female. Brihaspati (the planet Jupiter) discovers that his wife Tara (the goddess of stars) is pregnant with the child of her lover, Chandra (the moon god). He therefore curses the unborn child. The neuter Budh (Mercury) later marries Ila, a man who becomes a woman when he accidentally trespasses into a forest. In the Ramayana, two widows who want to give birth drink a magic potion and make love to each other. In Valmiki Ramayana, in order to taste Ravana, Rakshasa women kiss other women on their lips.
There is also the story of Narada, who desires to understand Lord Vishnu's Maya. The lord asks him to bathe in a lotus pond. As soon as he enters the pond, he transforms into a female form and forgets his earlier identity. He then gets married to a king, lives the life of a queen and even has children. The gender and sexual divide was often diminished by Indian writers. So today when Babas or other religious heads preach to us or PM Modi's government votes (against the benefits for same-sex couples working at the UN) with Russia, Pakistan and Iran to curtail the rights of those who have an alternate sexual orientation under the garb of "Indian culture", I have my doubts whether they have actually studied what Indian spirituality is all about.
In this great land, it is the soul that is important. The body is just temporary. As lord Krishna teaches us, the true meaning of enlightenment is to go beyond all things worldly, and to achieve this we as people, must start accepting the infinite possibilities that the universe throws up. So let us accept it, celebrate it, and empathise with those whose choices may differ from ours. Because we can only achieve the higher level when we destroy all the lines that we, ourselves, have created.