Author: Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Brandeis University, United States. Her work focuses on religion, language, and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams.
In India, one of the most important religious concepts of Hindu Vaishnava practice is represented by same-sex love. Imaginaries of Krishna, one of the most beloved deities, may be critical to the shaping of religion, gender and queer identity in India. The masculine and the feminine images attached to Krishna and the relationships that he has with associated figures may also explain how social movements around sexuality in India are not merely a matter of Western or Christian influence.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church in the rural Midwest. And like many evangelical churches in middle America, concerns about gender, and about masculinity especially, were a constant source of contention. American churches have long been afraid of a kind of cultural ‘feminisation.’ Not surprisingly, this is expressed in a variety of ways: from anxiety about the disproportionate ratio of women to men in the church attendance, to strictures governing male-only leadership and unease regarding the rhetoric of women’s rights, to exclusion of the LGBTQI community.
These worries have also given rise to a new kind of aesthetic in modern Protestantism: Muscular Christianity. The broad goal of this particular framework is to re-masculinise Jesus and the church in the eyes of the American people. Essentially, by portraying Jesus as a strapping “man’s man,” the thinking goes that men would be inspired to re-engage with church teachings and to leverage their newfound virility to proselytise and spread the gospel. Today, this has resulted in everything from the sacralisation of the sports industry to the production of art depicting Jesus as a boxer, a firefighter, or a tattooed biker (i.e., Stephen Sawyer, Nathan Greene, and ‘Art 4 God’).
But this idea of making God look like us, or to make the divine reflective of our particular views of nationality or gender and sexuality isn’t limited to Christianity. It’s been going on in Hinduism for just as long (for example, see ‘How Hindu Deities are Deified in Japan’).
My particular entry into the complexities of gender and religion in South Asia came in 2012, while I was conducting fieldwork on Hindu deity-care traditions in West Bengal, India. Because I was especially interested in the gendered divisions in ritual practices, I chanced a meeting with members of GALVA; the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association, who were, at the time, organising an online platform to protest India’s criminalisation of homosexuality under Penal Code 377. What I encountered there was truly unexpected; a re-imagining of Krishna as the icon and patron of LGBTQ rights in India.
Krishna is one of the most beloved deities of Hindu India. He appears as the mischievous divine lover (Radha-Krishna) in North India, while being a patronage of art, music, and poetry (Vitobha Krishna) in Maharashtra in central India. He is associated with Dvaita philosophy and monastic traditions (Udupi Krishna) in Karnataka and Guruvayor in Kerala in the South.
Images and stories of Krishna are ubiquitous throughout South Asia. As the eighth incarnation of the Vedic deity Vishnu in traditional Brahmanical Hinduism, or the Supreme Being himself in Vaishnavism1. Krishna also appears in multiple literary epics throughout Indian history2. In other devotional literary traditions, he plays a role in the Cankam poetic corpus of early Tamil texts and in the theatrical dramas of both the past, namely the Balacharita of the Gupta period (AD 320 to 550), and the present, such as the ras lilas of present-day Vrindavan.
In each of these various traditions, Krishna, as a personality and as a deity, is associated with romantic love, gender transgression, eroticism, and sex.
Sensuality in Hinduism
Sensuality in almost any context tends to be a highly controversial subject and the social rules and norms of Indian culture often place great constraints on love and desire, marriage and kinship, and sexual agency. While relationships between religion, gender, and sexuality are also regularly fraught with a variety of tensions in Vaishnava practice, Krishna is still most often portrayed in conjunction with his lover Radha. That is, either a figure in devotional poetry and narrative or as enshrined deities. For many devotees, however, these sacred spaces are not necessarily viewed as permission to transgress gendered norms.
Rather, these sacred spaces are more properly understood as places where erotic sensuality and fleshly licentiousness are translated into an admirable longing for the divine. Similar interpretations abound in regards to plays or performances, and other acts of worship that focus on Krishna’s divine eroticism as a central theme. But Krishna has many lovers and one of his most famous companions is the legendary archer Arjuna.
While Krishna and Arjuna’s love is commonly read as symbolising the unity of the human spirit and the divine Self, it is significant that same-sex love is a part of Hindu Vaishnava practice. Popular stories of Krishna and Arjuna are one of the most commonly invoked textual references to models of same-sex love in India by Hindu priests today.
Historical same-sex relations
For GALVA’s purposes, what was especially salient was that Krishna appears in a variety of gender and sex combinations that can be, and have been, read as alternatively bisexual, transgender, and intersex (hermaphrodite). One of his more well-known transformations, for example, is that of Mohini, a transient female form he once adopted in order to fulfil the obligations of a marriage and kinship contract. Given this model of divine gender fluidity and effective relationships, it follows that intimate same-sex friendships are a common occurrence in Hindu mythology even now.
What I found to be especially fascinating was that this particular image of divine love has also fueled a notable degree of activism among queer Vaishnavas today. In other words, that contemporary Vaishnava activists in India who leverage erotic models of divine love are doing so as a way of creating queer identities perceived as distinctly Indian. This is particularly important because the view of many Hindu fundamentalists (Hindutva) in India and conservative news organisations in the West is to paint homosexuality in South Asia as a colonial imposition indicative of a kind of Westernisation that is antithetical to “traditional” Indian culture.
Jack Halberstam has set out to describe “alternative masculinities,” to explain masculine identities that are not reducible to “social and cultural and indeed political expressions of maleness”. While Halberstam is writing specifically about “female masculinities”, I wish to offer a possible counter analysis of Krishna’s particular model of gender and sexuality among gay and lesbian-identified GALVA participants.
Because devotees’ personal online narratives often relate to Krishna’s stories in terms of his relationships with others (either mythic characters or modern devotees), and act as a way of strengthening their own identities and same-sex relationships, I began to wonder if Krishna’s mythology may be providing a possible field of new alternative masculinities.
Regardless of his multiple gender transitions and overall transformativeness, Krishna is still fundamentally coded as ‘masculine’ by most definitions of the term. By exemplifying multiple possible relationships in addition to multiple possible gendered selves that could inhabit those relationships, Krishna acts, in this case, as a semiotic bearer of gender stability, gender deviance, and acceptable possibility. This would not, then, constitute a space for the “breakdown of gender as a signifying system,” as Halberstam might hope for. Instead, I see it as the groundwork for religion and gender to potentially bend and mold one another into new and interesting shapes.
Krishna and Rama
Because Krishna’s previous incarnation was that of the hero-king Rama, a figure often held up as the quintessential example of normative and nationalistic Indian manhood and masculinity, Krishna’s subsequent male-female fluidity presents a powerful counterpoint to Rama’s hyper-masculine popularity. In Vaishnavism, both Rama and Krishna are often conceptualised as serial appearances of the same divine person3. Krishna’s examples of male femininity/feminine masculinity in opposition to Rama’s strictly dominant masculinity also appear in GALVA forum threads to help mitigate queer Vaishnavas continual “crisis of unbelonging” within a national discourse that regularly favours the latter over the former4.
This particular juxtaposition of Rama and Krishna among queer Vaishnavas is also specifically cited in cases where the Hindu political right makes use of Rama iconography to reject culturally non-normative gender identities more broadly. This echoes Anuradha Kapur’s excellent article on the changing popular imagery of Rama from a soft, smooth-bodied, gentle, and generally benign god to that of a deity in ugra, a rasa or mood characterised as “angry” or “punishing”, emphasising his bow and arrows along with a more muscular, masculine physique.
In short, as Rama becomes more and more the icon of “virile Hinduism” and the symbol of a new kind of hegemonic, patriarchal, masculinity, so Krishna is held up as the counterpoint: masculine but not man; gendered but fluid; and sexual but not bound by cultural or even biological norms. I am not, however, suggesting here that Krishna should be viewed in this case as truly feminine or female-identified in a normative sense, but only that Krishna embodies multiple different ways of being masculine.
It is this multiplicity of masculinity that the gay and lesbian interlocutors I met in West Bengal, as well as commenters on GALVA’s forums, are engaging in with their drive towards identities that are queer, Vaishnava, and Indian. By leveraging Krishna’s gendered and sexual flexibility, they are able to enact new identities that draw from both Indian history and from Hindu mythography in the same ways as their political and social opponents do.
This allows them to circumvent the narrative that homosexual and transgendered persons are distinctly corrupted by Western influences.
This reconceptualisation then appears in art and popular media, where Krishna and his friends are portrayed in ways that better fit this new understanding of his gendered role. For this reason, it is not surprising that contemporary depictions of Krishna have begun to trend more towards the effeminate, gentle and loving, and enigmatically lovely with a sweet or indulgent disposition. None of this denies his power, of course. And he is always at the ready to become whatever his devotees need him to be. (See also: ‘The Gods Have Been Working Out: Hindu Deities Get Muscular Makeover’).
Bryant, Edwin F. 2007. Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press. Oxford and New York.
Dave, Naisargi. 2012. Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics. Duke University Press: Durham and London
Gandhi, Leela. 2002. “Loving Well: Homosexuality and Utopian Thought in Post/Colonial India.” In Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Edited by Ruth Vanita. Routledge: New York and London.
Vanita, Ruth. ed. 2002. Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. Routledge: New York and London.
Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai. eds. 2000. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. Palgrave.
[Image by Jonoiko Bengali sourced at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radha_Krishna_(Kolkata)]
- Vaishnavism, like any religious tradition, is highly variable in its interpretations of the exact nature and form of God. In some instances, Krishna is viewed as a single deity encompassing all other forms of divinity (polymorphic monotheism) and in other instances he is a highly favoured deity within a pantheon of other recognised deities (henotheism). In this case in particular, I am drawing on fieldwork among specific traditions of Gaudiya Vaishnavism (a tradition of Vaishnavism native to West Bengal) that views Krishna as a single, supreme, deity who takes multiple forms [↩]
- including the Mahabharata; the Bhagavad-Gita, the best-known and most often translated Hindu text; and the Harivamsha, a lengthy appendix which is exclusively dedicated to Krishna’s life. Krishna also appears in the Purāṇas, the stories of Vishnu’s ten earthly incarnations, most notably in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the Vishnu Purāṇa, the Padma Purāṇa, and the Brahma Vaivarta Purāṇa [↩]
- Incarnations 7 and 8, respectively [↩]
- While my field notes contain extensive citations for these conversations, both in person and online, I am choosing to omit them here in the interests of protecting the privacy of a vulnerable and marginalised group [↩]