Goddess of Destruction
Goddess Kali embodies the wrath of material nature and has a very fierce form. She has four arms carrying a trident, machete-like ax (khadagh), severed head of a demon and a vessel of blood. A similar form known as Sri Bhadra-kali has ten arms yielding various weapons. Kali has a blackish complexion and red eyes. She wears a garland of human heads, a skirt of human arms, slaughters millions of demons and relishes drinking their blood. Armies of scantily clad dakinis (she-demons) gleefully assist her in the slaughter.
Sri Kali is one of the many expansions of Durga-devi, the consort of Lord Siva and goddess of the material energy. One time Kali was engaged in a universal war so fierce that her fury went out of control. All the gods were terrified and no one could end her ruthless slaughter. They approached Lord Siva as a last resort, and Siva, not sure what to do, prostrated himself before the goddess in full surrender to her power. Kali unknowingly stepped on her lord and, realizing what she had done, recoiled back in horror, sticking out her tongue. Remorseful, she cried out, “My Lord!” and in that way was brought back to her senses, ending the slaughter.
Sri Kali manifests an amazing display of power and might, shattering all stereotypes of women as only feminine. As a divine warrior, she fights equally beside men and defeats them in battle. As a goddess, she rides a tiger and carries out mass destruction—war, catastrophe, cyclones, earthquakes, etc.—are all manifestations of her colossal force. “Kala” means time, and therefore Kali represents the destructive force of material time. Kali is a very popular goddess, especially in Bengal, and there are many temples devoted to her. Devotees of Kali generally worship her as the personification of the material energy (Siva’s shakti), to appease her wrath, and to pray for all kinds of benedictions. Kali-puja is celebrated on the new-moon day in Kartika (October-November) and marked by animal or sometimes even human sacrifices. The day coincides with the Hindu New Year and another popular festival known as Diwali or “the Festival of Lights.” Since goddess Kali represents material time, it is appropriate that her holiday is celebrated at the juncture between the old and new years.
Son of Siva and Agni
Kartikeya is the son of two male deities—Siva and Agni—born without the help of any womb. He is the god of war and commander-in-chief of the demigods. Kartikeya is also known as Skanda, Subrahmanya, and Murugan, and portrayed as a brave, handsome youth riding on a peacock, sometimes in a six-headed and twelve-armed form. Like his brother Ganesha, Kartikeya is traditionally worshiped as a bachelor who avoids women. In the Brahmanda Purana it is stated that Parvati cursed Kartikeya so that he would see all women as his mother. Thus he never married and instead took companionship from his fellow soldiers. Another name for Kartikeya is Senapati—he was a lord or “husband” to his army.
Three Vedic texts narrate the birth of Kartikeya in somewhat different versions. In the Mahabharata, Agni (the fire god) is aroused by the six Krittika goddesses (the Pleiades) and discharges his semen into the hand of one of them, named Svaha-devi. She discards the semen into a lake from which Skanda (literally, “he who was cast off”) emerges. Because the Krittikas nursed him, he was named Kartikeya. The Mahabharata mentions that since the place where Agni discharged his semen was itself created from the seed of Siva, both gods are considered fathers of Kartikeya. In the best-known version from the Siva Purana, Kartikeya’s birth is described as follows: The demigods needed a son who would lead their army against the asuras (demons). Siva and Parvati agreed to produce such a son, but when they were locked in cosmic embrace for a very long time, the demigods became alarmed and interrupted them. Siva spilled his seed on the ground and Agni, disguised as a dove and urged on by the other gods, swallowed the semen with his beak. Parvati was enraged by the course of events and chastised the gods bitterly. Agni was burned by the fire of Siva’s seed and submitted himself before the god. Siva was pleased and allowed Agni to pass the semen on to the Krittikas. The sagely husbands of these goddesses, however, accused their wives of unfaithfulness and therefore they discharged the semen onto the Himalayan peaks. Himavata (the Himalayas personified and father of Parvati) was burned by the seed and tossed it into the Ganges River, which in turn deposited it into a forest of reeds—wherefrom a very handsome boy was born named Kartikeya. His appearance made Siva, Parvati, and all the gods very happy. In the Skanda Purana, the story is nearly identical with the exception that Agni swallowed Siva’s semen disguised as a male ascetic instead of a dove. The Mahabharata also relates that when Kartikeya was very young, Indra feared he would usurp his throne and thus threw a thunderbolt at the boy. Instead of killing Kartikeya, however, it simply produced from his body another fierce-looking youth named Visakha. Indra then worshiped Kartikeya and installed him as commander-in-chief of the demigods.
Like Ayyappa of similar birth, Sri Kartikeya is associated with maleness and many temples in India prevent women from entering his shrines. He is portrayed as the divine patron of warriors and represented by the planet Mars, battle, virility, progeny, bravery and strength. There are temples of Lord Kartikeya throughout India, with special celebrations and festivals held during the month of Magha (January-February). Like his brother, Ganesha, Kartikeya is generally worshiped as a bachelor although some traditions, especially in South India, depict him as married. It should be noted that Hindu deities are often worshiped in many different forms and features, including married or unmarried, in accordance with the particular mood and tradition of the devotee. For instance, some devotees of Lord Krsna worship Him as an unmarried youth in Vrndavana whereas others worship Him as a married king in Dvaraka.
Enchanter of Cupid
Sri Krsna is known as Madana-mohana—the enchanter of the male deity, Kamadeva (Cupid). Indeed, the very name Krsna means “all-attractive” and His unsurpassed beauty captivates all beings whether male, female, or third-sex. Kamadeva is known as the most exquisitely beautiful youth within the creation who charms and mesmerizes everyone as the god of sex; yet in spite of this, Kamadeva himself is completely enthralled and bewildered by the unparalleled beauty of Krsna. Because Sri Krsna is adi-purusa—the supreme and original male—all other beings are regarded as female in relation to Him.
Vedic texts, especially the Bhagavata Purana, describe Krsna as the fountainhead and original source of Vishnu and all incarnations. His unique feature is His madhurya-rasa—His unparalleled sweet and intimate conjugal pastimes—that place Him above all other forms of God such as Vishnu or Narayana. God is normally worshiped in great reverence and formality but in Krsna all Godhood is left aside for the sake of divine love. He is depicted not as a crowned king seated upon a royal throne, but as a fresh, charming youth—playing in the pastures with His cows and friends during the day and calling the gopi maidens with His flute at night. Many sages and demigods have aspired to witness Krsna’s divine sport and males like Arjuna, Narada, and even Lord Siva have transformed themselves into females for the purpose of attaining Krsna’s intimate association. In the Padma Purana it is said that during the advent of Lord Rama, the sages of Dandakaranya Forest became so attracted to the Lord they developed conjugal affection for Him. Since Rama could accept only one wife, Sita, He blessed the sages to become cowherd maidens in Krsna’s pastimes, thus fulfilling their desires.
Krsna’s pastimes are very playful and sportive; narratives from the Puranas as well as post-medieval texts often portray Krsna and His friends (both male and female) crossdressing for fun and delivering messages in disguise. Krsna has many male attendants (sahayakas) who meticulously dress and care for Him and His intimate priya-narma friends arrange rendezvous for Him to meet with the gopis. These intimate friends are said to have nearly the same emotions (bhava) for Krsna that the gopis do and are always completely overwhelmed by Krsna’s beauty and the love they feel for Him.
Krsna is most famous for His loving pastimes with the gopis and His rasa-lila dances with them. His chief consort is Sri Radha, the original source of all shaktis and Goddess of the spiritual energy. Radha is Krsna’s life and soul; in His incarnation of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, He combines with Her to experience the ecstatic love She feels for Him. Krsna’s natural complexion is bluish but when He combines with Radha He takes on a golden complexion and is thus known as Lord Gauranga. In another popular pastime, Krsna disguises Himself as the beautiful maiden, Syamali, just to pacify the jealous anger of Radha.
In Dvaraka, Krsna manifests a majestic form of God known as Dvarakadisa or Vasudeva. In this feature He becomes a royal king and speaks the Bhagavad Gita to His dear friend and disciple, Arjuna. The Bhagavad Gita (which is a chapter from the Mahabharata) is the best-known Vedic text and stresses the importance of bhakti-yoga—the process of uniting with God in love and devotion.
Krsna is worshiped all over India and throughout the world. A festival celebrating His appearance, Janmastami, occurs on the eighth day of the waning moon in the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) and is one of the largest festivals in India. While ordinary people worship Krsna for all kinds of benedictions and even liberation, His pure devotees worship Him for the sole purpose of achieving krsna-prema or pure love of God.
Sri Minakshi-devi is a mighty demigoddess who is especially popular in South India. As an expansion of Parvati, she is the wife of Lord Sundaresvara (Siva). Minakshi was self-born from a sacrificial fire to King Malayadvaja and his queen, Kancamanala, in Madurai. She is named Minakshi because her eyes are compared with those of fish—she never blinks and is always watching over her devotees. Like the goddess Kali, Minakshi-devi shatters all stereotypes of women as weak or in need of protection. As a powerful princess of Madurai, Minakshi rode horses, tamed elephants, and wrestled bulls with her bare hands. She was also fond of hunting, killing many tigers and other ferocious beasts. She led armies all over India, fighting alongside her father and defeating many kings and warlords. Goddess Minakshi eventually married Lord Siva and was blessed by Vishnu.
The worship of Sri Minakshi-devi is believed to have originated in medieval Tamil Nadu, sometime prior to the sixteenth century. Like the worship of Lord Ayyappa, Sri Minakshi-devi’s puja has increased in popularity during recent years. Minakshi-devi is revered as an expansion of the goddess Durga and worshiped for all types of benedictions. She is said to guard over her devotees and protect them from all harm. Festivals in her honor are held during the Durga-puja holiday in the month of Ashvina (September-October).
The two demigods, Sri Mitra-Varuna, are brothers of great intimacy and often mentioned together in Vedic literature. These sons of Aditi preside over the universal waters wherein Mitra controls the ocean depths and lower portals while Varuna rules over the ocean’s upper regions, rivers and shorelines. Mitra is furthermore attributed to the sunrise and day, which rise up from the sea, while Varuna is attributed to the sunset and night, which sink below its surface. Both deities sustain the sky and earth with their waters, respectively, and both are associated with the moon, the ocean, the tides and the western direction. In the physical body, Lord Mitra moves waste outwards whereas Varuna directs nourishment inwards. Mitra is thus associated with the body’s lower orifice (the anus and rectum) while Varuna governs the upper (the mouth and tongue).
In Vedic literature, Sri Mitra-Varuna are portrayed as icons of brotherly affection and intimate friendship between males (the Sanskrit word mitra means “friend” or “companion”). For this reason they are worshiped by men of the third sex, albeit not as commonly as other Hindu deities. They are depicted riding a shark or crocodile together while bearing tridents, ropes, conch shells and water pots. Sometimes they are portrayed seated side-by-side on a golden chariot drawn by seven swans. Ancient Brahmana texts furthermore associate Sri Mitra-Varuna with the two lunar phases and same-sex relations: “Mitra and Varuna, on the other hand, are the two half-moons: the waxing one is Varuna and the waning one is Mitra. During the new-moon night these two meet and when they are thus together they are pleased with a cake offering. Verily, all are pleased and all is obtained by any person knowing this. On that same night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed.” (Shatapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52) Varuna is similarly said to implant his seed in Mitra on the full-moon night for the purpose of securing its future waxing. In Hinduism, the new- and full-moon nights are discouraged times for procreation and consequently often associated with citrarata or unusual types of intercourse.
The Bhagavata Purana (6.18.3-6) lists Varuna and Mitra as the ninth and tenth sons of Aditi and both gods are described having children through ayoni or non-vaginal sex. For example, Varuna fathered the sage Valmiki when his semen fell upon a termite mound, and Agastya and Vasistha were born from water pots after Mitra and Varuna discharged their semen in the presence of Urvasi. Another celebrated child of Varuna is Varuni—the goddess of honey-wine and other intoxicating beverages—and Mitra is considered to be the father of Utsarga, Arista and Pippala—the three demigods presiding over manure, soapberry trees and banyan trees. The Mahabharata mentions that Mitra, the older brother of Indra, stood in the sky at the time of Arjuna’s birth. Because Mitra and Varuna sustain the sky and earth with their great ocean waters, these two demigods are worshiped along the seashore during the month of Jyestha (May-June) for the purpose of obtaining good rainfall. Sri Mitra-Varuna are worshiped together on the new- and full-moon days or individually during the waning half moon (for Mitra) and the waxing half moon (for Varuna).
Vishnu as Female
Lord Vishnu once transformed Himself into the most beautiful woman in the universe—Sri Mohini-murti. “Mohini” means “one who bewilders the mind,” and “murti” means “form.” This pastime is narrated in the Bhagavata Purana (8.8-9) as follows: The demigods and demons once combined their efforts to extract immortality-producing nectar from the ocean of milk. When the nectar was produced, however, the demigods and demons struggled for it and the demons made off with the pot. The demigods approached Lord Vishnu, who told them not to fear—He would resolve the issue. Vishnu then appeared as Sri Mohini-murti, the most bewildering of women. She is described as an extremely beautiful youth with a blackish complexion and attractive fragrance. Her behavior and movements were very feminine and She attracted the minds of all men. Mohini approached the demons and, taking advantage of their captivation for Her, convinced them to release the pot of nectar. She told the demons She would distribute the nectar Herself and made them promise to accept whatever She did. They agreed, and once Mohini received the nectar She proceeded to distribute it only to the demigods. Thus the demons were never able to receive the nectar of immortality.
Later on, when Siva heard about the Mohini form from others, he desired to see its unparalleled beauty for himself. He requested Lord Vishnu to reveal the form and Vishnu complied. However, once Siva saw Mohini’s form—appearing before him as a playful Goddess—he became completely bewildered and enamored by Her exquisite beauty. Siva forcibly embraced Mohini and chased Her all over the universe. Only after fully discharging semen did he finally return to his senses.
There are a few temples of Sri Mohini-murti throughout India but Her worship is not very prominent. The largest festival and human gathering on earth—Kumbha-mela—originates from the pastime of churning the milk ocean. It is said that while the demons and demigods were struggling over the pot of nectar, four drops were spilled in four places: Prayaga, Haridvara, Ujjain and Nasik. These places are thus believed to have great mystical powers. Kumbha-mela occurs four times every twelve years during the month of Magha (January-February), once at each of the four locations. The exact dates fluctuate since they are calculated according to specific astrological alignments. Every twelve years a special Maha-kumbha-mela occurs at Prayaga on the bank of the Ganges River and is attended by hundreds of millions of Hindus.
Sri Narada Muni
Sri Narada Muni is the transcendental sage of the demigods. He was born from the mind of Lord Brahma and is a pure devotee of God. Narada Muni is a lifelong celibate (naistiki-brahmacari) and is mentioned throughout the Vedic literatures. He is often depicted traveling freely through outer space, plucking a stringed musical instrument (the vina), and preaching the glories of Lord Vishnu. Narada Muni moves from planet to planet and in all three realms of the universe—upper, middle and lower. His dear companion, Parvata Muni, often accompanies him. He is somewhat of a cosmic instigator—constantly coming and going, setting things in motion and sometimes creating mischief—but always for the higher purpose of demonstrating Vedic philosophical truths.
Narada Muni’s character as a roaming, lifelong celibate is very appealing to many people of the third sex—the gender most often associated with solitude, asceticism and celibacy. He is well known for his preaching against married life and convincing young men to quit their homes and take up a life of renunciation, much to the chagrin of their parents. There is a popular narrative in the Bhagavata Purana (6.5) wherein Narada convinces the ten thousand sons of Prajapati Daksa to renounce marriage and become mendicants. Saddened by the loss of his sons, Daksa begets a thousand more, but Narada also convinces these sons in the same way. Infuriated, Daksa curses Narada to never remain in one place—a curse that Narada graciously accepts.
There are at least two instances in the Puranas wherein Narada Muni becomes a woman. In one narration, Narada asks Vishnu to show him His maya (illusion). Vishnu complies and instructs Narada to fetch Him some water from a nearby river. Narada does so, but falls into the water and emerges as a female. Narada then meets a man, falls in love, gets married, has many children, builds a home and establishes a prosperous farm on the riverbank. She becomes very happy and satisfied for many years. One day, however, there is an enormous flood, and Narada’s husband, children, home and farm are all washed away in the raging waters. Narada laments piteously until finally the turbulent waters capture Narada herself. Terrified, she screams for help again and again. A hand grasps Narada and pulls her from the river. It is Vishnu—He has shown Narada His maya!
In the Padma Purana there is a description of Narada’s transformation into the beautiful cowherd maiden, Naradi. Narada Muni asks Krsna to show him His divine loving affairs, and Krsna complies by turning him into the gopi Naradi and sporting with him for an entire year. This pastime is very similar to the one in which Arjuna is transformed into the maiden Arjuni, and it appears immediately afterward in the Purana.
Benefactor of the Third Sex
Sri Ramacandra is one of the most popular incarnations of Vishnu, especially in South India. He appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga and His pastimes are vividly described in the epic, Ramayana. There are hundreds of versions of the Ramayana, both written and oral, that are read and recited all over India. One narrative especially popular among the ali (a third-sex group of South India) is recited as follows: Ramacandra’s father, Maharaja Dasaratha, was forced to exile his beloved son to the forest for fourteen years. As the young prince left to fulfill the order of His father, the bereaved citizens of the kingdom followed Rama to the edge of the forest. At this point Ramacandra turned around and said, “Dear ladies and gentlemen, please stop your crying now and return to your homes without Me.” The citizens obeyed the command but those who were neither men nor women—the third sex—did not know what to do. They decided to remain in that place for the entire fourteen years, meditating on Rama, and when the Lord returned He was very pleased and gave them all His blessings.
In another story from the Padma Purana it is described that the sages of Dandakaranya Forest became so attracted to Sri Ramacandra they developed conjugal affection for Him. Since Rama could only accept one wife, Sita, He blessed the sages to become cowherd maidens in Lord Krsna’s pastimes, thus fulfilling all their desires.
In the Valmiki Ramayana (4.5.11-18), Rama aligns Himself with the monkey king, Sugriva, and they officiate their sacred alliance with a Vedic friendship ceremony. The ritual they perform is very similar to a Hindu wedding—fire is invoked as a witness, vows are exchanged, and the pair circumambulates the fire arena together. In India, third-gender couples sometimes emulate such friendship marriages to demonstrate their own love and commitment to one another.
The Krittivasa Ramayana relates how two queens conceive Lord Rama’s illustrious ancestor, Maharaja Bhagiratha, without the assistance of any male. In yet another version of the epic, Sri Hanuman witnesses several women kissing, embracing and sleeping alongside one another in the palace of Ravana. The celibate monkey god, Hanuman, is famous as Sri Ramacandra’s beloved servant and his devotion to Rama is legendary. It is said that Hanuman has so much love for Sita-Rama that whenever he hears Their names chanted, a flood of tears immediately rolls down his cheeks. In another pastime, Hanuman actually rips open his chest to demonstrate how Sri Sita-Rama are literally situated within his heart.
There are many temples of Lord Ramacandra and Hanuman throughout India and both of their appearance days are celebrated in the month of Chaitra (March-April). Rama’s appearance day, known as Rama-navami, falls on the ninth day of the waxing moon while Hanuman’s appearance is on the full-moon day and known as Hanuman-jayanti. Dasara, or Rama-vijayotsava, is a festival celebrating Rama’s defeat over the demon king, Ravana, and honored on the tenth day of the waxing moon in Ashvina (September-October). The festival is observed by burning an enormous effigy of Ravana, along with fireworks. Diwali, a holiday celebrating Rama’s return from exile, falls on the new-moon day of Kartika (October-November).
Lord of the Dance
Sri Siva is the lord of the material cosmos and husband of goddess Durga (his shakti). Together, they are among the most popular deities worshiped in Hinduism. Lord Siva is in charge of universal destruction and famous as Nataraja, or lord of the dance. When the time comes for the universe to end, Lord Siva performs his cosmic dance and ends the creation. Blazing fire emanates from his dancing body with the heat of millions of suns and the cosmos is destroyed.
Like the goddess Durga, Lord Siva has many different expansions and is known by a variety of names such as Rudra, Nilakantha, Sankara, Bhutanatha, and Dinabandhu. The latter two names refer to Siva’s association with the dark side of material nature: ghosts, demons, and all sorts of shady beings accompany Siva and he is very merciful to them, gradually purifying their hearts and raising them to a higher platform of existence. For this reason, Lord Siva is famous as the friend of the fallen. Another popular image of Siva is as a great yogi meditating in the Himalayas. He wears a deerskin cloth, has dreadlocks, a darkish complexion and holds a trident. His carrier is Nandi, a large white bull.
In Uttar Pradesh there is a popular narrative about Lord Siva’s transformation into the beautiful girl known as Gopisvara. Siva once desired to witness Lord Krsna’s rasa-lila dance with the gopis. He performed austerities for a long time until Krsna’s yogamaya, Paurnamasi, appeared before him. He prayed to her for permission to witness the dance and she agreed, assisting him to dip within the Brahma-kunda pond. Siva then emerged as a very beautiful young cowherd maiden and went to the place where the rasa-lila was being performed—hiding within a grove. Krsna and the gopis, however, sensed that something was different and stopped dancing. They searched the groves and discovered the unknown maiden. “Who are you and where are you from?” they demanded. The new gopi was sorry but didn’t know what to say, so the gopis began slapping her in the face until she began to cry. “Yogamaya!” she called out. “Please save me!” Paurnamasi quickly came and requested the gopis to have mercy upon the new girl. “She is the object of my mercy,” Paurnamasi told them. The gopis thereafter happily accepted the girl and named her Gopisvara, which means “she whose controllers are the gopis.” Krsna, who had been standing on the side and smiling the whole time, blessed Gopisvara to become the guard of His sacred rasa-lila and said, “Henceforth, without the sanction of Gopisvara, no one will be able to enter My divine rasa-lila dance.” From that day on, Lord Siva’s duty as Gopisvara was to carefully guard the rasa-lila and prevent any unqualified persons from entering.
Lord Siva also appears in the hermaphrodite form of Sri Ardhanarisvara and is therefore manifest in all three genders. There are many large and famous temples of Siva throughout India and he is worshiped especially on Siva-ratri—the last day of the waning moon (caturdasi) in Phalguna (February-March). During the festival, Siva’s divine linga (phallus) is worshiped as a symbol of procreation and the male principle. There is also a temple of Sri Gopisvara Mahadeva in Vrndavana, Uttar Pradesh.
The Six Goswamis
Gopis in Male Forms
The six Goswamis were ascetic saints who lived in Vrndavana, India (the pastime place of Lord Krsna), during the sixteenth century. As pure devotees of the Lord, they spent their days constantly chanting Krsna’s names and absorbed in deep, internal meditation (samadhi). They lived austere, strictly celibate lives, eating very little and sleeping under trees at night. They wore only torn cloth and kept no possessions of their own.
As the principal disciples of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the six Goswamis accomplished many amazing tasks. Lord Caitanya instructed them to uncover Krsna’s pastime places, install Deities of Radha and Krsna, compile scriptures on the science of bhakti (devotion to God), and propagate the rules of devotional life. When the six Goswamis first moved to Vrndavana it was simply an overgrown forest with no houses or village. Through their efforts, however, they managed to locate all of Krsna’s pastime places and commissioned the construction of large, beautiful temples and ghats (bathing ponds). As erudite scholars, they composed scores of essential Vaishnava texts on the science of bhakti, and by their examples they set the proper standard for devotional behavior and practice.
The six Goswamis—Sri Rupa, Sri Sanatana, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta, Sri Jiva, Sri Gopala Bhatta, and Sri Raghunatha dasa—are revealed in Vaishnava texts to be the six manjaris—Sri Rupa-manjari, Sri Lavanga-manjari, Sri Raga-manjari, Sri Vilasa-manjari, Sri Guna-manjari, and Sri Rasa-manjari—respectively (there is some variance on a few of these names). A manjari is a very young gopi maiden in Krsna’s pastimes. These maidens are servants of Sri Radha (Krsna’s spiritual shakti) and are completely devoted to Her. They have no desire to unite with Krsna; rather, their only desire is to serve and attend to Radha. These six young gopi maidens, on the order of Radha, incarnated as males in Lord Caitanya’s lila to assist the Lord in His mission. Thus they were especially empowered to reveal the pastime places of Krsna and expound upon the teachings of bhakti.
Today, Vrndavana (in Uttar Pradesh) is a bustling town with thousands of Radha-Krsna temples and one of the holiest places in India. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit annually from all over the world, especially during the month of Kartika (October-November) and on Janmastami. The large stone temples erected by the six Goswamis are still fully operating and have been preserved as national monuments.
Born of Siva Alone
Sri Sukracarya is the preceptor of the asuras (demons) and master of all kinds of supernatural powers. He is associated with the planet Venus, material pleasures, beauty, magic and bewitchment. The story of Sukracarya’s appearance as the son of Siva is narrated both in the Mahabharata and the Vamana Purana as follows: A powerful mystic named Kavya knew all sorts of maya (magic) but did not have the spell for bringing the dead back to life. Hearing that Lord Siva possessed this power, Kavya propitiated the god by hanging himself head down over a smoldering fire. When Siva appeared, Kavya slipped into his mouth and remained there for a very long time, gaining access to Siva’s knowledge and powers. After acquiring the spell for reviving the dead, he sought a passage out but could only find Siva’s phallus. Emerging from there, Siva quickly caught the asura and decided to kill him. The goddess Parvati, however, stopped her husband and said, “Since this asura has left your body through the phallus, he is to be considered your son.” Siva agreed and from then on Kavya was called Sukra—“sprung from the semen of Siva.”
Sri Sukracarya is depicted in a four-armed form riding on a white horse. He is blinded in the right eye, relating to a pastime in which Vishnu plucked his eye with a straw and suggestive of his lack of spiritual vision. People generally worship Sukracarya in order to acquire mystical powers or fulfill material desires; however, his worship is not very prevalent in India today and there are few temples dedicated to him.
Lover of Aruni
Sri Surya is the Vedic sun god also known as Ravi or Vivasvan. He is in charge of illuminating the universe and empowered by the Vaikuntha Deity, Surya-Narayana. In a popular South Indian version of the Ramayana, Surya falls in love with his charioteer, Aruna, after the god transforms himself into a woman. The story is narrated as follows: Aruna, the god of dawn, desired to see the beautiful courtesans dancing in the palace of Indra. He thus transformed himself into the goddess, Aruni, and sneaked into Indra’s palace. Indra noticed Aruni and was immediately captivated by her amazing beauty. The two made love together and created a son named Vali. The next day, Aruna was late for duty and Surya demanded to know why. Aruna described the incident and Surya requested if he could also see the beautiful form. Aruna complied, but Surya then became so captivated by Aruni he immediately made love to her, producing another child known as Sugriva. The two offspring were later turned into vanaras (god-like apes) by the curse of Gautama Rsi.
There are many popular temples devoted to Sri Surya throughout India such as the Brahmanyadeva Mandira near Jhansi (Madhya Pradesh) and the Suryanarayanaswami Temple near Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh). Other ancient sun temples stand in ruin such as the famous thirteenth-century Konark Temple near Puri (Orissa). The impressive architecture of these temples, with their magnificent, sexually-explicit carvings—some of which include same-sex lovemaking—point to long-forgotten days in India when Hindus were free to display erotic artistry. Many of the Surya temples are specifically designed so that the rays of the sun fall on the enshrined deity at the time of the equinoxes, when special festivals and ceremonies are held. Sri Surya is generally worshiped for benedictions of strength, power and good health.
Vishnu’s Hermaphrodite Form
Sri Vallabhavardhana is a relatively little-known hermaphrodite form of Lord Vishnu and Laksmi-devi combined. Lord Vishnu is a transcendental manifestation of God who resides in the spiritual world known as Vaikuntha (literally, “beyond all anxiety”). Vishnu maintains both the spiritual and material cosmos simply by His own sweet will—He is depicted as being completely aloof, lying peacefully on His serpent bed (Ananta-Sesa), attended by the Goddess Laksmi (His spiritual shakti), and served in awe and reverence by His devotees. The demigods often call upon Sri Vishnu as a last resort for deliverance from their calamities.
Like many other deities, Lord Vishnu manifests Himself in all three genders—male, female (Mohini) and hermaphrodite (Sri Vallabhavardhana). The Vallabhavardhana form of the Lord is literally split down the middle with the right half represented by Vishnu and the left half by Laksmi. One famous image from Kashmir depicts Sri Vallabhavardhana seated and manifesting an eight-armed form. Most of the known carvings and sculptures of this Deity are from North India. Sri Vallabhavardhana (literally, “half Vallabha or Vishnu”) is mentioned briefly in the Bhavisya Purana, but otherwise little else is known about this rare and unusual form. There appears to be no prevalent worship of Sri Vallabhavardhana in India today.
Goddess of the Devadasis
Sri Yellamma-devi is an expansion of the goddess Durga who is worshiped all over India, especially in south-central regions such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. She is very popular with the third sex, and her appearance is based on narratives from the Bhagavata Purana (9.16. 1-8) and later medieval traditions. There are several versions of the story but the basic description is as follows:
Lord Parasurama’s mother, Renuka, went to the bank of the Ganges to collect water for her husband’s daily yajna (fire sacrifice). Once there, she saw the king of the gandharvas (celestial musicians) sporting with beautiful apsaras (celestial courtesans). Distracted by the scene, Renuka returned somewhat late with the water. Her husband, Jamadagni, could understand the reason and accused his wife of committing adultery within her mind. Furious, he ordered his many sons to kill the woman but they all refused except for the youngest, Parasurama. Understanding his father’s great mystic powers, Parasurama agreed to behead his mother and all of his brothers with his famous axe (some narratives mention Parasurama castrating his brothers rather than killing them). When Parasurama attempted to behead Renuka, however, Durga-devi appeared as the goddess Yellamma—a celestial apsara with thousands of heads. Unable to tolerate the sight of a son killing his mother, she stood before Renuka to prevent the matricide, but because Parasurama was so determined to fulfill his father’s order, Yellamma created an illusory Renuka and Parasurama beheaded that form instead. Jamadagni was thus pleased with the obedience of his son and asked him for any benediction. Parasurama requested that his mother and brothers be returned to life with no memory of the incident. Jamadagni agreed and all were revived. The illusory form thus remained with Jamadagni while the original Renuka dedicated her life to the goddess, becoming her inseparable associate and companion.
Sri Yellamma-devi is worshiped as an expansion of Durga and is the protector of her devotees. Her name means, literally, “a mother to all.” She is depicted along with Renuka but it is her association with the ancient Hindu practice of keeping devadasis, or temple courtesans, that is perhaps most striking. Prostitution was permitted in ancient India under certain circumstances and Vedic narratives contain many references to prostitutes as part of the social construct in large cities and towns such as Lord Krsna’s capital of Dvaraka, Varanasi, and Puri in Orissa. In recent centuries, however, the practice of keeping temple courtesans has been largely discouraged and is only visible within certain traditional ceremonies and rituals, usually related to the worship of the goddess.
Devadasis are maidservants whose lives are completely surrendered to the temple god or goddess. They are often seen in town carrying large pots on their heads that contain images of the deity. They wear brilliant marks of turmeric and vermilion on their foreheads and can be seen singing and dancing in the streets. As temple dancers, devadasis maintain important religious dance traditions; as prostitutes, they make their services available to anyone and take donations that are given to the goddess. Twice a year during the full moon in Magha and Chaitra, special festivals and ceremonies are held marked by large processions of jogathis (devotees of Yellamma) who parade unclothed through the streets. The traditional nudity has since been largely curtailed, much to the protest of the jogathis (they now wear loose clothing or dresses made of neem leaves). The temple courtesans are not only female—a large number of them are males, known as jogappas, which include both feminine transgenders dressed as women and masculine types who also offer their service as dancers and male prostitutes.
There are quite a few temples of Sri Yellamma-devi throughout India. Some of the more famous ones are the eleventh-century temple in Badami and the Renuka-Yellamma temple in Saudatti (Belgaum), both in Karnataka. There are also two popular temples in Kurnool (Dandakaranya) and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend on the Saudatti temple during the biggest festival of the year, held on the full-moon night of Magha (January-February). Initiations into the devadasi cult are held at that time—initiates are married to the goddess and vow to devote their lives to her. In modern times, many of the devadasis come from destitute backgrounds and are no longer respected or treated well.
In Vedic literature it is stated that thirty-three million demigods preside over the various aspects of nature. It is impossible, therefore, to fully account for and describe all of the innumerable Hindu deities and their pastimes. Nevertheless, it can be observed that the majority of deities worshiped in Hinduism exhibit some form of gender diversity and that the two most popular—Vishnu and Siva—manifest in all three genders.
Hindu philosophy acknowledges many different levels of worship and for this reason, religious and sectarian tolerance is an important Hindu precept. In India, all types of religions and sects are honored including monotheistic Vaishnavism; Saivism; monistic Brahmanism; Shaktism (goddess worship); polytheistic demigod worship, animism (nature and spirit worship), and even traditions outside of Hinduism. Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Sufis and other religious groups have all sought shelter on the Indian subcontinent and, for the most part, in peace. Below are a few inspiring words by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura on the importance of nonsectarianism and the recognition of different levels of worship:
All human beings are grateful to God. No matter how many sins they commit, occasionally they become aware that God is the supreme entity, and when they are endowed with this belief, they bow down before the extraordinary things of this world. When ignorant people are inspired by their gratitude to God, they naturally offer respect to the sun, a river, a mountain, or to enormous animals. They express their hearts before such things and display submission to them. Granted, there is a vast difference between this type of worship of material objects, and transcendental affection toward the Lord. Still, when such ignorant people adopt a mood of gratitude to God and reverence toward material objects, it gradually produces a positive effect. Therefore, if one examines the situation logically, one cannot ascribe any fault to them.
We consider that it is essential to arouse bhava towards Bhagavan by any means. The door leading to gradual elevation is firmly shut if people on any level of worship are ridiculed or condemned. Those who fall under the spell of dogmatism, and thereby become sectarian, lack the qualities of generosity and munificence. That is why they ridicule and condemn others who do not worship in the same way as they do. This is a great mistake on their part.
(Jaiva Dharma, p. 272)
By Amara Das Wilhelm. Copyright GALVA-108
Image: Sri Kali manifests an amazing display of power and might, shattering all stereotypes of women as only feminine.