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.