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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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