Is there a Dharma perspective on Homosexuality?!
Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 11:20AM
Jayant Kalawar in Classifications, Dharma, Gay, Queer, Straight, Vaishnava

Following headlines in the Indian press about the December 11th Indian Supreme Court decision to hold a 19th century British colonial law criminalizing consensual homosexual act as being constitutional, the question whether this follows from some ancient Indian tradition or belief has been making rounds in the social media, especially among the twitterati. One claim being made is that there is basis in Dharma traditions for such a law and quotes apparently from the Arthashastra by Chanakya (4th Century BCE) have been bandied around. Some of my friends asked me to opine whether there was an Advaita perspective on this. While I would like to contemplate on that particular question for some time before responding, I did some digging into the Arthashastra and came up with the following code in Book 4:

"When a man has connection with a woman against the order of nature (a-yonau), he shall be punished with the first amercement.

A man having sexual intercourse with another man shall also pay the first amercement."

Notice the punishment is amercement – i.e. arbitrary, left to the judge to decide based on circumstances. Compare this to some of the horrific specifics listed in the same section of Book 4 of the Arthashastra, for example, for someone committing adultery with a Brahmin woman:

"A Kshatriya who commits adultery with an unguarded Bráhman woman shall be punished with the highest amercement; a Vaisya doing the same shall be deprived of the whole of his property; and a Súdra shall be burnt alive wound round in mats."

Once a chapter and section of the Arthashastra is quoted to support a position, e.g. to criminalize homosexuality, in the 21st century, it opens up the whole chapter for review – and the role and interaction of Jatis is not too far behind, as you see in this case. Which would you selectively choose as being relevant in the 21st century? And who should do the choosing?

The subtler question to contemplate on is: when does a traditional text become a Sanatana (Eternal) Dharma text, rather than a temporal set of heuristics that play to a particular categorization of social experiences i.e. Jatis in power at a particular time (yes, Jati is a technical term for classification potential i.e. the ability to classify is recognized in Advaita Vedanta as one of the five human abilities that give rise to human language – the other four being Dravya (ability to experience physical sensations, Guna (potential to ascribe qualities and therefore differentiate experiences), Karma (ability to act in the physical world) and Sambandha (ability to form relationships with that which we experience in the physical world) )? In that sense can Arthashastra be considered to be a Smriti (that which remembers the Eternal Shruti, heard by the Rishis) limb of literature of Sanatana Dharma? If yes, what makes it so - what does it remember / memorialize from the Shrutis to make it into a Smriti? The Bhagavad Gita, for example, is considered a Smriti by Advaita Vedantins because it quotes extensively from Upanishads and answers philosophical questions threading from the mundane to subtle range of our experiences and imaginations.

This Book 4 of Arthashastra, on the other hand, comes across as a Criminal Penal Code perhaps appropriate for of a certain time. At best, perhaps, it is representative of a temporal Dharma text, articulated based on Sanatana Dharma precepts, as applied for a particular social configuration? If so, then do we need to go deep into the Sanatana Dharma precepts and use that as a basis to develop a corresponding Arthashastra compendium for the 21st century? 

By the way, if you are curious and have the time, the above quotes are from Book 4, Section 13 of the Arthashastra accessed at this link:


Jayant Kalawar is the author of The Advaita Life Practice, available at Amazon.

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