Annalysse Mason, sociology, south asian studies, religious studies
DePauw University, Greencastle IN
Faculty Advisor: Professor Jason Fuller
This paper examines the role of Hinduism in the construction of Hijra Identity in Modern Hindu India. I’ve been studying the Hijra population and Hinduism at large throughout my undergraduate education. I became particularly interested in how Hijras construct and negotiate their identities as I read more and more literature about Hijras. Over time I realized there are not only biological, sexual, and social discourses that are contributing to this larger conversation academia is having about Hijras, but religious discourses too. Based on what the academic community has documented, I hope to give a multi-faceted explanation of what factors go into the construction of identity for Hijras living in modern Hindu India Before I can attempt to do this I need to explain some of the basics of Hinduism and explain who Hijras are.
Hinduism is a polytheistic tradition that emphasizes the existence of one ultimate universe called Brahman. Brahman takes form in three different deities:
Brahma-the creator of the universe
Vishnu-the sustainer of the universe
Shiva-the destroyer of the universe
From these forms of Brahman many different incarnations in the forms of gods and goddesses are accepted. The ultimate goal of Hinduism is to have your ultimate self, called Atman, reunited and re-absorbed into Brahman, the ultimate universe.
Hijras are an extremely complex and diverse group of people to describe, but they can most easily be described as a dominant transgender population in India. Hijras are typically biological men whose gender identity is that of a woman, Hijras are transgender women. Regardless of the biological makeup and gender identification of Hijras, there seems to be one resounding and all-encompassing truth about them as a population: they are believed to have life-altering religious powers. The powers that Hijras have allow them to give blessings and curses related mostly to matters of fertility and childbirth. It is also widely understood that members of Hijra communities are devotees of the Goddess Bahuchara Mata. These factors of identity and more will be part of my discussion today.
Stories of Origin
Hijras find connection with a particular story of Shiva the ascetic that is part of a larger Hindu creation story. In this story, after emerging from being underwater for thousands of years, Shiva discovers (much to his dismay) that the entire universe has already been created. After this realization he breaks off his linga (penis) and throws it into the earth; in doing so he claims that it no longer has a use. Serena Nanda in her groundbreaking book Neither Man Nor Woman argues that this story specifically is quote “consistent with the paradox of creative asceticism.. it is the severed phallus that is the embodiment of tapas and is associated with Siva” end quote (Nanda, 1994). It is through this story of Shiva that Hijras connect their lives with themes of creative asceticism and procreative power. Arjun-Hijras connect with stories of Arjun, hero of the Mahabharata, in one of his stories he disguises himself as a eunuch for one year. He teaches people to sing and dance, dresses like a woman, and grows out his hair. In this story Arjun acted and lived in ways that modern Hijras do. These disguises have been argued to provide textual legitimation to some of the lifestyle choices of Hijras.
Ardhanarisvara — This deity’s biological makeup provides a type of mythological support to the sometimes ambiguous bodies of Hijras. Ardhanarisvara is a representation of both Shiva and his consort, Parvati. The deity is split half way down the middle and represents half a female and half a male.
Krishna — in stories related to Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna transforms into a woman in order to either deceive or slay demons. Through these stories there is power associated with transforming from a male body to a female body and in so, legitimation is given to the physically transformation. This is a theme that is shared with stories of Bahuchara Mata
Bahuchara Mata — I have given Bahuchara her own slide because, as Hijras’ object of devotion, her stories are some of the most significant ones to Hijra communities. To provide some cultural context, Bahuchara Mata, recognized as a form of the Mother Goddess, is a household deity that is worshipped, mostly, for her perceived ability to bring fertility to people, specifically childless couples and newlyweds. Women will also pray to her if they want specifically male children.
Although Bahuchara Mata is praised for her ability to bring good fortune in the form of male children and fertility, she is also capable of bringing horrible misfortunes to those that deceive her. Though there is some variation in the mythological stories of Bahuchara Mata, there is a degree of consistency in the fact that in these stories thieves are trying to take away her virtue in the form of rape. In one story, she attempts to ward off their advances by cutting off her breasts, this act is thought to maintain her virtue and purity.In a different version of her story the thieves succeed in raping her and she consequently transforms them into eunuchs. In this story specifically, her transformation of the rapists into eunuchs speaks to her abilities related to bodily transformation; it is also in this story that we see why Hijras worship her and castrate themselves in her name. It is through stories of Bahuchara that we can begin to understand the role that fear plays in HIjras lives. Fear is not only a crucial part in Hijras devoting their lives to Bahuchara, but it is a feeling they elicit in society for their powers related to fertility.
Castration is a huge part of identity in the Hijra community. The severing of the male organ is not only hugely significant in a social and biological context, but in a religious one.
The castration process, called Nirvan, consists of an intricate religious ceremony that involves initiating communication with Bahuchara Mata. Since the castration is completed in her name, she has to provide permission for the ceremony to take place. Once Bahuchara has given her permission and a specific set of favorable omens has been received, the penis and testicles are removed and buried under a living tree. This process not only endows a Hijra with their all-important religious powers, but places them in the same category as other great Hindu ascetics; through castration they complete a level of physical devotion that remains unreached by the average follower of any religious tradition. In a physical sense, the castration initiates an obvious change in the anatomical structure of Hijras. Castration also brings about an ensuing transformation of hormones in the bodies of Hijras. This chemical and physical change, as I argued at greater length in my thesis, makes them appear more like the beautiful and androgynous figures that appear in the mythological stories of Hinduism In a social sense, the Nirvan ceremony permanent places Hijras in the realm of those who are unable to have penetrative sex, this is especially significant when considering that Indian society values fertility and child-rearing. Additionally, completing the castration process should be seen as but one piece of the puzzle in understanding how Hijras are discriminated for falling outside of biological and gender-based dichotomies. The Nirvan ceremony also allows Hijras to be socially recognized as “true” and “official” hijras within Hijra and non-Hijra communities; a reality that deeply affects their ability to be taken seriously in their ability to inflict curses and blessings.
In the social context of Hindu India, Hijras have an incredibly valuable power; one that is so deeply connected to ideas of good livelihood that people pay Hijras to bless their families or, quite oppositely, pay them to leave out of fear of being cursed. Hijras are considered able to bless families with fertility that produces male children, they are also considered able to bless marriages so that those marriages can go on to produce lots of children. They are also, quite unforgivingly, able to curse, transform, and even terminate pregnancies with their powers. To be blessed by a Hijra in any way is good for the development of a larger family, a happy marriage, and overall socially average life in Hindu India.But to be cursed by a Hijra is to be ripped of the ability to continue one’s family line.
Hijras have an extremely ironic ability to affect the birth of male children. Irony runs rampant in their lives because while Hijras can affect the lives of families in such a way, Hijras themselves will never be able to biologically produce a family of their own. All things considered, one could argue there is a certain amount of liberation that comes from the Hijra identity, as they are given a divine ability and exalted religious status in society. But one could even more easily make the argument that Hijra identity is wrought with oppression, discrimination, and even violence. Hijras hold a very paradoxical position in Indian society because they simultaneously enforce and reject the foundational social ideals of patriarchy, gender conformity, and fertility.
Though I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Hijra identity, it’s important to analyze these stories and other factors that contribute to the construction of Hijra identity. By doing this we can begin to understand the social and religious landscape of India from the eyes of a population that is, regardless of their heightened religious status, socially marginalized.