Two Gurus on Homosexuality: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar versus Baba Ramdev

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Sri Sri Ravishankar and Baba Ramdev


 

Over the years, many Hindu teachers and philosophers have, in different contexts, expressed their views on same-sex relations. Lists of these statements can be found on this Facebook page. Immediately following the 2013 Supreme Court judgment that practically recriminalized homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, two gurus publicly expressed opposing views on the topic.

Let us here examine the doctrinal roots (or lack thereof) of these two sets of views. First, Baba Ramdev has dubbed same-sex sexuality unnatural or aprakratik. He does not cite any Hindu scriptural source for this opinion. In fact, the idea that same-sex sexuality is unnatural derives from the Bible. St Paul, in the Book of Romans, refers to women having sex in a way that is “against nature” (King James Version, 1611). This does not necessarily refer to homosexual sex, but it is immediately followed by a reference to men leaving “the natural use of the woman” and having sex with each other. This idea was picked up by St Augustine (354-430 AD), an immensely influential father of the Church, who viewed all sex as sinful, and same-sex sex as the worst because it is “against nature.” He went so far as to declare that while customs differ in different nations, same-sex sex should be treated as wrong and should be punished even if it is customary in some non-Christian nations (Confessions, III:8). St Augustine’s view became the dominant view in Christianity, leading both to the view of all sex as sinful and the view that same-sex acts are unspeakably horrible and are punishable with death.

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Aprakratik is a direct translation of “unnatural.” However, it has little to do with the Hindu view of Prakriti (Nature). Prakriti is the principle of action and energy, of matter in motion. Purusha (spirit) and Prakriti (nature) are two dimensions of every living being. The many forms (human, animal, rock, river and so on) taken by Hindu Gods and Goddesses express the truth that everything that exists is a manifestation of the divine. This is why Sri Krishna in the Gita, describes himself as the essence of every being and action (from snakes to planets to humans) and even says that he is gambling among cheaters. This is why demons are not eternally damned like the Christian Satan; at the end of the Ramayana, Ravana flies into the mouth of Rama.

When everything that exists on earth is part of prakriti, how can anything be aprakratik? Sri Sri Ravi Shankar states that there are male and female elements in every being; sometimes one is dominant and sometimes the other. This statement is in accordance with Hindu understanding of gender. Gender is not fixed or static; it can change from one birth to the next. Also, even in one lifetime, we all have both Purusha and Prakriti in us. Just as every God is praised as male, female and neuter, so too all living beings have both male and female tendencies in them. At different ages, in different contexts or moods, and in different phases of life, the dominance and expression of these tendencies shifts. The Kamashastra (which is also a Shastra or scripture) identifies men who are attracted to men as having a tritiya prakriti or third nature.

Baba Ramdev, therefore, derives his understanding of “natural” and “unnatural” not from the HIndu view of nature (prakriti) but from the Biblical idea of homosexuality as “against nature”, which has passed into the English language and been translated into Indian languages.

In Hindu thought, an action can be natural (prakritik) but adharmik (against dharma). Baba Ramdev claims without any evidence that homosexuality is “breaking the family system in India.” Clearly, numerous parents and grandparents of gay people think otherwise. They filed a petition in the Supreme Court, arguing that the persecution of their children via Section 377 damages their families. Many gay people are the primary support for their aging parents; many also have their own families with same-sex partners and are raising children.

In a question and answer session, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar answered a question about the loneliness often felt by people who experience same-sex attractions, saying, “Love transcends gender. Love is beyond gender. And attraction is only a reflection of love, it is a shadow of love, and love is divine.” He went on to advise allowing emotions to come and go, neither encouraging nor repressing them, while holding on steadfastly to the spirit. The Spirit is all joy, all love, and one can overcome loneliness only through union with it. Otherwise, one can feel lonely even while having a partner or a relationship.

Here, Sri Sri is placing all desire on the same plane, suggesting that anyone can experience any type of desire. Instead of making an issue of desire, one should realise the transient nature of all desire. Note how he points out that loneliness is not the consequence of same-sex desire in particular. Everyone experiences it. Swami Bodhananda Saraswati had said the same to me in 2004, pointing out that the same problems arise in any relationship, cross-sex or same-sex.

Dharma in Hindu thought is social as well as individual. Individual dharma is constituted of one’s individual tendencies (which would include same-sex or cross-sex attraction) derived from attachments in former births. All these tendencies have to be worked through. Trying to repress or “cure” them, as Baba Ramdev claims to be able to do, runs contrary to the philosophical understanding of dharma. Social dharma, on the other hand, changes all the time. This change is often the result of conflict with individual dharma. For example, some may understand social dharma to require marriage within one’s community. However, if two individuals fall in love across community lines, this love can be understood as an expression of their attachment to each other from a previous lifetime. Social dharma then requires accommodating this individual dharma.

Finally, on the question of criminalisation. Baba Ramdev says gay people are mentally and physically sick. He also says gay people should be punished as criminals (with 10 years to life imprisonment, under Secton 377). Which Hindu scripture requires punishing sick people as criminals? Baba Ramdev derives these contradictory views of his not from any scripture but from Western ideas that he has muddled together. In medieval times, same-sex acts were considered a sin to be atoned for through religious penance; they were not, however, a crime to be punished by the State. In the sixteenth century, Henry VIII, for the first time, made same-sex acts punishable crimes. Section 377, promulgated in 1861 by the British, is a direct descendant of Henry VIII’s law. However, from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, European and American doctors and psychologists decided that homosexuality is a disease. This new view paved the way for decriminalizing it, because sickness is not a crime. Now, Western doctors and psychologists agree that homosexuality is a natural tendency and is neither a crime nor a sickness. This has led to the affirming of full and equal civil rights to LGBT people in most democracies worth the name.

Baba Ramdev’s proposal to treat homosexuals both as sick people and as criminals has nothing to do with any Hindu doctrine or text; he gets it from outdated Western ideas. As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tweeted on 11.12.13, immediately after the Supreme Court judgment was delivered: “Nobody should face discrimination because of their sexual preferences. To be branded a criminal for this is absurd.”

Absurdity, indeed, is what we are faced with, but as any reader of Kafka knows, absurdity can be an immensely powerful force.

(This is a translation of the Hindi article published in Gaylaxy Hindi)

Ruth Vanita

Ruth Vanita is Professor in the Department of Liberal Studies at the University of Montana (USA), former Reader at Delhi University and founding co-editor of India's first nationwide feminist magazine, 'Manushi' (1978-1990). She is the author of several books, including 'Love's Rite: Same-sex Marriage in India and the West'; 'Gandhi's Tiger and Sita's Smile: Essays on sexuality, gender and culture'; 'Same-sex love and the English literary Imagination'; 'A Play of Light: Selected Poems' and 'Gender, Sex andthe City - Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870'. She has published widely on Shakespeare, and translated many works of fiction, including most recently 'The Co-wife and other Stories' by Premchand.