Gender Shock

APTOPIX Germany Athletics WorldsBy Amara Dasa Wilhelm

When South African track star Caster Semenya was recently identified as intersex by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), much of the world was shocked to discover that not everyone is 100 percent male or female. News anchors scrambled to define terms such as “intersex” and “hermaphrodite” while doctors were forced to explain how modern science determines sex to begin with. There were outcries over Semenya’s right to privacy and the “shame” of her being globally pronounced anything less than purely male or female.

All this commotion would likely surprise those of the world’s ancient cultures, including the Vedic, who demonstrably possessed a more rational understanding of sex and the gray area existing between male and female. While gathering resources for my book, Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, I came across no fewer than forty Sanskrit words describing gender-variant people ranging from the “dviretas,” “with both male and female reproductive tissue” (Caraka Samhita 4.2.17), to the “shandha“, or “men behaving as women” (Sushruta Samhita All of the many known types of sex and gender differentiation, both anatomical and behavioral, are described within the vast canon of Sanskrit literature.

Modern science has only recently caught up with and perhaps surpassed the Vedic diagnosis. For instance, we now know that beyond the common chromosomal patterns of XY male and XX female, there are also men with XYY and XXY and women with XO and XXX chromosomes. Such variations produce various intersex effects. More significantly, variations in embryonic hormones can override the chromosomes and cause an XY boy to appear or behave female (to various degrees) and vice versa for an XX girl.  Hundreds of related sex and gender variations have been found in both humans and animals, and they are much more common than previously thought. If we include all types of gender differentiation from bisexuality to the most rare form of intersex, approximately 30 percent of all humans can be placed within the “gray” or “gender-different” category!

Why, then, all the fuss and misunderstanding about gender differences in humans? Much of this is cultural. While ancient cultures were typically familiar with and able to accommodate gender differences, modern societies seem to prefer stigmatizing and hiding them. Intersex babies are surgically altered to pass as either male or female while transgender and homosexual persons are rebuked for any gender behavior deemed different from normal. Modern Vaishnavas are also highly reluctant to accommodate or even acknowledge the “in-between” or “third” sex, despite various references in our own scriptures.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna implores us to understand both the spiritual and material natures properly because only then can we correctly utilize things in his service. “To follow another’s path,” he says in verse 3.35, “is dangerous.” Caster Semenya, although gender-different by nature, was likely pressured into assuming a “100 percent female” role and is now suffering from the simple untruth of it. The real shame, however, is not Semenya’s but rather modern society’s insistence on a “two-gender only” paradigm despite its limitations, artificiality, and potential for harm. Fortunately, Caster Semenya herself is keeping the whole incident in proper perspective: “God made me the way I am and I accept myself,” she told the South African You magazine. “I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.”

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19 Responses to Gender Shock

  1. It seems like the whole issue here is strictly a physical subject. It doesn’t really fall within any particular spiritual spiritual issue.
    The whole article is about abnormal physical features.
    Genes, hormones and chromosomes are not the part of any spiritual discussion.
    Being hermaphrodite, bi-sexual, or “intersex” has nothing to do with spirituality or lack thereof.
    When the gay agenda starts to overcome spiritual topics, we must start to wonder if in fact there will be proper spiritual substance on this web site.
    The Vedas deal with all sorts of mundane and material topics, issues and subjects. There is the karma-kanda portion of the Vedas that deal with material gain and mundane matters.
    That some subject is dealt with in Vedic texts does not prove that the matter has anything to do with spirituality.

    • Some social/scientific issues are relevant to practicing Vaisnavas and members of all spiritual traditions. For example, should an intersex person be allowed to live in a monastery or convent if he/she so desires? This is question that could come up, as it has in this case regarding eligibility for certain athletic events. Modern expressions of timeless spiritual traditions sometimes find themselves more influenced by modern social trends than they do attitudes from the past. This can be good and represent essential spiritual thinking. However, in some instances it can be bad and represent modern bias. In the article the author has made the case that modern bias towards defining sexuality as either male or female is less representative of ancient Hindu attitudes found in sacred texts, attitudes that are more closely aligned with scientific fact.

  2. I think you have been asked to read the about us page before. But I would request you to actually do so.

    • I actually have read it at least twice.
      My point is that everyone knows that this website is being conducted in conjunction with oversight by Tripurari Maharaja.
      As such, this web site will be seen as reflective of his positions on current issues.

      I would like to however cite a quote from the ABOUT section of the web site.

      Our focus is also devotional Vedanta and the school of Sri Caitanya—Gaudiya Vedanta—in particular. We publish articles illuminating the philosophical conclusions of Gaudiya Vedanta, often by way of interfacing with other spiritual and philosophical traditions in a way that honors these traditions in their own right.

      I am at a loss to see how this particular article relates to the standard outlined here in the ABOUT page.

      Since the chief editor of this web site is Tripurari Maharaja, would expect no less than the web site adhering to the standard of discussion that one would expect from a Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasi.
      Sometimes, the standard of the topics here appear to reach well-beyond anything one would expect to find within the range of discussion of a Gaudiya sannyasi.

      I fair to see how the Swami’s web site is somehow exempt from what would otherwise be considered as proper discussion for a Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasi.

      Sannyasa has been referred to as being “socially dead”.
      It seems that some of these topics are too much social issues and not actually spiritual issues.

      In fact the topic of the current article under discussion seems to be for the most part a mundane discussion. I don’t find the topic particularly theistic apart from a reference to something in the Bhagavad-gita.

      • We also publish articles commenting on issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya community and the world at large.
        You missed this one. Sanyasi is not that socially dead in modern times. SP commented extensively on social issues. In fact 40% of his lectures are comments on social issues.

      • The idea of a sannyasin being socially dead refers to his lack of participation in or being above varnasrama. This does not mean that he has nothing to say about social issues of the day that include moral and ethical concerns and how to deal compassionately with others. Religious people the world over look to their spiritual leaders for guidance and insight into how to think spiritually about worldly issues that arise form day to day. And topics like this one, that attract headline attention and are related to issues like the question of spiritual eligibility of differently gendered people that all of the world’s religious traditions have been struggling with, are hardly outside the scope of meaningful real life religious discussion. Amara das has been passionately involved in this issue and had contributed considerably to the ongoing discussion in the Gaudiya community. I think this recent article of his presents and interesting angle to think about the topic from. At the same time I do not think the article is terribly interesting.

        As for my own position, well, I am independently thoughtful, to use a phrase coined by Srila Prabhupada. I only wish more sannyasis were as well.

      • LE: “I fair to see how the Swami’s web site is somehow exempt from what would otherwise be considered as proper discussion for a Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasi.

        Sannyasa has been referred to as being “socially dead”.
        It seems that some of these topics are too much social issues and not actually spiritual issues.”

        Srila Prabhupada would comment on all kinds of social issues in his books, lectures, and conversations. Was that also an improper behavior for a Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasi? Was he also not “socially dead” enough for your liking?

      • Sannyasa has been referred to as being “socially dead”.

        Before you comment on the proper behavior of a sannyasi, maybe you should study the meaning of sannyasa in our Gaudiya tradition. Sri Caitanya made commentary on many social issues through his actions as a sannyasi. He transcended caste considerations in recognition of bhakti. He praised the supremacy of bhakti when a woman stood on his shoulder to see the deity of Jagannatha! More modern Gaudiya sannyasis have dynamically utilized the sannyasa asrama for preaching purposes; BSST riding in cars, BR Sridhar Maharaj reading newspapers, ACBSP crossing the ocean, performing marriages, etc. Sannyasa in bhakti is about renunciation of everything not related to bhakti, and acceptance of everything for utilization in bhakti. It is about finding the bhakti essence in everything and tyaga of all other considerations; race, gender, species, varnasrama(!), etc. Gaudiya sannyasis are seeking and pointing out love (bhakti) in the world and increasing it’s influence in people’s lives.

        It seems that some of these topics are too much social issues and not actually spiritual issues.

        The sannyasi is the spiritual teacher of society right? By offering an understanding of social issues that positively influences the members of other ashrams to engage in spiritual practice, how is a sannyasi acting inappropriately? Rather that is the duty of the Gaudiya sannyasi!
        Society is only “maya” when you are attached to it for sense gratification. This site and commentary by sadhus on social issues is only pulling people towards bhakti.
        From “About”

        We also publish articles commenting on issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya community and the world at large.

        So if you don’t like the social commentary, go study Siksastakam articles. I’m sure you’ll find all the obviously spiritual discussion you can handle there.

  3. Karn Evil: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
    We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside…”

    There is no end to permutations of matter in this banyan tree…

    • Yes, but the material banyan tree itself is a reflection of the spiritual. Thus we see all types of gender diversity in spiritual existence also, including divine forms of intersex such as Sri Vallabhavardhana (half Vishnu, half Laksmi). Factually speaking, nothing can appear in this world without some divine counterpart in spiritual existence. As Srila Prabhupada states: “This tree, being the reflection of the real tree, is an exact replica. Everything is there in the spiritual world…” (BG 15.1, purport) Thus with spiritual vision we can appreciate everything in this world and engage it in Krsna’s service, rather than merely despise it.

  4. I was looking for something in the article that makes reference to the fact that Caster Semenya is actually neither male nor female but actually a spirit entity.
    Somehow, i feel that the failure to discuss the actual spirit soul of Caster and make some mention of how he/she is actually not that body at all but spirit soul leaves the article/topic as having missed the whole purpose of bring the issue into discussion on a spiritually oriented web site.
    The whole article deals with a bodily concept of Caster and does not actually extend into any particular spiritual aspect of the person.

    The article is principally promoting a gay agenda activism and actually does not get into anything particularly spiritual in substance.

    The article is more or less promoting a bodily concept of life.

    I think the web site of Tripurari Maharaja is expected to deal with something higher and more spiritual than superficial bodily conceptions of life as being advocated in this particular article.

    • I don’t know how many articles you have read on this site, but there are many that are about social issues and have no reference to Gaudiya siddhanta. This site is not one dimensional as you seem to feel it should be.

      My take on this particular article is quite different from yours. I don’t see it as ‘promoting a gay agenda’, but rather I see it as pointing out a short coming of society in general and also a short coming with the most prevalent representation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism within the western world. There are shades of grey when it comes to human sexuality, both in terms of genotype and phenotype. Acknowleding that and finding a way to include all members of society as equal members, whether it be in the context of society at large or within an exclusive society like the Gaudiya Vaishnava society is a relevant topic precisely because such inclusion and equality does not exist – or if it exists, it is far from ‘equal’ or adequate.

    • I think the web site of Tripurari Maharaja is expected to deal with something higher and more spiritual than superficial bodily conceptions of life as being advocated in this particular article.

      People don’t function entirely on the “spiritual platform”, but rather should learn to integrate spirituality into every aspect of their lives. I don’t see the author promoting a “gay agenda”, but rather noting an all too common form of discrimination that can (likely does) inhibit the spiritual progress of sincere practitioners. If you can’t deal with grey and see only black or white (spirit and matter), I suggest you get rid of your computer, the source of income that you used to purchase it and go to the forest for meditation. Otherwise, this is the material world, get used to it, find bhakti in it and don’t get hung up on extremes. It is easy to write off topics like these as having an agenda if you are not similarly discriminated against. If you are privileged in your race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc., you won’t see “what the big deal is” because you don’t suffer from discrimination.
      Tripurari Maharaj is facilitating an online community where thoughtful people can discuss Gaudiya Vedanta in the context of their daily lives. This is a contemporary issue, and worthy of discussion as to how practicing devotees interact with the world that surrounds them.

    • The point of my article was to help people better understand and appreciate gender diversity, not to dismiss it with impersonal statements like “the soul is genderless.” After all, the soul possesses a gender while in this world and a spiritual gender in the spiritual world, so I think some practical understanding and appreciation of gender is merited. The soul is only truly “genderless” when merged in the formless, impersonal brahmajyoti and that’s not really something we should emphasize. Also, it has been my experience that devotees often resort to the statement, “the soul is genderless,” to avoid any relevant discussion of gender issues such as discrimination.

  5. I was looking for something in the article that makes reference to the fact that Caster Semenya is actually neither male nor female but actually a spirit entity.

    Does every article have to whomp us on the head with “You are not your body?” Please. There is plenty of content on this site that deals with that point and much more. As others have pointed out there is room for discussing issues of the day without having to invoke siddhanta at every turn. Not every discussion has to do that; there are “worldly” issues that sadhakas need to understand in order to be normally functioning, integrated people who can relate to others beyond the folks in their spiritual tradition.

  6. Did I fail to mention that this a very interesting topic that I followed in the news myself.
    I most certainly can appreciate Tripurari Maharaja’s sensitivity to the gender issue that many people are grappling with.
    I would not be one to criticize any person of a less than heterosexual nature that also feels attraction for the most attractive of all persons – Sri Krishna.
    In time our material sexual orientation sublimates into some form of love of Krishna if in fact we bother to hear about Him from such great saints as Tripurari Maharaja, who I look up to with absolute love and adoration.
    Of course, I love this web site and all the very nice devotees associated with Tripurari Maharaja.
    I have a tendency to be a bit of a severe critic.
    Don’t pay much attention to that.
    It’s just my awkward way of trying to do some humble service to my senior Godbrother Tripurari Maharaja.
    I promise to be more positive in the future and try to be more sensitive to the unique editorial policy of the web site.

    I’ll try to find a better way to be of some service.
    I need improvement in lots of areas.
    I am here at this web site to get some of the auspicious nectar of Vaishnava sanga and I am quite happy to have it here.

  7. Thanks to Amara for his thoughtful, well-written essay. Thanks also to The Harmonist’s editors for providing a forum for this discussion. Amara makes it clear in his last couple of paragraphs why vaishnavas might find discussion of Semenya’s dilemma relevant to their understanding and spiritual practice. Our inability—perhaps unwillingness—to see beyond the cultural construct of two distinct genders impedes the progressive appreciation for Mahaprabhu’s gift, both in society and within our own hearts. Those of us who aspire to represent Mahaprabhu’s mission in this world must learn to accommodate the wide spectrum of humans with whom we may share that message. As Amara points out, gender is not binary; rather, it runs through a spectrum from black to white, with innumerable shades of gray. Moreover, spiritual life is even less black and white. It embraces the entire color spectrum (dare I say rainbow?), using it to give pleasure to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada once told me that devotees and devotional service cannot be stereotyped. Amara has invested considerable time and energy in helping us understand just how that is the case.

    • I like your theory of the color spectrum – the Rainbow, more than the gradation from black through Grey to white.
      Indeed, the gloomy spectrum of black to Grey is not as colorful an analogy as the concept of a Rainbow of variation.
      However, the black through Grey example also expresses the same idea that there is no particular stereotype for a devotee.
      In fact, I don’t think I have ever met a devotee who wasn’t unique in their own way.

      • Note that, although I don’t always do so, in this case I distinguised between material life and spiritual life by shifting from a black/white continuum to a color spectrum.

        LE, I wanted to point out to you that your assertion above that you hesitate to criticize devotees of a “less than heterosexual nature” may offend some readers. Are glbt devotees who control their senses and engage in serious sadhana less in some way than straight devotees who aren’t working seriously at controlling their senses and overcoming the tendency to expoit material energy in so many ways? (Perhaps this brings the question to a more overtly spiritual point, as you seemed to desire earlier.)

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