By Aminta Kilawan
A little less than a year ago, having found her article on Sadhana’s inaugural town hall meeting, Karen Naimool reached out to my sister, in hopes she could refer her to a pandit (Hindu priest). Karen and her partner Jennifer Griffith were planning their wedding and looking for a pandit to officiate the ceremony. Karen, an Indo-Trinidadian Hindu woman, works for The Children’s Village, a New York nonprofit organization that specializes in helping vulnerable children and families. She is a meditator who prays every day and fasts for every major Hindu holiday. Karen and Jenni had been together for five years, and like countless other devoted couples in love, the two wished to solidify their union in marriage. Knowing that I was a co-founder of a progressive Hindu group, my sister referred the couple to me. Unfortunately, even I couldn’t find a priest to officiate their wedding. For quite a while, neither could Karen and Jenni.
When I spoke with Karen about this ordeal, she said: “Initially, I made the calls, but it was hard for me to deal with the responses. Each time, I was met with hesitation or shock at what I was asking. I would feel like my family was rejecting me.” Thankfully, Karen and Jenni eventually found a pandit who was willing to conduct their wedding ceremony. Out of respect for his anonymity and his congregation, the couple chose not to identify him. All of this really got me thinking about what Hinduism actually says about same sex relationships and homosexuality.
When I asked Karen whether she’d ever questioned her faith as a queer Hindu, she answered with one word: “Never.” Karen never felt that Hinduism directly conflicted with who she was as a queer woman. She said, “It seemed more about the journey of my soul rather than my physical existence.” Instinctively, I felt that Karen was right. Nevertheless, I wanted to dig deeper.
Wracking my brain for a progressive-minded pandit who might be willing to answer my questions, my memory immediately jogged back to a pravachan (lecture on Hindu Scripture) I listened to at the Prem Bhakti Mandir by Pandit Rajin Balgobind about a year ago. Pandit Balgobind focused on gender equality for most of the lecture, a topic rarely discussed by male religious leaders in my local community. The feminist in me was so proud to be a Hindu at that moment. I was enraptured by Pandit Balgobind’s courage to mobilize the congregation in such a positive way.
Recalling his activism, I reached out to Pandit Balgobind a few weeks ago. He acknowledged that the issue of Hinduism and homosexuality was a controversial one, but despite being halfway across the world in Singapore, Pandit Balgobind agreed to speak with me. He indicated that this issue became increasingly of interest to him when Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after being publicly humiliated by Dharun Ravi. Irked by this tragedy, Pandit Balgobind said, “I wouldn’t have anyone feel less of themselves because they are different. In reality, aren’t we all different? No two humans have the same DNA make up. Why can’t we accept diversity?”
When I asked Pandit Balgobind whether there is any Hindu scripture that expressly denounces homosexuality, he indicated that there is none to his knowledge. Believing that all discrimination is socially based (and not premised on Scripture), Pandit Balgobind indicated that Hinduism does not promote any discrimination, but rather “advocates acceptance and wider understanding.”
Arvind Sharma confirms this truth in Homosexuality and World Religions. Sharma stresses that “we should distinguish between Hindu religious attitudes, and Hindu cultural attitudes” because “as a religion, Hinduism is probably more tolerant than it is as a culture.” Sharma blames this on history. The politically charged wave of Hinduism that Sharma calls “Neo-Hinduism” has a strong element of militant Hindu nationalism. Fighting against dominant minorities (like the Muslim and the British) to defend Hinduism from outside influence, Hindu nationalists do not consider homosexuality a natural or biological trait, but rather as a tool used by outsiders to destroy Hinduism (Swidler, 70). As such, the “Hindutva” social movement strongly emphasizes masculinity.
So, discrimination based on sexual orientation may not be Scripture-based. What about same-gender marriage? On this question, Pandit Balgobin indicated that currently Vivah Sanskar (the traditional Hindu wedding sacrament) is tailored to male – female unions, because there are mantras that seek blessings for progeny. While there is an alternative to the Vivah Sankar called Gandharva Vivah Sanskaar, this “love” marriage ceremony is done without the consent of elders. However, Pandit Balgobind believes that two people, regardless of gender, should be able to be together so long as they live dharmic lives. Pandit Balgobin put it this way:
Even if one is to say marriage is only between male and female because of progeny, why can’t we accept same gender unions where they can either adopt or support orphans worldwide? Isn’t that the same as having your “own” child? In our society, we glorify people who become parents, we discriminate couples who don’t have children as being “childless.” Further, we prefer sons over daughters, and yet--yet--yet, we bow down to men and women in saffron robes who don’t have any progeny. We sing Tulsidas’ name – did he have any children? We sing Kabir songs – did he have any children? We sing Meerabai songs – did she have any children?
In fact, Karen and Jenni do have a child. Their eight-year old son Jadon loves meditation, yoga, and learning about the gods and goddesses. Jenni believes that Karen’s Hindu faith gives Jadon “a very holistic perspective on the world around him.” Jenni herself has been impacted by Karen’s identity. She said “her [Karen’s] passion for creating a safe and uplifting home for our family is an extension of her faith… Karen’s religion is healing for our relationship.” Living a truly dharmic life, Karen applies the principles of her Hindu faith every day – she has committed her love to another human being and together; they have established a home of peace, joy and serenity.
In his inaugural address on Martin Luther King Day 2013, President Barack Obama said “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” In his State of the Union, President Obama stated that “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.” It’s hard to deny that same-sex marriage is on the current political agenda. But even if it becomes a reality in the United States, this legality wouldn’t deflect from the weight that many, like Karen and Jenni, put on having a traditional religious ceremony.
Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel for same-sex couples that wish to be married under Hindu rites. Just a few days ago, an article announced that a Hindu temple in the UK’s Sussex County would allow equal marriage ceremonies. Shashi Tandon, a female elder in Chicago’s Hindu community, also performs such ceremonies. Pandit Rajin Balgobind, who himself lives by the tenets of Satya Sanatan Dharma stated: “Who gives us the right to deny them their rights? No one is superior to the other. No one is inferior to the other.”
Although there are some Hindu leaders willing to take a stance to provide equal rights for same-sex couples, Hindus across the world still have a long way to go when it comes to integrating same-sex couples into the culture of Hinduism. At Sadhana, we are aware of the complexity of this lived experience, even in spite of what our Scriptures say. As an organization that places particular emphasis on tolerance and social justice, we stand in solidarity with our gay brothers and sisters, and envision a Hinduism that embraces its foundational principles of oneness and equality regardless of sexual orientation.