What does Buddhism say about homosexuality

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Buddhism emerged in the 6th century BC in North India at a time of extensive social upheaval. Siddharta Gautama, a prince of the Shakyas, who propagated Buddhism as a new religious philosophy in contrast to the predominance of the Brahmins, is considered to be the founder. In South Asia, Hinduism assimilated Buddhism over the following centuries, and Buddha was proclaimed an incarnation of Vishnu. Buddhism developed into a predominant religion, especially in Tibet, Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast and East Asia.

The relationship between the two religions, including questions of sexuality, turned out to be interesting and contradictory. In times of general homophobia in today's India - especially under the influence of religious fundamentalism - it is often claimed that homosexuality is alien to the great religions that have emerged in India and that Islam or the West brought "this disease" to the subcontinent . Homosexuality is even placed close to criminal activity, which the state (Article 377 of the Indian Criminal Code) must ensure that it is eradicated. However, it must be countered that his religions have never particularly distinguished themselves in this regard.

As Hindu fundamentalists have to admit, for example, Hinduism is an extremely complex structure of religious practices and beliefs. It encompasses different social developments and attitudes. In its origins, various same-sex erotic actions can be proven, even if they were mostly an expression of hierarchical power relations.

Vanita (2001) excellently worked out an important tendency in Hinduism, according to which the different-sex, monogamous relationship is not the norm of human life, but that the scriptures and oral legends mention a variety of forms in this regard. The numerous stories from the Hindu world of gods are rich in same-sex erotic adventures, sex reassignments or ideas of a third gender.

The most important clues of this tendency in Hinduism are the androgynous and often ambiguous forms and behaviors of the two main gods Shiva and Vishnu and the representation of a love-like relationship between Krishna and Arjuna. It is known, for example, that Vishnu took a feminine form as Mohini in order to be able to enter into a connection with Shiva. The conception of Kartikeya is considered to be the most erotic act of the same sex. Their conception was considered necessary because Shiva and his wife Parvati had remained childless. Shiva was only able to procreate a descendant through the connection with the male fire god Agni, when he took up the seed of Shiva. It is well known that Krishna and Arjuna were also very attached to each other. In a legend, Arjuna turned into a woman in order to share the "secret of secrets" with Krishna. Despite this necessary transformation, a quasi homosexual experience remained in the legend as Arjuna transformed back and Krishna told him not to "talk to anyone about this secret."

In other places the so-called third gender has been held to be necessary for the balance of the world. Hijras, as transsexuals are called in today's India, were considered to be an important mediator between the power of the gods and humans. Although they stood outside the social order, they had powers with which they could influence the course of this order.

Sharma's (1993) statement that there is little evidence in the scriptures that homosexuality was widespread can also be interpreted to mean that it was not addressed in ancient and medieval India and was hardly seen as a "problem". Punishments were also imposed, as in Arthashastra, for inappropriate sexual intercourse with animals, virgins, women in the water and menstruating women. Sometimes the penalties were lower for same-sex intercourse (Vanita 2001). Dalits (so-called untouchables), for example, were "automatically" exempted from these punishments, as they might have lost their caste membership precisely through inappropriate sexual behavior, such as anal intercourse, in a previous life.

The idea of ​​a self-determined autonomous homosexual life that applies equally to all social classes and castes, on the other hand, is an invention of western modernity. So far it has not been able to develop in Hinduism. Instead, young Hindus must above all fulfill their family responsibilities in order to ensure the continued existence of their families. Homosexuality is thus also understood as a danger that weakens this traditional social and political order. Even if many homosexuals remain trapped in this order, there is in religion, as described above, the possibility of escaping these obligations in individual cases, and thus the potential for a progressive interpretation. The religious festivals on which many of the above-mentioned legends are based also serve to act out sexual practices in this context.

The attitude towards homosexuality in Buddhism is similarly contradictory. This did not promote her, but he shows a certain indifference to her. This circumstance was mainly due to the fact that it had emerged as a religious order. Same-sex acts were seen as a potential threat and were banned. Yet celibacy made sex as such questionable, and not same-sex alone. In this fundamentally asexual worldview, homosexuality was therefore not subject to any particular scrutiny. This fact led to the fact that Buddhism is nowadays attractive to many western homosexuals due to its neutral stance. Buddhism is also interesting for them through the philosophy of suffering of the founder of the religion, Buddha, and they see an identification figure in the Buddha's follower, Anand, who lost himself in devotion to his master Buddha.

Whatever the case, the relationship between religion and homosexuality in India is extremely exciting and contradicting itself. The oppression of sexual minorities cannot be justified by religious arguments. Simple answers, such as the Indian state gave when four AIDS activists were arrested in the summer of 2001, could not be accepted by the religions in India. Rather, it became clear that the real questions raised by the Hindu nationalist government did not concern specific sexual practices, but were directed primarily against the ideas of equality and individuality.

Source: The text is a revised version of the first publication by Amnesty International, MeRSI: World Religions and Same-Sex Love, Berlin: 2002

This post belongs to the focus: Queer South Asia.

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  • Leyland, Winston (Eds.), 1998 and 2000: Queer Dharma. Voices of Gay Buddhists. 2 volumes: Gay Sunshine Press. San Francisco.
  • Nanda, Serena, 1997: "Neither man nor woman: The Hijras in India", in: Völger, Gisela (Hrsg.): Sie und Er: Woman power and male rule in a cultural comparison. Volume 2: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum. Cologne.
  • Sharma, Arvind, 1993: "Hinduism and World Religion", in: Swindler, A. (Ed.): Homosexuality and World Religions: Trinity Press. Valley Forge.
  • Vanita, Ruth and Kidwai, Saleem (Eds.), 2001: Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History: Palgrave. New York.