The recriminalisation of Sec 377 has made Benjamin Law’s witty book on gay life in Asia especially relevant. This excerpt features an interview with a famous Babaji who insists he can ‘cure’ homosexuality.
Random House India
Rs. 350, PP325
Show Babaji’s photo to any Indian on the street and they would recognise him immediately. His picture was plastered outside traditional ayurvedic pharmacies throughout the country: long, slick black hair, bushy beard and squeezable, always-smiling face…
Babaji led the simple life of an ascetic — steamed vegetables; strict sexual abstinence; same old orange robes day in, day out — and reportedly didn’t even have a bank account in his own name, but he was ridiculously rich. His empire of yoga camps, ayurvedic drugs, fruit juices and natural toiletries was estimated to be worth 25 million US dollars. To his 80 million followers worldwide, and 20 million regular television viewers who followed his exercises, Babaji was not a mere yoga instructor but a holy leader and cult hero… Of all of Babaji’s teachings though, perhaps his most controversial was his insistence that homosexuality was a shameful and sick disease, and that he had the means to ‘cure’ it...
...we joined the human river headed for the amphitheatre... Babaji signalled for us to sit down... He was wrapped in his usual robes: day-glo orange, the same colour you’d find at a rave... In a few quick moves, Babaji refolded his robes from a flowing neck-to-toe number into the skimpiest pair of running shorts imaginable. Now displaying his famously luxurious mat of chest hair, he led us through the moves slowly and methodically... The moves became more complicated: Russian Cossack leg thrusts, thalidomide-baby elbow claps... Babaji pinned his hands on the floor in a push-up pose, flinging his entire body and legs through his arms — back and forth, back and forth — before sitting with his legs crossed to show us something cool we could do with pranayam breathing. Closing his eyes, he sucked in his gut to make a concave shape between his ribs, a hollow big enough to fit your entire face. He jiggled his gut around rapidly, like a lava lamp in time lapse. We applauded. It was as impressive as it was gross. If these were the moves that were supposed to straighten out gay people, I would be gay for the rest of my natural life...
The following day… I got to meet Babaji one-on-one… Babaji had agreed to grant ‘private’ interviews, albeit ones in which we would be surrounded by his all-male Entourage… After we sat down together, … I asked him about some of his health claims, like the one that yoga had the power to cure people of HIV. Babaji laughed — everything seemed to amuse him — and said he stood by those claims...
‘Then in 2009, with the repeal of Section 377 —’ I started.
Babaji nodded, putting up his hands and interrupting, knowing what I was about to ask.
‘When I visit the US or the UK, people — the gay community, gay individuals — they look at me and think, “Oh, this could be a dangerous person.”’...
‘But I think positively of their conditions! It’s a habit. It’s a wrong habit, and also, it’s a mental disorder.’ He switched to English, as if to make his statement more official. ‘Homosexuality,’ he said, ‘is a bad mental habit.’... ‘The perversion can extend up to a level,’ Babaji continued, ‘where people wish to have sex with animals.’
‘Right,’ I said, taking notes. ‘So it’s a sliding scale, then. A spectrum.’
Babaji turned out his palms and nodded. ‘It’s a spectrum of perversion, from normal sexual desire to perverted sexual desire. Most male homosexuals? They are actually heterosexual, you know. They have their usual sexual relationships with women, but they also wish to have homosexual behaviour sometimes. So it’s normally an extension, a perversion of normal behaviour.’
‘And what about female homosexuals?’ I asked. Silence. ‘Lesbians,’ the translator said ominously in English. Babaji shot me a little smile, as if he’d heard a dirty joke.
‘Oh, it’s also the same thing! If they were purely lesbian, you could argue that it was biological. But behaviourally, they are heterosexual also. Only the minority — 1 per cent — of these people are purely not heterosexual, purely gay or lesbian. Most are not attracted to each other sexually, but to each other as individuals. And then it becomes …’
‘Something else?’ I offered.
‘Something else,’ he said. ‘These relationships can have a normal spectrum, but also a perverted spectrum. The practice of pranayam and meditation can give us a mastery over it, so we’ll be able to get out of the bad habit…
‘You say you can cure all this,’ I said.
Babaji sighed. ‘Pranayam and meditation can help.’
So Babaji’s infamous de-gayification program was all about breathing correctly? Pranayam was the basis of breathing techniques taught in yoga classes all over the world. I thought of my yoga classes back in Australia. Often these classes were packed full of gay men who wouldn’t be straightened out even if you surgically inserted metal rods into their spines.
‘Do you see homosexuality as a Western import?’
Babaji shrugged. ‘This is not a Western or Eastern thing. Only a bad habit. It’s unproductive sex! It’s like throwing the seed into the fire.’…
* * * *
In New Delhi, I sat in a plush hotel room, sipping tea and listening as someone gossiped to me about Babaji.
‘Oh, I’m convinced he’s gay,’ she said. ‘You see him with those young boys on his TV shows… The way he touches them and looks at them…’ The Doctor… had a lot of history with Babaji... One of The Doctor’s most memorable confrontations with Babaji had taken place when they were miked up in TV studios in separate cities, waiting for the host to introduce them... Babaji had gestured to The Doctor on the monitor and snidely asked the TV producer a question. ‘So, she is also like this?’ he said, implying she was a lesbian.
‘You know, Babaji,’ The Doctor said, ‘I am exactly like you are. There is no difference between you and me. Meanwhile, it looks like you’ve found one great way to sell more of your medicines.’
Furious, Babaji was about to fire back when the cameras started rolling.
‘Oh, he was so f***ing angry with me,’ The Doctor said. ‘He’s a vicious queen.’