Hinduism believes that the soul has no gender but is variously born in male and female bodies. So how does Hinduism view the same-sex biological preferences of this neuter soul?
Enter the “third gender” (tritiya prakriti) or ‘third nature’, now legalised only in Tamil Nadu with special voter IDs and public toilets. The ancient Tamil word for “third gender” is ‘Aravanan’, now used matter-of-factly by social workers and lay public alike and still a ticking part of local cults like that of Yellamma, ‘deity of the fallen’, across the Deccan.
“The old concept of the third gender is a modern catchment area for all non-straight sexual preferences,” says a doctor (50) in Chennai working in HIV-AIDS treatment since 15 years with the LGBT community, who prefers to be un-named. She is also a believing Hindu but sees no contradiction between her faith and the LGBT identity.
Hindu texts accept the existence of alternate sexual identity, through epic characters like Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, born a princess of Kashi (Varanasi), who took rebirth as a transgender to kill her enemy, Bhishma. The epic says she was enabled to do this by the boon of Lord Shiva.
Scripture further details how Lord Shiva himself was enamoured of Lord Vishnu in his temporarily assumed form of ‘Mohini the Enchantress’ and ‘had sexual union’ with her/him. Their instantly materialised offspring was Lord Ayyappa, the deity of one of modern India’s most traditional and popular temples, Sabarimala in Kerala, worshipped as ‘Hari-Hara-Putra’ (the son of Vishnu and Shiva). The temple of a deity born of a male-transgender union, does not allow women devotees between the ages of puberty and menopause on the ground that they will sexually distract male pilgrims who have to undergo 40 days’ abstinence from meat, sex and alcohol before the pilgrimage.
Arjuna, the epic hero of the Mahabharata to whom Hinduism’s holiest text, the Bhagavad Gita, was revealed, lived for a year in disguise as a eunuch. A landmark book, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, 2002, by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai was the first to put together a historical sweep of opinion on Hinduism and homosexuality, culled from 15 languages. They did not find a conclusive pro or con stand. Instead, right from early scripture, the subject was accepted as a reality and discussed.
Psychologist-writer Sudhir Kakar who wrote on the cross-dressing cults of Radha-Krishna worship in Vrindavan among other studies on Indian sexuality, wrote that Hinduism accepted homosexuality but did not approve of it, especially for those with ritual duties, like Brahmins, who were instead taught to prefer abstinence and concentrate on study.