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Beyond the binaries

Revisiting the third gender in Hinduism

The first time – and one of the only few times – I ever saw a Tamil Hindu trans character was in an Indian TV show that my parents had always watched when I was younger. Her name was Ganga, a villain that was caught up in the high stakes melodrama of the show Arase. Ganga was merciless. She swung her long thick hair whenever she laughed sinisterly and only had a soft spot for her neglected wife, whom she had married before her transition. Even now, I feel very conflicted about her character – why does the only trans person depicted on the show have to be the villain? At the same time, there were never any malicious comments made about her gender on the show. Ganga was respected by her family (although her family was just as malicious toward others as she was), and everyone referred to her by the name she had chosen for herself and the pronoun she preferred. Since no transmisogynist comments were made about her, the show never implied a connection between her wickedness and her identity. Perhaps it was okay that she was a powerful villain.

In the end, the only type of discrimination that became evident to me as I reflected more on the depictions of trans people in South Asian media was one of the most insidious types that manifests over and over again against marginalized groups: the erasure of a cultural history, in this case after the start of British rule in India. Ganga sparked my initial curiosity and search for the missing narratives of South Asian trans people within the context of Hinduism, and why their stories are erased from mainstream South Asian media and in the Western world.

Before distortions: third gender in Ancient Vedic Hinduism

Hinduism, considered one of the oldest religions in the world, has a wide range of philosophies and concepts. It also has a multitude of modern interpretations and practices – especially with respect to LGBTQ communities. Many of the ideas about gender and sexuality in Hinduism don’t necessarily translate to Western modes of thought, making it particularly difficult for certain narratives to be shared. My particular experience with Hinduism is both coloured and limited by the fact that I grew up in a traditional and religious Tamil-Sri Lankan home, and many values and realities were taught to me through Hindu mythologies. One of these is a Tamil myth about Iravan, a minor character from the highly revered Hindu epic the Mahabharata, which dates back to eighth century BCE.

The Mahabharatha is set during the Kurukshetra War in the Kuru kingdom of ancient India. The war is a dynastic struggle between two families, the Pandava princes and their cousins, the Kaurava princes, for the throne of Hastinapur. Meanwhile, Iravan embarks on a journey in search of his father, wholly unaware that he is the son of Arjuna, a Pandava prince. When reunited with his son, Arjuna asks for his assistance in the war. Iravan proves himself to be a strong warrior and helps the Pandavas win many battles. But suddenly, one of the Kauravas, anticipating defeat, summons the help of a demon – there are many different variations about the summoning – to help them win, and kill Iravan.

Iravan is left with two choices: he can either attempt to kill the demon with his fellow warriors, or sacrifice himself to Kali, the Goddess of Power to ensure a victory for his father and uncles. Iravan chooses self-sacrifice but with one final request: to marry a woman before his death. No woman agrees to marry him, knowing he will be dead the next day, but finally, Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu deities, takes a human form and descends as a woman called Mohini and marries Iravan. The following day Iravan sacrifices himself to the Goddess Kali and Mohini mourns for him in the traditional Hindu manner. Iravan becomes immortalized as a village deity, and for having married Mohini, he becomes known as one of the several patron gods for trans people.

The day of Iravan’s marriage to Mohini is celebrated during the Koovagam festival, a highly ritualized 18-day festival that has been happening for centuries in an Indian village named Koovagam. Every year, thousands of trans individuals re-enact this ancient myth. First, the person marries the statue of Iravan by having a priest bless them and tie the ritual wedding threads around their necks. Following the marriage, they mourn the death of Iravan by crying loudly, breaking their bangles and changing into a white sari – it is a Hindu custom for a widow to wear white following the death of their spouse. The festival attendees also dance and play music as part of the celebrations.

This story is just one of the many ancient Hindu mythologies that are intertwined with the cultural narratives and history of trans individuals in South Asia. The Vedic religion that predates foreign influence and from which modern-day Hinduism evolved showed a deep understanding and respect for the LGBTQ community, especially trans people. It understood the concept of gender and sexuality in a culturally distinct way. This history is not apparent by looking at the treatment of trans individuals in contemporary Indian society, or at popular Western depictions which misconstrue Eastern religions as inherently oppressive.

I would like to humbly make the argument that Kali Yuga started alongside the onset of British rule in ancient India in the mid-19th century.

In Hinduism, the term “pums-prakriti” refers to males, “stri-prakriti” refers to females, and the third sex/gender category is “tritiya-prakriti.” There are other terms for sex and gender, but these three group the two together. The third gender is inclusive of people of a broad spectrum of genders and sexualities including trans, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and/or queer people. While third gender is a term that is used within Hindu LGBTQ communities, not all LGBTQ people in these or other communities identify as third gender. The term hijra, which has historically been used in South Asia to refer to eunuchs and intersex folks, is used almost exclusively to address trans people and cross-dressers today; not all hijras identify as third gender.

In the Vedic age, from 1500 to 500 BCE, rather than being persecuted or punished, third gender people were allowed to live in their own exclusive third gender societies and communities, or could continue to engage with the societies they grew up in if they wished. Even the famous Kama Sutra, an Indian Hindu text that gives guidance on sex and sexual desire, has a section that talks about pleasure specifically for third gender people.

The only thing that was frowned upon by society at-large was people engaging in rituals that didn’t align with their sexual orientation – for example, a gay man marrying a woman. The acceptance of varying genders and sexualities was understood as part of the basic Hindu philosophy which teaches that the material world is a mere reflection of the infinitely beautiful and eternal spiritual world – which has more variety that one can fathom. This is one of the reasons why in Hinduism – although there is only one ultimate reality, and one eternal, perfect being – the deities manifest in so many different forms.

In the end, the only type of discrimination that became evident to me as I reflected more on the depictions of trans people in South Asian media was one of the most insidious types that manifests over and over again against marginalized groups: the erasure of a cultural history, in this case after the start of British rule in India.

In the Vedic age, trans people were symbols of good luck. They were protected by the community, and it was believed that their blessings would help society. This luck was attributed to the belief that third gender people, because they occupy a distinct identity beyond the gender binary, played an important balancing role in human society and nature. In fact, one ritual – which continues to a lesser extent today – included inviting trans people to all kinds of birth, marriage, and religious ceremonies because their presence was considered to be auspicious. Although one could interpret this inclusion as mere tokenism, it is also important to consider that many important rituals such as weddings and births are not centred around the few individuals who are directly participating, but rather the entire community, where every member has symbolic religious roles. Trans people were also well represented in Vedic religious scriptures and within religious artwork, and were considered almost semi-divine. This, however, in no way reflects the unfortunate reality faced by trans folks in contemporary South Asian societies.

Modern-day realities

Ancient Hindu texts describe a final stage called Kali Yuga in the life cycle of the universe. Kali Yuga is the apocalyptic stage that the world goes through before the rejuvenation of the universe, and is described as a time when human civilization begins to degenerate spiritually. While some religious scholars interpret LGBTQ communities as a symptom of Kali Yuga, others, such as Amara Das Wilhelm, argue that this was never stated in Vedic texts. In fact, Wilhelm argues that the intolerance and mistreatment of third gender people is the true sign of Kali Yuga.

Many also debate when Kali Yuga started and when it will peak. I would like to humbly make the argument that it started alongside the onset of British rule in ancient India in the mid-19th century.

During the colonization of India, the British initiated the erasure of third gender people and experiences. Firstly, there was the problem of translation and understanding. Many of the ideas that Hindus were immersed in were not well understood by the British colonialists. One example of this was the understanding of gender.

Popular thought in the West had largely forced a binary understanding of gender and a heteronormative conception of sexuality. Because of this, the third gender was mistranslated in various ways, such as conflating gay men with eunuchs and lesbian women with impotent women. The British settlers deemed third gender individuals to be ‘unnatural’ and believed that they upset the order of nature, while Hindus accepted the third gender to be part of the natural, material world.

Aside from mistranslations, references to third gender were at other times simply omitted in the English translations of important Vedic Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. Eurocentric morals and Christian thought were taken as ultimate truths and used against the colonized, while the settlers portrayed Hinduism as a barbaric and backwards religion.

This resulted in the eventual criminalization of trans people under the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Tribes Act, which were established in 1860 and 1871, respectively. The law also attacked many other groups that British rulers considered threats – homosexuality, for example, was declared a crime in 1860. In the following years, trans people’s rights continued to be stripped away and they were forcibly removed from social and cultural practices.

Unfortunately, this discrimination has spread and found its way into the mainstream understanding of modern-day Hinduism. In India right now, many trans people are highly discriminated against and are forced to live on the streets as beggars or sex workers. They can also be prohibited from receiving a driver’s licence, identification cards, and other important documentation.

Although many of the laws regarding ‘deviant behaviour’ that were used to describe and criminalize LGBTQ people have been abolished in the West, notions of unnatural deviancy that were imposed through colonial rule are still deeply rooted in modern-day India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which was enacted by the British colonial regime, still exists today – almost two centuries later – and ambiguously criminalizes all “unnatural offences.”

Despite this, the hijra community in India, and more broadly in South Asia, has shown a tremendous amount of resilience. In South Asia one can find exclusively hijra communities that support themselves but also provide support for third gender children and teens who have had to flee their homes because of rejection and discrimination. Because of successful trans rights activism and such communities, conditions are slowly starting to improve for trans people in India and the whole of South Asia.

For example, the Tamil Nadu state in India established a welfare board and policies for trans people, wherein the state provides free sex reassignment surgery, food, housing, and full scholarships for pursuing university studies. Because of the investment in providing access to higher education for trans people, new literature is increasingly being published about trans experiences. Trans people are slowly getting increased visibility in the media and their basic rights are being enforced by the state. Although there are concerns about delays in how changes are being implemented, these policies represent change on a political level that is starting to occur in India as a whole.

Here is one more short myth to illustrate the importance of the third gender community within Hinduism. At my parents’ house, in our prayer room, there is a small picture of the androgynous forms of the Hindu God Shiva and Goddess Parvati called Ardhanarishvara, who appears as half man, and half woman. This is a very popular form and depiction of Lord Shiva, and I’ve seen it many times in temples and in religious books. When Shiva and Parvati married, both deities wanted to share their experiences. So when she sat on his lap, Shiva shed half of himself and Parvati became half of him. Because they had a perfect balance between masculinity and femininity, they experienced a totality that was beyond a gender binary, a perpetual state of ecstasy.

Part of the symbolism is centred around the belief that masculine and feminine principles are complementary, but also around the implication that something greater and more fluid lies beyond the sex and gender binary. Because of this, those who are third gender are considered to be spiritually privileged beings in Hinduism, as the ultimate goal of Hinduism is to achieve liberation through moksha – to break free from the life cycle and transcend beyond sensual experiences. This is the ultimate goal regardless of the individual’s gender or sexuality.

If not privileged, the narratives of third gender people at least deserve more space than they have today. Despite violent erasure in recent history, it is undeniable that they once occupied a respected space, and they deserve to regain that. There is no single understanding of gender and sexuality; this is why we must make an effort to uncover culturally distinct narratives and allow more voices to be heard – not just within the context of Hinduism and South Asia, but within the whole world.