In the state of Punjab, a topic like homosexuality has always been shrouded in ignorance. It has been viewed with suspicion, owing to the fact that most of the people regard the concept as being contrary to their religious ideals. But with the passage of time, the big pillars of religious obligations are crumbling down, and along with them, the patriarchal norms that prevented people from perceiving homosexuality in a different light.
In India, homophobic beliefs were not ingrained from the beginning but developed due to different reasons. The most prominent reason that allowed such beliefs to take hold was the coming of the British. European colonisers, in what was intended as an insult, often labelled colonised men as ‘effeminate‘. They also imposed harsh anti-sodomy laws. These homophobic practices promoted by the British led to homophobic feelings in the minds of Indian people. Patriarchal norms and obligations and the ignorance generated by them act as a hindrance when it comes to challenging the orthodox beliefs of the people of this state. This is because homoeroticism challenges the patriarchal order, in which ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ are constructed through hetero-erotic relations.
This was evident when I went to interview Shelja Bansal, an Indian housewife and resident of Bathinda, Punjab, last September. She asked her nine-year-old daughter to move out as she thought the topic was not something suitable for her age. She reasoned that she does not want her daughter to know about the notion of homosexuality as it may interest her and she might go on to probe the concept further. She acted homophobic in this instance.
Further, during her interview, she said that homoeroticism should not be a norm prevalent in Indian society because the social norm of an Indian family does not allow the concept to exist. Hence, she wasn’t in support of homosexuality and suggested that rather than homosexuals being allowed to promote themselves, they must be socially isolated. But when asked to place herself in the same situation where she wasn’t allowed to mate with a man, she fell short of any reasons substantiating her view of isolating homosexuals and agreed to homosexuals mating with one another. This shows how it’s just the veil of orthodox social norms which surrounds our rational and personalised thinking.
But the case was totally different when another lady, Seema Bansal, a resident of the same area, was interviewed. Her views represented the tremendous change that social views in Punjab have undergone. She supported the acceptance of homosexuality. Not only this, she also went on to say that it is not for society to decide who should love whom; it should be an individual’s choice. She made her 14-year-old son sit along with her while she was being interviewed. When probed about the reason for the same, she said that she wanted her son to be aware of the concept of homosexuality from his childhood itself so that the concept is as normal to him as heterosexuality. She alluded to mathematician Shakuntala Devi, who in her 1977 book, “The World of Homosexuals”, had interviewed Srinivasa Ragavachariar, the priest of Vaishnava temple at Srirangam. He said that same-sex lovers must have been cross-sex lovers in their former lives. The sex may change but the soul retains its attachments, hence the power of love impels these souls to seek one another.
This big change in the thinking of people pertaining to the notion of homosexuality can not only be felt in the adolescent population but also in the people belonging to the higher age groups. This was proved when a lady of 65 seconded the views of a Shaiva priest who had performed the marriage of two women. He stated that having studied Hindu scriptures, it can be said, “Marriage is a union of spirits, and the spirit is not male or female.”
The lady said that there is a need for people to be more accepting towards the idea of homosexuality. By going against it, we make life difficult not only for the person who shall be victimised but also for their family. One should accept it and if one is a member of the family of that particular person, one should offer them support and second their decision. Everyone has the full freedom to live one’s life the way one wants to. It is the union of two hearts that marriage or love intends to establish. Not just producing off-springs.
Society in Punjab today has become more accepting towards homosexuality but there are also certain exceptions. These were revealed by conducting interviews of people across different age groups and coming from different strata. As inferred from the interviews that were collected, the life of the people in the area was highly regulated by the understanding of the religion. Sikhism, the most widespread religion followed in Bathinda, had different interpretations for different people and it further shaped the way in which they looked at homosexuality.
After conducting an exhaustive categorisation of the interviewees, it was found that some interviewees felt that because the issue of homosexuality had never been addressed in the Guru Granth Sahib, a text considered sacred by Sikhs, hence the religion doesn’t permit homoeroticism. To quote one of the interviewees (translated), “Guru Nanak preached what he agreed with. What according to him was the exact notion of God, he preached it. He preached, what according to him, was the ideal society. He also made his followers live it through the creation of a utopian community in Kartarpur where he lived his last decade and a half. If he had agreed to homosexuality and homoeroticism being a part of the society he would have preached that too.”
Another group of interviewees, however, were of the view that maybe the Guru’s silence makes it a non-issue and that the very notion of allowing or disallowing homosexuality has no meaning. Since the sacred text does not make a mention of the notion, there is no reason to oppose it.
Another argument which can be made when speaking of homosexuality and gay marriages is that according to the text of the Anand Karaj, the wedding ceremony, it is very clearly stated that it is conducted for the union of two souls. Since souls are genderless, there is no prohibition against homosexual unions. To substantiate the point, the Guru Granth Sahib can be quoted, “I have obtained God of immortal form, as my spouse. He is imperishable and so dies or goes not.”
The emerging acceptability of homosexuality in the area can also be justified through the different types of notions that people of that area adhere to. A big chunk of Bathinda’s population follow and apply the notions of the “Art of Living“.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the international movement, the “Art of Living”, when asked about homosexuality, stated, “Every individual has both male and female in them. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes other, it is all fluid.” When asked about the high suicide rate amongst gay youth, tears came to his eyes and he responded, “Life is so precious. We need to elucidate everyone. Life is not much bigger. You are more than the body. You are the untouched pure consciousness.”