Can India's Spiritual Guru End a 150-Year Ban on Gay Sex?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

As India’s Supreme Court considers whether to hear challenges to a law criminalizing gay sex, one of the nation’s most prominent spiritual leaders is speaking out against the statute.

“It’s an outdated law from the British time,” Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, in an interview with The Advocate during his recent visit to the U.S.

And there’s an even greater argument against the law, he said: “Love transcends gender. Love is beyond gender. And attraction is only a reflection of love, it is a shadow of love, and love is divine.”

Section 377 does indeed date to the British colonial era. It specifically prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal,” even between consenting adults, and violation carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The Delhi High Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2009, saying it interfered with several fundamental rights, chiefly the right to equality, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the rights to life and liberty.

But the Indian Supreme Court reinstated it in 2013, saying the lower court had overstepped its bounds and that only Parliament can change the law. Now the court’s chief justice is hearing a petition to strike down Section 377, and Indian celebrities and Western diplomats have joined LGBT activists in seeking an end to the statute.

Shankar is the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, a nonprofit humanitarian and educational organization that has operations around the world. He is no relation to the late, esteemed musician of the same name, except, he pointed out, as a member of the human family; the “Sri Sri” in front of his name is a title of respect used in India. He’s famous in his home nation, well-regarded by many — he’s known as a guru to business executives and politicians. He is also sometimes controversial — he has lately been disputing regulators’ findings about the environmental effects of the foundation’s World Culture Festival, held last March.

But he is nothing if not ambitious — he has even tried to persuade the terrorist group ISIS to abandon violence — and he is outspoken on many issues. He’s been a proponent of LGBT rights, especially the decriminalization of same-sex relations, for several years.

In 2013, in a series of tweets after the Supreme Court ruling, he asserted that Hinduism, the religion practiced by a majority of India’s population, does not consider homosexuality a crime, and said no one should face discrimination for their sexual orientation. He has continued making those points in interviews and other venues.

“We need to have people of all mind-sets overcome prejudice,” he told The Advocate.

He bases his support for LGBT rights — and his beliefs in general — not only on the Hindu religion. His philosophy and that of the Art of Living Foundation are drawn from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

“We need to take the good things that religions and traditions teach us and discard others,” he said. “There are some good things in every tradition.”

In opposing Section 377, he is in good company. A group of out Indian celebrities — business executive Ayesha Kapur, dancer Navtej Singh Johar, journalist Sunil Mehra, chef Ritu Dalmia, and hotelier Aman Nath — recently petitioned the nation’s Supreme Court to strike down the law. The court declined to hear their petition but told them to take it directly to Chief Justice T.S. Thakur; in India, the chief justice has the power to decide which cases will be heard and set up a panel of judges to hear them. Thankur is already considering a separate case seeking to invalidate Section 377. The Naz Foundation and other LGBT groups are working to bring an end to the law as well.

Also, in June, diplomats from 27 countries with a presence in India issued a statement calling for equal rights for LGBT citizens, although it did not directly address Section 377. The Supreme Court did make a transgender-supportive ruling in 2014, providing for the legal recognition of trans people as a third gender and calling for their equal treatment in all walks of life, but it has not been universally enforced, and trans Indians, along with LGB ones, still face discrimination.

The diplomatic statement came at a Pride Month event shortly after the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Florida, and the event also served as a memorial to the shooting victims — 49 people were killed and 53 wounded.

Shankar mused on the tragedy during his Advocate interview. “Such crazy people do exist,” he said. “My prayers are with the families of the victims. The culture of violence should be put to an end. All of us who love nonviolence should get together. The voice of peace must be heard strong and clear.”

And the voice of equality too, he added, but with fighters for equality displaying a positive attitude. “Activists need to keep up the pressure, but at the same time they need inner calm,” he said. “I would like activists to put on a smile.”

Tags: World, Religion, India

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