Maharaja Virata's Example
The perfect example concerning the proper treatment of third-sex people can be found in the behavior of Maharaja Virata. This great king was the ruler of the Matsya province in India during the time of Lord Krsna, or just over five thousand years ago. When Arjuna went to approach the king for shelter, he had assumed the form and nature of a male-to-female transgender, a member of the third sex. Donned in a woman’s blouse and draped in red silk, he wore numerous ivory bangles, golden earrings, and necklaces made of coral and pearls. His hair was long and braided, and he entered the royal palace with the gait of a broad-hipped woman. According to the Mahabharata, his feminine attire hid his glory, and at the same time it did not. He appeared just like the full moon when eclipsed by the planet Ketu.
This portrayal of Arjuna’s dress and behavior is very interesting because it clearly reveals his third-sex status. It is the same behavior found in the Kama Shastra describing male-to-female transgenders who dressed up and lived as women. Most English translations use the archaic and evasive word “eunuch” to describe Arjuna, but it should be noted that the castration of heterosexual men does not cause them to adopt the psychological nature of females and behave in such a womanly fashion.
Introducing himself as a professional dancer and musician trained by gandharvas, Arjuna explained that he was expert in singing, hair decoration, and “all the fine arts that a woman should know.” At first, Maharaja Virata could not believe that Arjuna was actually a “half woman.” He had never seen such a person who was simultaneously so stout and strong yet feminine in behavior. He suspected that Arjuna was a great archer and even offered his kingdom to him, but Arjuna would not relent, saying, “My lord, the only string that I can twang is the string of the vina.” After exhibiting his skills before the court, Arjuna was tested by beautiful women to ensure that he was actually third-sexed and thus free from any lust for females. (Had he been merely a eunuch or neuter, the men of the palace could have examined him for testicles.) The king was surprised yet pleased with Arjuna’s manner of speaking and agreed that he should live among the palace women and instruct them in singing and dancing. In this way, Arjuna introduced himself as “Brihannala” and soon became a great favorite within their chambers. Maharaja Virata instructed his daughter, Uttara: “Brihannala seems to be a high-born person. She does not seem to be an ordinary dancer. Treat her with the respect due to a queen. Take her to your apartments.”
It is important to note that the king addressed Brihannala as a female, accepting her transgender status. He did not ridicule or belittle her, and he most certainly did not have her sent away or arrested. He also did not suggest that Brihannala change her dress and behave as an ordinary male. Rather, he accepted her nature as it was and offered her shelter and employment within his royal palace. This kindness and respect offered by Maharaja Virata to Arjuna in his transgender form of Brihannala is exemplary and should be followed by all government officials and leaders of society.
The Third Sex and Vedic Astrology
In Vedic astrology, the nine planets are each assigned to one of the three genders. The Sun, Jupiter, and Mars are assigned to the masculine gender; the Moon, Venus, and Rahu are assigned to the feminine gender; and Mercury, Saturn, and Ketu are assigned to the third or neutral gender. These last three planets, labeled napumsaka, are considered to be sexually neutral and “hermaphroditic” (possessing both male and female properties) by their influence. This neutrality refers to the fact that their natures are aloof from the business of procreating life as compared to the male and female planets. For instance, Mercury governs children, who have not yet entered puberty and do not become sexually aroused. Saturn governs the impotent and elderly, who are by nature restricted from sexual reproduction. Ketu, on the other hand, specifically concerns those who are sexually fit but have no interest in the act of sexual procreation. These include the celibate and people of the third sex.
Ancient scriptures on Vedic astrology emphasize Mercury as most indicative of the third gender although some texts stress Saturn or Ketu. Mercury refers to gender-variant people who are clever and multi-talented in the various arts and sciences. They are good managers, young in spirit and highly competent in their fields. Saturn, on the other hand, refers to those who are less fortunate in life, solitary and disparaged by society for their impotence. The planet Ketu is viewed as a moksha karaka, or indicator for enlightenment, and its third-gender natives often become psychics, ascetics, monks, nuns, and so on.
Some of the more common indicators of female homosexuality in Vedic astrology include having a masculine ascendant and Moon sign, or Venus in the sign of Virgo. For men, having Mars or Saturn in the seventh house is a common indicator. There are also twenty-seven nakshatras or stars that are important in Vedic astrology. Of these, Mrgashira, Mula, and Satabhisa are assigned to the third or neutral gender.
According to Vedic science, the intrinsic nature or sex of the living entity is determined at the moment of conception, not at birth, and for this reason a person’s conception or adhana chart determines whether they are male, female, or third sex. This is related in the Dharma Shastra:
A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child (napumsa) or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results.
This verse is very significant because it specifically states that the third sex is biologically determined during the earliest moments of conception, a statement also confirmed in Sanskrit medical texts such as the Sushruta Samhita. In other words, people of the third sex are born that way, as a fact of nature. They do not “become” third sex later on due to external reasons or causes.
Reproductive Balance and Nature
The mechanisms of biological variation from the normal male and female construct always involve alterations in the standard developmental plan. This is not to say, however, that such alterations are biological “errors” or “mistakes” of nature or God. People commonly assume that every member of human society should be directly involved in the process of sexual reproduction, but we can observe that throughout nature this is quite often not the case. In many highly socialized species, nonreproductive members play unique and important roles. For instance, in a bee colony, the queen alone is the reproductive female while worker bees are all “third sex” or nonreproductive and sterile. In many mammalian social units, one “alpha male” will typically dominate all of the other males until they either leave the group or submit to him and stop trying to mate with his harem. The remaining males essentially become “eunuchs” and a part of his harem so to speak, enjoying his protection. When these submissive males are examined, they are found to have experienced an actual lowering of their own testosterone levels, and their very survival may depend on this. Such individual and group mechanisms found within nature are specifically orchestrated to sustain the species most effectively.
In addition to the sterile and nonreproductive creatures found in nature, many animals also display homosexual behavior and same-sex pairing. This aspect of animal behavior has been well documented in a wide range of species. In some varieties of birds, for instance, the occurrence of same-sex pairing dramatically increases from its normal baseline under pressures related to overcrowding or environmental duress. Because these same-sex pairs do not reproduce, the population increase is slowed or even reduced without massive starvation or die-off. At the same time, the individual animal’s instincts to pair, nest, and mate are all taken care of. Is this type of same-sex pairing with the animal kingdom a “mistake,” or is it simply a natural adaptation of the species to sustain itself in the most effective way possible?
Within the microcosm, specific mechanisms that account for sterility and homosexual behavior in animals may appear to be “disorders,” “defects,” or “errors,” but if we step back from the proximal causes and view the reproductive health of the species as a whole, and how it changes under different conditions over time in various local and regional environments, then we can see how the nonreproductive “third sex” actually plays an important role in the wider scheme of things. Nature or God does not prohibit such apparent errors because in fact they are not errors at all. In the larger picture, these variations serve a purpose whether we, as humans, are aware of it or not. Human beings are not animals, but our bodies are made of the same elements and obey all of the same basic rules of chemistry and biology. We should stop thinking of our species as being somehow categorically beyond the laws of nature and God. There are reasons and mechanisms for everything in nature, and by understanding them properly we can learn to address human variance with intelligence instead of fear. The Vedic recognition of a nonreproductive “third” gender within human society indicates that ancient India was cognizant of this subtle but significant aspect of biology.
In direct contrast to the three-gender system found in nature is the rigid, artificially imposed “two-gender” one commonly seen in many of today’s cultures. In societies where only reproductive males and females are acknowledged and valued, there is no room for a nonreproductive third sex. People who do not produce offspring are viewed as failures and delegated to the lowest ranks of human society. Homosexuals and transgenders are pressured to assume heterosexual roles against their nature and intersex babies are forcibly assigned male or female identities through ghastly “corrective” surgeries. Such artificial attempts to negate the third sex against the arrangement of nature and God can be devastating for the individuals involved.
In conclusion, it is not necessary for each and every member of human society to engage in sexual reproduction. Human worth is not measured only in terms of fertility. While homosexual and intersex conditions affect a person’s reproduction and socialization in species like man, they don’t usually affect the individual’s viability. Nonprocreative persons account for a vast number of otherwise healthy, functional individuals who should be encouraged to engage themselves constructively in ways appropriate for them. In Vedic culture, people of the third sex traditionally contributed to society in a variety of useful ways. They utilized their extra time in cultivating the finer arts, sciences, and spirituality and were involved as a part of the extended family by serving and caring for others. The Vedic social system did not neglect or exclude people of the third sex, but rather it accepted and engaged them according to their nature.
Celibacy and Spiritual Life
The practice of celibacy, or voluntary restraint from sexual activity, is an important and much-revered aspect of spiritual life within Vedic religion. Its practice is said to conserve the stamina of the body, strengthen mental resolve, and direct the life-airs upward. It also helps to minimize bodily and worldly demands in order to fully immerse oneself in spiritual rapture. Celibacy is prescribed for the priestly class, the elderly, and for those engaged in study. It is highly recommended for sincere souls who are truly eager to make advancement in spiritual life. According to Vedic tradition, the practice of celibacy does not necessarily have to be lifelong. It may also be practiced within limited frames of time such as one year, one month, one fortnight, etc., according to one’s vow, and much benefit can still be reaped.
One of the advantages for people of the third sex is that the practice of celibacy often comes easily for them. This is due to their lack of attraction for the opposite sex and the subsequent urge to couple, produce offspring, and engage in family life. It can be observed that the ratio of gay and lesbian people living within temples and monasteries is generally higher than it is within the ordinary population. Many cultures of the world specifically encourage and train their third-gender children to enter into the priestly order.
From a practical point of view, however, it is important to note that most people will not be interested or able to engage themselves in strict, lifelong celibacy, especially during youth. Such people should not be unnecessarily discouraged or rejected. Those who desire spiritual advancement are advised to avoid sexual indulgence as far as possible, according to their ability. For members of the third sex, this may be accomplished in various ways such as minimizing sexual conduct, committing to a single partner, refraining from practices such as adhorata, etc.
It is the duty of the brahmanas to encourage and engage all members of society in the many spiritual practices recommended in the Vedas. This includes people of the third sex. No one is to be excluded or discouraged from these practices because of class, character, social standing, gender, race, etc. These practices gradually purify the heart and remove all bad, unwanted qualities. Their importance exceeds and corrects all personal disqualifications. They promote spiritual upliftment for society as a whole and awaken true love for God in His multitude of forms such as Krsna, Rama, Vishnu, Narayana, etc. These practices include: the chanting of the holy names of God, reading important scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam, hearing from self-realized souls, accepting a bona fide spiritual master or guru, viewing the temple Deity, offering gifts and service to the temple Deity, watering the Tulasi plant, visiting holy places of pilgrimage, bathing in sacred rivers like the Ganges, observing festivals connected with the Lord, offering prayers to the Lord, always remembering the Lord, and considering the Lord to be one’s best friend or most dearly beloved.
The Appearance of Lord Caitanya
Lord Caitanya is revealed as an avatar (incarnation) of God in the Vedic scriptures, and He appeared in this world in Mayapura, India, in 1486 A.D. His mission was to deliver the downtrodden souls of the Kali Yuga by introducing the chanting of the holy names of God or “Hare Krsna.” Although appearing in a male form, He displayed the highest sentiments of love for God by accepting the mood of the supreme Goddess, known as Radhika. This divine combination of supreme God and supreme Goddess in the form of Lord Caitanya is considered to be among the most confidential teachings of Vedic literature.
As He appeared in this world, apparently just like an ordinary child, the full moon was rising above the plains of the sacred Ganges River, accompanied by Ketu, in the form of a lunar eclipse. In all places, the holy names of God were resounded again and again. The following day, according to custom, all of the area residents crowded around to see the newborn child. Sages and rishis were aware that a great event had just taken place. Many residents brought precious gifts and the father, Jagannatha Misra, also gave profusely in charity to the brahmanas and the poor. Not least among the guests were the dancers of the third-gender community known as the nartaka, who happily performed before the Lord. These dancers were especially used for religious occasions. Historically, people of the third sex have always played a prominent role in the arts and entertainment, not just in India but also around the world. All of these transvestites from the napumsaka or gay community were devotees of the Lord, and they prayed to God to bless the child and grant Him a long life, as was the custom. Jagannatha Misra then gave them some precious jewelry and beautiful silks, and they continued with their dancing and singing of Hare Krsna.
The nartaka dancers are also mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam during the pastime of Lord Krsna’s entrance into Dvaraka. There, along with the dramatic actors, artists, poets, and prostitutes, these dancers enthusiastically performed their art as an offering to the Lord. In reply, “the almighty Lord greeted everyone present by bowing His head, exchanging greetings, embracing, shaking hands, looking and smiling, giving assurances and awarding benediction, even to the lowest in rank.”
These stories, and others such as the year spent by Arjuna as a transvestite during exile, are significant because they demonstrate that not only were people of the third sex present hundreds and even thousands of years ago, but they were present within the Lord’s transcendental pastimes as well. It shows that from the Vedic perspective, God does not discriminate against gays but on the contrary welcomes their service and devotion, just as He does for all.
Another important point to note is that people of the third sex were utilized to bestow blessings. Blessings can only be bestowed by people who are auspicious, yet transvestites were well known for their homosexual behavior and often served as prostitutes. The answer to this apparent anomaly is that since they belonged to the third gender, transvestites were considered sexually neutral. In Vedic literature, the strongest bond within this material world is said to be the attraction between man and woman. Combined, they create so many attachments such as home, property, children, grandchildren, etc., all of which entangle the living entity in samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death that is perpetuated through the procreative process. People of the third sex were considered to be aloof from this attachment, particularly gay males. They typically did not engage in procreation or family life, and this was a special quality that made their status unique within civilized Vedic culture.
The traditionally rigid male and female roles as we know them today are consistently broken and altered throughout the Vedic literatures by humans, demigods, and even the supreme Lord Himself. Lord Siva has a very popular half-man, half-woman form known as Ardhanarisvara… Crossdressing is quite common among Lord Krsna’s most intimate cowherd boyfriends, the priya-narma-sakhas, who act as go-betweens in His loving affairs with Sri Radha… An important ritual at the Jagannatha Temple in Orissa involves a sequence in which a young man dressed in female attire seduces Baladeva, the elder brother of Lord Krsna… These countless stories and pastimes are far too numerous to mention herein, but their lighthearted and flexible approach to both gender and gender roles is admirable and well worth noting.
It is important that we appreciate a world filled with variety. There will never be just one race, one gender, one color, one sound, or one anything. The Vedas describe this material world as a reflection of an infinitely beautiful, perfect, and eternal spiritual world that has even more variety than we can imagine. We are all a part of this variegatedness, and we all have our own unique role to play. It is therefore pointless to argue over who is higher, lower, more important, less important, etc.
You may ask someone, “Why are you gay?” and that someone may reply, “Why are you a man or a woman?” In the material world, we are all trying to enjoy in so many ways, and that may be one answer. Spiritually, however, we all have our own individual, intrinsic nature, and part of that nature is that we all serve God (Krsna) in the mood of a particular gender. That loving mood is eternal and full of unlimited bliss.
[By Amara Das Wilhelm. Copyright GALVA-108.]
[Bibliography available on the "References" tab in the Menu bar.]
 The name “Brihannala” can comically be translated as “big rod.”
 This narration of Maharaja Virata’s example is adapted from Kamala Subramaniam’s Mahabharata and Krishna Dharma’s Mahabharata: The Greatest Spiritual Epic of All Time.
 See William R. Levacy’s, Beneath a Vedic Sky, p. 363, and also B. V. Raman’s Astrology for Beginners, p. 6, where the third gender is listed as “hermaphrodite.”
 B.V. Raman, Astrology for Beginners, p. 7 and William R. Levacy, Beneath a Vedic Sky, p. 363.
 William R. Levacy, Beneath a Vedic Sky, pp. 62—63.
 James T. Braha, Ancient Hindu Astrology for the Modern Western Astrologer, pp. 148 and 152.
 William R. Levacy, Beneath a Vedic Sky, pp. 202—203.
 Manusmriti 3.49.
 His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhagavad-Gita As It Is 8.11.
 Ibid. Purport.
 See His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Teachings of Lord Caitanya or Sri Caitanya-caritamrta.
 This is elaborately explained in His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila Chapter 4 entitled “The Confidential Reasons for the Appearance of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.”
 Ibid. 1.13.106. The purport also offers a short description of the “eunuch” class.
 Ibid. Adi-lila Chapter 13 entitled “The Advent of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.” There is also an audiotape by His Divine Grace on this pastime produced by The Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry entitled "Outline of Lord Caitanya Play," Part One, Tape no. 67—002, San Francisco, April 5, 1967.
 His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam 1.11.20—22.
 Devdutt Pattanaik, The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore, p. 125. This book contains a treasure trove of stories demonstrating just how mutable sex and gender identity are within Vedic/Hindu texts.
 His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, pp. 332 and 387—388.
 Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India, p. 22.
Appendix 1 - Summary
The following is a summary of ten important facts presented in this book according to the Vedic understanding, accompanied by their corresponding myths or common misconceptions that have arisen in recent years.
Fact - There are three categories of sex according to the Vedas: male, female and mixed (the third sex).
Myth - There are only two categories of sex: male and female.
Fact - Third-sex citizens had a role to play in Vedic society.
Myth - Third-sex citizens were not allowed to participate in Vedic society.
Fact - The term “Vedic eunuch” most commonly refers to the gay or homosexual male.
Myth - The Vedic eunuch was an asexual, castrated male no longer relevant to modern society.
Fact - The third sex is a natural order that has always and will always be with us, generally at a ratio of 5 percent of the population.
Myth - Homosexuality is a modern-day occurrence that is dangerously on the rise and could overtake us if not checked.
Fact - The third sex or nature is an inherent quality that its members are born with.
Myth - Everyone is born heterosexual, but some of us are corrupted and decide or choose to become gay.
Fact - Gender, in and of itself, plays no role in determining whether a person is good or bad.
Myth - People of the third sex are by nature sinful, immoral, and corrupted persons.
Fact - Promiscuity in general is a major symptom of the age of Kali.
Myth - Kali Yuga is marked by an increase in the number of homosexuals.
Fact - Vedic society accommodated a wide variety of sexual conduct that was regulated by the government.
Myth - All members of Vedic society were forced by law to follow strict brahminical standards of sexual conduct.
Fact - Third-gender people were considered to be aloof from and unimportant to matters concerning procreation and family life.
Myth - Homosexuals pose a serious threat to the order and tradition of family life.
Fact - People of the third sex were given all of the basic rights and privileges afforded to other citizens.
Myth - Homosexuals should be denied certain rights in order to keep them in check and protect society from corruption.
Appendix 2 - Tape Transcript (No. 67-002)
The following conversation between Srila Prabhupada and Hayagriva dasa was tape-recorded in San Francisco on April 5, 1967:
SP: (Srila Prabhupada) Jagannatha Misra is father. He was…whatever money and cloth and gold and silver…they were coming…he was also distributing to poor man, some dancers. In India there is a system…what do you call the eunuchs? Those who are neither male or female? What do you call them? What is their name?
HD: (Hayagriva dasa) A combination of both?
HD: Male and female? Hermaphrodite.
SP: Eunuchs? What is the eunuch?
HD: Eunuch. A eunuch is a …
SP: Tell me that.
HD: Impotent…someone who’s been castrated.
SP: Oh. That is called a eunuch.
SP: Rather, by nature, neither man nor woman.
HD: Oh. This is also called asexual. That is to say, no sex.
SP: No sex?
HD: Hermaphrodite means they have the physical characteristics of both man and woman.
SP: Oh? At the same time?
HD: At the same time.
SP: I do not know exactly, but such people, they have their own society, and their means of livelihood is that whenever there is some good occasion…marriage or childbirth, like that, so, they go there and pray to God that this child may be very long-living. In this way they make some prayer and get some…
HD: These people. Now, I don’t understand…
SP: Yes. Saci-devi is the mother of Lord Caitanya. She is sitting with the child. And everyone is greeting and visiting, and everyone is saying, “Oh! Look how nice a child He is!”
HD: And these “asexual” people?
SP: They are dancing.
HD: They are dancing.
SP: Yes. They are chanting Hare Krsna. Like that. So. Hare Krsna dancing is going there and visitors are coming and presenting very nice things. Yes.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krsna movement of the Western world, rarely discussed gay or third-gender issues but mentions it here in a conversation with one of his disciples. He is referring to the transvestite dancers and their societies that still exist in India even today. He is obviously trying to find a more appropriate word for the outdated term “eunuch,” which he had used in his writings when referring to people of the third sex. He also acknowledges herein that he does not exactly know the nature of these people.
As was proper for a sannyasi, His Divine Grace avoided discussing sexual topics except in regard to their renunciation. He did, however, recognize the Kama Shastra as “the science of sex” but gave it little regard in comparison to other more important scriptures. He rarely discussed homosexuality, and the few times he did were always in context as to how it applied to heterosexual men and women.
Despite this, and more importantly, was Srila Prabhupada’s shining example of conduct in dealing with his third-sex disciples and friends. He always gave them full support, encouragement, and love. He never rejected anyone as a candidate for Krsna consciousness. His warm friendships with openly gay people such as Allen Ginsberg set an example that we would all do well to follow.
Image: Lord Caitanya as the divine incarnation of Radha and Krsna combined.