In the US, there is a cultural war going on involving trans-people. There is an argument that trans-women are women. That trans-women must be allowed to compete in women’s sports and get access to women’s bathrooms. Not much talk about trans-men in men’s sports though.
Those who oppose this trend, from Martina Navratilova to J K Rowling, are called TERF (Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists) who are even abused by trolls online as ‘milk-oozing bleeders with a bonus hole.’
There is a general dismissal of biological differences and greater value is placed on social constructs. This trend emerges from academicians in the gender studies department, who, tired of the hegemony of scientists, are now arguing that feelings matter more than measurement.
In India, however, the trans-world has always been acknowledged as a third category, the Tritiya Prakriti (TP). We find this in ancient literature, from Panini to Kamasutra. This category bundles every variant related to gender (trans, intersex) and sexuality (gay, lesbian, bi, asexual). It has been so for hundreds of years.
Ancient Indian Gender Studies
Gender studies are neither western nor modern. It was very much a part of ancient India. Words such as kliba (impotent, sterile), napunsaka (not male) and kinnara (not quite male) occur in Sanskrit literature as do pedi (cross-dresser) in Tamil, and pandaka (effeminate homosexual) in Pali. The meanings are unclear. Are they referring to biology (genitalia), psychology (sexual feelings), behaviour (sexual act) or social expression (clothing and public behaviour)?
In Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, composed in Sanskrit 2,300 years ago, everything is seen in physical terms—male is the one who has hair all over his body, woman is the one with breasts and long hair, and the one who is neither is ‘napumsaka’. In Buddhist literature, greater importance is given to behaviour, rather than to biological markings. So we hear of men who have sex with men, or women who behave like men.
In Jain scripture, we see a far more refined understanding of gender and sexuality. There is a separation of the physical body (dravya-purusha) from the psychological body (bhava-purusha). One recognises that the body can be male (purusha), female (stri) or queer (napunsaka). Sexual desire for male (purusha-veda) is equated with forest fire, for female (stri-veda), it is equated with dung fire, so least intense, and sexual desire for queer people (napumsaka-veda) is equated as settlement fire, so it’s the most intense. This idea is mirrored in Buddhist texts, too, and the reason for preventing queer people from becoming monks.
There is a reference to socialisation with purusha-napunsaka being differentiated from napunsaka, meaning, the masculine queer being differentiated from the default feminine queer. There is also a reference to active (padisevati) and passive (padisevavati) homosexual acts in Buddhist literature. All these ideas emerged between 5th century BCE and 5th century CE, and were explored in the following centuries.
The purpose here was, however, very different from modern gender studies, which seeks to create an ideal world where all manners of choices are permitted, respected and celebrated, and there is no imposition of patriarchal hetero-normative structures. Ancient Indian gender studies, by contrast, were designed to appreciate the diversity of nature, as well as to identify those who could become monks, outgrow sexual desire and liberate themselves from all karma.
Traditional Indian Response
While TP was seen as a part of nature, the challenge has been how to accommodate these people in culture.
Traditionally, in India, the trans community was allowed to exist on the fringes, serving the mainstream community as servants and entertainers, even security guards and attendants in women’s quarters of elite households.
By contrast, gays, lesbians and bisexuals were simply invisibilised—expected to marry and produce children by any means, keep up the pretence of heteronormativity, never proclaim their presence but allowed to explore their desires secretly.
The British criminalised this private sexual act; the Indian government decriminalised it in 2018. The Indian government has no problem creating a third gender category in passports. But when it comes to marriage, culture stops being accommodative as marriage is about property rights.
Traditional Indian society is more comfortable handling the ‘T’ of the LGBT community (most men who become women, less so with women who become men). This is true even in the Middle East. The problem is with LGB. By contrast, the West has been relatively more accepting of LGB than T. And this can be traced to mythology.
In Greek mythology, there are many stories of homosexual love—where men love men, and women love women. Apollo falls in love with Hyacinthus, while his sister Artemis drives Callisto away when she lets a man make her pregnant.
In Hindu mythology, we don’t find such stories. But we do find tales of Vishnu turning into Mohini, the damsel, or Shiva becoming Gopeshwar, or a gopi wanting to join Krishna’s raas leela.
There are Greek myths of transgenders, such as the tale of Tiresias who becomes a woman when he kills a female snake. But these are not dominant themes. Likewise, homosexuality is not a dominant theme in Hindu mythology, though there are tales of Hamsa-Dimbhaka, the gay generals of Jarasandha’s army, referred to by Mohan Bhagwat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a few months ago.
This explains why the government has no problems accommodating a kinnar (trans) akhara (spiritual community) in Kumbha Mela, while saffron-clad Mahants repeatedly mock gays and lesbians, saying they are influenced by Western values, especially when they demand legal rights, and refuse to be invisible.
The Mahabharata tells the story of prince Sudyumna, who enters an enchanted forest where all men turn into women. His horse turns into a mare. His dog turns into a bitch. Sudyumna becomes a woman called Ila who marries Budh, the god of the planet Mercury, who is of indeterminate sex. From this union springs the lunar dynasty of kings. In Bhagavat Puran, we learn that Budh was cursed to be of indeterminate gender by Brihaspati, the god of the planet Jupiter, who discovered that his wife Tara was bearing the child of Chandra, the moon-god. This story clearly refers to the male to female transformation, and an intersex state; both being related to the queer gender.
The Mahabharata also tells the story of a woman who becomes a man. Shikhandi is born with a female body but is raised as a man, and even given a wife. On the wedding night, with the help of a yaksha called Sthunakarna, she becomes a man. When Shikhandi enters the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Bhishma refuses to fight him as he was born as a woman but Krishna insists that we must respect the fact that he has turned into a woman. Indian lore was thus familiar with the tension between biological sex at birth and the chosen social gender.
In Baul traditions, we hear how Kali turns into Krishna and Shiva turns into Radha. Thus, gender fluidity is very much a part of Indian lore. But this is completely missing in the Bible or the Quran.
Abrahamic traditions, originating in the Middle East, dominate the world discourse. Preachers go so far as to say that God wants us to be homophobic and trans-phobic. In fact, supporting LGBTQ+ communities is seen as an act of blasphemy and pitched against religion. We see how political leaders get the support of Church and Islamic leaders by going against queer people in countries like Russia, Uganda, Malaysia, Pakistan and the entire Islamic world.
But the Islamic world denies its history of gender non-conformity. Persian and Arabic writers record the life of Tuways who lived during the last years of Muhammad and the reigns of the early Muslim dynasties. Tuways was mukhannathun—those who were born as men, but who presented as female. They are described by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani as wearing bangles, decorating their hands with henna, and wearing feminine clothing. One mukhannathun, Hit, was even in the household of the Prophet Muhammad. This is why a few Islamic communities, such as Iran, accept trans people, but not gays and lesbians. No one wants to talk about institutionalised man-boy love in Afghanistan and Central Asia, described by many poets. Babur even wrote about his love for a boy. The Islamist denies it vehemently, and labels those who point it out as Islamophobic Westernised perverts.
Hindutva, in its quest to create Hindus into a unified vote bank, follows the monotheistic model. It fears the woke ideology, and so argues that the Hindu scriptures do not see trans-people as equal to men and women. The TP are accommodated, as long they remain subservient. They are seen as traditional (unlike gays and lesbian) but lower in an imagined hierarchy. This is why Bollywood insists on presenting them as exotic creatures—magical beings who do not have human qualities, either supernatural, and magical, or saintly, righteous, pure and pious, but never ever normal, regular or equal.
(Views expressed are personal)
Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of 50 books on mythology, including Shikhandi: and other Tales they don’t tell you
(This appeared in the print as 'Trans Lore In Scriptures')