India is often perceived as a close-minded, intolerant, and traditional environment where unique expressions of identity and self are negatively received. Despite its strong negations towards certain practices, the society’s view on hijras – transgender men to women who identify as a “third gender” – is ambiguous with both positive and negative perceptions on their role in society. In other words, they are highly respected in some manners, while also feared in others, depending on which societal norms individuals choose to follow. This ambiguous and contradictory identity as a “third gender” is developed through a number of factors including these perceptions, as well as their mythological role in Hinduism, with wide implications that Shiva and a few other Hindu deities were also hijras or had significant interactions with hijras. The culture’s strong emphasis of kinship also benefits hijras in constructing their unique identity, who develop close-knit dynamics and traditions like the guru-cela relationship. They also account for the public’s reaction in constructing this identity, as well as express unique forms of sexuality which also contribute to developing their contradictory identity as respected and tabooed individuals. Thus, hijras use their religious presence in Hinduism, kinship dynamics in their exclusive community, public perceptions and assumptions of the hijras, and an underlying expression of sexuality amongst these three overarching categories to construct a contradictory or ambiguous identity as a “third gender” completely distinct of that of men and women in modern day India.
Through their role in Hinduism which comprises of multiple mythological allusions to hijras, this niche is able to gain power and validity in Indian society. One of their main Hindu practices which embodies this unique identity is their worship of the Hindu goddess Devi (or Bahuchara Mata). This connection to Devi serves as hijras’ main source of religious presence, from which they “derive their power and efficacy from being vehicles of this Hindu goddess” (Reddy 2010:109). This goddess strongly resonates with the hijras in a myth where she castrates a man who had sexual relations with other men rather than his wife (also an allusion to the homosexual tendencies of some hijras). She believed “people like him should be reborn as neither men nor women” in a state of nirvan or emasculation. Devi then asked people to worship her to recover quickly from nirvan, which is still modernly practiced in hijras’ worship of Devi before emasculation operations. Emasculation is a key aspect in their unique “third gender” identity, seen as their “caste duty” as well as their “chief source of uniqueness” (Nanda 1986: 39). For hijras today, emasculation is a symbol of possessing himmat – the “strength necessary to acquire seniority” and izzat (honor) in the larger Indian society, as well an “active symbol of their essential asexuality that all hijras are ideally meant to undergo” (Reddy 2007: 96). Since hijras are unable to reproduce, this emasculation also translates into a power of generativity in which they place blessings of fertility (or curses of infertility) on others (usually male newborns) after removing their male organs (Nanda 1990:29). Thus, as the “blessers and ritual performers [hijras] are viewed as vehicles of divine power of the Mother Goddess, which transforms their impotence into the power of generativity” (Nanda 1990:5). This idea is also based on the myth in which the deity Shiva gains powers of creative ascetism and sexual abstinence after castrating himself, making him “not asexual, but extending his sexual power to the universe.”(Nanda 1990: 30). Another incarnation of Shiva called “the lord who is half woman” or Ardhanarisvara also influences worshippers of Shiva (Sivabhaktis) to give hijras a certain respect in modern Indian society (Lal 1999: 124).
This idea of sexual abstinence referred to in Hinduism allows hijras to create their distinct role in society as sanyasins– “persons who renounce their role in society for the life of a holy wanderer and beggar” – which includes renunciation of sexual desire or kama, abandoning one’s family, living in material poverty and off the charity of others, and not having sexual desires as other men do” (Nanda 1986:41). Another common Hindu hijra myth that follows this trend is when hijra Tamasha blesses the infant Ram (one of the main Hindu deities), “giving him what she herself does not possess: the power of creating new life, of having sons, and of continuing the family line” (Nanda 1990: 31). A distinctive link to Hinduism that contributes to the [self]-labelling hijras as a “third gender” is to the Ramayana, one of the main Hindu epics in which Ram is exiled for a number of years. When he leaves, his citizen followers attempt to join him and so he says, “Ladies and gents please wipe your tears and go away.” The hijras within this group do not see themselves as “ladies and gents” and decided stayed there throughout his exile, one of many references that hijras derive respect from in Hinduism and Indian culture (Nanda 1986: 37). Another famous allusion to hijras is in the famous Hindu epic the Mahabharata in the story of Arjuna’s exile, during which he disguises himself as a “eunich-transvestite”, in which he is considered “something of a man, something of a woman in his manners,” alluding to the previously mentioned ardhnarisvara incarnation of Shiva. (Lal 1999:124). In his hijra-like state, Arjuna also rejects a nymph in her sexual advances, who then curses him to a life as a napumsaka – “a neutered transvestite of ambiguous sex” that “must spend his time destitute of manhood” (Nanda 1990: 34). Ironically, the name he takes on in this disguise – Brhannada – translates to “having a large reed” or “being well endowed with signs of manliness,” symbolizing his status as not a mere transvestite but “belonging to the trtiyam prakrtim” or a “third sex”, and a “kliba” which translates to “emasculated, impotent, and neutered.” (Lal 1999:124). This myth has become an origin story for many hijras, and causes many hijras to believe that “whoever is born on Arjuna’s day, no matter where in the world, will become a hijra.” In this “eunich” state, Arjuna also participated in weddings and births, legitimizing the hijra performance rituals that still exist today (Nanda 1986: 41). There are also several allusions to androgynes in Hinduism- impersonators of the opposite sex, and deities and humans who have undergone sex changes. Another main deity Vishnu who transforms himself into Mohini – “the most beautiful woman in the world”, whom many hijras associate with as well. Many hijras also identify with the wives of Krishna (another incarnation of Vishnu), as no one is permitted to associate directly with Krishna. In order to do so, thousands of hijras dress in female clothing and perform a certain ritual in South India every year. These are just a few of the hijras’ main connections to Hinduism, all of which legitimize the institutionalization of a “third gender” in India (Nanda 1986: 50). There are still many other existing Hindu allusions to hijras, a significant element in forming their “third gender” role distinct from male and female gender norms. Taking this wide variety of references into account, we must relate them back to their overall ambiguous identity in the larger Indian society. Hinduism is often seen as “being hospitable to contradictions, allowing the hijras to survive if not thrive without forcing a resolution,” and so this Hindu presence contributes to their resulting ambiguous identity within Indian society (Nanda 1999: 138).
Kinship is another avid influence on the construction of the hijra’s “third gender” identity. As a group, they integrate this motif into their everyday life, which we see through their family-like dynamics, specific kinship “rules,” and how these two practices relate to normative kinship patterns in society. Despite their subversive sexuality practices (at least for their specific cultural context), they still practice some normative rituals and principles. One of the most significant relationships in this community is the “guru-cela” relationship and the rit. The guru-cela relationship is the “most important bond among hijras and “the cornerstone of the hijra kinship network” – central to the hijra identity and understanding of family, and key to acceptance and advancement within their community. Every hijra must have a guru (a teacher of Hinduism) to be considered a “real” hijra. These gurus sponsor them in acquiring the rit, one of the most structured determinants of hijra kinship, and a symbol of their belonging to a specific “hijra house” as well as their formal ritual initiation into the hijra community as a whole (Reddy 2010:154). Kinship is considered one of hijras’ definitions of authenticity as members of this exclusive community, and association to one of these houses is how they define and express this kinship (Reddy 2007: 95). They also idealize and turn to this guru-cela relationship, for a sense of the family that they lack or have given up in this “lifelong bond of reciprocity” (Nanda 1986:36). In this dynamic, hijras act as obedient subordinates with economic and social obligations to the gurus in exchange for shelter, clothes, food, education and all other life necessities. (Reddy 2010:156). From this relationship, they also are able to make new connections in a constantly-expanding social network of hijras, allowing them to become geographically mobile as “the kinship relations of the guru become relations of the chela” (Nanda 1990:47). This exclusive social network provides another means for hijras to distinguish themselves as this “third gender”, separating them from their society’s gender norms.
Another central relationship in this community is the pyar ke riste (bonds of love) between hijra “mothers” and “daughters” through which they strengthen ties amongst the hijra community and form an interconnected network. The daughters are known as “dudh betis” (milk daughters), a name rooted in their principal ritual in which the “mother” (or dudh mata) feeds the “daughter” milk with a drops of her own blood. This ritual embodies the emotional, blood-like connection similar to normative family or mother/daughter relationships since their own kin do not accept them. Outside of these relationships, there are also regulations within the hijra community regarding kinship. For example, marriage and any form of sexual activity is forbidden – hijras are expected to be asexual. Gandus – men who enjoy anal sex – and hijras who are generally sexually active are criticized and disliked by asexual hijras for their excessive sexual desire – a sign of inauthenticity that separates gandus and sexually active hijras from the “real” hijras that remain asexual (Reddy 2007: 96). Another example is some hijra communities’ encouragement of locking their doors early at night to demonstrate a home’s lack of sexual activity. Hijras are also expected to cut ties to the outside world including their families if they have not already, as only fellow hijras are considered family. This severing of outside ties indicates their distinct identity as hijras. (Reddy 2010:154). In regions where hijra culture is more prominent, prostitution-practicing hijras are forbidden to live with more traditional, ritual-practicing hijras, who are carefully observed to prevent their contact with men (Nanda 1986: 48). This segregation demonstrates their status as a distinct niche – despite the fact that they follow this normative pattern, as hijras, they still embody a sense of self different from normative Indian men and women. More spiritual hijras also believe that sexual activity is considered offensive to the hijra goddess, Devi. Some hijras also develop monogamous, long-term relationships with one another despite the regulations of their communities. Hijras with “husbands” are negatively perceived within the community, as hijras who devote themselves to one man or individual are seen as “extremely feminine”. In order to form this distinct identity, hijras also engage in sexual behaviors that diverge from that of the typical Indian woman – “warm, affectionate, sexually satisfying, and economically reciprocal relationships with men with whom they sometimes live” (Nanda 1986: 45). These varied practices all deviate from the “true” hijra identity. This overarching emphasis on asexuality within the hijra community relates back to their religious significance – in Hinduism, sex and sexual desire are eliminated due to their association to ascetic powers – a mentality that is actualized through the practice of the nirvan (emasculation) operation, from which hijras derive their power and status in Indian society (Nanda 1990: 29).
Lastly, I argue that public perceptions of hijras in Indian society contribute to constructing this group’s identity as a “third gender”. Hijras have been reduced to a number of terms including eunuchs, transvestites, homosexuals, bisexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynes, transsexuals and gyne-mimetics, as well as “people who are intersexed, emasculated, impotent, transgendered, castrated, effeminate, or somehow sexually anomalous or dysfunctional” (Lal 1999:119). They are widely viewed as “sexual ambiguous” figures, a notion that often instills fear in many individuals of this “othered” group. To many, their most distinctive (often inaccurate) trait is their asexuality, when in fact many participate in homosexual activity. Many hijras decide to join the community after a period of [teenage] homosexual activity, and some are attracted to the hijra role to engage in sexual relations with men while still enjoying the sociability and relative security of the hijra community which allow them to escape the insecurity and harassment of the outside world. Despite these advantages, hijras’ choice to partake in sexual activity still causes conflict in their community where such activity is highly frowned upon. Conflict also arises in the larger Indian public, which incorporates this sexual activity into institutionalizing the hijra role – hijras are often equated to homosexuals acting upon their latent homosexual tendencies in the “Indian national character” (Nanda 1986: 42).
Thus, there is a strong divide between what the public perceives of hijras and the reality of the situation. Despite Indian society’s religious emphasis on hijras including rituals, blessings, and other public performances and practices, many individuals still have a strong sense of fear, anxiety, and even pity when it comes to hijras. These notions have developed “taboos” or fears of hijras, including that new brides should not make [physical] contact with hijras or else they will become infertile, or that they can curse a household with this infertility. There have also been numerous stereotypes of hijras including that they curse or insult families who do not fulfill their material demands (money or gifts), or that they “expose their mutilated genitals to public gaze,” one of the more feared threats (Nanda 1990:6). Another widespread stereotype is that hijras are “intersexed persons claimed or kidnapped by the hijra community as infants,” a claim that has never been substantiated (Nanda 1986:42). Hijras, as previously mentioned, are also very much aware of their religious presence and their resulting public respectability, as well as the fact that their sexual activity often compromises this status. As a result, the public belief in the ascetic abilities of hijras is often taken with an ambiguous, skeptic, and hostile attitude – many families still doubt and challenge the authenticity of their power [when they perform at their births or weddings]. Hijras fight this challenge through their emasculation – many people question hijras’ authenticity by accusing them of being zenanas -effeminate homosexuals who are evidently not emasculated, one of the reasons this process is so vital to their identity. Indian politics, on the other hand, are increasingly more open to hijras, with two hijras that have run for and won positions in local offices, and the Congress and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) “actively courting hijras as the ‘new’ sexual minority” (Reddy 2007: 101).
As a result of these contradicting perceptions that both validate and question hijras, they have begun to internalize their status as a “third gender” and an “othered” group. Many call themselves “separate”, “neither man nor woman”, “born as men, but not men”, or “not perfect men”. One hijra said, “we are not like men, we do not have the sexual desires men have, we are like sannyasis (men who embrace otherworldliness), [and] we have renounced all sexual desire and family life” (Lal 1999: 127). Another assumption made of hijras that has influenced their self-perceptions is that they can never be the “ideal” man in Indian culture, as a key part of this identity is the ability to reproduce sons which hijras lack, causing many hijras to be ostracized. Many assume hijras are a just a diverse variation of females, but this is not the case (Nanda 1986:37). Despite their dress, mannerisms, or appearance which are perceived as “feminine”, most hijras do not identify as women. Rather, these “feminine” mannerisms – their tendencies to take on a “woman’s swaying walk”, female names, and other “feminine” behaviors – are much more exaggerated compared to those of the average Indian female, distinguishing them as this “third gender”. Not only are these behaviors “incongruous with those expected of women in the Indian public”, but they also make an “aggressive claim on a community that is heavily gendered” (Lal 1999:129). This misconception of hijras relates back to their reasoning for not being men – their inability to reproduce. Thus, many of them use this [strongly emphasized] biological inability to distinguish themselves and their identity from their society’s gender norms.
In sum, hijras use the following mechanisms to construct a distinct yet contradictory “third gender” identity in India: their prominent religious presence, their community’s kinship practices, and perceptions and assumptions the Indian public has of them as hijras. Within these three larger constructs, they also exhibit unique expressions of sexuality which contribute to the development of this “third gender” identity. Their religious presence consists of numerous mythological references to hijras and their creative ascetic power, which legitimizes the sexual abstinence and emasculation of hijras. They also develop this distinct identity through unique kinship practices including family-like relationships they lack due to their status as hijras. These practices are vital to this identity and their initiation into this exclusive community. Lastly, the ambiguous attitudes and assumptions of the Indian public towards hijras influence this group of individuals to perceive themselves as this “third gender”. These include negative preconceptions of the group as transsexuals, homosexuals, or other stereotypes, as well as myths including that they curse individuals with infertility. On the other hand, there are also positive reactions to hijras including acceptance of those who have assumed positions within the Indian government, as well as their elevated status derived from their religious significance, which they enact through performances at weddings and births. Thus, these contradicting perceptions contribute to the overall ambiguous identity of hijras, in which they execute unique sexual practices [within these three overarching constructs] that also contribute to their distinct identity. These include a range of practices from monogamous relationships to homosexual tendencies to prostitution practices to complete asexuality (the ideal form of sexual expression for hijras). Overall, hijras use these larger constructs to embody a sense of self distinct from normative males and females in Indian society.
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