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The Indian Third Gender: Then and Now

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By Meghna

Now identified as the “third gender”, the transgenders have always been an oppressed and ostracized community in modern India.

courtesy: withfriendship.com
courtesy: withfriendship.com

The recent supreme court verdict has finally enabled them to take shots at the same opportunities provided to the non-transgender people. It has become an official step towards empowering them. But the third sex, according to the mythologies, enjoyed a better position.

The Mahabharata, which is considered to be a “historic epic”, tells us the story of Shikhandi, the older sibling of Draupadi. During the ninth and tenth days of the 18 day long war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, Krishna took the help of Shikhandi to defeat Bhisma, who was considered invincible as he had the power of deciding the time of his death. Shikhandi was born a girl and was raised as a boy by his father. His gender identity, thus being more inclined towards the masculine. It is said that the sages prophesied that her body will transform into that of a man later in life.

The reaction given by the Pandavas when Krishna told them about his plans of including Shikhandi in his attack on Bhisma, is almost similar to the reaction our society now gives, whenever the question of inclusion of transgenders in the same areas of work as the non-transgenders today.

“Shikhandi embodies all queer people – from gays to lesbians to Hijras to transgendered people to hermaphrodites to bisexuals. Like their stories, his story remains invisible. But the great author, Vyasa, located this story between the ninth night and the tenth day, right in the middle of the war, between the start and the finish. This was surely not accidental. It was a strategic pointer to things that belong neither here nor there. This is how the ancients gave voice to the non-heterosexual discourse,” says the author Devdutt Pattanaik, in his article ‘On Krishna’s chariot stands Shikhandi’.

In the medieval era, eunuchs and transgenders enjoyed a respected and accepted place in the society. They made the most trusted handmaidens and advisors to the queens and their presence in the society was not something that was sneered at.

It is believed that when Rama was exiled for 14 years, many men and women followed him into the forests. He, however, asked the men and women to go back to their respective lives. After the men and women had left, the eunuchs were left, and they refused to go back. Happy with their devotion, Rama blessed them with the power to confer blessings on during auspicious occasions such as childbirth, inauguration etc. The practice is still followed as many houses where babies are born are visited by eunuchs who sing, and dance and shower their blessings in exchange of money.

The Indian mythology also describes the androgynous deity, who is a composite form of Shiva and Parvati, called “Ardhanareeshwar”. This form is identified as a union of the powers and quite literally the bodies of Shiva and Parvati.

There are more instances in Mahabharata, other than the episode of Shikhandi. It is believed that Arjuna, after being cursed by the nymph Urvashi spent a year of his life as Brihanala who  taught music and dance to the princess Uttara.

Then there is also the episode of Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Chitrangada who was willingly sacrificed by Krishna in order to turn the tide in the favour of Pandavas and make them win the war. His last wish was to die a married man after fulfilling his lust. As no woman was ready to be married to a man who was fated to die very soon, Krishna took the form of Mohini and married him.

courtesy: flikr.com
courtesy: flikr.com

In Tamil Nadu, every year, this incident is celebrated as a festival called “Koothandavar”, where transgenders from the entire subcontinent assemble, participate in a ceremony where everyone is married to Aravan and then lament like Mohini did when on the 18th day of the festival, as Aravan died on the 18th day of Mahabharata and Mohini mourned him like a widow mourns her husband.

Even though India is easily dubbed as among the most conservative and religious countries in the world, the cultural and religious history of India tells a different tale altogether.The ancient Hindu society was, in fact, more accepting of the transgenders and also recognized the cases of people born into the bodies they didn’t identify with.

The laws incriminating the “queer” practices of LGBT, the much-despised section 377, was a creation of British Colonial rule. In fact, the discriminatory attitude towards the third gender which our society practices even now, is because of the influence of the societal norms laid down by the British Raj.

Thus, we should strive to be truer representatives of the “real” culture that India was- accepting, and not conservative as the British Raj made us.

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Section 377 : Does It Really Has Anything To Do With Indian Culture?

The modern Indian approach towards homosexuality is hardly the one derived from Indian culture

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Gay pride Flag
Rainbow Flag represents LGBT community, VOA

By Ruchika Verma

  • Section 377 of IPC is one of the most controversial matters in India
  • The law criminalises the unnatural acts of sexual activities
  • Homosexuality is illegal under the IPC Section 377

Section 377, which criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature,” which includes homosexual relationships as well, has been a matter of debate for a long time now. In a rather progressive nation like India, this section represents nothing but backwardness.

Section 377 is one of the reasons why LGBTQ community gets harassed.
Section 377 is one of the reasons why LGBTQ community gets harassed.

The modern Indian approach towards homosexuality is hardly the one derived from Indian culture, rather it is a product of British colonialization, which brought the section into being during their rule over India.

LGBTQ rights are used as nothing but a propaganda by political parties to gain votes. The media coverage is also about nothing else, but either community members getting harassed or a politician spewing out absurdities about the LGBTQ community. The reasons which the rigid nationalists of our country give in support of Section 377 are even more absurd. they try to create a connection where there is neither scope nor need.

Also Read: Section 377 criminalising ‘unnatural sex’ may be scrapped, says Sadananda Gowda

Indian Culture and Section 377 – Is there really a connection? 

The truth is, there isn’t. Those who go against homosexuality in the name of Indian culture are surely not properly aware of our ancient texts. Indian culture, especially Hinduism has always been more fluid in its ideology than the British who ruled India for more than a century.

Indian culture has always recognised sexuality properly. Our scriptures are a great example of that. Be it the famous Kamasutra or the Vedas, sexuality was never a taboo until Mughals and Britishers came into the picture.

Indian culture nowhere says that homosexuality is wrong or unethical.
Indian culture nowhere says that homosexuality is wrong or unethical.

Nowhere in Indian culture, there is a scripture which validates the ill-treatment of LGBTQ community. What we don’t release is the fact that the weight of colonialism still hangs heavily over our heads, suspended in mid-air, dividing people who believe in totally two different ideologies.

Our ancestors recognised the need for changes in their law, sadly, our modern generation can not. Section 377 of the Indian penal code dates back to 1861, and it is now high time that a change is implemented.

LGBT community needs to be accepted just as much as any other community. Pixabay
LGBT community needs to be accepted just as much as any other community. Pixabay

It is no hidden fact that Indian culture was far more modern in its approach than the Roman or British one. However, that’s the case of the past. With time progressing, India has only regressed in the matters relating to sexuality and women.

Be it society’s way of controlling a certain section of society, or politicians who never step back from banking upon such matters, India needs to recognise that the Section 377 is totally wrong in its approach of homosexual people.

Section 377 and the problems with it

Also Read: How did Rainbow Flag attain the Prestige of representing the LGBT Community? 

Section 377 goes against the ‘unnatural’ sexual activities, which involves unnatural sexual acts performed on humans and animals. the key term in the section is “against the order of nature.”

Homosexuality, unfortunately, is against the nature in India. It is not treated as an identity or the orientation of a person, rather many radicals claim it to be an ‘illness.’ What’s more interesting, is the fact that there is no norm which defines these ‘unnatural acts.’

The IPC Section 377 is the reason why homosexuality in India is a taboo today. Despite, several protests and peaceful rallies, India’s pride just keeps on going down. Homosexuals live in a constant fear which is a violation of humanity in itself.

pride flag
The rainbow pride flag of the LGBT community. Wikimedia Commons

The law needs to be constantly modified in order to be effective. With the change in time, a modification is law is also needed. However, Indian Supreme Court seems to be ignoring the fact. It is going along with the old beliefs which are better cast away.

The IPC Section 377 needs not to get removed, however, an amendment is definitely needed. Homosexuality is not a crime, it is just human nature which needs to accept. To be or not be is not a choice, it is an orientation. And orientation doesn’t see legal or illegal.