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The Deep Mythic Roots of Same-Sex Love in India

Monday, December 31, 2018 - 12:00

This is a dense and wide-ranging study of lesbian-relevant themes in Indian history, literature, religion, and politics, covering the entire range of history from the earliest written records up through the present day. I'll confess that I'm not familiar enough with the literary and religious traditions to be able to take in a lot of the nuances, but Thadani does a great job of providing both an overview and deep dives within an amazingly compact volume. This is the sort of book that can really only be written from within a culture, as she tackles the ways in which modern Indian nationalism adapted and built on the colonial legacy of misogyny and homophobia for its own purposes. Although the chapters on the experiences of lesbians in modern India come across as fairly depressing, keep in mind that this book was written over 20 years ago. It is foundational, but far from the last or most recent word on the topic.

This post brings 2018 to a close, and it makes a good time to reflect on the state of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. I'll be including this year's content in my "What Hath She Wrote in 2018" blog that goes up tomorrow, but this is more of a "where have I been and where am I going?" thing.

I started the LHMP in the middle of 2014, and a simple count of the publications covered dodges the fact that sometimes a book has been covered in multiple posts (I think Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men took the longest with over two dozen separate posts) while other times I've covered a book of similar length in a single blog. But here are the raw statistics:

  • 2014 (for the half-year) - 75 publications
  • 2015 - 36 publications
  • 2016 - 26 publications & 5 podcasts (toward the end of the year and the beginning of 2017, I wasn't adding new publications due to work on the website)
  • 2017 - 34 publications & 29 podcasts
  • 2018 - 57 publications & 52 podcasts

I've been trying to reconstruct how my "to do" list of publications has grown over that time, but I'm not sure the information can be retrieved. I think that back in 2014 when I first populated my database from the books already in my library it had about 50 books in it. In early 2016, I drew up a "to do" list from the database of material I knew about but hadn't yet covered, which had 177 items listed (some of which were collections that were covered as multiple publications). So if you combine that with the 111 items I'd covered in the blog by then, we get a total of 288. Or, roughly, I'd added 2 titles for every one I blogged. The database currently has a total of 605 titles, so in the last two years I've added a little over 300 and covered 91, for an addition rate of 3 titles for every one I blog. I think you can see where this is going.

Did I know what the potential scope of this project would be when I started? Back in the 1990s when it was only a twinkle in my eye, not only did I not envision how many publications would be available, but most of them literally didn't exist back then. I've recently added a field for "year published" to the database so I could look at the distribution -- although keep in mind that my database contents are far from random or even necessarily representative, given that I tend to add new titles mostly from the bibliographies of existing ones. It isn't necessarily that fewer relevant thing were published in the last decade, but that I may not know about them because they were published after the material I've been blogging recently. It does seem to be true, however that the '90s were a glorious time for works on the history of gender and sexuality!

  • Published prior to 1980: 40
  • Published 1980-1989: 88
  • Published 1990-1999: 252
  • Published 2000-2009: 144
  • Published 2010-present: 81

One of the things I hope to add to the Project in the near future is the beginnings of a synthesis of what I've learned about trends, motifs, and patterns in the expression of lesbian-relevant history. (I've started using "lesbian-relevant" rather than "lesbian-like" in talking about the project because in many ways it better fits the subjective focus on "useable" history for the purposes of creating historical fiction.) One of the more daunting projects is to tackle the complex intertwining of gender and sexuality around the motif of transmasculine expression, especially with an eye to helping authors create historic lesbian characters that employ gender disguise or butch/femme dynamics in ways that don't erase or disparage transgender framings of the same themes. Another daunting project is to create something of a timeline (at least for a European context) of expressions and receptions of female same-sex relations that gives an idea of what types of stories fit well into different historic contexts.

I'm also interested in hearing from readers about what would make the Project more useful to you. Both the tag system and the search function are intended to make it easier to find relevant content, but I'll confess that I'd love to be able to include a multi-factor search (e.g., "16th century AND Germany") which isn't currently possible.

On a separate path, I'm getting closer to massaging my database of lesbian-relevant historical fiction into usability, and by the end of 2019 I hope to be able to present it for others to use in identifying works falling in a particular historic context or with particular themes. (I currently have 430 titles in it and I'm sure that there are large gaps due to the random nature of my current sourcing system, i.e., mostly Goodreads lists and combing through the catalogs of the major lesfic publishers.)

As I'll be explaining in next week's podcast, I'm loosening up the structure of the podcast slightly to include more variety in the mid-month shows, so ideas for podcast content are also welcome and appreciated (including people interested in appearing on the podcast to talk about books or themes).

And that's what I'm thinking about on this New Year's Eve.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Thadani, Giti. 1996. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. Cassell, London. ISBN 0-304-33452-9


This book is, in many ways, a political analysis as much as a historic and literary one, tracing the ways in which the “invisibility” of lesbianism in modern India derives not only from defining “lesbian” narrowly as a specific Western phenomenon, but from the influence of male European and Orientalist elements in the study of Indian history to erase woman-centered traditions, in collaboration with Indian nationalist elements that continue the control of the historic narrative by elite men. More recent feminist approaches have challenged this dominance with regard to gender but done little to challenge the heteronormative default.

This book tries to work around those political forces by focusing on desire between women rather than on personal identity. The introductory material includes a glossary of relevant vocabulary from the older texts in order to avoid the necessary blurring of meaning involved in translation or substitution.

Chapter 1: Lesbian Invisibility

The book starts with a concrete example from contemporary times of how female-centered traditions are literally replaced by or converted into male-centered spaces, practices, and deities: the actual re-carving of the statue of a female deity to remove its breasts and other female signifiers, after which it was re-labeled with the name of a male deity.

Thadani identifies multiple examples of overlaying male identity on traditionally female deities and the denial of female divine presence and agency, especially by converting pairs of female divinities to male-female pairs (a god and “his consort”). In other examples, a temple structure where a group of figures or structures representing female divinities had previously surrounded a deliberately open space is re-focused on male presence by placing the statue of a male divinity in the center of the focal space. Thadani documents this as an ongoing modern process even affecting sites that are theoretically protected as of historic significance. Another approach is for images with obviously feminine characteristics to be described in official literature as masculine. There is a long tradition of independent female deities being appropriated as male or converted into the “consort” of a male deity.

Hindu nationalism has invested in the artificial construction of a homogenized and monolithic Hinduism (historically, in reaction to and as a bulwark against invasions by Islamic and European cultures). This monolithic structure necessarily erases the traditions of independent female deities. And the selective editing of older religious traditions has systematically reconstructed “Indian tradition” as monolithically heterosexual. Thadani presents a structural discussion of how patriarchal assumptions impose patriarchal conclusions on otherwise neutral data.

Indian nationalism promoted the view that homosexuality was an invasive tradition by external “others”: Greek, Islamic, European. This attitude also erased traditional concepts of a plural-gendered self which allowed for myriad gender interactions.

Historical and philosophical arguments are structured to frame desire as always for the “other”--a position that presumes that women can only worship a male god and that goddess traditions can only be viewed via the mediation of a male worshipper or male deity. Even Tantric traditions that emphasize a merging of male and female within the self present the process from a male point of view.

Thadani discusses whether the word “lesbian” is appropriate to use in exploring earlier Indian history, but settles on claiming the term “lesbian” as a political choice--not as an identity, but as an experience of desire. She uses the image of Kali standing on the corpse of Shiv as a symbol of women rejecting submissive subordination. But this image also represents the difficulty of trying to create a unified Hindu tradition without conflict over, and erasure of, the essentially contradictory traditions that appear in the source material.

This book works chronologically through various historic traditions, showing how they interacted and evolved. There is a discussion of key points of linguistics that manifest in how deities are identified. One key process is creating masculine forms of feminine terms that appropriate the underlying concept as masculine. The generic feminine is expressed in grammatically plural or dual forms, indicating different aspects of the goddess. But dual forms (especially in translation) get reinterpreted as masculine singular terms. Another process is for word roots that are not inherently gendered, but can be expressed in either masculine or feminine forms, to be converted into an inherently masculine word root that then is feminized via suffixes. This results in a linguistic “male default with subordinate feminine forms” rather than equivalent male and female derivatives. [Note: To envision what Thadani is talking about here, think about all the agentive nouns in English where the root form defaults to male and the female form is created by adding “-ess”, although there has been an effective movement to address this issue--poet/poetess, actor/actress, steward/stewardess.]

Chapter 2: The Dual Feminine

[Note: The earliest written literature from India are the Vedic hymns--religious texts in an early form of Sanskrit.]

The earliest written records are not “original” in any meaningful sense but reflect complex, contradictory layers of tradition. Earlier cosmologies can only be approximated by identifying patterns and discontinuities in the material. Thadani references Marija Gimbutas’s theory of a shift from gynefocal to patriarchal societies around 4000 BCE. [Note: Gimbutas was an archaeologist and anthropologist focusing on Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in Europe. The theory referenced here is not universally accepted.] “Excavating” earlier traditions fromt he Rig Veda (as the collection of Vedic hymns are collectively known) requires recognizing that it doesn’t represent a coherent system.

Later interpretations projected a pattern of subservient female consorts to male deities, but that pattern fractures when the material is analyzed in detail. Traces of earlier, independent feminine symbologies are still present, in particular in the form of female divine pairs in contrast to male-female pairs. These dual feminine figures are not “lesbian” as a whole, but can include lesbian-relevant figures.

The dual feminine is the basis for feminine genealogies in the Vedic traditions--part of a continuum of female-female bonds and relationships that can’t be reduced to sexual encounters.

Thadani explores one motif-group associated with the figure of Usha: a female symbol of light, imagined as a complex woven structure. Contrasts of dark-light and stillness-movement are transformed continuously one to the other, not set up in binary opposition. They are represented by dual sisters sharing the same space. Key terminology of this representation includes jami (twins, though not necessarily implying biological relationship), dyava (dual female deities), and language implying union, togetherness, kissing, as well as the image of dual mothers. Dyava comes from the dual feminine linguistic form of dya (light). The full dual is dyavau and the root dyava implies a single unit with dual identity. This divine female pair can be seen as lovers, mothers, or sisters. In this era, divine pairs are not identified as male-female pairs but as same-sex jami (twins), either male or female.

The dual female deity comes together with the earth as a feminine generative unit, creating various patterns of female genealogy. The Rig Veda includes many dual feminine divinities, especially Usha and Nakta, representing the revolving/shifting change of existence, not as a binary opposition but as a continuous alternation. Within this cosmology, humanity (both female and male) is generated from a female pair who give birth without being impregnated and are both mothers. Social structures based on this cosmology involve kinship based on collective motherhood. Specific instances of female-female relationships in the Vedas include paired mothers, mother-daughter pairs, or paired yuvati (lovers). The pervasive term jami (twin) doesn’t necessarily indicate biological twins but the idea of a linked, equal couple.

Poetic imagery often involves sacred animals, such as pairs of cows sharing the nurturing of a calf, or paired mares.

[Note: Thadani goes into a fair amount of technical detail on linguistic derivations of terms, such as specific words for “sister”. While I haven’t had time to follow up on this in detail, I’m reserving judgment on the linguistic validity of the derivations, as opposed to these being traditional etymologies in the extensive Sanskrit linguistic literature.]

Jami sexuality is seen as a flowing together, a fusing of diverse streams, a transformation as a result of joining. Mother-daughter symbolism is more extensive than simple biological kinship. There is extensive symbolism using the erotics of breast-centered fecundity, milk as life/nourishment. Womb symbolism includes caves, tides, and regeneration.

Female dualities interact with Earth to generate a third space: a material fertility embodied as the revolving alternation of the dyad and the material force that drives them.

[Note: OK, that’s a lot of general imagery, summarized by me very superficially. This is a complex and detailed text and the best I can do is give you an impressionistic idea of it.

Chapter 3: The Myths of Usha and Urvashi

This chapter uses the female pair Usha and Urvashi to illustrate the shift to a male-centered cosmology. It opens with a hymn depicting the male god Indr overthrowing, defeating, and raping the light-goddess Usha. This can be seen as embodying the disruption of an earlier worldview of movement-fluidity, and imposing the image of a directional defeat of one force over its polar opposite, rather than a continuous alternation. Similarly disruptive imagery is seen in myths of the killing of the goddess Danu and her son, which is presented as “heroic deeds.”

Concrete imagery in these hymns includes splitting mountains, possessing bodies of water, killing feminine deities and sybols, penetration and violent victory. Light is depicted as a conqueror of darkeness rather than an alternation. Diversity becomes opposition. The focus shifts to semen as a generative force and a system of binary opposition, culture versus nature, sacrifice as the basis of creativity.

Rather than Usha being the dual-feminine “daughter of light” she is changed into primarily being a mother of sons. Divine female figures who cannot be attached to male deities as adjuncts are literally “demonized.”

The tension between matrifocal and patriarchal society continues to play out in the mythic material, as illustrated by the myth of Urvashi and Pururvas. Urvashi “the expansive one” is a water goddess. Pururvas is the mortal son of the goddess Ida (born without reference to a father figure). This tradition includes the earliest known reference to the root shiva (a feminine form, and appearing prior to masculine use).

Pururvas is depicted as raping and impregnating Urvashi, who berates him for acting against the feminine cosmology. Urvashi maintains her unobtainable essence--the immortality Pururvas desires to obtain from her--and he is condemned to mortality. Pururvas demands that the Ushas (the dual-feminine deity) offer their benefits to the patriarchal family, while Urvashi rejects the supposedly claiming act of rape/penetration. Urvashi’s natural state of immortal existence is in contrast to Pururvas’s “other/beyond” state, representing death. In contrast, the patriarchal world that Pururvas attempts to claim her for is “exile” to Urvashi. (That is, this is the symbolic language used in their dialogues.)

In later versions of the story, rather than this conflict being presented as a dialogue between Urvashi and Pururvas, a male narrator is inserted into the story who takes over presenting Urvashi’s voice. In that version, Urvashi’s departure from the patriarchal arrangement, which results in the ego-death of Pururvas (death and immortality) is re-interpreted as a “rescue” by other forces rather than a self-rejection.

The story involves a complicated symbolism of death/separation (Nirriti) imagined as a passage between lives or worlds, the “beyond”. This image became linked to female desire and sexual fluidity as contrasted to “virility/manhood.” “Virile” sexuality was focused only on reproduction, not as an experience of desire. Nirriti is framed as an anti-virile, feminizing force. This view of sexuality automatically excludes ecstatic experiences and same-sex sexuality in the jami mode, which latter comes to stand for any non-procreative sexuality.

Chapter 4: The Control of Lesbian Sexuality

(In the middle of this chapter, we have a selection of photos of art--sculpture and painting of a variety of eras--depicting sexual activity between women or illustrating some of the mythic material discussed in the text.)

In mythological stories, ascetic mysticism represented a tension between male chastity and female sexuality, with the latter represented by an unconsorted female deity living among a community of women. This uncontrolled, free female sexual energy was contrasted with the “dharmic” ascetic man. His abstinence was fear of the feminine erotic. His only approved purpose for sexuality was the production of male offspring. Outside of that purpose, sexual desire was impurity and a weakening force.

Theology structured the world as a male (by definition) lord and his domain, which was represented in female terms. Within this system, there is no place for female self-determination and will. The female aspect represented material nature, the lower, earthly aspect of the world. This contrasts with the earlier gynefocal cosmology. This shift is also established via legal, medical, and mythic texts.

Dharma -- “right conduct” -- was defined in specifically patriarchal terms. The parameters were established in philosophical literature around the 5th century BCE through the 2nd or 3rd century CE.

Legal texts established the heterosexual family as the only recognized mode of kinship. Caste boundaries were enforced. During this era, laws against lesbian sexuality were established, focusing on the potential for sex between women to destroy virginity or for the potential of sexual initiation of a younger woman by an older one. For example, one text gives two relevant laws: if a virgin (kanya) has sex with another virgin, she pays twice the bride price to the other’s father and is beaten. If a woman (stri) deflowers a virgin, her head is shaved or two fingers cut off and she is publicly shamed.

The emphasis here is on “virginity” as a commodity under the patriarchal marriage economy, for which a father must be compenated. The question arises, in the first case of two virgins, who is the “active” partner who is viewed as the perpetrator? The language itself does not require an asymmetric act and could cover non-penetrative activities as well as penetrative ones. The emphasis is on the concept of “deflowering” but can include self-penetration or non-vaginal sex. Legal commentaries suggest interpretations such a assigning the perpetrator role to the woman of higher caste. There is an emphasis on women’s inability to legally consent to sex or to control her own sexuality. Women are not supposed to be sexually initiated by another woman, only by a husband within marriage.

Inter-caste and adulterous relationships are also prohibited, illustrating the overall system’s focus on restricting sexuality to approved marriage pairings. Non-procreative sex of any type is disparaged.

Within marriage, medical literature provides detailed rules and instructions for how to perform approved types of procreative sex for the desired effect (a healthy male child). This same literature provides catalogs of types of sexual “defects” that either prevent achieving this desired effect or are the result of improper sexual behavior. This includes various categories of male homosexuality, as well as the claim that sex between two women will produce a boneless fetus. (These descriptions, however, provide specific descriptions of sexual acts between women, such as “when one woman...mounts another woman like a man and rubs herself against the other woman.” A tendency toward lesbian sex is identified as an “illness” of the vagina due to improper sex at conception or to embryonic damage due to defective gametes. Lesbians are conflated with the inability to beget children in the epithets applied to them: man-hater, breastless, incapable of menstruation, possessing no ovum. But at the same time, medical literature of this era considers it possible for a woman to impregnate another woman via the clitoris which is recognized as a penis-analog. (The most famous example of this scenario is in the birth of Bhagirath from the sexual union of two women.)

Medical terminology distinguished the procreative yoni from the external genitalia (bhag) relevant to sexual pleasure. Thus a verb indicating sex between women sambhog, which is found in one version of the Ramayan in which the god Ganesh is born from the union of the queens Chandra and Mala. Variants of this motif occur in other stories, often involving the co-wives of a dead king producing an heir for him after his death. Mythic versions often include motifs of water deities where the merging of bodies of water symbolizes sex.

(This chapter includes extensive details of sexual theology that are difficult to summarize, as well as an extensive list of divine names and attributes that incorporate the element bhag.)

The cosmology involving rigid structures around caste, gender, and sexuality were revised with the (re)introduction of a divine feminine principle, shakti. This provided an opportunity for older female divinities that had been converted into consorts of male deities to return to an autonomous state in which the concept of procreative sex was inverted or subverted. (Various mythic/heroic stories involving autonomous female figures who disrupt patriarchal expectations are discussed.) These stories also include sex-change motifs, as when two kings pledge that their not-yet-born offspring will marry, only to have both children be girls, with the conflict resolved at some point via magical sex-change. Some stories, however, resist a heteronormative resolution, as in the tale of Brahmani and Ratnavati which concludes with the two women spending their lives together as a couple.

Chapter 5 - Legacies of Colonialism

This chapter covers the effects, not only on gender and sexuality cultures in India, but on knowledge about historic cultures, from the colonial legacy that erased “disapproved” cultures or imposed new interpretations on them that adhered to western views of gender and sexuality. Gender politics played a role in how colonizing powers legitimated their own actions (e.g., “rescuing” downtrodden Indian women). Even modern social historians trying to reconstruct older structures too often valorize variant and androgynous traditions of masculinity while ignoring or demonizing variant or androgynous women. In the case of India, the latter often invokes the “Kali spectrum” of non-consorted goddesses.

Both colonial appropriation and Indian nationalist movements had a stake in focusing on the “Aryan heritage” that privileged the patriarchal Vedic, brahmanic and kshatriya traditions. And both movements collaborated on relegating women to be the keepers of tradition and those responsible for managing sexuality. The woman-focused shakti traditions were ignored or appropriated as consorts of male figures. Female independence, education, and self-realization were framed as being due to western materialism, in contrast to the self-sacrifice, chastity, and maternal devotion expected of women by nationalist movements. The existing mythic and religious traditions are sifted through for female imagery that supports and emphasizes these themes, discarding traditions that contradict it. This theme is expanded on at some length with examples.

Thadani then turns to the fate of marginalized woman-focused traditions in this era. For example, the cult of Sakhibhavas, those who worshipped Radha (often presented as the female lover of Krishna) as devoted female friends (sakhis) of Radha. Sakhi was one of the forms of bonding between women that included an erotic aspect. The Sakhibhava cult included male participants who expressed their devotion to Radha through a feminine identity. The core principle of Sakhbhava was a woman-woman fusion that can be categorized as lesbian. This movement diverged from the tradition of the Krishna-Radha romance approved in the dominant canon, though the Purana literature includes references to Kali kissing Radha that can be seen as part of the alternate tradition. From this point of view, the Krishna-Radha story can be seen as a man (Krishna) intruding into a female-inhabited space and forcibly making himself its center.

There is a discussion of how the canonical Krishna-Radha story imposed gendered interpretations on traditional religious dance and even created a template for pop culture depictions of courtship and romance that centered on the agressive pursuit by an entitled male figure of an "innocent" independent and disinterested woman whose sexuality is awaked by his successful pursuit.

The division of female expressions of gender and sexuality in terms of motherhood into the “good mother” and the “bad/destroying/consuming mother” required absorbing even the pre-Vedic non-consorted non-material apsara deities into this binary division, requiring all such figures to be “bad mothers.” There’s a discussion of how this imagery was used in some takes on Indian psycho-sexual analysis. Examples are given at some length and how it affects the cultural expectations for both boys and girls as they mature.

Despite the cultural expectation in modern India of homosocial spaces, there is a lack of language to describe and emphasize woman-woman sexual and kinship structures. There are no contexts for independent female goddesses or cosmolgonies. Outside of the patriarchal, monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Islam, the Hindu tradition is built entirely on a deliberately male-centered reconstruction of older traditions into a monolithic patriarchal religion. Words that in earlier ages carried sexual meaning or invoked a female-oriented worldview, such as bhagini, sakhi, jami have been stripped of those senses to mean simply “sister”, “female friend” and the like. The words shanda/shandali are translated in male-centered terms as indicating a masculinized woman or an unfeminine woman, not as a woman-desiring woman. Neutral words for “lesbian” are generally new coinages that literally translate words such as “homosexual.” Only in rare cases does an academic historical dictionary allow for the contextual meaning of these words in shaktic traditions.

The British colonial imposition of anti-sodomy laws in India did not explicitly include lesbian sex (as it was not explicitly included in the original British laws) but were worded in such a way that it could be (and was) applied to lesbianism. (“Carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any ... woman...”) Colonial sex-related laws were not discarded by post-colonial India but rather adapted to the purposes and goals of nationalist gender ideology. In the case of lesbians, reaction against the concept of women having a sexual life independent of male control, combined with a definition of masculinity focused on procreation, creates a hostile climate that assails both lesbian relationships and relationships including a transmasculine partner.

A number of anecdotes and new articles are presented giving the context for modern attitudes towards same-sex sexuality in the later 20th century, but on an official level and within the family.

Chapter 6 - Westernization

Further examples and discussion of lesbian images and experiences in contemporary India.

Chapter 7 - Love and Death

This chapter discusses various motifs of female lovers in traditional and modern literature, and how those affect individual expectations and behavior, including a significant rate of suicide among lesbian couples who see no other option.

Folk tales (and the older mythic tales they evolved from) include stories of marriage between women, typically due to the vow by two fathers that their not-yet-born children will wed. When both are born girls, perhaps one is raised semi-secretly as a boy in order to fulfill the vow. After the marriage, the women discover the truth of their gender, as well as recognizing their love for each other. In the older tales, this would typically be resolved with a magical sex change, but in a more modern folk tale (Teeja and Beeja), they instead leave home together to seek their fortune in the world. After adventures and an attempt to return home (and including a magical sex-change, after all, that doesn’t work as intended as is reversed), they live happily together as women.

This resolution was possible in the older religious traditions that included mystical unions that did not require particular gender roles. But when those traditions have been invoked in modern India (examples are given) the concept is rejected. Indeed, arguments for woman-woman spiritual unions have sometimes resulted in backlash against emotional bonds between women in general. An example is given of a rural tradition of a formal “friendship pact” (maitri karar) that had a long traditional history being used to formalize women’s unions, but that such traditions were beginning to be regarded negatively.

Even more than the often arbitrary application of laws, the greatest barrier to women’s romantic relationships is familial rejection (or, more often, coercion into heterosexual marriage, including by violence, or even murder of one or both partners).

Chapter 8 - Lesbian Identities

This chapter discusses the difficulties for women in modern India to construct lesbian identities.