Hinduism and HIV/AIDS

An Interview With Asavari Hedwadkar, M.D.

While at The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008) in Mexico City, I met with religious leaders from around the world. They talked about their struggle to find a way to address HIV/AIDS within their traditions.

My name is Asavari Hedwadkar. I'm from India. I'm a medical doctor by profession, and I have been involved with HIV work for many years. During the last five years, I've been involved with interfaith work on HIV/AIDS.

I'm part of the Asian Committee -- we have the Asian Interfaith Network in HIV/AIDS -- as well as the India coordinator for the same organization, Asian Interfaith Network, HIV/AID, (known as AINA). I am the Hindu faith representative on this board.

Where are you from?

I'm from Bombay, India.

One of the questions I've been asking people is, what do you say when people of faith say that HIV is a punishment from God for sinning?

Since I belong to the Hindu faith, in the pure state of Hinduism, it basically means a way of living. Hinduism is one of the oldest religions, or philosophy. It's a philosophy in which there is nothing of right and wrong; it's a way of living, and it has imbibed all these. So it's good, it's bad, but there is nobody who raises the question of why somebody has got HIV. These concepts don't come in Hinduism.

On the 1st and 2nd of June 2008, we had one of the largest global Hindu leaders' meet and they made a declaration on HIV/AIDS, giving their commitment to including marginalized populations. (The meeting was called "Faith In Action -- Hindu Leaders Caucus on HIV/AIDS")

So it's very difficult for me to answer that question. During the entire two days' meeting, there was never a controversy that occurred, because it's a way of living.

The fact then is that if somebody is living with HIV, then they have to help. There's no judgment. But of course, they think about how one can help in the behavioral pattern, and how people will become more spiritual and be more responsible for themselves.

What's the source of the stigma related to HIV/AIDS, then?

I think the source of the stigma, if I talk about the Hindu leaders, it's not from them. They have been ignorant of the epidemic. The stigma thing has come up from the society, right from the medical professional.

I am a medical doctor. So the first, earliest problem of stigma and discrimination came from the health professionals. This lasted till more and more were people were diagnosed and it was reduced. In India, for the last five years, admission to hospitals for people with HIV has become easy.

So I think there are different areas due to what kind of discrimination came up. As a medical doctor, I think medical professionals are partly to be blamed to it.

But as religious groups, I feel, especially after this international AIDS meeting that we had recently, they are there quite often. And INERELA [International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS] -- Reverend Jim Matarazzo spoke there, and they were absolutely welcoming, saying, "Oh, my God, they must be in our groups, too, and we should help."

This is the response I got from a couple of top leaders, national global leaders, like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Art of Living, Swami Agnivesh, and the right extreme group of Hindu, which is called Vishwa Hindu Parishad. From there, Dr. Pravin Togadiya, who is one of their international leaders.

It was a very good response, I think. I mean, maybe through the Hindu way of living, through their own, their perspective could be shared with the other religious groups.

Many times, I've asked with, say, the Christian groups, why the top Christian leaders haven't come to the HIV meetings. Because the Hindu leaders: we had almost all the top leaders. So I think there's something to share with each other, how we can involve more leaders, religious leaders, and deal with the epidemic.

What do you think people of faith need to understand about HIV-positive people?

I think they have to understand that they have really gone through a trauma. It's not just the society, but even for themselves. Because the whole world is talking about HIV, and they talk about death. It's not easy. It's very depressing.

I think this is the concept that they have to understand. They have to understand the discrimination people with HIV go through. I think that's the area they have to realize. That's the area they really can impact.

What we always talk about is stigma and discrimination, because that's the problem of HIV. I don't think anything else is as big a problem as the stigma and discrimination. If you reduce that... I don't know if it will ever go completely, because it's always related, in a majority of countries, as a sexually-related disease.

I find that to remove it completely may not be possible. I don't know. That's my belief. But at least reducing it could make things easier for somebody living or affected, to deal with the situation.

My final question is, imagine HIV is cured, and it's a hundred years from now. What do you think that they'll say about the pandemic in a hundred years?

From what I have heard from the Hindu leaders, I think they will think that we should not stop telling people how to lead a spiritual life and be responsible. The area they have kept on emphasizing is on the behavioral part of the people who are the followers. They have to deal with the present; not just talk about scriptures and things. But talk, too, and talk, too, in a language that people can understand and help prevent HIV, or any future disease that's going to come about. So I think they will feel more responsible to always talk about responsibility, when it comes to behavior. I think that's the area they are going to realize they should keep on emphasizing in their preachings.

One final question about homophobia. Is there a lot of homophobia in the Hindu religion, or in India?

Whereas the scriptures are concerned, or the epic stories that relate to Hinduism, there have been enough mentions about homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites. So, per se, if people talked about it, they are not averse to the idea.

At the same time, I don't know how much they will help the groups. But they are quite aware of these activities and people who have their sexual prevalence.

In the book, the ancient book, Kama Sutra, they mentioned homosexuals, bisexuals. So in all the epic stories, there's a mention.

The Mahabharata is one of the biggest epic stories; it has one of the main characters who dresses up. I think that's what is called a transvestite.

These things are there. What we call in India, the eunuchs. There's a group of eunuchs, many of whom have a genetic disorder, and they are everywhere. In India, they are seen as auspicious for some occasions, where they come at the marriages and they dance for goodwill. At the same time, they go when the new child is born, in some communities. So it's a very mixed way, because Hinduism, I keep on repeating, is a way of living. So some things might shock me, might shock the Westerner, but it might be just normal in India.

If I talk about India, which has a majority of Hindus, the Indian legal system, which has absorbed the British rules and regulations, criminalizes homosexual behavior. That's very contradictory to actually what the society accepts. It's a contradiction.

There is now pending a new rule to be implemented which removes the law against homosexuals. Because we still have outdated British rules that we still follow in the legal system. But in society, if there is homosexuality, it can be maybe accepted. It's not totally discriminated against. So it's kind of a neutral approach, I think.

Thank you so much for giving me your time today.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.