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Baba Ramdev is wrong, homosexuality is no disease

July 10, 2009 12:46 IST
Baba Ramdev calls homosexuality a disease. No textbook of psychiatry says so. The World Health Organisation does not say so. And no, not even the scriptures, certainly not the Yoga Sutra, says so. In all probability, this is the Baba's personal opinion. He has a right to his opinion. But can a country's law be based on his opinion?

The problem is that the Baba is a celebrity and in the times we live in, celebrities, especially those with a religious and cultural aura, are seen as voices of authority. We must be careful about such opinions. The practice of using science to justify social prejudices is not something new. Baba Ramdev, with his charm and benign smile, is doing what has been done before.

I remember an old black and white film starring Nutan called Sujata where a respected elder of the family explains the physiological reason for sustaining the practice of untouchability. 'They produce a lethal gas,' he said referring to the Dalits. Because the gentleman had standing, his opinion mattered. Many people agreed with the learned family friend. Not the hero. Not us.

In Hitler's Germany, hundreds of scientists dressed in white coats earnestly believed and rationalised that Jews were a social pathology, a disease, a gangrene that had to be wiped out to create a perfect, healthy society. This resulted in the Holocaust. It disgusts us today.

In South Africa, there were many scholars who went out of their way to publish articles to rationalise apartheid. They considered the non-White races to be subhuman. An entire social structure was constructed based on this ideology. We must be careful of such rhetoric.

The term 'disease' presupposes a normal health condition. Modern medicine uses this term very cautiously -- the patient must be distressed by it, or it must threaten a person's well-being, before it can be labelled disease. Disease cannot be a term used by a community to brand and weed out people that it is uncomfortable with. An unpopular social group cannot be labelled 'diseased' to justify extermination.

In Sparta, children who were born with congenital abnormalities, say a cleft lip and a malformed limb, were immediately killed. In the Mahabharata, a blind man was not allowed to be king. In Australia, well meaning ladies funded a project to forcibly take children from Aboriginal homes to prevent abnormal/diseased parenting and give them away in adoption to white parents. Would we do that today?

Significantly, even the term 'supernatural' presupposes a normal state of being. So a being with three heads in one culture would be seen as 'deformed' in another; he would be seen as 'supernatural' -- a demon for one, a god for another. How shall we classify deities with three heads and four arms? By whose gaze? By whose lens? By whose measuring scale? Ten thousand years ago, when food was scarce, a fat woman was worshipped as a goddess. Today, we consider her obese and psychologically torment her till she diets, exercises and sheds fat. Is that fair?

Logic and science and authority can be used to justify anything. But ultimately we have to ask -- what is our goalpost? Imagine your daughter is getting married to a nice young man who has homosexual feelings. Until a few weeks ago, he never told the world about it for fear of being branded a criminal.

Now, no thanks to the Baba, he feels he is mad. He does not think so. He does not feel so. But he is afraid to tell the world the truth of his desires. So he has firmly entrenched himself in the closet.

He will tell no one, certainly not his mother, or father, or brother, that he has had sex with men. Not one or two, but dozens, secretly, silently, furtive experiences, with men who like him are afraid to disclose their preferences in public lest they be labelled criminals or diseased.

He will marry your daughter. And your daughter will wonder why, in the privacy of the bedroom, this nice man shuns any attempt to be being intimate. Is she the problem? Her self worth will suffer. The marriage will suffer. Children will be conceived in loveless unions. The man will find it difficult to be faithful and seek comfort elsewhere. And your daughter will wonder what is wrong.

The secret will never be revealed. Everyone in this patriarchal society will blame the daughter. A sham of a marriage -- only because of a law, an intolerant society and Baba's authoritative opinion.

Homosexuality is natural -- it has been documented in animal species. Homosexual feelings are not a choice -- they exist in every human society. Why does it exist? What purpose does it serve? No one really knows the answer. It is like asking, why do humans experience orgasm? Orgasm does not play any role in procreation. Why does it exist (and it is found only in the human species and a few primates)? We can only speculate but we will never know.

The question is -- what are we as a civil human society doing about it? Do we call orgasm -- unnatural or miraculous, God's gift to humanity? What behaviour do we propose? Should we act on homosexual feelings or suppress them, stay celibate and serve society, as the good Baba suggests? Is celibacy a 'good' thing?

In the Mahabharata, sages like Agastya, Kardama and Jaratkaru are reviled by their ancestors for being celibate. 'Repay your debt to your ancestors,' they demanded and forced the rishis to marry and produce children. This desire for children stretched to a point where if one was sterile, as in case of Pandu, one was expected to send one's wife to a stranger to get impregnated by him.

Rishis had to have sex to produce children -- but were expected to be disciplined enough not to get pleasure out of it, to have sex without orgasm, for procreation, nothing else.

What about the wives of the rishis, one may ask. In one conversation with Urvashi, female sexual desire itself is described as a disease to be curtailed with fidelity and marriage. The epic refers to a time when women were free to express their desires followed by a time when they were restrained by laws of fidelity and chastity. Clearly, definition of what constitutes normal changed over time.

The changes continued with the rise of monastic orders like Buddhism (which incidentally popularised the saffron colour). Suddenly monasticism became superior social behaviour. It is so even today, not just in Buddhism but also in Jainism, in Roman Catholicism, and, thanks to the Shankaracharya, even in Hinduism.

While Sufi mystics chose to be celibate, ask a traditional Muslim cleric if celibacy is acceptable social behaviour. In all probability he will say no. He will insist on marriage and children and a householder's life. So much for celebration of celibacy.

What is normal and what is healthy is based on a measuring scale. Different people have different measuring scales. Notions of what is normal and what is not, what is physiological and what is pathological, change with time and place.

In this ever fluid world, how does one separate acceptable social conduct from what is unacceptable? Society, after all, is not a jungle.

A civil society exists to include people to enable them to live lives to their full potential. The underlying principle is empathy. I am sure the Baba has empathy. But he also has a measuring scale by which he considers same sex desires a disease.

One can show him findings from the animal kingdom, one can show him psychiatric text books, one can show him scriptural evidence of inter-sex states -- but he will dismiss it all as 'Western'. His measuring scale does not include everyone.

The Baba will say yoga considers homosexuality a disease. People will believe him. The media will quote him. And it will become about yoga and Western science. But strangely, the notion of disease does not exist in yoga. In yoga, all discussions are about creating harmony. And what is harmonious depends on the environment and goal -- thus, what is good in one situation for one purpose may not be so in another. Thus, the approach to ailment is very different form Western science.

Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra defines yoga as 'chitta vriddhi nirodha' -- the uncrumpling of the crumpled mind. The goal post of yoga is to realise divinity (some would say one's true self) by overpowering prejudice through increased awareness. I suspect, despite all the asanas and the pranayamas, the great yoga master has still some prejudices to uncrumple.

Dr Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical doctor by training and a mythologist by passion. After working in the pharma industry for over 14 years, he is now Chief Belief Officer at the Future Group. A renowned speaker and columnist, he has written over a dozen books on the relevance of sacred stories, symbols and rituals in modern times

Dr Devdutt Pattanaik