How ‘Call me By Your Name’ reclaims Eden for gay people everywhere

By Devdutt Pattanaik


Every fiction, whether a novel, a play or a film, is a writer’s attempt to reinforce or challenge mythic structures around him. The most dominant mythic structure in the Western world is the biblical one, of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, the perfect garden, by Yahweh, God of Abraham, because they succumb to the serpent’s temptation and eat the Forbidden Fruit. It is the Original Sin, an act of transgression. The quest for ‘happily ever after’ in modern retellings of ancient European fairy tales is essentially a yearning to return to that perfect Eden. It is where good children go, the obedient ones, those who either resist the temptation, or those who genuinely regret the transgression.

Nothing is more transgressive in human society than homosexuality: the desire of a man for a man, or a woman for a woman. Imagined for centuries as being against the order of nature, it is considered forbidden not only by God but also by man. This is the dominant myth that most gays and lesbians have to contend with.

And so it is indeed delightful to discover how Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name, with brilliant use of narrative, visuals and music, reclaims Eden for gay men and women around the world, for everyone in fact – homosexual or heterosexual – who values love over law.

At face value, it is a finely crafted coming-of-age film, set in a villa in a quaint little Italian town one summer, amidst a feast of food, friends, wine, music, dancing, swimming and indolence. The film follows the step-by-step exploration of sensual love (shringara rasa) described in Bharata’s Natyashastra between precocious 17-year old Elio (played by the talented Timothee Chalamet) from an affluent, well-educated and highly cultured American-Italian family, and his father’s 24-year-old American student Oliver (played by the gorgeous Arnie Hammer) from the first meeting to tension, anticipation, realisation, termination and finally reflection. It has been done before, only this time it involves two people of the same sex, a boy and a man.

But then you wonder why the film lingers long after the credits have rolled. Why you feel quietly happy, even uplifted, despite the tragic end. Is it the gently sonorous music of indie-pop artist Sufjan Stevens, so full of love and longing? Is it the fabulous work of Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who successfully creates a dreamy sun-drenched summer experience? Or is it the screenplay by veteran James Ivory, who transforms Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name from being a memoir of an older and more reflective Elio to being an experience located in the present, not just of Elio but also of Oliver, who is excited yet terrified by the force of this forbidden feeling?

Or is it the editing of Walter Fasano who takes you on a high, then abruptly cuts scenes so that the music and the mood lingers in your body even as your eyes relish a new shot? The mythologist in me, however, noticed the metaphors and the symbols, and sensed there was something far more subversive at work – a radical retelling of a myth, where Eden becomes a place of love, where God does not judge, and in fact encourages transgression through education, perhaps because the garden, full of peaches, cherries and apricots, and rivers full of fish, belongs to the Goddess.

Here, God is the boy’s father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor researching sensual male nude sculptures of classical Greece. Perlman enjoys discussing ideas with students, friends, and neighbours at his table over long lunches and dinners. He is not Jehovah or Zeus who demands obedience. He does not mock his son’s exploration of sexuality.; he encourages it. He pays attention to his son’s heartbreak, but is unaffected by its homosexual root. He goes so far as to tell his son that he is envious of his son’s experience, and advises him not to try to cure himself of the pain in a hurry, for that is how people grow emotionally bankrupt before we are 30! It is a father-son scene that is bound to go down in film history, displaying a parenting that most gay men can only dream of.

His wife Annella (Amira Casar) is the Goddess. When Olivier asks the Professor about his orchard, the Professor clarifies that the trees belong to his wife. She has inherited the gorgeous Italian villa where the family spends their summer and Hanukah. Annella is generous and invites everyone to meals, including Chiara, the girl who is smitten by the dashing Oliver, and Marzia, with whom Elio is exploring his sexuality before realising that his body responds very differently and more acutely to Oliver.

Annella does not need words, that ‘futile device’ – the title of one of the musical scores – to convey her unconditional affection for her son and his male lover even after the latter breaks her son’s heart. It is in the way she looks, moves and touches that you feel her benevolent gaze. In fact, it is she who encourages her husband to let their son go on a small trip to Bergamo with Oliver, before Oliver departs forever, fully aware that there is a deeper bond between the two, not just casual friendship.

Annella never probes. She lets her son figure out his own way, ensuring all the time that he is well fed, well educated in classical literature, well sheltered, and never judged. She reads her son French fairy tales and draws his attention to that very potent line, “Is it better to speak or to die?” Speak to whom, we wonder: to the object of our desires, or to our parents, whose love gay children yearn for more than anything else?

Oliver is the intruder in Eden, or “usurper”, as Elio calls him right at the start of the film, because he has been asked to give up his bedroom and share his bathroom with the house guest for six weeks. Oliver’s bluntness and tendency to keep people at a distance, amplified by his way of saying, “Later!” when departing, contrasts with the easy hospitality of his hosts. His restraint is foreshadowed early in the film when he is eating his eggs at breakfast and is asked to take another one by Annella. “No, no, no,” he protests, “I just know myself too well. If I take another, I will just gonna have a third, then a fourth, and then just gonna have to roll myself out of here.”

Later when Elio rather boldly grabs his crotch, the hesitant Oliver pushes him away, once again saying. “No, no, no, no, no. We should go. I know myself. And we have been good. And we have done nothing to be ashamed of. That’s a good thing. I want to be good.”

All through the film, the nervousness typically associated with homosexual desire is expressed only through the otherwise confident and cocky Oliver, in his furtive glances, his constant watching of his back before submitting to a kiss. In contrast is Elio’s father, who admonishes Elio (the only time he does) for being unkind to a gay couple who are guests at dinner. “You call them Sonny and Cher behind their back and you accept gifts from them. The only person it reflects badly on is you.”

Oliver endears himself with his childlike excitement when he dances through the streets at night, his eyes full of joy, revealing the liberating power of love. But in the end, Oliver has to leave, both physically and emotionally. He returns to the world where fathers “cart off to a correction facility” sons who are being true to their feelings. Though he says, “I remember everything” in the final telephonic conversation, he also announces that he is to marry a woman, with whom he has been “on and off”, revealing that his decision is driven by pragmatism, not passion. Incidentally, actor Armie Hammer has been quoted in interviews as saying that his mother has very conservative views on homosexuality and may not see this film, the acclaim notwithstanding.

While Oliver has a memory of loss, Elio has a memory of gain. This memory is captured in the novel on which this film is based. Andre Aciman is not gay, but he understands love and loss deeply, having had to leave his native Egypt during the Suez Crisis and move to Europe and then America on account of his Jewish roots.

Jewishness plays a key role in the story. Elio observes with admiration that Oliver has no hesitation displaying his Star of David gold pendant that hangs around his neck. “We are Jews of discretion,” Elio says, explaining why he does not wear his pendant. Thus the Anti-Semitism of Europe and America (the film takes place in 1983) is placed before an audience that is desperate to deny it. The religious metaphor counters the sexual metaphor. While Oliver is comfortable with his Jewishness, he is not comfortable with his homosexuality. In Elio’s home we see the reverse. Religion takes a back seat but acceptance of love and sexuality is at the forefront. It is Eden, after all.

Thirty-one years ago, in 1987, the screenplay writer of Call Me By Your Name had directed one of the earliest gay movies to have a happy ending. James Ivory’s Maurice, set in Edwardian England and based on the novel by EM Foster, tells the story of a young man’s sexual awakening. Boy meets boy, boys loses boy, and then boy finds another boy. The film’s protagonist is rejected by his upper class boyfriend, Durham (Hugh Grant), who chooses to mainstream himself by marrying a woman and encourages Maurice to do the same. Maurice eventually breaks free from the influence of his privileged but cowardly lover and finds strength in the arms of a working class man.

This Merchant-Ivory production was critically acclaimed as it was released in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, but it remained an art-house film. It was a time when Hollywood could deal with homosexuality only through guilt-inducing movies such as Philadelphia (1993). It was only in 2005 that Hollywood saw its first mainstream gay romance, when Ang Lee spectacularly retold Annie Proulx short story Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys who live terribly unhappy lives and find real joy only once or twice a year when they meet for a few days at the titular mountain.

The mountain shatters the flat plains and the flatness of their lives. Its gloriously liberating landscape contrasts the claustrophobia and humiliation of their public lives in town. One of the lovers, the more rebellious Jack (Jake Gyllenhall), is killed brutally in what is clearly a hate crime, but his wife (Anne Hathway) insists he died when “the tyre burst”. The survivor, the more macho, the more terrified Ennis (Heath Ledger) is not allowed to take his lover’s ashes to their mountain of love. He has to be content with the bloodied shirt, which he hangs in his shrine-like closet, enveloped and protected by his old denim jacket. This much-admired film did not win the Best Picture Oscar, shocking many. Despite firm denials, most people saw this as an expression of institutional homophobia.

In 2015, the establishment refused to even consider Carol for Best Picture, despite critical acclaim. Some argued that Todd Haynes’s film was too slow for the American academy. But for the LGBTQ community, it was clear the academy could not handle a lesbian story, which unlike Brokeback Mountain, did not even have the decency to grant the story of same-sex lovers a tragic ending. Here the beautiful and sophisticated Carol (Cate Blanchett) finds through love the courage to be true to her feelings, even if it means leaving behind her heartbroken and angry husband and being denied the rights to visit her daughter.

It was only in 2016 that Hollywood redeemed itself when it gave Best Picture Oscar to Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the story of a gay black man told in three acts, as a child who is bullied, a teenager who is bullied, and an adult who tries to hide his true feelings behind an exaggerated masculine exterior created to protect himself from a world that finds pleasure in bullying gay people. The film’s title is derived from the play on which it is based: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The title is a metaphor for hidden truth, like the tenderness and homosexuality of the protagonist eclipsed in a world of poverty, drugs, and toxic masculinity.

Water plays an important role in Moonlight as it does in Call Me By Your Name. It enables baptism, marking transformations. It is the sea for Chiron of Moonlight, and it stands for fear to be overcome. It is thirst-quenching rivers and streams for Elio and Oliver in Call Me By Your Name, around which, in which, through which, love is discovered.

In Moonlight, the sex was furtive, the sexuality hidden, as nervous as the protagonist in the film. Not in Call Me By Your Name, where the body and intimacy are abashedly explored, though not to the pornographic levels one finds in the otherwise brilliant Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), which charts the lesbian love of a French teenager for a painter from her high school years to her early adult life and career. But the French are known to be more revolutionary than the American, more political, more comfortable with the body. Perhaps that is why, though Call Me By Your Name involves Americans, the love blossoms on European soil, in Italian countryside, home of Roman gods and the Church, more suitable as Eden than America’s mountains or moonlight.

Director Luca Guadagnino unashamedly celebrates the beauty of his male protagonists, both of whom are straight. How did he get them be so effortlessly gay on camera, he is asked repeatedly in interviews. Luca went out of the way to put the two actors on the sets at ease, so that they were not self-conscious about their beauty (“They were in shorts, practically naked, almost all the time”) or about intimacy (“We were made to kiss and kiss and kiss, only to realize the cameras had long since stopped rolling”), and the result shows. The intense chemistry between Elio and Oliver leaps out of the film, and reaches deep into our bodies. It stirs memories of our first love, be it homosexual or heterosexual.

Luca is a sensual filmmaker. It is evident in his I Am Love (2009), in which the spectacular Tilda Swinton plays a Russian immigrant and the daughter-in-law of a rich Italian family through changing times and fortunes, and how she is liberated by the forces of passion when she falls in love with a chef who is her son’s friend. In this film too, you can feel the colours, taste the food, and be swept away by the music. Through the senses, the heart is forced to open up and the mind is asked to give up.

It almost seems the director is a student of Bharata’s Natyashastra, the fifth Veda, where sensations and emotions are the levers used for expanding the mind and leading one to wisdom. But while I Am Love is about liberating oneself from conformity, a classic Western hero’s journey, in Call Me By Your Name, there is no opposition, no enemy, no obstacle. This is perhaps the first gay film where being gay is not a problem. The only problem is in the mind of the intruder, who eventually leaves Eden.

Even in Andrew Haigh’s intimate and intense, documentary-like independent gay film Weekend, (2011), sincerity triumphs over cynicism, and our heart is shattered when lovers part. But in Call Me By Your Name you don’t feel sad. You feel elevated. The lyrics of indie-pop musician Sufjan Stevens reinforce this idea. In his song Mystery of Love, a reference is made to Alexander’s male lover Hephastion, and so to the Greek appreciation of man-boy love. The blossoming of love is captured in the lines, “Too see without my eyes, the first time you kissed me.” And in the final song Visions of Gideon we hear of its demise, “I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video? I have touched you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video?”

Video here refers to the vision of Gideon, the Biblical hero who charges into war after a vision from God. Elio is Gideon. Elio’s memory of the summer fling is the vision, the video, that comes from God himself. God of the Bible may have refused to reveal his name to the prophet Moses by simply identifying himself as “I am what I am”. But in Call Me By Your Name, lovers express their love, their immersion into each other, by referring to the beloved by the lover’s name.

Elio is Oliver. Oliver is Elio. This vision grants Elio the confidence to face life, even at the risk of heartbreak. As the song plays through the credits, we witness Elio’s transformation presented remarkably over several minutes through Timothy’s spectacular expressions as he stares into the fireplace. The whole film’s dreamy nostalgic quality is a video, a vision, for us to stir up memories of our first love, and our first heartbreak.

Perhaps the most obvious biblical reference comes the now famous peach scene, shortly after Elio and Oliver first have sex. Tormented by desire, Elio makes a hole in a peach and ejaculates into it, and breaks down – unable to bear the intensity of the love – when Oliver jokingly threatens to eat the semen-filled fruit. This is what love does. It removes conventional notions of awkwardness and embarrassment and allows you to express desire in the most absurd forms, and admires you for it.

The fruit here is the Forbidden Fruit. Unlike the biblical myth, the fruit does not ”fuck” the happiness of humanity; it is literally “fucked” for the happiness of humanity. And it is in this scene that you realise that the mythic metaphors are not accidental, or coincidence. It is deliberate. A determination of a culture to reject its mythic framework, or rather modify it. It is not the prodigal sons who is being asked to return home. It is the old-bearded jealous God who becomes kinder, more generous, perhaps because he lets the affectionate Goddess by his side.

View: Strike down Section 377 as it has no place in today’s India

Written by Vikram Doctor,
Jan 13, 2018

For The Economic Times

If, in the course of this year, the Supreme Court of India finally declares that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) must stop criminalising consenting adults in same sex relationships, it will be almost 18 years since the current battle to change the law began.

In the current state of the Supreme Court, of course, all bets are off. But if it happens, it will mean a generation of young lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people will have come of age in the time taken to fight the case. They have helped change the world in which the case is being heard, and will determine where the future challenges for LGBT people will lie.

In all this time, of course, the basic logic of the case has never changed. It was always absurd to treat people as criminals for something intrinsic to them. It was always absurd that love between consenting adults is subject to the censure of the state.

And it was always absurd beyond belief that the 19th century British law that underpins this, continues to apply in such a different time and place. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the UK removing the law itself, and yet that same proscription continues to apply in India.

But if the reason for the case has never changed, the context in which it was fought has. Partly it was time and the transformation in the world at large. With most of the world moving towards acceptance and the matter-of-fact integration of openly LGBT people into regular aspects of life, India is an increasingly awkward fit with the mostly fervently religious countries that still strongly oppose LGBT rights.

New Horizons
The growth of new industries in the digital, service-oriented and creative fields has also increased the push towards LGBT rights. It’s not quite correct to assume the older industries of manufacturing, farming and resource extraction were intrinsically homophobic. The British film Pride, based on a true story of gays and miners supporting each other in the Thatcher years, showed how attitudes can change and, trade unions today are often strongly LGBT supportive.

But the newer industries allowed for greater diversity — in fact, required it, since success in them came from mental and physical skills that weren’t, literally, embodied in how one looked or behaved. Knowledge-driven industries couldn’t afford to lose the people they needed just because of their race, sex or who they slept with. And countries that saw such industries as their future had to realise the same.

One of the unexpected beneficiaries of the call-centre boom were young LGBT kids from middle-class families and small towns. At one time such kids would have had no option but to follow their families’ choices for them, getting married before they had any real chance to understand their sexualities. But call centres, with their constant need for new young workers, offered them jobs at just that young adult phase.

The salaries often equalled what their parents earned, so couldn’t be countered. Best of all, all that mattered was your voice and how you used it, not how you looked and who you flirted with. Call centres opened horizons by specifically teaching their young workers to deal respectfully with possibly gay and lesbian customers abroad — an important lesson for their straight workers as much as their gay ones.

Homophobes often fume about the entertainment world promoting LGBT rights, not least because so many LGBT people work there. This is, again, not entirely right since the entertainment industry is as profit-driven and risk averse as any mainstream industry and has actually tended to lag social change in how they show the LGBT community. Hollywood, as much as Bollywood, is happiest with the unchallenging stereotypes used for mainstream entertainment, in Will & Grace as much as Dostana.

But in the end, the entertainment industry catches up and, rather than influencing change, is a barometer for how much has changed. The fact that a gay romance like Call Me By Your Name is a top Oscar contender — just a year after a gay film like Moonlight won — reliably indicates mainstream acceptance, as much as the now fairly routine inclusion of LGBT characters in Bollywood shows. When Sridevi, in her hit film English Vinglish, reproved a homophobic comment about her gay English teacher, she sent a quiet message not just to young people watching, but also their parents’ generation, who would have idolised her.

Perhaps the biggest sign of how far change has come was provided by the anti-Section 377 legal battle itself. The recent stimulus in the process came from a new petition filed by a group of LGBT people, led by the noted dancer Navtej Singh Johar. This might seem routine, but in fact represented something new since none of the petitions in the past involved LGBT people themselves.

The reason for this was simple. When a law defines someone as a criminal, it is hard to challenge it for fear of losing, and having one’s criminal status confirmed. Reading the actual wording of Section 377, where the punishment prescribed is “imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years” is an excellent deterrent to challenging it.

Legal Raps
Around 2000, when activists in India started considering filing a challenge, no LGBT person was willing to take the risk of becoming a petitioner. Instead, Naz India Foundation, an organisation headed by Anjali Gopalan, that dealt with HIV prevention — working with the Lawyers Collective, headed by Anand Grover — filed a case based on the problems Section 377 caused in preventing the spread of HIV.

Because gay men are at high risk for contracting HIV, any effective programme needs to be able to address them — but this was hard when they were also at a risk of being arrested. (The argument that the law itself prevents the spread of HIV by deterring gay men from having sex simply doesn’t work in practice. It just drives homosexual behaviour further underground and makes it harder to tackle the HIV risk.)

An earlier attempt had in fact been made in 1994 by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), a NGO that was stung into doing it by the news that Kiran Bedi, the highprofile police officer in charge of Tihar Jail, had banned the use of condoms to control HIV. Any use of condoms there, she reasoned, would be for homosexual sex and that would contravene Section 377. ABVA’s petition challenged this inconsistency between trying to prevent the spread of HIV and upholding the law. It was an important step, but perhaps too soon to expect logic to prevail and the case languished and was eventually dismissed.

The case filed by Naz in 2001 did progress, though with several set-backs. At one point, the Delhi High Court threw it out on the grounds that Naz had no locus standi, since no LGBT people were directly shown as victims. This was appealed in the Supreme Court, which agreed that the matter was important and that Naz has locus, and the case went back to the Delhi High Court. To bolster the campaign, an organisation called Voices Against 377 was formed and also filed a petition.

In July 2009, a Delhi High Court bench made up of Chief Justice AP Shah and Justice S Muralidhar finally delivered a victory with a verdict strongly supporting LGBT rights. But this was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court and to defend it several petitions were filed — from a group of parents of LGBT people, a group of teachers, a group of psychiatrists and the filmmaker Shyam Benegal in his individual capacity.

Despite this formidable line-up of support, and the considerable legal talent that came on board to represent the petitioners, in December 2014, Supreme Court Justices GS Singhvi and SJ Mukhopadhaya overturned the earlier verdict in their decision of Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation. A great deal of analysis has gone into exposing the flaws in the Koushal decision, but perhaps the most quietly damning comment came from retired Justice Leila Seth, in a piece written in the Times of India in January 2014. Beyond all the deficiencies in the verdict, she wrote she was pained by how “the interpretation of law is untempered by any sympathy for the suffering of others”. There was ample evidence that LGBT people suffered under the law, but the verdict refused to consider this.

There was an echo here, perhaps, to another famous setback for LGBT rights — the 1986 US case of Bowers vs Hardwick where the US Supreme Court declined to strike down the rights of states to discriminate against homosexuals (this was reversed 16 years later in the case of Lawrence vs Texas). The deciding vote in that case came from Justice Lewis Powell who later told one of his law clerks that he didn’t think he had ever met a homosexual. In reality, he had at least two gay clerks, but who were never open about their sexuality. Powell later admitted that his decision in Bowers might have been a mistake.

Direct Approach
The lessons activists have drawn from this story is that in pushing for change those who desire it most must be open about who they are and why they want the change. Menaka Guruswamy, the Supreme Court lawyer behind the recent petition filed by Johar and other LGBT people, felt that the case had to have this. “There is something very basic to law about it,” she says. “You approach the Court directly saying that you have been harmed by the law and you want it to change. It is a very powerful position.”

Even now, she admits, it wasn’t easy. Many people whom she approached had cold feet at the last minute, but finally, this time, she got a group of LGBT people willing to stand up for themselves in court. Johar was joined by his partner, journalist Sunil Mehra, chef, restaurateur and author Ritu Dalmia, hotelier and writer Aman Nath and business consultant Ayesha Kapur.

On January 8 this year, Chief Justice Dipak Misra passed an order directing that their case be taken up for hearing before a larger bench: “Social morality also changes from age to age. The law copes with life and accordingly change takes place,” he wrote. And in a sentence that stands as a rebuke to that lack of sympathy in Koushal criticised by Justice Seth, he wrote firmly: “A section of people or individuals who exercise their choice should never remain in a state of fear.”

What happens next is an open question, especially given the current state of turmoil of the court. Yet it is also a sign of how much attitudes have changed that, in view of all the highly contentious matters facing the court — the Babri Masjid, the beef ban in Maharashtra, aspects of Aadhaar — the fate of Section 377 seems relatively less trouble to decide.

In all the other matters, it will be impossible to deliver a verdict that will not inflame some section of society. Deciding against Section 377 will definitely provoke some criticism, but much of the media, most social influencers and young people in large numbers will support the decision. Even most major political parties are now tacitly in support, even if they are unable to pass any legislation on Section 377 themselves — the general feeling seems to me that any action is best done by the Supreme Court.

A decision to declare Section 377 inapplicable to consenting adults would also be applauded around the world. Based on simple population statistics, a decision to change the law would, at one shot, remove the stigma of being deemed a criminal from more than one-sixth of all LGBT people in the world. It would be one of the largest leaps for human rights at any one time anywhere.

Whatever turmoil the Supreme Court is currently heading into, it should not come in the way of coming to a decision that is long overdue and striking down a law that has no place in India today.

India’s New Age gurus believe sexuality may be fluid – but not brutal structures of caste, gender

Written by Devdutt Pattanaik

Published on 16th November, 2017, on

The celebrated guru Ravi Shankar recently spoke about sexuality in a way that shocked even his ardent supporters. Assumed to be a supporter of LGBTIQ rights, he referred to sexuality as a transitory tendency: gay people can become “normal or straight” and vice versa. In doing so, he tacitly, intentionally or accidentally legitimised the unscientific conversion therapy used by quacks around the world to torture gay and lesbian people to fit the heteronormative mould.

He went on to advise a victim of homophobic abuse to consider rising above sexual tendencies and seek his true identity, by which he meant the true self beyond the ego: the atma or brahman. He was referring to the Vedanta doctrine that views the flesh and all things physical and material as transitory, hence inferior to true permanent transcendental identity.

If sexuality offers an inferior identity, where does one locate gender, caste, religious and national identities? Is the transitory pursuit of fame, wealth, power and glamour (artha) not as base as the pursuit of transitory pleasure (kama)? Why then are rich industrialists, powerful politicians and Bollywood stars not treated with the same disdain reserved for people demanding LGBTIQ rights?

Ravi Shankar’s comments need to be assessed in the context of 21st century gurus who show effortless comfort with wealth and power, but distinct discomfort with matters of gender and sexuality, sex scandals notwithstanding. This needs to be explored historically and doctrinally.
Monasticism in India

It all started 2,500 years ago. Gautama of the Sakya clan, disgusted by death and decay, abandoned his wife and newborn son, walked out on his palace and his kingdom, went to the forest to be a hermit and eventually became Buddha, the awakened one. He proceeded to establish a monastic order which preached that “desire is the cause of suffering”. In the rules for monks, men were warned against all forms of temptation, especially women. Buddhism valorised the rejection of women, and family life, by placing monks on a pedestal. Buddhism was among the first religions to frame rules explicitly prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals, who were seen as having excessive uncontrollable lust, even more than women.

This model of the world, with the celibate monk at the top, is found in Jainism too – though Jains insist their doctrine is eternal (sanatan) – with Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, being the last of the last set of 24 Tirthankaras, who appear in each of the infinite world cycles (kalpa). In Jain cosmogony, the Tirthankaras sit high above in the highest heaven of Siddha-loka, having achieved isolation (kaivalya) from all impurities born of desire, attachment, and action (karma). Below them are lesser beings, in various degrees of desire and attachment. Above are the shramanas, or hermits, who strive for freedom from the material and the sensory. Below are the shravakas, or householders, who cannot break free from the material or sensory but increase chances of liberation in a future life by serving hermits. The lowest are the demons most foul, in Naraka or hell, most material and least spiritual.

Early Hindus resisted this monastic model. Marriage was a key rite of passage (samskara) in Dharmashastras, Hindu scriptures that are contemporaneous with the Buddhist Dhammapada. But eventually monasticism became mainstream about 1,200 years ago, following the rise of Adi Shankaracharya.

In popular lore, Shankara was responsible for overthrowing Buddhism in India. In reality, according to critics, he was a crypto-Buddhist who appropriated Buddhist ideas into Hinduism, cleverly turning the doctrine of emptiness (shunya-vada) into the doctrine of delusion (maya-vada), and eventually assimilated Buddhist monastic practices into Hinduism. Shankara’s defenders will argue that he rectified Buddhist distortion of the Vedic view that the world is real and permanent (sat) but appears unreal and transitory (asat) owing to ignorance (avidya), and that monasticism was always there in Hinduism. That Shankara defeated Mandana Mishra, a much married householder and upholder of the old form of Vedic query (purva-mimansa), and made him a hermit and champion of his new school of Vedic query (uttara-mimansa, or Vedanta) suggests monasticism was a later development.

Buddha said everything is transitory. Adi Shankara also said that everything is transitory except the soul (brahman). The notion of the permanent cosmic soul, which Hindus call God, distinguishes Hindu monasticism from Buddhist monasticism. This soul is visualised as male as Vishnu and Shiva, and is seen as superior to the body and the world, imagined as female as Lakshmi or Shakti. The relative importance of soul over flesh, of God over Goddess, distinguish Vedanta from Tantra, a parallel school that challenges monastic Hinduism.

In various Hindu monastic orders (matha, akhara) since Adi Shankaracharya, great value is placed on the male celibate ascetic who shuns women and family life, encourages his disciples to rise above all desire and worldliness, and just does seva as Hanuman, the celibate monkey, served Ram – divine hero of the epic Ramayana, moral form of Vishnu on earth – without seeking anything in return. Ram, in turn, creates Ram-rajya, serving the people unconditionally.

But while Hanuman is celibate, Ram is not. In temples, Ram is always with Sita. In chants, it is always Siya Ram. They form the divine pair, thus complete (purna). Contrast this with the RSS, which valorises celibacy and so shuns from showing Ram with Sita. Even Adityanath, the celibate yogi chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, speaks of erecting a statute of Ram, representing the single warrior, rather than of Sita-Ram, the divine couple in conjugal bliss. This importance to wife, to family, to worldliness, to wealth and power and pleasure, is part of the Tantrik worldview, not the monastic Vedantic worldview.

In Buddhist and Jain shrines, the male-female couple (maithuna) is always present as yaksha-yakshi, but in an inferior position to the celibate Buddha or Tirthankara. By contrast, in Hindu shrines, the male-female couple is in a dominant position. God is divine because of the Goddess. So Ram has Sita, Shiva has Parvati, Vishnu has Lakshmi, and Krishna has Radha or Rukmini. The marriage of God and Goddess is a major festival in temples, for example Brahmotsavam in Tirupati Balaji, Andhra Pradesh, or Gan-gaur in Rajasthan. This, along with erotic images on temple walls, was a Hindu challenge to the Buddhist-Jain monastic orders.

Temple-based Hinduism, or Agama Hinduism, clearly celebrated the desire and the senses. Buddha may have destroyed Mara, the demon of desire, but Shiva, who destroyed Kama, the god of desire, ended up marrying Kamakshi, the goddess of desire. Be that as it may, in the last thousand years, we see a shift: celibate monks, who either do not enter family life like Shankara and Madhva or renounce it like Ramanuja and Chaitanya, came to wield greater influence over mainstream society and temple complexes. The support of Vijayanagar kings who ruled South India from 14th to 17th centuries for celibate monk-gurus ensured their place in the political scheme of things. Like Brahmins and Buddhists of yore, they legitimised kingship.

When the British ruled India, they gave greater value to the celibate Hindu monks, who reminded them of Jesuit missionaries, than to libertine temple traditions where gods “get married” and go on boat rides with their lovers. Christian missionaries found temple rituals vulgar. In 1862, Sir Mathew Sausse, a British judge of the Bombay high court, even pronounced Krishna guilty of encouraging licentiousness and adultery through the performance of Raas Leela at the Krishna temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan.

Naturally, 19th century Hindu reform movements, from Brahmo Samaj to Arya Samaj, went out of their way to show “real Hinduism” had nothing to do with the body, or with sex, but it was all about the soul (atma). Thus, Vedanta triumphed over Tantra with a little help from the British.
Body and soul

What distinguishes Indian thought from Western thought is the belief in rebirth. You don’t live one life, you live many lives. Present life is influenced by past deeds. Present deeds influence future lives.

In Western mythology, when you die, your ghost outlives you. And this ghost goes to either heaven or hell. Science rejects this concept of ghost; body is seen as a chemical complex and the notion of self a trick of the mind that ceases to exist after death. But ghost remains a key concept in religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, spirituality originally meant communicating with ghosts of ancestors. Later, it meant accessing the “ghost within us”.

But this idea of ghost is complex in Hinduism, owing to the idea of rebirth. In the Gita, we learn the soul wears the body as a fresh garment at the time of birth and discards it as a worn out garment at death. But the quality of the garment is not random, it depends on karma.

So what dies? The body or the soul? Who are we, the body (deha) or the soul that resides in the body (dehi)? And what exactly is the body? Is it the flesh or the mind? What about the social body – our caste, religion, wealth, status, power? What matters really, the social or physical body that can be seen, or the psychological body that cannot be seen? How do we separate “who we are” from “what we have”? Vedanta says that which is permanent is “who we are” and that which is impermanent is “what we have”.

Yogasutra of Patanjali assumes existence of these various concentric bodies (kosha). Through the eight fold path (astha-anga-yoga), it systematically seeks the liberation of “who we are” from “what we have”. Thus, Yama is about our relationship with the outer world; niyama about our behaviour; asana about the body; pranayama about the breath; pratyahara about senses; dharana about using volition to expand the mind to gain perspective; dhyana about using volition to contract and focus the mind; samadhi about enabling intelligence (buddhi) to outgrow ego (aham).

This ego obscures our true identity. It is the crumpled mind, frightened of death and so hungry for life. Animals fear death of the body, hence seek food. Humans fear death of identity, so cling to property, relationships and status. We crave name and fame and wealth and glamour as we yearn for immortality. We know we will die but we delude ourselves that our possessions, including our children, and our legacy and family name, will outlive us. Fear makes us cling to our sexuality and our gender, as much as it makes us cling to our caste and religion. The hermit gave up his clothes and became the naked sky-clad ascetic (digambara) symbolically rejecting his entire body – his social body that includes caste, religion, wealth, power; his physical body that includes gender and sexuality; his psychological body that includes desires and insecurities. The akash purusha, embodiment of the true self, is what is left behind – the soul or the ghost, defined in Vedanta by negation (neti-neti, not this and not that).

Buddha saw clinging to deha as the cause of suffering. He felt through meditation we can un-crumple our mind and break free from the tyranny of identity. When all fears, desires and ideas end, so does our identity. There is no dehi, just emptiness (shunya). The Vedantins argued that when ego ceases to be, there is completeness (purna) and infinity (ananta), which is dehi, which is God, which poets visualised as Vishnu and Shiva. This was the ocean of the divine (param-atma) in which we individual drops (jiva-atma) can merge into. So, while Buddhists spoke of oblivion (nirvana) of the self and Jains of isolation (kaivalya) of the ghost (jiva) from all impurities, Hindus spoke of liberation (moksha) of the ghost from the flesh, and then the union (yoga) of the ghost with God.

The vocabulary of all these liberation-seeking monastic traditions is masculine. Buddha abandons his wife. Shankara or Madhva does not get married. Ramanuja or Chaitanya chooses celibacy over marriage. Shiva and Vishnu, both male, embody param-atma, or cosmic soul. Where are the women?

Women were seen as embodiments of desire. They were linked to the flesh, to matter, and so were seen as inferior to the male, both metaphorically and socially. Women in iconography make their presence felt in Tantra. In Tantrik Buddhism, we see Tara engaging in coitus with Buddha, awakening him, making him aware of the desire of other people, even if he outgrows his own desire. In Tantrik Hinduism, God acknowledges the desires of the Goddess and merges with her to become Ardhanareshwara and Gopi-Krishna.

Tantra acknowledges human desire for control (siddhi) over the world: the power to fly, change shape and size, control things, attract things, dominate people. It does not dismiss sensations (rasa) and emotions (bhava). It is the world of aesthetic delight. It is the world of diversity and hierarchy. Of love and heartbreak. Of power and prestige, of sex and violence. It is the world of the courtesan and the wife, of the marketplace and the crematorium. It is the world where Vishnu has no problem becoming Mohini to make Lakshmi happy, or to enchant Shiva. Here, the Goddess is enshrined with a female companion, not a male consort, as Tara-Tarini or Chamunda-Chotila. Here gender is fluid. Sexuality is fluid. There is no desire to control, and fix the fluid.

The compromise between Buddhist monasticism and Hindu worldliness, between Vedanta and Tantra, is reached when a split is made between the self (sva-jiva) and the other (para-jiva). You are asked to give up desires for the self, but not the world of others. This creates the householder-hermit (raja-rishi) like Janaka, Ram, Krishna, Vikramaditya or Chudala of Yoga Vasistha, who gives but does not seek, and seeks only the control of self, not others.

To seek, or to control the other, is to be dependent. The householder-hermit is independent. He is simultaneously dependable, helping others seek, helping others outgrow their yearning to control others. He does not encourage dependence. Such a raja-rishi is a true guru; he enables others to be raja-rishi too, not dependent but independent and dependable.
Guru as shepherd

Gurus of the 21st century tell followers to be wary of the “trickster mind” and trust the word of the guru. This is not about enabling independence, it is about encouraging dependence. All talk of fluidity of body and desires comes when awkward questions about queer identities and desires are raised. These points are not raised before Bollywood stars, rich industrialists and politicians whose hunger for wealth, power and glamour is visibly insatiable. Rebellion is trivialised. Submission is valorised. Fixed oppressive structures of gender, caste and religion are never rendered fluid. Indian philosophy is fine-tuned to pacify traditional middle-class guilt associated with wealth and power while amplifying guilt over all things pleasurable and desirable that can disrupt social norms.

The guru becomes the shepherd and his followers give up all wolf-like and goat-like aggression and autonomy to become passive submissive sheep, ready to donate wealth and provide free service (seva) to a vast institution that the guru does not own (hence detached), but certainly enjoys (hence engaged). In the shelter of the shepherd, the sheep feel secure. Any criticism of the guru, even for making irresponsible comments in a society hostile to the LGBTIQ community, becomes a threat to that security. Then the hive awakens, and the bees strike.

Romil and Jugal on ALTBalaji


Romil and Jugal is one of the latest ventures on the ALTBalaji web entertainment channel. The website mentions the channel as “a subsidiary of Balaji Telefilms Limited… the Group’s foray into the Digital Entertainment space.” It says that its aim is “to reach out directly to individual audiences, by providing them with original, exclusive and tailor-made shows, that they can access at their fingertips.” And this is absolutely true – well, at least in the case of this new webseries.


Romil and Jugal encapsulates for the first time two male leads who fall in love with each other. It is a pioneering effort by an Indian cast and production team for an Indian audience. Suffice it to say, I have not seen a story that deals with homosexual love by the Indian film or television fraternity so sensitively ever before.


The series has its first season of ten episodes. The first five are free on the channel and the concluding five of the season can be purchased by a minimum fee of Rs 100/- Trust me, it’s a hundred bucks worth spent. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the Indian version of “Queer as Follk”, it surely is a valiant and very commendable effort to get there.



The story is based loosely on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. Romil (Rajeev Siddhartha) belongs to a Delhi-based Punjabi family and Jugal (Manraj Singh) belongs to a South Indian family that hails from Chennai. Rajeev has done a massively powerful enactment of the typical macho man, who has buried his sexuality deep within his consciousness. His coming out process is disturbingly painful and, sadly, what will be vastly relatable to so many from the Indian gay milieu. Jugal has portrayed his role of the guy who knows who he is and keeps a quiet dignity through the series, until the very end where even he goes through a subtle growing up that can only be classified as human. They both have brilliant chemistry on screen and it’s a pleasure to watch them fall in love.


I have never watched Indian television, in decades, because I feel after shows like Tamas, Humlog, Buniyaad, Ye Jo Hai Zindagi, Khaandaan, Indian television didn’t do much in raising the bar in individual empowerment, or even basic good story-telling. I began watching Balika Vadhu at its inception, but look how that turned out. I have no idea how Romil and Jugal will do eventually, but the first season was a brilliant step ahead, in the right direction.


The story follows these two ‘teenagers’ through school. The first crush, the first kiss, the dating, the celebration of love. The scenes that stand out for me particularly, and which were so relatable, was Jugal’s coming out to his family. Personally, I remembered the nights of concern, the utter fear of rejection from the people I love, and finally, the breaking of the dam, as you, with your throat constricting, tell your parents that you are gay. I also in particular loved the character of Meghna, Jugal’s best friend. Most of us gay boys have had that one girl who has stood by us through the darkest of times, and she was completely awesome.  The story is further empowered by brilliantly enacted character roles.


In essence, the writer Ishita Moitra, has tried to give a voice to everyone who has been a part of the gay diaspora. The boys who feel alienated, the friends who support and the friends who reject, the parent who is understanding, the parent who is not, the sister who hurts, loves and accepts, the best friend who protects. These are elements that were such a pleasure to watch. The comedy was necessary, and it wasn’t such that would be cringe-worthy. Maninee Mishra is just terrific casting for this. I understand how the tempo had to be played in order for everyone in the audience to be appeased. (Hopefully, they were, I certainly was.)



I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was directed by a woman, Nupur Asthana. The sensitivity and thoughtfulness to detail, the nuance of what has to be restrained and what has to be shown, all so brilliantly captured by this lady’s vision. Read her take on the series here.


Finally, I must say that whether or not people will watch it, this show will forever be marked in history as the first to boldly go where no one has gone before. Sorry, Trekkie fans, for the cheesy innuendo dealing – but this is exactly how I feel.


A great big thank you and bravo to the entire team of ALTBalaji. Looking forward to Season 2.


– Harpreet Singh


Audience reactions

India Today

Watch the Series here.



Devdutt PATTANAIK – GENDER FLUIDITY in Indian Mythology

Devdutt PATTANAIK’S talk on “Sexual Fluidity in Indian Mythology” – at IIT BOMBAY
The Talk was part of the Queer L!T Fest, organised by SAATHI