The evidence is there. We become so amazed at what we have been, opening to it as if from a deep sleep, and yet when we see it break open in front of us we wonder how we could have missed such things. This is what we have been, a thread of humanity from the foundations of our species, oppressed, at times erased, at times surviving threat of erasure, and spiritual roots follow accordingly.
One of the earliest areas of the world we can cite for the existence of transgender people are perhaps less examples of transgender priesthoods such as existed in the Eastern Mediterranean, but more examples of how transpeople had been treated and regarded by priests. That place is the Subcontinent.
What modern inquirers into evidences of transgender people in antiquity must understand is that “transgender”, a perennially problematic term, didn’t exist before the Stonewall uprising in New York City (1969) and full consensus concerning its proper use still gets debated today. We can’t treat the term as anything but modern parlance even if transgender people can’t be treated as a strictly modern phenomenon. In antiquity we have been grouped together as “eunuchs”, at least those of us male-to-female. Despite the existence of female-to-male transpeople in the Subcontinent, little if any of their histories in sacred texts have been recognized so far.
We also must exercise extra scrutiny because both cis-gender and transgender eunuchs have existed in eunuch communities. Citing a source about a eunuch does not suffice to establish that individual as probably transgender. We must find more evidence that such a person expresses femininity or, as the case of chamberlains, accepts terms of employment by which no regrets regarding castration has been entertained lest the hireling become an embezzler or murderer. In other words, cis-gender eunuchs would accept this far less than transgender eunuchs.
The Subcontinent has been home to sacred texts going back to the time of David and those built upon earlier traditions. Hinduism’s roots purportedly extend before Moses. The earliest of these, the Vedic literatures, begin with the hymns and spells handed down through generations of priests. One of these spells appears in the Atharva-Veda VI:138:1-3 as an incantation to disempower a man of his virility (circa 1200-1000 BCE). But the language implies more:
- As the best of the plants that are reputed,
Turn this man for me today into a eunuch
that wears his hair dressed!
- Turn him into a eunuch
that wears his head dressed
and into one that wears a hood!
Then Indra with a pair of stones
shall break his testicles both.
- O eunuch!
Into a eunuch thee I have turned;
Into a castrate thee I have turned;
A hood upon his head,
And a hair-net do we place! 1
The passage from the Atharva-Veda compels us to look upon the eunuch as already existing in the Vedic period. Not only did such a being pre-exist, but also such beings may develop feminine expression after formerly having been pronounced male. If such people did not exist, there would have been no necessity for these concepts. A commentary emphasizes this by comparing verse 3 of this passage to another passage in which:
“the goddess Sinîvâlî is described as ‘sukapardâ, sukaritâ svopasa.’ All 3 epithets obviously refer to female characteristics of dressing the hair and the head. The notion here is that the eunuch will develop hermaphroditic characteristics, and hence assume the headgear of a woman.” Another footnote to verse 3 reads, “The ἂπ. λεγ. tirî/în in this passage is doubtless identical with the later kirî/în, and again refers to some feminine mode of dressing the head.”2
Eunuchs appear also as “long-haired man” in Hindu literature. We find this portion of a rite employed in the consecration of a ruler in Satapatha-Brâhmana; Fourth Adhyâya, First Brâhamana v. 1,2. (circa 900-700 BCE):
- He puts a piece of copper into the mouth of a long-haired man, with:
“Removed by sacrifice are the mordacious:
for verily he who performs the Râgasûya
escapes all kinds of death,
all murderous blows,
and old age alone is his death:
hence any kind of death,
whatever murderous blow there is,
past that he now guides him,
as past the murderous ones.”
- And as to why it is of a long-haired man _ such a long-haired man is neither woman nor man; for being a male, he is not a woman, and being long-haired (a eunuch), he is not a man. And copper (or bronze) is neither iron nor gold; and those mordacious ones (snakes) are never worms nor non-worms. And as to its being copper, _ reddish to be sure are mordacious ones. Therefore (he throws it into the face) of the long-haired man.3
These feminized eunuchs then, or “Hijra” as they have been known since Moghul times, appear to survive from at least the time of Ram. These people have long objects of derision and self-mockery. They survive as communities of Untouchables among Untouchables, making their livelihood by their presence at weddings, blessings of children, and as entertainers. Zia Jaffrey (a female British journalist and not transgender), who chronicled the lives and history of one of the prominent communities, the Hijra, offered these statistics of what sort of people composed the “eunuchs,” based upon 100 interviewees:
13% hermaphrodite or pseudo-hermaphrodite
11% transvestite “zenanas”
51% identified as males
49% identified as females 4
Male or female identification among the eunuchs seems partly to depend upon whether interviewees were castrated or not. Some of the interviewees cited by Jaffrey throughout her book, The Invisibles, retained male names, even if having adopted female attire and mannerisms. Clearly, both in antiquity and in modern times, cis-gender eunuchs and transgender eunuchs existed, and at least some of the time they coexisted within the same community structures.
Jaffrey quoted an “Inspector Reddy,” speaking of the “impotence” of Hijra described thus:
“There were 3 categories of impotence…One was natural born. The second was: the male organ, dissected _ the whole thing, including the testicles. And the third category was male prostitution, that is sodomy _ homosexuality.”5
Despite the disparaging view taken by Inspector Reddy, the Hijra appear as a devoted people. A version of The Ramayana (6th Century CE) speaks of Ram beginning an exile from Ayodhya the Hindu name of the city Muslims call, “Adhvaryu”, from which he had ruled. His exile would last 14 years. His subjects loved him. They followed Ram as he left the city. But Ram charged all “men and women” to return to the city to their daily tasks. Hijra, who were regarded as “neither men nor women,” consistent with the aforementioned Brahmana, remained till Ram returned. Ram, seeing their devotion, blessed them, assigning them to dances, to attend weddings and births that they may bless them, and to bless children.6
This practice of blessing survives today in a Hijra Blessing of Children, cited by Zia Jaffrey, and follows a hybrid of Hindu and Muslim thought. It may also find adaptation to the Western Gospel narratives through metempsychosis:
“Lord of the Universe:
because of You,
Ram was born.
Because of You,
Ram was born.
The instruments are playing in Adhvaryu.
Lord of the Universe,
because of You,
all the money is being thrown around
and the one who steals is stealing it.
Lord of the Universe,
because of You,
Ram was born.
And why was Ram born?
Ram was born
because Ram was also to die.”7
Hijra spiritual tradition doesn’t stop there. Most commonly, Hijra priestly acts focus upon Bahuhchara Mata, the Great Mother. A classical depiction shows her riding upon a rooster, symbolic of innocence and impending wisdom.8 The rooster was also a symbol of the Gallī (Gallae today), a priesthood of transgender eunuchs devoted to Cybele, and this symbol appears in Roman referents to them. 9 While Romans ridiculed the term “Gallus” (singular of Gallī) as profanely referring to male genitalia, the similarity suggests a deeper meaning may exist in the spiritual experience of their ecstatic rites. Cybele is a Great Mother deity in the West like Bahuchara Mata, suggesting ancient connections with India which had generally gone unrecognized
But transgenderism takes other spiritual expressions in Hindu literature. The Mahabharata, (early forms beginning in the 9th Century BCE and reaching its full length by the 4th Century CE), tells how Aravan offers his lifeblood to Kali to assure victory to the Pandavas. Aravan was granted 3 boons for his sacrifice, one of which was that he may marry before he dies. Women were not inclined to accept such an arrangement. So Krishna, in his compassion toward the devoted Aravan, took the form of the woman Mohini in order to marry him and fulfill his last desire.10 Observance commemorating Aravan’s sacrifice commences each year in India to this day. Transgender folk including Hijra take part as “Aravanis” in a religious rite that seem much like the rites pertaining to the death of Attis the devotee of Cybele.11
A beautiful story about Krishna and Arjuna also appears in the Padma Purana, (Earliest versions appearing in 100 BCE but modified by the 15th century CE). Arjuna desires to know divine secrets not even known to Brahma, particularly questions about the gopis, holy women in whom Arjuna takes sexual delight in seclusion. Krishna says, “What is the point in my telling you of those things that you shall see directly?” Krishna instructs Arjuna to worship Tripurasundari, the goddess from whom the universe sprang and to whom it must return. Arjuna must submit to her and make his request to her. The goddess appears to Arjuna and directs him to a series of rites including purificatory rites in 4 sacred lakes. In the process he becomes acquainted with a “Mother Goddess” and himself becomes a young woman, full of the ecstasy of spiritual experience.12
The point is an important one pertaining to spirituality, and an aspect commonly sought by male-to-female transpeople. Reaching the depth of spiritual experience requires something to which many remain oblivious: the need for receptivity, obedience, quietness, and devotedness: all qualities associated with femininity. Being transgender doesn’t require one to become a prostitute, though many feel compelled to do this given the extreme restrictions upon transpeople pertaining to employment and the denial thereof. But it does require bringing out those feminine qualities and those who live as females strive to achieve them, at times as a pilgrimage of spiritual devotion and intending such a pilgrimage as an express purpose from the beginning of their commitments.
Such stories indicate something else comparable to an observation by Dr. Jamison Green in 1994 he made when describing Western myth involving transgender themes: “If there were no societal need for the transgendered (sic) psyche, these myths would not exist. And all archetypes are rooted in actual human experience.” In other words, if transpeople did not exist in antiquity in a particular region, there would be nothing in human experience by which a region could generate these stories.13
Those of the Subcontinent offer today’s most direct link between modernity and antiquity, both in connecting the historical context of transgenderism and connecting the spiritualities thereof. Those spiritual connections appeal to the higher aspects of transgenderism for meditation upon those archetypes of femininity as Arjuna devoted himself as Krishna directed him; empowering with a vitality and depth of experience to which most remain oblivious, but which even the most impoverished and oppressed transperson can attain. They sustained Hijra over centuries of ostracism. They sustain these communities today.
In principle they sustain us as well who may be removed from Hijra communities, reflected also in our personal and collective mythoi, those “tapes” which include our earliest stories taught in song and rhyme, and the archetypes that awaken in our own bodies from our own genes, all of which make us tick. Too few recognize this principle of myth as archetype affecting all humankind, but our understanding of them continues to unfold. The spiritual experiences of transpeople are a treasure not only for us as transpeople, but for all of humankind because whether the world wishes to recognize us as such or not, we are indeed human. It’s a font that testifies to aspects of human experience to which all may visit and walk with the oppressed for a little while, and in so doing, learn to love his neighbor as himself.
Image: A montage of fragments of an Aravan image, Bahuchara Mata with rooster, and a page from the Atharva-Veda (which unfortunately is not the passage referred to in this article since an manuscript of the passage translated could not be obtained.
1. Atharva-Veda VI:138:1-3 from Bloomfield, Maurice (translator). Hymns of the Atharva-Veda: Together With Extracts from the Ritual Books and the Commentaries. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1992. 108f. ISBN: 81-208-0143-1.
2. p. 538.
3. Satapatha-Brâhmana; Fourth Adhyâya, First Brâhamana v. 1,2 from Egeling, Julius (translator). The Satapatha Brâhmana Accoding to the Text of the Mâdhyandina School, Part III, Books V, VI, & VII. Motilal Banalsipass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1996. P. 91. ISBN: 81-208-0142-3
4. Jaffrey, Zia. The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India. Pantheon Books, Random House, NY. p. 143. ISBN: 0-679-41577-7. p. 57.
5. p. 127.
6. Seetharaman, G. What Kerala’s New Transgender Policy Could Teach Other States About Recognising(sic) the Rights of a Maltreated Community. (November 29, 2015). Web: The Economic Times, ET Bureau http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/what-keralas-new-transgender-policy-could-teach-other-states-about-recognising-the-rights-of-a-maltreated-community/articleshow/49963945.cms. Retrieved August 3, 2016.
7. Op cit, p. 266-267.
8. Saraswathi, Yogi Ananda. Devi: Bahuchara Mata (August 20, 2012) Web: Vedic Goddess. http://vedicgoddess.weebly.com/joy-ma-blog/devi-bahuchara-mata. Retrieved August 3, 2016.
9. Lawler, Andrew. Why did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization (April 26, 2016) Simon and Schuster ISBN: 1476729905, 9781476729909, p. 155.
10. Chowdhury, Sanchita. The Tragic Story of Aravan: Origin of the Third Gender (January 19, 2015) Web: Boldsky Limitless Living. http://www.boldsky.com/yoga-spirituality/faith-mysticism/2015/tragic-story-of-aravan-origin-of-the-third-gender-060821.html . Retrieved August 3, 2016.
11. Suresh, Mayur. Aravan’s Brides (May 15, 2012) Web: The New Indian Express. http://www.newindianexpress.com/magazine/article59561.ece?service=print. Retrieved August 3, 2016. The comparison to the Attis is the opinion of the writer.
12. Arjuna Becomes a Woman: A Transgender Tale from Padma Purana (March 2, 2012) Web: Another Mahabharata https://anothermahabharata.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/arjuna-becomes-a-woman-a-transgender-tale-from-padma-purana/ drawing from Chaitanya, Satya, . Retrieved July 28, 2016.
13. Green, Jamison, et al. Investigation into Discrimination Against Transgendered (sic) People (September 1994) Report: Human Rights Commission, San Francisco. 13.