Giti Thadani: “A Global Conversation on Faith and LGBT* Needs to Begin Opening Up to Complex Questions”

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Giti Thadani: “A Global Conversation on Faith and LGBT* Needs to Begin Opening Up to Complex Questions”

Writer, archivist, activist and expert on the Hindu Shakti goddess traditions shows how thousand year old non-binary traditions and dual deities of the same sex reverberate and guide us today

Photos by Giti Thadani
Aug 18, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog 

One of the key defining events of my life was when as a young 15-year-old school-goer I was viciously slapped by one of the school teachers. My crime was that I refused to say the Christian prayer of “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven.” The prayer was deemed obligatory even for non-Christian students despite colonial rule being over. I was given the choice to either believe (or pretend to) or be expelled. The school was always trying to make us buy pamphlets called “Soldiers of God” (all about torture and martyrdom). On the other hand non-Christian students were never meant to go inside a church. Nor was speaking in Indian languages encouraged during school time. But there was one discovery at the same time that deeply moved me. My brother and myself discovered my father’s music collection and one of its treasures was Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” – a part of culture both sacred and of the court. When I left school, Bach always remained with me. 

For me, these memories bring up the question about how the concept of “religion” is defined? How does it play out in different temporal and geopolitical cultural, spiritual and intellectual contexts? The main foundation of certain kinds of monotheism is institutional belief. It is not the private search of the divine in its plural modalities (be it private faith, secret knowledge, or artistic transcendence). It is not relegated to an exterior savior or fixed eternally onto a human middleman (such as a prophet). This inherently sets up binary oppositions at multiple levels including that of gender, eros and sexuality. 

In contrast, the idea of multiple cosmologies is coming from one open source that best can be described through the below lines from the Rig Veda, an ancient Indian collection of four sacred canonical texts of Hinduism known as the Vedas. They are considered to be one of the oldest texts in Sanskrit, estimated to be several millennia old. 

In these lines, one could say, the womb was conceptualized very differently. 

maidens moving together, with adjacent boundaries, 
sisters (svasara), twins (jami) in the expansiveness of the tidal waves;
they kiss – united, of the (universe’s) focal point;
may dyava protect us and earth not be so immense.

RV 1.85.5

 

agile, dwelling, arriving at the nodal point of the immortal elixir (amrit);
endless expansive, without limit, the circumambulating paths of dyava prithvi

RV 5.47.2

 

One of the earliest cosmogonies recorded in the Rig Veda is that of the dual feminine deities – dyava. Dyava emerges from the word dyavau which is the dualized feminine of the root dyu – light. The phonetic movement from au to a is the expression of the dual as one unit, yet not losing its dual identity. This dual cosmogony represented a union whereby the feminine twins could be seen as lovers, as mothers, as sisters. 
 

This sculptural depiction is about 1400-1500 years old. It was then called the Yogmaya temple dedicated to the Shakti (feminine energy) traditions. It was destroyed in the early Islamic invasions and converted into a mosque and part of what is called the qutab minar site.
The geometry of the old sculptures was retained but the human sculptures were badly disfigured. On the image one can see the graphics of the primordial womb – beneath entwined serpentine (kundalini) dual twin figures and beneath a couple (badly destroyed) couples in these kinds of sites could be same sex or different sex. There were also depictions of hermaphrodite and transitional genders. Copyright: Giti Thadani

In fact, in many of these cosmogonies one does not find consorted deities of the opposite sex but dual deities of the same sex (both male and female) being referred to as twins (jami). Normally in a binary situation there would be heaven and earth, both static – earth below and heaven/sky above. That binary dualism would be then reflected and repeated in binary gender roles as well, in a man/woman or father/mother dualism. However, when one has a dual masculine or feminine deities with a third entity, another dynamic develops: one could speak of an equilateral triangle in which all three sides are equal. 

This creates a complex cosmological philosophy that builds on dynamic movements and new forms of combining, rearranging and meeting and, in this process, creating interchangeable chains, constellations and patterns – akin somewhere to Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” For me, his work reverberates and expresses such dynamic constellations and patterns.

These cosmologies (under the umbrella of Hinduism) continued for several thousands of years and were later transformed into temple performance art, sculpture, or graphics. This dynamic continuum was however destroyed with invasive monotheism wherein believers of different faith were denunciated as “idol worshipper” and deemed worthy only of either being killed or being a slave. 

Religion became an ideology based on a system of absolute belief and adherence instead of a fluid humane value system to navigate, communicate and re-explore different levels of life. Today, this ideological and in fact totalitarian closure however echoes in other belief systems as well as a refusal to work out complex family, social and professional relationships. 

It can show itself in a superficial “god is dead” nihilism. Or in the rigidity and absoluteness of how victim status at times is claimed, including by individual LGBT* people, avoid of any empathy or even awareness of others suffering; those who are exiled, put into some concentration camp or are killed in the name of honor.  

What does this mean for activist interventions on the different areas of faith? Is activism simply lobbying with established institutions to be open to reform? What does it mean that within certain “religious laws” homosexuality may get the death penalty? 

In pluralistic traditions of Hinduist cosmology there was a network of temple sites – some large, some under a tree, in a cave or as ones private temple. One could have a different private desired deity, a different family deity/ies and different state deities. Thus no one kind of institution had a monopoly. 

The sculpture is over 1000 years old and part of a temple city in Bhuveneshvar. Copyright: Giti Thadani

For example, in a small temple in Kerala, a region in the South of India, there was a homoerotic temple which performed a sacred dance (theyam). It was performed by the Brahmin to the tantric god Shiva – as his servant-consort. The god was performed by so called lower castes – all men. The temple allowed no women. This was changed – however men and women could not sit together and the offerings were only given to the men. Many of the alternate non-binary traditions saw the manifestation of kundalini (in Hinduism a divine feminine energy) as sexual energy which could be manifested at the levels of the body, the spirit and the mind or artistic performance. It was to attain the divine – to make the divine descend onto the human plane.

Today the state has a communist Islamic government which has taken over many such temple practices. Ironically the Indian communists were those who opposed all the early alternate gender movements. Today a lot of the funding that is coming in is not used to study Indian histories and to enhance and improve their spiritual spaces but actually to attack them, often denouncing these practices as LGBT, as a projected “Other” and using these references as a wedge between communities. This makes it very difficult for many young people who are coming from more traditional backgrounds in which non-binary traditions play an important role. They are often ridiculed, particularly as to these non-binary expressions of their faith. 

For a genuinely global communication and conversation to happen we need to begin opening up to complex questions. I have touched upon some taboo themes but I think these themes need to be addressed if a global conversation and movement is to be meaningful. I hope this small intervention is one such step. 

I would like to end with another quite different memory. A great deal of my early activism was between traveling in different countries and learning different cultures – including my own. And as I was reflecting on what the movement had created in terms of powerful intersecting spaces, a very special memory came back to me, a memory that gives me hope for change to be possible. It was during a Christopher Street Day (CSD) parade in Berlin, Germany, in the later part of the 1990s. There was a Jewish LGBT float and they asked me to join them – so I jumped in. There was a quiet older man who started speaking to me – but more like he was speaking to himself. He said that he would have never thought it could be possible to cross the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin as a homosexual – as a Jew and as an East German.
 

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Giti Tadani is a researcher, writer, visual artist and was a founding member of the first Indian lesbian archive, Sakhi. She has worked extensively on the Hindu Shakti goddess traditions encompassing ancient architectures, visual and textual traditions. 

As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part?

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organizations or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.