Vaishnavism and homosexuality

In the second of our series on faith and homosexuality, we take a look at the all-inclusiveness and

Approximately two-thirds of all Hindus are Vaishnavas and, like other world religions, Vaishnava sects have recently been called upon to address traditional positions on homosexuality and gender differences. For readers who are unfamiliar with Vaishnavism, the faith is essentially monotheistic; adherents worship a supreme, transcendent God with unlimited names such as Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Narayana, etc. They follow scriptural texts known as the Vedas and are typically vegetarian. Recent expressions of the faith, such as Chaitanya’s sixteenth-century Hare Krishna movement, de-emphasize the Hindu caste system to preach all-inclusiveness and special mercy to the fallen souls.

The historical approach to homosexuality within Vaishnava Hinduism is quite opposite from that of the Abrahamic faiths. Whereas the latter punished homosexuality harshly in ancient times but has since softened its stance, Hinduism has no history of persecuting homosexuals until after the arrival of Islamic and British (Christian) influence. Ancient Vedic texts mildly discourage homosexual behavior for brahmanas or priests but do not criminalize it for the common citizen. On the contrary, Vedic texts describe homosexual citizens serving as dancers, artisans, barbers, house attendants and prostitutes well within the purview of ancient Vedic society.

This comes as a surprise to many Hindus who are at present accustomed to condemning homosexual people and excluding them from both family and society. It has also become a custom among Hindus to force gay and lesbian offsprings into opposite-sex marriages, even though this is expressly forbidden in religious codebooks such as the Narada-smriti. Vedic medical texts like the Sushruta Samhita declare homosexuality to be inborn (discussing it only in chapters on embryological development) and texts concerned with human sexuality (the Kama Shastra) refer to homosexuals as a “third sex” (tritiya-prakriti) with both masculine and feminine natures. Thus, while Abrahamic faiths have been forced to abandon ancient codes and beliefs in order to accommodate gays in modernity, Vaishnavas need only abandon imported misconceptions and refer back to their ancient past.

The modern debate over homosexuality in Vaishnavism has only recently begun and gay-friendly organizations such as the Gay And Lesbian Vaishnava Association (GALVA-108) lag quite a bit behind their Judeo-Christian counterparts. While some Vaishnava sects and leaders do in fact fully accept gay peers and disciples (particularly in the West), too many still remain ignorant and homophobic. This has subsequently kept many gay Vaishnavas in the closet, afraid to come out to their family or co-worshipers and with some instances of gay suicide as well as gay-related “shame killings” reported.

My own personal experience as a gay Vaishnava, however, has been much less tragic and thus I am hopeful Vaishnavism will once again embrace gender-variant people. After converting and moving into a Hare Krishna ashram at the age of seventeen, I came out to my peers only a few months later and with no ensuing difficulties. Ultimately, essential Vaishnava teachings of all-inclusiveness, compassion and bodily transcendence should compel practitioners to overlook all bodily differences and embrace the soul of every being. This can be accelerated with a little education and sincerity on all sides.

Amara Das Wilhelm is a devotee of Lord Krishna, author of “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex,” and founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.