Future of Asia

The Supreme Court of India Has Decriminalized Homosexuality

For 157 years, Indians have lived under a tyrannical colonial law that was contrary to our country’s ancient spirit.

Credit: Sanyam Bahga - www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • At 12:35 pm on Thursday the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality. The chief justice’s wise words continue to ring in my ears, “I am what I am. So, take me as I am.”
  • For 157 years, Indians have lived under a tyrannical colonial law that was contrary to our country’s ancient spirit.
  • India is a country in transition from tradition to modernity and it is just as important to speak and act freely about our emotional life as our economic and political lives.
  • The state should stay out of the bedroom and let us learn from our open, exuberant ancient traditions. By trusting the average citizen, we shall be true to the spirit of our Constitution.

My son is gay and I’m no longer afraid to admit it. He has been in a loyal, happy relationship with his partner for twenty years and most of my family and close friends have accepted it gracefully.

I didn’t dare to speak about it in public for fear of bringing harm to him—that is until 12:35 pm on Thursday when the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality.

My wife and I suddenly feel a great burden has lifted. The chief justice’s wise words continue to ring in my ears, “I am what I am. So, take me as I am.”

A burden lifted

For 157 years, Indians have lived under a tyrannical colonial law that was contrary to our country’s ancient spirit. In the meanwhile, the British realized their mistake–that “sexual orientation is natural and people have no control over it” (in the words of Thursday’ court’s judgement) — and they discarded the law long ago at home.

Tragically, the colonial brainwashing was so deep that this un-Indian imposition remained on our statute books for 71 years after the colonizers had left.

I was too young in August 1947 to understand what it meant to be politically free but I was certainly old enough to celebrate our economic independence in July 1991.
And on September 6, 2018, I was not too old to acclaim our “emotional independence.”

India is a country in transition from tradition to modernity and it is just as important to speak and act freely about our emotional life as our economic and political lives.

For too long we have repressed emotions and lived with patriarchal stereotypes. Secrecy is unhealthy if we want to be a wholesome society.

India’s historic tolerance

Although the judges quoted great Western writers in support of their historic judgment, they could also have cited classical Indian texts, which show remarkable tolerance for gender ambiguity.

The epics are full of stories about men turning into women and vice versa, and they are told matter of factly without guilt or shame. India’s is the only civilization to have elevated kama or desire and pleasure to a goal of life.

Along with the three other aims–artha, “material well-being,” dharma, “moral well-being,” and moksha, “spiritual well-being,” we are expected to cherish kama’s “emotional well-being.”

We are constantly reminded about dharma, our duty to others but the thought escapes us that kama is a duty to ourselves. The extreme pleasure of sex is recompense for the loneliness of the human condition.

In the Christian tradition, in the beginning was light (in Genesis). In the Rig Veda, in the beginning was kama and the cosmos was created from the seed of desire in the mind of the One.

Desire was the first act of consciousness and ancient Indians called it shakti, the source of the sexual drive and the life instinct. In contrast, desire is associated with “original sin,” guilt and shame in Christianity.

Blaming Victorian prudishness

We blame the Victorians for the prudishness of today’s Indian middle class but lurking deep in the Indian psyche is also pessimism about kama.

More than 2,500 years ago in the forests of north India, ancient yogis, renouncers and the Buddha were struck by the unsatisfactory nature of kama. The yogis sought ways to quiet this endless, futile striving.

Patanjali taught us chitta vriti nirodha to still the fluctuations of the mind. The ascetic god, Shiva, burned the god Kama when the latter disturbed his thousand-year meditation; hence, desire exists ananga, “bodiless” in the mind.

The answer of the Bhagavad Gita is to learn to act without desire but how is this possible when “man is desire” according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad?

Opposed to the pessimists were optimists, who thought of kama as a “life force,” a cosmic energy that animated the cell and held it in place.

Since kama is the source of action, creation and procreation, their optimism culminated in in the first millennium in Sanskrit love poetry and an erotic text of manners, the Kamasutra, which is not a sex manual but a charming, surprisingly modern guide to the art of living, the temples at Khajuraho.

The kama realists

In the clash between the optimists and pessimists emerged kama realists, who offered a grand compromise in the dharma texts, stating that sex is okay as long as it is within marriage.

Into this pre-modern world entered the British with a pessimistic overhang of what George Bernard Shaw contemptuously called “Victorian middle class morality” and they enacted laws such as Section 377.

Fortunately, a more optimistic age began in India the 1990s when the minds of the urban young began to get decolonized, reaching a peak in 2009 with the landmark judgement of Justice JP Shah of the Delhi High Court on same sex relationships.

There was a regression for a while after 2013 when the Supreme Court reversed course, but after Thursday’s Supreme Court judgement, a new era of kama optimism has begun.

It will take time for a court ruling to overcome prejudice in society, especially at a time when right-wing vigilantes appear to lose their rational faculties over “love-jihad,” Valentine’s Day (should it be renamed Kamadeva divas?) and “Romeo Squads” run amuck.

Respecting those who are different

The Supreme Court’s judgment implies that to be civilized is to say: I prefer the opposite sex but I do not object to you preferring the same sex. In a free, civilized country we must learn to respect those who differ from us.

The state should stay out of the bedroom and let us learn from our open, exuberant ancient traditions, where the secret to a rich, flourishing life is to bring the four goals into harmonious equilibrium.

By trusting the average citizen, we shall be true to the spirit of our Constitution.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from The Times of India where the article was originally published.

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About Gurcharan Das

Gurcharan Das is an author and management consultant. He is the author of Kama: The Riddle of Desire (Penguin) available on Amazon.

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