Examining Our Treatment of Sex and Gender Minorities

ardhanisvaraBy Amara Das Wilhelm

In Bhagavan’s creation there is great diversity, and much of humanity’s struggle to advance has involved learning to include all types of people fairly within society. Among human beings there are differences in nature, sex, race, ability, size, weight, skin and hair color, handedness, intelligence, nationality, culture, faith and so on. Understanding these differences, Kapiladeva has solemnly instructed mankind as follows: “As the blazing fire of death, I cause great fear to whoever makes the least discrimination between himself and other living entities because of a differential outlook. Therefore, through charitable gifts and attention, as well as through friendly behavior and by viewing all to be alike, one should propitiate me, who abide in all creatures as their very self.”1

Of all human differences, perhaps the most sensitive and difficult to address are those pertaining to sex and gender. The Vedic literatures mention three categories of sex: 1) virile males, 2) fertile females and 3) men and women of mixed gender qualities who are impotent with the opposite sex.2 This third class of gender, known as napumsa or tritiya-prakriti in Sanskrit, is the focus of this article. It involves a minority of people traditionally addressed in archaic English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite” but more accurately known today as homosexuals, transgenders and the intersexed (LGBTI, “queer” or “gay,” collectively).3 Bisexuals are also included in this category although typically they are not impotent with the opposite sex.4

Modern society’s treatment of sex and gender minorities is one of the most prominent social issues of our day and for this reason, Hindus should not avoid discussing or addressing it. Nations of the world vary greatly in their treatment of gay people with some advocating condemnation through a penalty of death, others granting full acceptance and legal equality, but most resting somewhere in-between. The global Hindu community also exhibits great variance in its attitude and approach toward LGBTI people, in accordance with the many different gurus, sects, temples, and congregations that guide and express our faith.

The following five profiles of LGBTI Vaishnavas and Hindus are typical of people I come across in my work with GALVA-108, the Gay And Lesbian Vaishnava Association. Names have been changed for privacy reasons but otherwise the experiences described herein, both good and bad, are accurate and real. Hopefully these examples will cause the reader to reflect upon his or her own treatment of sex and gender minorities, especially in regard to the verse cited above.

Intersex.5 Kumar is an intersex man of Indian descent living in Western Europe. His family members are Shaivite and he was born with ambiguous genitalia. Diagnosed with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), an intersex condition causing XX-chromosome female fetuses to develop both physically and neurologically along the male path, Kumar was surgically altered to appear female and raised as a girl (Kumari). However, he displayed masculine behavior in childhood and, as a teen, experienced attraction only to women. Kumar eventually switched his identity from female to male, much to the embarrassment of his traditional Hindu family who initially cut off all contact with him. Kumar had a female partner for many years but could not marry her due to being legally female. His gender assignment surgery as an infant, which he had no voice in and now regrets, caused many physical and emotional complications throughout his life. Kumar maintains his faith in Lord Siva and identifies with Sri Ardhanarisvara (Siva’s half man, half woman form) and Sikhandi, a character from the Mahabharata who was raised as a girl but later became male. He follows celibacy and occasionally attends temple ceremonies but mostly practices his faith at home.

Transgender.6 Anjali is a transgender woman living in India. Her family is poor and not especially religious but observes many traditional Hindu customs. Born as a boy (Arjuna), Anjali played and behaved like a girl from a very early age. When her parents chastised her for this, Anjali would cry and dream about becoming a woman one day. Despite the many efforts of her parents, Anjali was never able to become the masculine son they so desired. Tensions eventually estranged her from the family, with the exception of one loving aunt, who recognized Anjali’s hijra qualities and taught her about the goddess Bahucara.7 In her late teens, Anjali was sexually abused by men, introduced into prostitution and ended up in the streets of a large Indian city. She eventually connected with the hijra community, which she happily joined. While her life remains difficult and filled with social abuse, Anjali values the friendship and support she receives from her fellow hijras. Free to dress as a woman full-time, Anjali faithfully worships goddess Bahucara and is considering castration or, preferably, a modern-day transsexual operation if she can ever afford it. Interestingly, Anjali feels welcome at all the traditional Indian temples she visits but not at the more western-associated ISKCON centers, perhaps due to cultural differences and misunderstandings about the third sex.

Lesbian.8 Satyabhama (Satya) is a lesbian living in North America. Her family is Christian but Satya converted to Gaudiya Vaishnavism through the Hare Krishna movement in her late teens, not long after realizing she was attracted to women. Satya’s treatment as a lesbian in the Hare Krishna movement has been a rocky road to say the least. Initially she kept her same-sex attraction a secret but when social pressures to marry became unavoidable, Satya confided her lesbianism to friends and the word eventually got around. Temple authorities insisted she marry a man and in one particularly ugly incident, Satya was raped by a so-called Vaishnava under the plea of “curing” her homosexuality. Her arranged marriage soon ended in failure and Satya left the Hare Krishna mission, although never within her heart. After much time and difficulty, Satya eventually got her life together and established a long-term relationship with a fellow Vaishnavi. She and her partner, now legally married, faithfully worship Radha-Krishna at home and regularly attend their local temple as a celibate same-sex couple, where they are quietly accepted.

Gay Man.9 Kartik is a young gay man of Indian descent living in a South East Asian country with a large Hindu population. His family members are moderately conservative Sri Vaishnavas. Kartik has always been attracted to men ever since he can remember and has never felt any attraction for women. As a closeted teenager, Kartik was very interested in spiritual life and considered joining the ashram at a temple attended by his family. Temple authorities were very friendly to Kartik and heartily encouraged him to join. However, one day Kartik naively confided to a temple elder that he was gay and the friendly treatment immediately stopped. The temple devotees no longer spoke to Kartik or answered any of his e-mails. Both he and his family were received coldly at the temple and Kartik was crushed, his faith shaken. Now in his early thirties, Kartik still visits the temple on occasion but feels alienated there. He has few friends and no fellow gay association other than through the Internet. Kartik’s parents accept him but not his homosexuality and still harbor delusions of him someday “growing out of it” or “finding the right girl.” For his part, Kartik has given up trying to explain homosexual orientation to his parents. He is still a virgin and maintains his faith in Vishnu but wonders if he will ever be able to find a suitable male partner and lead a happy life of his own. “Straight guys are given full social support as soon as they need to marry,” Kartik says, “but gay men are treated like pariahs and forced to fend for themselves.”

Bisexual Man.10 Amit lives in a small city in central India. His family worships Durga, Ganesha, and various other devas although Amit himself converted to Gaudiya Vaishnavism while attending college. Amit is a deeply closeted bisexual man. He is mostly same-sex attracted but has some feelings for women also. Because of this, Amit bowed to family and religious pressures to marry and has two daughters with his wife. Nevertheless, he is having doubts about his decision to marry. Amit’s attraction to men has gotten the best of him lately and secret rendezvous’ with anonymous male partners have become a fairly regular occurrence. Despite his better judgment and religious training, Amit’s need for male companionship overwhelms him, even with all the risks involved. While his life appears ideal on the outside and his secret is as yet unexposed, a tempest is brewing inside Amit. He wishes he could be a better devotee of Krishna but cannot seek counsel because he fears complete rejection. Amit wonders if he would be happier living single or with a male partner. Either way, Amit has little luxury to ponder such choices in modern-day India, and thus the façade goes on.

Several examples regarding the treatment of sex and gender minorities can also be found in the Vedic scriptures. For instance, in the Mahabharata, Maharaja Virata kindly accepts the crossdressing Brihannala into his kingdom and engages her in teaching the fine arts to his daughter, Uttara.11 Significantly, Maharaja Virata does not neglect Brihannala, drive her from his kingdom or force her to dress as a man. Rather, he accepts Brihannala’s nature as it is, addresses her as female and offers her a residence within his palace. A similar positive example can be found in the pastimes of Lord Caitanya, when transgender dancers are offered gifts by Jagannatha Misra and invited into his courtyard to entertain and bless the newborn child, Nimai.12 There are furthermore several positive examples of homosexual men and women in the Kama Sastra, wherein such people are demonstrably accommodated within the fabric of Vedic society and culture.

One lone example of ill treatment toward the third gender can be found in the Vishnu Purana, where the Yadavas notoriously ridicule Garga Muni as being an impotent man of the third sex. The ridicule and (likely) false accusation, however, results in Garga Muni’s anger and the creation of Kalayavana, a demonic king who later terrorizes the Yadu clan.13 Interestingly, the Artha Sastra specifically forbids the vilification of third-gender men or women (kliba) and imposes a small fine for the offense, whether the targets are actually third-gender or not.14

Other verses from the Artha Sastra, Manusmriti, and Vasistha Dharmasutra enjoin parents to provide at least some minimal maintenance for their third-gender offspring and instruct a king to do so when there are no relatives.15

Overall, the consensus of Hinduism supports the idea of caring for and befriending every member of human society, including sex and gender minorities. My spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, elaborates on this as follows:

In all communities in human society—including the brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas, sudras, candalas, etc.—and in the animal kingdom—including the cows, dogs, goats, etc.—everyone has his part to play. Each is to work in cooperation for the total benefit of all society, which includes not only animate objects but also inanimate objects like hills and land…. Another hint we get from this statement is that the candalas, or the untouchables, are also not to be neglected by the higher classes and should be given necessary protection. Everyone is important, but some are directly responsible for the advancement of human society, and some are only indirectly responsible. However, when Krsna consciousness is there, then everyone’s total benefit is taken care of.16)

My hope is that examples like those presented in this article will touch readers and consequently improve their treatment of not only sex and gender minorities, but all living entities everywhere. Hare Krishna!

“One who is not envious but who is a kind friend to all living entities…he is very dear to me.”17

  1. Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.29.26-27 []
  2. To cite just one example: “A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child (napumsa) or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results.” (Manusmriti 3.49) Definitions and examples of the third sex can be found in the Sushruta Samhita (3.2), Caraka Samhita (4.2), Kama Sutra (2.8 and 2.9), and Narada-smriti (12.11-13). []
  3. There is some diversity of opinion as to the exact percentage of homosexual, transgenders, and intersex people within any given society, but most studies place homosexuals at around 3-6 percent, complete transgenders at 1 in 3,000, and the chronically intersexed at 1 in 36,000. []
  4. Bisexuality can vary greatly but general consensus places the number of people with significant bisexual attraction at approximately 10 to 15 percent of any given population. A bisexual may be predominantly attracted to the opposite sex, predominantly attracted to the same sex, or equally attracted to both. []
  5. Intersex, often called “hermaphrodite,” “asexual” or “neuter” in archaic English, refers to people born with ambiguous genitalia or having both male and female anatomy in various ways. The Sushruta and Caraka Samhitas mention more than twelve different types, which correspond to known modern conditions and are known as napumsanisargavataretas, etc. []
  6. Transgender, often called “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite” in archaic English, refers to people who by nature identify and behave as the opposite sex. Such people may castrate themselves or undergo transsexual operations. The Sushruta Samhita (3.2.42) refers to transgenders as “shandha.” []
  7. Sri Bahucara-devi is an expansion of the goddess Durga and a patron deity of transgenders, the hijra and transsexual operations. The term “hijra” is Arabic in origin and refers to members of a transgender cult in northern India. []
  8. Lesbians are known as “svairini” (literally, “independent women”) in Sanskrit and are described in detail in the Kama Sastra, where they are also addressed as “tritiya-prakriti” or a third sex (See Kama Sutra 2.8). []
  9. Gay or homosexual men are referred to as “kliba” (literally, “impotent with women”) in the Sushruta Samhita (3.2) and described as men who by nature are only aroused by engaging in various sexual acts with other men. They are described in much detail in the Kama Sastra and addressed as “tritiya-prakriti” or a third sex (See Kama Sutra 2.9). Gay men are often called “eunuchs,” “catamites,” or “hermaphrodites” in archaic English. I mention this since many Sanskrit-to-English texts are nineteenth-century translations and commonly use the older, outdated terms. []
  10. Sanskrit texts refer to bisexuals as “kami” (or “kamini” for women) and “paksha.” The former term refers to those who are attracted to both sexes simultaneously whereas the latter indicates people whose attraction switches back and forth periodically. The Narada-smriti strictly forbids homosexual men from marrying women but permits it for bisexuals if they can demonstrate arousal for females (See Narada-smriti 12.14). []
  11. Mahabharata, Virata Parva, chapter three []
  12. Tape-recorded conversation between Srila Prabhupada and Hayagriva dasa dated April 5, 1967. []
  13. For a short narration of this pastime, see Srimad Bhagavatam 10.50.44, purport []
  14. Kautilya Arthasastra 3.18.4-5 []
  15. Artha Sastra 3.5.30-32, Manusmriti 8.274, Vasistha Dharmasutra 19.35-36. []
  16. Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Prabhupada). Herts, England: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1996. (Vol. I, pp. 245-246. []
  17. Bhagavad-gita, 12.13-14 []

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4 Responses to Examining Our Treatment of Sex and Gender Minorities

  1. Hare Krishna! Last night I watched a semi-documetary film that focused on the Spanish Inquisition,whereby persons in society who did not conform the “letter of the law” according to the then current standards of the church were subjected to unbelievable persecution.

    It is interesting to note that these standards can be arbitrarily instituted for the purpose of implementing political control over the behavior of “members” in order to insure adherence to the agenda of the moment of the so-called leaders of a society.

    An example of arbitrary institutionalization for the purpose of implementing political control is the “excommunication” of one of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s most devoted servants, because he chose to associate with Srila prabhupada’s most beloved older godbrother, Swami Shridhar Maharaja. Then, more recently, there was a concerted effort to extend that excommunication to anyone who is associating with that servant.

    As this article points out, these social pressures and constraints pertaining to gender-related cocerns are not even in line with the scriptures that these organizations claim to represent. Similarly, one can be excommunicated from Iskcon so that Srila Prabhupada’s society can be protected from exposure to persons who are following Srila Prabhupada’s heart-felt wishes.

    In spite of the fact that we want to advance towards a life of eternal blissful knowledge in Krishna’s association, to the degree that we are not fully elevated to that position, there will be manifestations of maya’s influence in the way that we conduct our affairs. This means that, in the name of God, all manner of ungodly decrees and social standards will likely be implemented within the churches of this planet, up to and including those that claim to represent Vaishnava orientation.

    As we are not white or black, of one caste or another, of one nationality or another, simply because these are designations that pertain to the material body, and not the real person, the spirit soul, – so similarly, we are not in fact any of these gender designations, straight or otherwise. And therefore to make exclusions on this basis alone is simply another demonstration of the fact that we have not yet grown beyond the platform of the material vision of the kanistha adhikari, or third class materialistic servant of Krishna.

    Spiritually speaking, the disease of identification with material designations is no different or more enhanced amongst “straight” people than amongst those who are in the grip of material nature’s other varieties. Identification with any and all of these designations, as well as attraction and repulsion for any of them, is simply an indication of our lack of understanding that we are all eternal servants of Krishna.

  2. BV Vaisnava Maharaja

    Thank you Amara Prabhu for this informative and siddhantic article on this very important issue. You present very well the common human needs of all and the fear some might have who are ill-informed about the natural diversity found amongst living beings. Hopefully all devotees will take this to heart and rise above discrimination and thus clear their way forward towards self realisation.

    Open discussion on sexuality and gender minorities is indeed needed and necessary in our sangas. Having been born a gay man, who is now a practising sannyasi, I know first hand how debilitating it can be to not have the freedom to discuss something so integral to one’s personality in this birth. Giving everyone the space to be open about their various material designations makes it easier to eventually see beyond them as we progress in Krishna consciousness.

    Thanks also to the Harmonist for publishing this article.

    Vaisnava dasanudas,
    BV Vaisnava

  3. Hari Bol,
    please accept my humble obeisances.
    All glories to His Holiness Swami Tripurari!

    Thank you for your very nice, interesting, valuable article. You have explained this very well.

    Homosexuality is a sexual attraction or sexual behavior. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation.

    But intersex (hermaphroditism) isn’t a sexual orientation. Intersex is a “congenital defect”, a “birth defect”, or in better words it is a variation in sex characteristics. Intersex is independent of sexual orientation. Please don’t mix it with sexual orientation. Please don’t put it in the same pot. Because this is discrimination. Intersex has nothing to do with some sexual orientation.

    I’m a intersex (hermaphrodit) woman. I was born with (intersex) chromosomal genotype of man and woman. But it has nothing to do with sexual orientation. When I was younger I had a “Gender/Sex Confirmation Surgery”. For an outsider maybe I’m a exotic woman. But I feel and I live like every woman. And of course people who have the intersex condition are not eunuchs. A Eunuch is a man who is castrated. But intersex is a “birth defect”, a variation in sex characteristics. Call it third gender if you want. But please don’t mix it with sexual orientation. People like to put everything in one pot because it is easier and because they don’t know better. But in fact there is a big difference between the problems. And a intersex woman is not queer if she is married with a man. Because a intersex woman has no choice. She was born with this “birth defect”. It was her Karma. Therefore nobody should call this “birth defect” as “Queer”. But finally all is Krishna’s mercy. We are brothers and sisters.

    I’m a ex-member of ISKCON. There I was a loner. I think because of my intersex condition. Unfortunately, the most of the people look on the bodý and not on the soul. They see only the clothes. I mostly practice my faith at home.

    Many, many thanks for your informative article, dear Amara Prabhu. Please excuse my bad english. I have never learned it in school.

    I send you love and warm greetings from germany.

    your humble servant

    Hare Krishna!

  4. Hare Krishna, Sirina! Thanks for your comments.

    The examples of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex devotees in my article are listed separately because each situation is clearly unique, as you mention. However, at the same time and since sexuality falls along a spectrum, such conditions are also often interrelated. For instance, 30% of women born with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia or CAH (one of the more common intersex conditons that masculinizes the female embryo in the womb) are lesbian, ten times more than we find in non-CAH women.

    Indeed, there are many common connections between intersex, homosexual orientation and transgender identity, especially when variations in the embryonic hormones are concerned. In such cases, the only difference is that homosexuals and transgenders have been neurologically affected in the womb whereas intersex persons have been anatomically affected. The chromosomal type of intersex you mention is actually quite rare; most intersex conditions are related to variations in the embryonic hormone levels and timing. Vedic medical texts simplify all this by placing every type of sex and gender variation within the “third sex” category (‘tritiya-prakriti’).

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