The U.S. Supreme Court, in a historic decision earlier this year, made it legal for citizens of the United States, no matter what their sexual or gender orientation, to marry the person of their choice. The justices affirmed that this right to marriage is protected under the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal protection and due process.
As a consequence of the Supreme Court's decision, several Hindu temples in the United States have received requests from same-sex Hindu couples for religious marriage ceremonies. However, the decision of the Supreme Court does not mandate a religious organization, like a Hindu temple, to perform same-sex ceremonies. "The first Amendment," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority, " ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered."
Hindu temples in the United States that have received requests for same-sex marriages have to decide whether they are willing or not to autonomously offer such ceremonies. This decision must be made on the basis of the deepest teachings of the tradition and not on homophobia or erroneous assumptions. I believe that Hindu Temples should say "yes" to these requests for the following reasons.
The Hindu tradition is one of the earliest, and perhaps the earliest, to recognize that human sexual orientation is diverse and not just heterosexual. Ancient texts enlarge our thinking about sexual identity with categories, like tritiya prakriti (third-nature) that go beyond the usual binaries. Sex diversity is regarded as a part of the natural human diversity.
Persons having different sexual orientations are understood as inheriting these orientations at birth. They were not regarded or treated as deviant, immoral, or as transgressors of divine law. There is no condemnation in Hindu sacred texts of gays or lesbians for their sexual identities and no evidence of efforts to change their orientation. Common ethical values (sādhārana dharma), that include truth, compassion, forgiveness, sense-control etc., are obligatory for all human beings.
The intrinsic value of a human being, in the Hindu tradition, does not depend on sexual orientation. It is derived from the fact that all human beings embody equally the One Being (Ekam Sat), who is of ultimate value. This is the source of the Hindu reverence for all and the ground of our affirmation of human dignity and equal worth. Sexual orientation does not prevent one from attaining liberation (moksha), the highest goal for human beings; the obstacle, in most Hindu traditions, is spiritual ignorance (avidyā).
My support for same-sex marriage ceremonies in Hindu Temples in the United States is rooted in a Hindu theology that affirms a natural sexual diversity, the equal worth of all human beings, and the equality of access to liberation. The unambiguous Hindu affirmation of the spiritual equality of persons having different sexual orientations must be demonstrated in our willingness to offer them religious ceremonies to formalize and bless their relationships.
Some object to same-sex marriage ceremonies in Hindu Temples on the grounds that the traditional ceremony, based in the Vedas, assumes a heterosexual couple and the obligation to have children. The groom symbolizes Vishnu and the bride symbolizes Vishnu's spouse, Lakshmi. Although this is true, it is also true that the Vedas do not forbid same-sex marriages. This fact, I believe, gives us a choice and opportunity. A tradition, like Hinduism, that speaks of the divine in gender inclusive language and that describes the ultimate human self (ātmā) as free from gender specific attributes can certainly creatively interpret and adapt existing marriage ceremonies for the purpose of same-sex persons. The Hindu tradition has a long history of adapting itself to authentic new needs and contexts.
When making a choice about an issue that our tradition does not explicitly commend or forbid, the guiding principle cannot be whether it was done or not done in the past. Our central concern must be whether the choice we are considering is consistent with and faithful to the deepest teachings of our tradition. At the heart of the Hindu tradition, and what it means to be Hindu, is the teaching that the divine exists equally in all. This implies the inherent dignity and equal worth of all human beings. This teaching finds expression in lives of compassion, in identification with others in suffering and happiness, and in service and joyous self-giving. There is no core Hindu teaching that is violated by same-sex marriages. Opposition to same-sex marriage has never been and should never be a defining mark of what it means to be Hindu.
Although parenthood is one of the traditional purposes of a Hindu marriage, it is not the only one. Other purposes include friendship, worship, spirituality and pleasure. The tradition has shown wise flexibility in this matter. Hindus couples are not required to give proof of their procreative intent or ability before marriage and older persons are permitted to marry. Today, there are other options for raising a family and fulfilling traditional obligations. There are many children in need of loving families. Adopting a child in need is a profound way of fulfilling the highest obligations of the Hindu tradition to be generous (dāna) and compassionate (dayā).
In addition to looking into its deepest teachings, the Hindu tradition asks us also to identify with others in suffering and joy and to own their pain and happiness as our own. How will we think of same-sex marriages in our temples if we were gay or lesbian or if we had a gay or lesbian child? The purpose of this identification is to help us enter into the lives of the suffering other so that we may grow in compassion. Seeing ourselves in the ostracized, excluded, and demonized person of a different sexual orientation deepens our understanding of suffering and our resolve not to add to it by denying them the opportunities available to heterosexual people. Homophobia and its manifestations in our unequal treatment of LGBT persons is a form of violence (hiṃsā) that contradicts the Hindu ideal of non-violence (ahiṃsā).
In the Bhagavadgita, one of the critical tests of the goodness of any action is whether it contributes to the universal common good (lokasaṅgraha). The disciple, Arjuna, is asked to consider the common good before undertaking any action. If we choose to deny same-sex marriage ceremonies to Hindus, we are required to show how such marriages harm the universal common good. I believe that the common good is best served by committed relationships that embody the values of love, loyalty, care, and trust. Hindus have the opportunity to promote such relationships by supporting same-sex couples and offering them the sanctity of our marriage ceremony. In doing so we demonstrate fidelity, not only to the law of the United States, but also to the deep wisdom and character of our tradition.
Homophobia, characterized as it is by fear, hate and denigration of LGBT people, finds no justification in the Hindu tradition and contravenes its most fundamental teachings and values. Homophobia and the criminalization of homosexuality are significant legacies of colonialism and the impact of other traditions. Hindu theology offers a different teaching and allows us to lead in this matter. We must, with courage and without fear, say "yes" to same-sex marriages in our temples.