Hinduism embraces the ‘third gender’

Gender unity: A transgender Hindu devotee dances during Lathmar Holi celebrations, as Indians become more accepting of trans people after a landmark court ruling. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Gender unity: A transgender Hindu devotee dances during Lathmar Holi celebrations, as Indians become more accepting of trans people after a landmark court ruling. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Hinduism is a way of life and not an organised religion with a central authority. It is a synthesis of a large tapestry of philosophies and belief systems, bound together by common threads and a very large body of extant works that has evolved over 10 000 years. These include a tradition that acknowledges a “third gender”, neither male nor female, or both at once, which has now received legal recognition in India.

Among the fundamental principles of Hinduism are dharma (the right action in a given context) and ahimsa (nonviolence), as well as reincarnation and a belief in each person’s inherent divinity.
Gender and sexuality are understood to be mutable. Morality and purity are informed by many factors and are not grounded in dogma. The goal of every Hindu is to conclude the journey to the divine self, the Atman, which is without gender yet embodies male and female as well as a third “other”.

No particular Hindu philosophy claims ascendancy over others. It is believed that we must each make the journey back to the source in accordance with our individual nature. Within every person there exists male and female, giving everyone an inherently “bisexual” nature. This does not mean bisexuality as a condition in the way the West sees it, but it does free each person to discover and acknow-ledge the male and the female within the self if they are to grow to their full potential on the journey to the highest self.

In the Tantra, which forms the bedrock of both Hindu and Buddhist thought, the dynamic of sexuality and gender is an indicator of natural procreative regeneration, a process of psychological and spiritual integration. These complex spiritual and philosophical ideas have been realised in the many myths and legends of India going back more than 5 000 years, and have given shape to the idea of the transgender person, a person of the “third gender”, also known as the hijra.

Hijras (who can be eunuchs, intersex or transgender) are seen as evolved beings. They appear in ancient texts as bearers of luck and fertility. This sacred idea of the androgyne is developed in the many myths relating to the god Shiva, who is male and female and who, in this dual state, is called Ardhanarishvara.

Ardhanarishvara is the presiding deity of the Ajna or chakra of the third eye, associated with spiritual awakening. This is where we transcend gender in finding the perfect balance between our male and female selves. Hinduism often conceives of each person as in search of our female half if we are male, or the male side if we are female, in a quest for integration and transcendence.

There is a transgender presence in the Tantra, as well as in the epic text the Mahabharata, in which the male Shikhandi (born as the female Shikhandini) was pivotal in the great war of Kurukshetra. Elsewhere in the epic tale is the story of the warrior Aravan, who knew he would die in battle but wished to be married first. So the god Krishna assumed female form and married Aravan.

In South India, hijra communities attend a pilgrimage to worship Krishna and Aravan, seeing in the marriage the supreme sacrifice of love because, in the Mahabharata, on the next day the transgender Krishna was widowed. The hijra community re-enact this legend every year in a colourful ritual that lasts several days. Many transgender myths and legends come alive in such annual pilgrimages, often attended by married heterosexual men who dress as women for the day to gain favour or a boon from the goddess.

In Hinduism, the highest self, the Atman, is attained when we realise our divinity. This highest self is without gender. The Tantric Shastra, which informs the philosophy that underlies this idea of divine androgyny, is considered a sacred text.

For centuries, hijras were respected as spiritual figures in society, though they have faced discrimination in India since colonial times. In the cities of modern India, many hijras have had to scratch out a living by begging or taking on menial jobs or sex work.

Yet, for centuries, they were sought after to perform blessings and ceremonies at marriages and births. They were midwives and dispensers of traditional medicine. In the royal courts they rose to positions of great power. They were believed to have the power to grant wishes and cast spells.

In Tantric philosophy, sexual activity is multidimensional and is not restricted to the idea of male and female. In the ancient matriarchal spiritual traditions of Hinduism, sexuality is regarded as path towards the higher feminine self. In this context, the goddess Bahuchara Mata is the main deity of the traditional transgender community.

The contemporary transgender community has organised itself around the figure of the guru-mother and the chela or daughter. When the relationship between these “generations” is loving and nurturing, these groups can be a haven for young hijras who have been ostracised.

A landmark 2014 judgment by India’s supreme court granted transgender people the status of a “third gender”, recognising them as a socially and economically disadvantaged class. “It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the judgment stated, granting rights to those who self-identify as neither male nor female.

The court also directed the government to provide transgender people with adequate access to healthcare, education and employment, as well as separate public toilets and other safeguards against discrimination. Documents such as birth certificates, passports and driver’s licences will now have a box for a third gender.

A transgender minister has been elected to government, jobs have been reserved for what is now a scheduled group, and India’s first transgender news anchor has gone on air. Men marrying a hijra is now fairly common. Once in such a marriage, which is heterosexual by nature, the couple often foster a child. This means the dignity of transgender people is steadily being restored.

But the ruling does not apply to sexuality as such, leaving India’s lesbian, gay and bisexual people in limbo. In fact, it goes against a later judgment, by a different Bench of the supreme court, which upheld the controversial section 377 of the Indian penal code that criminalises “sex against the order of nature”, which is interpreted as gay sex — sex between two men or two women. In this respect, India still has a way to go. 

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