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Indian Art  
 
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The Third Gender

Hinduism consists of a pantheon of gods. The idea behind the multiple expressions is that Brahman, God, is without form, but in order for the mind to meditate upon the divine, it needs a form to which it can attach itself. The infinite can be seen as a diamond, each facet, god or goddess, sparkling distinctly and to be worshipped as one aspect of the whole.

The multiplicity of forms is a manifestation of the universal spirit pervading all things. Not only does Hinduism hold that divine spirit is manifest in all beings, but it also implies that male and female principles are inherent in all people.

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As Nanda has pointed out, ancient Hinduism suggested a third gender, which itself was divided into four subcategories, that of the male with desiccated testicles, the castrated male, the hermaphrodite, and the non-menstruating female.

In spite of Indian society's strict adherence to conventional gender roles today, in Hindu belief gender is seen as a relatively fluid affair. The body is regarded as a temporary dwelling for a soul, and androgynous deities reflect this essentially sexless or multi-sexual aspect of the soul.

The Hijra

In India, the concept of third gender was expressed not only through the language and the androgynous gods, but also through the eunuchs and hijras, who are regarded as potent beings, for, in standing between the genders, they are seen as being closer to the divine.

Many of today's hijras make a living bestowing blessings on new born male children, performing at weddings, or working as servants or as prostitutes. In dancing and singing they often outrageously parody women. A wedding, especially among the devout poor, would not be considered complete without the presence and blessings of the potent hijra.

Sex Change

Besides manifesting as androgynes, some Hindu gods were also known to switch genders altogether. Usually the sex change occurred so gods could engage in intercourse with a being of their own gender.

In one of his incarnations, Vishnu manifested as Mohini (a beautiful woman) in order to seduce Shiva. Together they produced a dual gendered god Ayyappa, who is today honored by the hijras, many of whom are Lord Ayyappa's followers.

Krishna, too, transformed into a woman to fight the demon Araka who, having never set eyes on a woman, was strong only because of his chastity. After being married for three days, the demon was destroyed by his wife.

After the deed, Krishna revealed himself to the other gods in his true form, proclaiming there would be others like him, who, as neither man nor woman, would have the power to utter words, whether a blessing or a curse, that would come true. Today's hijras are attributed this power, so hosts take care to reward them generously when they perform at celebratory events.

According to a Tamil version of the Mahabharata, Krishna again took on female attributes in order to marry Arjuna's son Aravan. When Aravan offered himself as a sacrifice, he asked for the boon of marriage, but no woman wanted to marry a man about to be killed, so Krishna volunteered. This event is celebrated annually by the hijras, who honor and identify with Krishna in his form.

Shiva also changed sexes, but his reason for doing so was to make love to his wife Parvati as a female. A story in the Ramayana describes how, in order to please Parvati, he not only transformed into a woman, but switched the gender of every male who entered the forest where they were making love.

When King Ila stumbled into the grove, he and his stallion were transformed into their female equivalents. But King Ila's brothers pleaded with Shiva, who reversed the spell somewhat by granting Ila the state of being a woman one month and a man the next.

Women also switched genders. The princess Amba, although reborn as Sikhandini, a girl, was brought up by her parents as a boy. When Sikhandini married a princess, her true sex was discovered and she ran to the forest where a yaksha exchanged genders with her. From then on she was known as Sikhandin, a great warrior, who helped Arjuna in battle.

Homosexual Relationships

As is apparent from the stories above, sex between people of the same gender was not unheard of in the Hindu epics. A story from the Ramayana describes how Hanuman, the monkey god, witnessed women lying in each other's arms as if they were with male lovers; and the Susruta (ca 380-450 C.E.) notes that two women could act like virile men and have intercourse together, but their child would lack bones.

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