By Ranjini Banerjee
From the spiritual perspective where balance is emphasized, the third gender are probably the most evolved of us all. What kind of a spiritual life do they lead, and what can we learn from them?
Rajni, a participant at the Inner Engineering workshop by Isha Foundation, recalls Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the founder of Isha, once saying that if every human is born through a contribution of both parents, then how can he or she claim to be a male or a female? Does every male not have 50 per cent of his mother in him and every female 50 per cent of her father? Each of us then, is half male and half female. In the light of this insight, how are we any different from the eunuchs – the doomed third gender, who are also children of the same Creator?
Nature too thrives on balance created by the male and the female. One is incomplete without the other and it is only the union which makes the existence complete. Harmony exists when the male and the female energies are in equal portions in any given field. The ancient practice of feng shui is also based on balancing the yin and yang of nature. It is only two halves which can together create a whole.
Evolution and awareness brings with it the knowledge of need for balance. Gone are the days when men would be chastised for crying and women were confined to roles of homemakers. In the new world, men are encouraged to get in touch with their feminine side and be more expressive about their feelings, while women are touching base with their masculine side. In such circumstances, would it not be natural to consider a eunuch to be the best balanced of us all?
Sri Aurobindo had claimed that the new human race would consist of ‘unisex’ members who were free from the duality of male and female. Even the Rig Veda, one of the most important scriptures of Hinduism, gives the message that ‘He, who is described as male, is as much the female and the penetrating eye does not fail to see it. It implies that the male is only as much male as he is female and the female only as much female as she is male. The maleness and femaleness are the attributes contained in one frame.”
Roots of worship
Indian epics and mythology have always allotted a place of prominence to this third gender, also known as ‘hijras’. In Mahabharata, Arjun had to spend a year in hiding as a eunuch and the powerful Bheeshma finally chose his death in the hands of the eunuch prince Shikhandiin. Hinduism is replete with stories of powerful deities who have been worshipped in the form of androgynes.
However, in spite of having the existence of hijras or androgynes as a frequent and prominent theme in mythology and religion, in real life eunuchs have not been given their due respect. They are subjects of derision or fear for most people who cannot seem to go beyond their surface differences to their common humanity. When asked if this injustice has turned her into a non-believer, Lakshmi, a member of the hijra community residing in South Delhi, says, “God created everyone and He created us. We might be different but we too are his children. While our fellow humans might discriminate against us, I believe God loves us.”
Lord Shiva is worshipped as one of the most powerful gods in Hinduism. He is both the creator and the destroyer. However, even this supremely masculine god has been worshipped as Ardhanarisvara, which means half man and half woman or Shiva united with his female creative power known as Shakti. The hijras can therefore identify with this potent form of Shiva and often worship at Shiv temples. Vrinda, a staunch Shiva devotee, believes in karma and has assigned her fate to some misdeeds of her past. She states, “God resides in all of us, no matter what form, shape, caste, creed, sex you belong to. We are all his children and He loves us all. I pray to Lord Shiva every day; He might be testing us for unknown reasons. We might be bearing the fruit of our karmas from the past. God will free us some day.”
Myths and tales
The legend of the Bahuchara Mata (mother goddess) is also associated with transgenderism and therefore this goddess forms the main object of the hijras’ veneration. One of the myths concerning the goddess portrays her as the daughter of Charan Bapal Dan Detha. She and her sister were attacked by Bapiya while they were travelling with a caravan. Bapiya was cursed and became impotent due to this rash act. The curse was removed only when he dressed and acted like a woman and worshipped Bahuchara Mata. Since that day, she is recognised as the patron of all eunuchs in India. All her followers are strict believers in non-violence and even consider killing of animals to be a sin.
In South India, Yellamma is yet another goddess believed to be the patron of eunuchs. Traditionally, she is worshipped as the goddess of the fallen and every category of downtrodden people look up to her for protection and blessings. The compassionate goddess is also believed to wield a power that can change a person’s gender and perhaps this is yet another reason for her high reverence within the eunuch community.
Rituals of life
Initiation into the eunuch community requires the first and foremost step of complete emasculation. The ceremony is viewed as a rebirth and is known as nirvana. The transformation symbolises the connection with both Shiv and Shakti and is said to bless a eunuch with the goddess’s creative powers. After the completion of the ceremony, which includes a phase of seclusion, special diet and other symbolic rituals, the newly ‘born’ eunuch is induced with the power to bless others with fortune and fertility. The 18-day festival held in the Koovagam village in Tamil Nadu is devoted to the deity Koothandavar or Lord Aravan. The grand Indian epic Mahabharat dictates that Aravan was the son of Arjun who had agreed to sacrifice his life to tilt the scales in favour of the Pandavas. However, he desired to get married before he sacrificed his life. Since no suitable bride could be located who would willingly become a widow the next day of her marriage, Lord Krishna assumed the form of Mohini. The ritualistic marriage of Lord Aravan and Mohini and her subsequent widowhood is the theme of this grand festival held in Koovagam.
The eunuchs, known as Aravanis, throng to this tiny village for these few days and participate in the symbolic marriage and widowhood customs and rituals with full fanfare and enthusiasm. Perhaps this religious ceremony provides the only platform to a eunuch to get a glimpse of normal events of life like marriage. Here too, it seems that the Supreme Being in the form of Lord Aravan has derived a way to fulfil the inner most wishes and desires of his less fortunate children.
Gayathri has been a regular at the Koovagam festival ever since her entry to the eunuch community. Sharing her feelings about experiencing the regular events of life, which most of us take for granted, in this symbolic manner, she says, “I feel angry at God sometimes, why are we supposed to undergo this lifelong trial. But at the same time I so desperately want to believe everything happens for the best – God has his strange ways, right?”
Ardhanarisvara: Shiva united with ShaktiLiving in the spirit
Only the highly spiritually evolved being can accept his or her misfortune as life’s lesson and God’s will and yet have the heart to bless others while suffering within. The ones we met certainly seemed to operate from a high level of acceptance and surrender. The pain of human rejection has clearly spurred them to attain the peace of acceptance. After all, who can be more unfortunate than humans who have not even been blessed with the dignity of owning a gender, which is a granted identification for the rest of the world? In most Indian households it is considered highly auspicious for a newborn child or a newly married couple to be blessed by a eunuch. The blessing of this third gender comes from the heart and is therefore highly potent. A eunuch would gladly take on and remove any bad luck surrounding you, in return for some remuneration or at times even for a few kind words spoken to them. A particular sect of hijras is also known as the Hijra Bawas and members of this segment willingly renounce materialism and the ways of the world to become healers or shamans. The Hijra Bawas mostly reside in the religiously significant town of Ajmer.
Agreed that the curse of a hijra is highly feared and many members of this community exploit this by using it as a threat to earn more money. The sight of these gaudily dressed eunuchs with loud make-up and even louder behaviour can repel or scare away most people. Few of us actually pause to try and see the pained person behind the layer of face paint. Once the cover peels off, it is not difficult to identify and perhaps even relate to members of the third gender, who are also children of the same God.
Lessons we can learn
Indian tradition has always upheld the value of the ‘gurukul’ system where our teachers have been given the position next to Gods. However, over time we have lost these values and beliefs and the gurukul system has become almost extinct in recent times. The eunuch community, however, has still held on to tradition and kept alive the culture of learning from a revered teacher. Every eunuch gaining entry into a sect has a ‘guru’ or teacher from whom she learns the way of life, culture, tradition and rules of survival. The ‘guru’ is allotted the highest position and has the extreme regard of all members of the community.
All the members live together as a community and every new member is instantly taken under the wings, provided food, shelter and protection, while being trained about the hijra way of life. In them we can find an apt example of community living, which many spiritual organisations today are trying to promote.
Also, in spite of having been labelled the cursed children of God, the eunuchs have not let go of their intense faith in the Almighty. Almost every hijra household has a shrine to Lord Shiva, Yellamma, Bahuchara Mata or even Lord Ganesha. The concept of karmic cycle is also deep rooted in their mind and psyche. Strong belief that their suffering in this lifetime is a result of their past misdeeds and hence they do have a chance of being blessed in the next birth, is what gives them hope to endure this life. Every seeker’s faith has been tested at some point or the other and many fail to hold on to their faith during the most difficult times. The eunuchs have set an example for the rest of the world to follow. From them we can learn what it means to have total faith in God and surrender to His will with all our hearts.
In spite of having all odds against them, the eunuchs are slowly enhancing their place in society. Although mainly at grass-roots levels, they have already made their entry into politics, one of the most crucial fields which change the face of a nation. The activists are fighting for the right of every eunuch to have access to education, health care and be allowed to hold regular jobs.
The journey upward will be slow and painful but they have made a start. Like all downtrodden communities, their suffering has yielded strength and spiritual force. There is much to learn from them and much to give them – most especially respect and support on their journey to self-determination.
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