top of page

Hindu Deities and the Third Sex (1)

Throughout Hindu and Vedic texts there are many descriptions of saints, demigods, and even the Supreme Lord transcending gender norms and manifesting multiple combinations of sex and gender. These include male, female, hermaphrodite, and all other possibilities. In Hinduism, God is recognized as unlimited and untethered by any gender restrictions. For the purpose of enjoying transcendental pastimes (lila), the Supreme Lord manifests innumerable types of forms—just like an actor on a stage.

As parts and parcels of the Supreme Lord, the various living entities can also be seen to manifest within the full spectrum of sex and gender possibilities. From the impersonal perspective, the soul is not male, female, or hermaphrodite, but from the personal perspective the soul assumes such forms according to desire. In the mundane sphere, the soul manifests various gender roles in the pursuit of material enjoyment, but in the spiritual world these roles are adopted for the transcendental purpose of reciprocating with the Supreme Lord and rendering loving service.

The following list of Hindu deities provides interesting examples of saints, demigods, and incarnations of the Lord associated with gender transformation and diversity. These include:

  • Deities that are hermaphrodite (half man, half woman)

  • Deities that manifest in all three genders

  • Male deities who become female, or female deities who become male

  • Male deities with female moods, or female deities with male moods

  • Deities born from two males, or from two females

  • Deities born from a single male, or from a single female

  • Deities who avoid the opposite sex, and

  • Deities with principal companions of the same gender

All of these different examples demonstrate the remarkable amount of gender-variance found within Hinduism. In India, people of the third sex—homosexuals, transgenders, bisexuals, hermaphrodites, transsexuals, etc.—identify with these deities and worship them with great reverence and devotion. Along with other Hindus, they arrive en masse to celebrate the large holidays and festivals connected with them. In traditional Hinduism, such people were associated with these divine personalities due to their combined male and female natures. They were included in the various religious ceremonies and viewed as auspicious symbols of peace, good fortune and culture.

Sri Ardhanarisvara

Siva’s Hermaphrodite Form

Sri Ardhanarisvara is perhaps the most popular and widely known hermaphrodite deity in Hinduism. One half of the deity is Siva (usually the right side, but not always), and the other half is his wife, goddess Parvati or Durga. Ardhanarisvara is literally split down the middle with one female breast, one male breast, etc. The male side is represented in masculine features while the female side is voluptuous and slender with one large hip. The clothing and ornaments on each side of the deity are also usually represented in male and female attire. The oldest-known statue of Ardhanarisvara is located in Mathura and dated to the first century A.D.

In the Brahmanda Purana (5.30) it is stated that Lord Siva assumed his hermaphrodite form of Sri Ardhanarisvara after duly worshiping his shakti through meditation and yoga. The Kurma Purana (1.11.3) relates how Siva’s original form of Rudra was also hermaphrodite. When Siva was generated from Lord Brahma’s anger at the beginning of creation, he appeared in a very fierce half-male, half-female form known as Rudra. Brahma requested Rudra to divide himself in two and thus he became Siva and Parvati. In Jayadeva Goswami’s twelfth-century text, the Sri Gita-govinda (3.11), Lord Krsna praises Siva’s form of Ardhanarisvara while experiencing separation from His beloved Radha, as follows: “Just see! Lord Siva lives happily with half of his body united with Parvati, whereas I am far from united with Radhika—I don’t even know where She is.”

Remarkably, the fantastic hermaphroditic form of Sri Ardhanarisvara is not unheard of in nature. There is a rare type of mosaic intersexuality known as gynandromorphism in which a creature is biologically divided in half with one side (usually the right) male and the other female, often with a sharp line of demarcation between them. While extremely rare in humans, gynandromorphism has been observed in a number of different animals including butterflies, spiders, small mammals, and especially birds—more than 40 cases of gynandromorphism have been reported in avian species like finches, falcons, and pheasants. The gynandromorphic animal is literally divided in half by sex, with one testis and one ovary, and in the case of birds with male plumage on one side and female plumage on the other. Some aboriginal societies highly value such intersexed creatures—they are kept separately and cared for meticulously in the belief that they bring good luck to the village.

Sri Ardhanarisvara embodies the fusion of the male and female principles and is said to represent all contradictions in nature such as masculine and feminine; light and darkness; impotence and fertility; harshness and compassion, etc. The deity is often worshiped for blessings in fertility, marriage, progeny, and longevity. People of the third sex, associated with this deity due to their combined male and female natures, are believed to possess similar powers. Temples of Sri Ardhanarisvara exist throughout India and large festivals are held on the Siva-ratri day in the month of Phalguna (February-March).

Sri Arjuna

In Three Genders

In Vedic narratives Sri Arjuna manifests all three genders—male, female, and hermaphrodite. He is most popularly known in his male form as the heroic warrior of the Mahabharata, the disciple of Sri Krsna in Bhagavad Gita and the husband of Draupadi. He is very, very dear to Lord Krsna. It is said that when Krsna first met Arjuna tears came to His eyes and He embraced Arjuna wholeheartedly—this was because Arjuna reminded Krsna of His intimate cowherd friend in Vraja of the same name. Krsna and Arjuna became instant companions and spent many years together in deep friendship. In the Mahabharata (Sauptika Parva, XII), Krsna states, “I have no dearer friend on earth than Arjuna, and there is nothing that I cannot give to him including my wives and children.” In the Drona Parva of the same text, Krsna reiterates, “O Daruka, I shall not be able to cast my eyes, even for a single moment, on the earth bereft of Arjuna…Know that Arjuna is half of my body.” Once, when Krsna had to leave Hastinapura for Dvaraka, He quickly hurried to the apartments of Arjuna and spent the entire night with him in happy slumber, even at the risk of upsetting His temperamental wife, Satyabhama. As inseparable friends, Arjuna and Krsna are said to be nondifferent from the two Vedic sages of the Himalayas, Nara and Narayana.

In a lesser-known narrative from the Padma Purana (5.74.60-198), Arjuna is transformed into a female—the beautiful cowherd maiden Arjuni. After continuously expressing his desire to know all about Krsna’s divine sporting affairs, Krsna finally relents. He instructs Arjuna to bathe in a sacred lake, wherefrom he arises as a beautiful, youthful maiden. Worshiping Sri Radha, the maiden Arjuni is granted permission to sport with Krsna. However, upon seeing Krsna and His beautiful male features, Arjuni becomes wonderstruck and overwhelmed with love, exhibiting all types of ecstatic symptoms and then fainting. Seeing her overcome with desire, Krsna takes Arjuni’s hand and guides her into His pleasure forest where He sports with her secretly and at will. After some time Krsna returns Arjuni to Radha, who then instructs her to again bathe in the lake. Arjuna thus regains his male form but is left depressed and heartbroken. Krsna reassures Arjuna and, by touching him, restores his male awareness and nature.

One of the most popular narratives of Arjuna is his appearance as the male-to-female transgender, Brihannala. When Arjuna refuses the advances of the celestial courtesan, Urvasi, she curses him to become a shandha—an effeminate man who dresses and behaves like a woman. Indra reduces the curse to one year, and this turns out to be a blessing in disguise—Arjuna is able to use the so-called curse to his advantage during his exile in the capital city of Virata. Arjuna enters the city as Brihannala, a most unusual transgender woman with masculine features but an exceedingly effeminate gait, manner of speech, and attire. Brihannala is donned in a woman’s blouse and draped in red silk. Wearing numerous bangles, earrings and necklaces, she enters the royal palace with the gait of a broad-hipped woman. After Brihannala requests the king, Maharaja Virata, for employment, he grants her service in the lady’s chamber as a teacher of dancing, singing, music, and hairdressing—typical occupations for people of the third sex during Vedic times. It is also said that during this one-year period, Brihannala performed all of the traditional duties of the shandha by dancing and offering blessings at wedding and birth ceremonies.

Sri Ayyappa

Son of Siva and Vishnu

The worship of Sri Ayyappa, also known as Hariharaputra and Manikantha, is very popular among the third sex, particularly in South India. As described in the Brahmanda Purana and various medieval narratives, Ayyappa is born from two male deities—Siva and Vishnu. Once, while chasing Vishnu’s exquisite Mohini form, Lord Siva spilled his semen upon the ground. The earth goddess, considering that Siva’s semen should never be wasted, stored the first drop beneath her soil. Eons later, Ayyappa appeared from the earth on the banks of the river Pampa with a jeweled bell around his neck (thus the name Manikantha) and was discovered by the childless king of Pandalam, Rajasekhara. (In some narratives, Mohini catches the first drop of semen in Her palm wherefrom the child, Ayyappa, immediately appears. Embarrassed, she entrusts the child to the earth goddess and runs away.) The boy grew up to be a strong warrior and was very popular among the citizens, but due to family intrigue he renounced the crown to meditate as a celibate atop Mount Sabarimalai in Kerala. Vavar, his dearmost yavana friend and companion, accompanied Ayyappa into the forest along with Lila, a beautiful nymph whom Ayyappa had once rescued but refused to marry. It is said that Ayyappa told Lila he would marry her only when male devotees stopped visiting his temples, and for this reason throngs of male devotees faithfully make a pilgrimage each year to keep the demigod free from marriage. The friendship between Ayyappa and Vavar was extremely strong and reminiscent of the relationship between Krsna and Arjuna. At one point Ayyappa tells his father: “Consider Vavar as myself.”

The worship of Sri Ayyappa is believed to have originated in Kerala during the eleventh or twelfth century but has greatly increased in popularity over the past several decades. The original temple of Ayyappa is situated on the Sabarimalai Mountain amidst dense, tropical forests and is open only during the pilgrimage season (November-February). The main festival for Ayyappa is celebrated on the Makara-sankranti, when the sun enters Capricorn during its northern journey in mid-January. It honors his killing of the demon Mahisi and retirement to the mountaintop for meditation. During this time, tens of thousands of male pilgrims make their way up to the shrine where there is a great deal of camaraderie between the men—women of reproductive age are not allowed to make the pilgrimage. Like the god Kartikeya, Sri Ayyappa is associated with maleness and worshiped for strength, purification, success in celibacy, freedom from marriage, and similar benedictions. As the son of both Siva and Vishnu, he is said to represent harmony between the Saivite and Vaishnava traditions; as the friend of Vavar, he symbolizes mercy and friendship toward non-Hindus and outcastes.

Sri Bahucara-Devi

Goddess of Male Castration

Sri Bahucara-devi is an expansion of goddess Durga mentioned in both the Padma and Skanda Puranas. She is especially worshiped by people who wish to lose or transform their sexual identity—transgenders, transsexuals, the intersexed, hijra, eunuchs, and so on. She encourages such people to emasculate themselves through dreams and, like a mother, offers comfort and protection during the castration ceremony (or, nowadays, transsexual operation). Bahucara-mata guides her followers through their hardship and is said to bestow special benedictions upon them including the power to bless and curse others. There is a famous temple of Sri Bahucara-devi located at Bahucharaji Taluka, Gujarat, which is said to be the place were Lord Krsna performed His tonsure or hair-cutting ceremony. Each day of the week Bahucara-devi rides a different animal carrier; on Sundays and full-moon days she rides a cock, and this is the special day for hijras and crossdressers to come worship the goddess. The two largest festivals of the year are held on the full-moon days of Chaitra (March-April) and Asadha (June-July).

The life of Bahucara-devi is tragic and people of the third sex identify with her in many ways. As a beautiful goddess, she is deceived into a false marriage with a man who neglects her in pursuit of other men. Later, while attending a festival, Bahucara is forced to cut off her breasts to avoid being raped by an evil man. As she bleeds to death, she curses him to become impotent. The first story strikes a chord with many homosexual men and women who are forced into unnatural marriages, and the second with women or transgenders who have been assaulted or abused by men. In the first story, Bahucara lies in bed at night wondering why her young husband will not reciprocate her love. When she discovers him leaving home during the dark- and full-moon nights, she secretly follows her husband deep into the forest on the back of a jungle fowl. To her surprise, she eventually finds him sporting in a stream with other young men and “behaving as women do.” Addressing him, she asks, “If you were like this, why did you marry me and ruin my life?” He replies that he was forced into marriage so that he could father children and continue the family line. Infuriated, she castrates him and declares: “Men like you (who dishonestly marry women) should instead emasculate themselves and dress as women, worshiping me as a goddess!” In the second story, the evil man begs for deliverance from Bahucara’s curse but her reply is similar: “Men like you (who rape women) will only be forgiven when they are castrated, dressed as women, and engaged in my worship!” These narrations about the life of Bahucara-devi emphasize the Hindu teaching that women must never be abused or mistreated in any way.

Sri Bhagavati-Devi

Goddess of Crossdressing

Sri Bhagavati-devi is an expansion of the goddess Durga worshiped all over India. The Kottankulangara temple of Bhagavati-devi located near Kollam, Kerala, is especially famous for its unusual stone deity of the goddess and annual crossdressing festival known as Chamaya-vilakku. During the festival, men are invited to dress up as women and receive the special blessings of the goddess. The crossdressing festival is based on a story surrounding the temple’s origin: Long ago, a group of cowherd boys worshiped a stone in the mood of shy, young girls. After some time, the goddess Bhagavati personally appeared before them to accept their worship and become the stone. The Kottankulangara temple was then constructed to house the stone deity and formal worship was commenced, along with the annual festival.

The Chamaya-vilakku crossdressing festival of goddess Bhagavati is very well organized and celebrated with great pomp each year on the tenth and eleventh nights after the Mina-sankranti (when the sun enters Pisces in late March). During the ceremony, thousands of crossdressing men grasp tall, lighted lamps and wait for the procession of the goddess in the form of a sila or stone to pass by. The goddess Bhagavati then blesses the pilgrims and showers all good fortune upon them. This unique ceremony is especially popular with the third sex but appreciated by all.

Sri Bhagiratha Maharaja

Born of Two Women

Sri Bhagiratha Maharaja is famous for bringing the celestial Ganges River down to earth, a pastime narrated in the Bhagavata Purana (9.9). Three of his forefathers had previously attempted the feat and failed, but due to Maharaja Bhagiratha’s severe austerities, Ganga-devi was pleased and allowed her waters to descend. Bhagiratha also propitiated Lord Siva to bear the great force of the river’s descent upon his head. The Ganges River is considered pure because it touches the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, and to this day the river is still flowing through the Indian subcontinent and honored by millions of Hindus.

Maharaja Bhagiratha is known as the son of King Dilipa, but it is the story behind his miraculous birth that is most interesting. The following narrative is found in both the Padma Purana and the fourteenth-century Krittivasa Ramayana, the most popular Bengali text on the pastimes of Lord Ramacandra: Maharaja Dilipa was the king of Ayodhya but had no sons. He left his kingdom to perform severe austerities for the duel purpose of summoning the Ganges and obtaining a son; however, he died accomplishing neither. The demigods became worried—they had heard that Vishnu would be born in the Sun Dynasty, but how would this be possible if the dynasty’s line came to an end? Lord Siva therefore went to the two widowed queens of Maharaja Dilipa and blessed them to bear a son. The queens asked, “How is this possible since we are widows?” Siva replied, “You two make love together and by my blessings you will bear a beautiful son.” The two wives, with great affection for each other, executed Siva’s order until one of them conceived a child. Unfortunately, however, the infant was born as a lump of flesh without any features or bones. The queens cried out loud, “Why did Siva bless us with such a son?” They decided to leave the baby on the banks of the Sarayu River, and soon after a great sage, Astavakra, found the child and blessed him to become as powerful and good-looking as Cupid (Madana). He summoned the two delighted queens and gave them the charming, healthy boy. Astavakra then performed the name-giving ceremony calling him “Bhagiratha”—he who was born from two vulvas (bhaga). In this way, the dynasty of Maharaja Dilipa continued and Maharaja Bhagiratha eventually fulfilled the wishes of his forefathers by bringing the Ganges River to earth.

Sri Brahma

Born of Vishnu Alone

Sri Brahma is the first created deity in charge of engineering and propagating the material universe. He was born from a single male parent—Vishnu—without any female assistance. At the beginning of the universe, Lord Vishnu lies down upon the universal ocean and a lotus flower sprouts from His navel. Within the lotus appears Sri Brahma. The idea of demigods, demons and humans emerging from a single parent, whether male or female, is a common theme found throughout Vedic literature and transcends all stereotypes regarding reproduction. Brahma himself often generates progeny without any female assistance and conceives Siva, Narada and many of the other demigods in this way.

In the Bhagavata Purana (3.20.18-37) it is mentioned that at the beginning of creation, male demons forcibly approached Brahma for sex. To appease them, Brahma created a beautiful woman who completely captivated their lusty desires. Although the demons in this story are commonly mischaracterized as homosexual, their ultimate attraction for a woman conclusively demonstrates otherwise. In reality, the demons are nothing more than what is known as circumstantial or pseudo-homosexuals.

Lord Brahma is famous for his four heads, which represent the four directions of the universe. His wife is the goddess of learning, Sarasvati, the presiding deity of the arts and sciences who is worshiped during the spring festival of Vasanta-pancami in Magha (January-February). It is said that due to a curse by his son, Bhrgu Muni, the worship of Lord Brahma is not at all prevalent on Earth. One exception is in the holy town of Pushkara, situated on a lake created when Brahma threw a lotus flower from heaven. The largest festival honoring Sri Brahma is held in this town (located in the Indian state of Rajasthan) on the full-moon night in Kartika (October-November).

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu

Radha and Krsna Combined

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is described in post-medieval Bengali texts as the combination of Sri Radha and Krsna. He is also clandestinely alluded to throughout the Puranas and other Vedic texts as the incarnation for this age of Kali—the golden avatara, who descends to augment the chanting of the holy names of God. In the Caitanya-caritamrta, two more confidential reasons are given for Krsna’s descent as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: He wanted to taste the ecstatic love experienced by Sri Radha for Him, and He wanted to propagate this confidential knowledge to anyone eager to receive it. Thus, while appearing in a male form, Lord Caitanya’s inner mood and emotions were that of a female, His divine consort Sri Radha.

Lord Caitanya appeared in this world during the fifteenth century in Mayapura, Bengal (1486 A.D.). He had two wives but never any children, having taken the renounced order of life (sannyasa) at the youthful age of twenty-four. Caitanya Mahaprabhu popularized the chanting of the “Hare Krsna” mantra in India and traveled throughout the Indian subcontinent, making and instructing many important disciples. He shared deep relationships with His confidential companions like Gadadhara Pandita, Ramananda Raya, Svarupa Damodara, and others, all of who are revealed as incarnations of Krsna’s cowherd girlfriends. In one esoteric pastime from the Caitanya-bhagavata (2.18), Lord Caitanya and some of His intimate associates dress up as women for a dramatic performance. Mahaprabhu disguises Himself as Laksmi-devi and is so convincing that everyone present believes He is none other than the Goddess of fortune Herself. At the end of the pastime, Sri Caitanya bestows His mercy to all of the devotees by employing His mystic power and allowing them to suckle milk from His breasts. A similar pastime from the Caitanya-mangala (3.9) describes Lord Caitanya crossdressing as a gopi and then adopting the mood of goddess Durga. In the latter years of His life, Caitanya Mahaprabhu spent His days pining away in separation from Krsna, experiencing all the ecstatic moods of Radha. He left this world in 1534 A.D., at the age of forty-eight, by entering into the Deity of Tota-Gopinatha at Jagannatha Puri, Orissa.

After the disappearance of Sri Caitanya, several sects of religious crossdressers such as the sakhi-bekhis and gauranga-nagaris became prominent throughout Bengal and other parts of India including Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Members of these sects typically dress themselves as women in order to reinforce their identity as sakhis or girlfriends of Krsna and to attain the esteemed spiritual emotion known as sakhi-bhava. Sakhi-bekhis consider themselves maidservants of Krsna whereas the gauranga-nagaris consider themselves to be dasis of Sri Caitanya. These sects were later condemned as prakrita-sahajiya (unauthentic) when some members began making public shows of their romantic feelings for Krsna while simultaneously having illicit relations with cudadharis—men dressed up as Krsna with a crown of peacock feathers. In modern times, most sakhi-bekhis and gauranga-nagaris crossdress in private and are less conspicuous.

Lord Caitanya is very dear to people of the third sex and is well known for His inclusiveness and compassion toward all types of beings. It is said that the more fallen and destitute a person is, the more qualified he becomes for Lord Caitanya’s mercy. From His very birth, Lord Caitanya demonstrated kindness toward the third sex—transgender dancers were invited into His courtyard during the birth ceremony and the Lord graciously accepted their service and blessings. Throughout His lifetime, Lord Caitanya continuously challenged smarta-brahmanas and mundane religionists who excluded the lower classes with their dry regulations and caste consciousness.

The mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has increased significantly over the past several decades and what was once an esoteric cult of Bengal has since become a worldwide-established faith. This is single-handedly due to the efforts and devotion of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a pure devotee of Lord Caitanya who spread His mission to the West in 1965 by founding the Hare Krishna movement. Lord Caitanya’s appearance day, Gaura-purnima, is observed on the full-moon day in Phalguna (February-March) and celebrated by millions of people all over the world, especially in Mayapura, West Bengal, where the Lord first appeared. The day after this is known as Jagannatha-Misra-mahotsava and celebrated as the day when Lord Caitanya received blessings from the third-gender community.

Sri Chandi-Chamunda

Twin Warrior Goddesses

The twin warrior goddesses, Chandi and Chamunda, represent a curious tradition in Hinduism of female warriors, often depicted in pairs, who ride together in battle defeating men and exhibiting extraordinary strength and prowess. Throughout India they are assigned different names in different traditions—Dayamava-Durgamma in Karnataka, Chotila-Chamunda in Gujarat, Keliamma-Chamunda in Uttar Pradesh, etc.—but the stories related to them are all very similar.

Sri Chandi and Sri Chamunda are expansions of the goddess Durga and the story of their appearance is as follows: There were once two demons, Chanda and Munda, who performed great austerities for thousands of years in order to please Lord Brahma. After some time, Brahma appeared before them and they asked for the benediction to become great warriors, strong enough to rule the world and conquer heaven. Brahma granted the request but, because the two were demons, chaos quickly ensued. They became more and more greedy and even tried to violate the abodes of Brahma, Siva and Vishnu. It was agreed that Durga-devi should handle the matter and the goddess expanded herself into two forms, Chandi and Chamunda, who fiercely fought against the demons and emerged victorious.

Sri Chandi-Chamunda is said to be the embodiment of Durga’s power and strength. The two deities assume fierce forms with large eyes, tridents in their hands, and ride a single lion together. They are dressed in red and green and adorned with flower garlands. There are temples to these twin goddesses scattered throughout India—a famous one is situated on the Chotila Hill in Gujarat. Festivals are celebrated during Durga-puja in the month of Ashvina (September-October).

Sri Durga-Devi

Universal Mother

Sri Durga-devi is the universal mother and goddess of the material cosmos. She is the wife and shakti of Lord Siva and, like her husband, has many different expansions such as Kali, Parvati, Sati, Uma, Bhagavati, and so on. Durga rides on a tiger or lion and has eight arms holding the four symbols of Vishnu (a lotus, conch, discus and club), a bow and arrow, a trident, and a machete-like ax (khadagh). One of her hands is raised, offering benedictions to all devotees.

Sri Durga-devi can be both loving and fierce. As the universal mother she offers protection and shelter to all conditioned souls, but as the supreme chastiser she never hesitates to punish her children when they are bad or misbehaved. Since mothers are always very compassionate and understanding of their children, goddess Durga is a favorite of the third sex. The first nine days of the waxing moon of Ashvina (September-October) mark a festival known as Navaratri, which is celebrated all over India in honor of the goddess. During this time, Hindus offer respects to Durga-devi and at many temples there is a tradition of crossdressing. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, girl children are blessed with new dresses and sweets during Navaratri and treated as representations of the goddess. In homes where there are no girls, small boys are crossdressed and honored in their place. At some Krsna temples, the Deity is dressed up as a beautiful young girl with saris, jewelry and so on, while at certain Siva temples, priests wear saris and headdresses of the goddess while offering puja to Lord Siva on her behalf. In Kulasekarapattinam in Tamil Nadu, men traditionally dress up as women during Navaratri and go house-to-house asking for festival donations. On the tenth day of Dasara, they go crossdressed to the Mutharamma Durga temple to offer prayers and receive blessings from the goddess. Durga-puja is held on the seventh day of the festival and during this time, Durga-devi’s divine yoni (womb) is worshiped as a symbol of fertility and the female principle.

Sri Gadadhara

Radha in Male Form

Sri Gadadhara, one of Lord Caitanya’s four principal male associates, is none other than Sri Radha Herself, the embodiment of Lord Krsna’s internal potency or shakti. It is said that Lord Caitanya had so much affection for His dear friend Gadadhara that He couldn’t be without him for a moment. In the same way, no one can describe the ecstatic affection that Gadadhara had for Caitanya; therefore another name for Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is Gadadhara Prananatha, the life and soul of Gadadhara Pandit. Gadadhara was one year younger than Caitanya and appeared in the same village of Navadvipa, Bengal. As childhood friends they were inseparable and played together constantly.

There are two confidential reasons for Sri Radha’s descent as Gadadhara Pandit: The first reason is so She could associate with Krsna without restraint. One day, Srimati Radharani praised the good fortune of Krsna’s cowherd friend, Subala, because he was always able to accompany Krsna and could embrace Him publicly. She, on the other hand, faced so many social restrictions and restraints. Reflecting on this, Radha desired to take a male birth in Lord Caitanya’s pastimes so that She could always have the Lord’s association. The second confidential reason is so She could witness Her own ecstatic emotions in Caitanya Mahaprabhu and assist Him through them.

Gadadhara Pandit never married. Rather, he accepted the renounced order of sannyasa like Lord Caitanya and went to Jagannatha Puri to be with Him. Taking a vow to always remain in Puri, Sri Gadadhara nearly died when Lord Caitanya left to go on a pilgrimage alone. When Lord Caitanya eventually departed from this world, Gadadhara quickly became very old and feeble out of intense anguish due to separation from the Lord. Shortly thereafter he also left this world by entering into the Tota-Gopinatha Deity.

Gadadhara and Caitanya Mahaprabhu are often worshiped together as Sri Gaura-Gadadhara or as two of the five Panca-tattva Deities. A festival honoring Sri Gadadhara’s appearance is celebrated on the new-moon day in Vaishaka (April-May).

Sri Ganesha

Born of Parvati Alone

Sri Ganesha is famous as the elephant-headed god and is very popular among the third sex. His birth is described in the Siva Purana (4.13.9-39) as follows: Parvati, the wife of Lord Siva, desired to have a powerful son who would obey her alone. She wanted a servant who would guard her inner apartments without being subservient to Siva, like all of the other ganas (attendants of Siva). Thinking in this way, Parvati, along with her female associates, fashioned a strong and beautiful son out of clay. She instructed him to become her gatekeeper, obeying no one other than herself, and then departed for the inner sanctums of her apartment to bathe with her companions. Siva then appeared in a playful mood. He was hoping to find Parvati but was instead checked at the entrance by Ganesha. An argument ensued but Ganesha would not relent. Siva tried to enter forcefully but Ganesha beat him again and again with a stick. Becoming furious, Siva summoned his ganas and commanded them, “Find out who this boy is and what he is doing here!” The ganas also argued with Ganesha but Parvati and her cohorts intervened and told Ganesha to stand firm. A battle ensued and Ganesha defeated all of Siva’s ganas, including Kartikeya. Siva then challenged Ganesha directly and a long, fierce battle commenced. Ganesha fought valiantly but was ultimately beheaded by Siva. Infuriated, Parvati threatened to destroy the entire universe unless her beloved son was revived and given an honorable position among the demigods. Siva agreed and replaced Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant’s.

Lord Ganesha represents mysterious identities and the “queerness” found in Hinduism and nature—the idea that anything can be possible. Throughout Hindu texts many strange, incredible creatures are found. Garuda, for instance, the carrier of Lord Vishnu, has a form that is half man, half eagle. Hanuman, the servant of Lord Rama, is half monkey, half god. Vishnu’s incarnation of Lord Nrsimhadeva appears in a half-man, half-lion form. The third sex is half man, half woman. Many celestial beings are described in Vedic texts as kinnara (literally, “what creature?”) or kimpurusa (“what man?”). The peculiar nature of Sri Ganesha’s birth and features continues in this tradition, making him very attractive to his followers and hinting at the inconceivable nature of God and His creation.

Sri Ganesha is traditionally worshiped as a bachelor although sometimes he is depicted as married. He is also known as Ganapati (lord of the ganas) and Vinayaka (born without a male father). He is famous as the celestial guardian and gatekeeper who removes all obstacles and permits a person to “cross over.” Like Lord Siva and Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganesha is known to be very compassionate to those who are fallen and destitute. Ganesha’s appearance day (Ganesha-caturthi) is celebrated all over India on the fourth day of the waxing moon in Bhadra (August-September), especially in big cities like Mumbai. Many hundreds of thousands of people attend, including members of the third sex.

Sri Gangamma-Devi

Goddess of Disguise

Sri Gangamma-devi is an expansion of Lord Vishnu’s spiritual shakti known as Yogamaya or Subhadra. She is worshiped in South India as the younger sister of Lord Venkatesvara, a popular Vishnu Deity presiding over the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh. When Gangamma-devi appeared on earth she was celebrated as the most beautiful of all women and known by the name of Ganga. Seeing her exquisite beauty, a demonic king ruling the country at that time desired to enjoy Ganga for himself. The unpopular king made many attempts to capture the girl and take her into his palace, but Gangamma-devi tricked him by assuming various disguises with her maya (illusory potency). One day Ganga disguised herself as a small young girl and on another day she disguised herself as a man. Ganga assumed seven disguises in all, but on the eighth day she became angry with the king and killed him after assuming one of her fierce forms. The entire kingdom thus became very pleased with Gangamma-devi and worshiped her as the universal mother and goddess. A terrible drought caused by the king’s sinful activities was also ended at this time.

A famous eight-day festival (Ganga-yatra) is celebrated in Sri Gangamma-devi’s honor throughout South India during the month of Vaisakha (April-May). The largest festival, held at Tirupati, is well known for its crossdressing festivities based on Gangamma-devi’s pastime of assuming the seven disguises. During the festival celebrations, many people don costumes and the temple goddess is brought out in a grand procession. The final four days of the festival are the main time for crossdressing and third-gender devotees attend from all over India. Gangamma-devi is worshiped for her blessings and to usher in the auspicious rainy season.

Sri Harihara

Vishnu and Siva Combined

Sri Harihara is a form in which the two male deities of Vishnu and Siva are fused together, similar to the Ardhanarisvara form. It is said that this form of the Lord appeared when Siva embraced Vishnu as Mohini—thus the right side of the Deity is Lord Siva (the male side) and the left is Vishnu (the female side). Many variations of this form can be found throughout temples in India. In traditional images, the right side depicting Siva carries a trident, has matted hair and is accompanied by Nandi (Siva’s bull carrier) or a gana (a dwarf-like attendant). The left side with Vishnu carries a cakra, wears a crown, and is accompanied by a Vishnu attendant.

The Deity of Sri Harihara is not very common and little is known about this unique form. To many, He is the father of Hariharaputra, Lord Ayyappa, while to others He symbolizes the union and deep relationship between Vishnu and Siva—bringing harmony between the Vaishnava and Saivite traditions. Sri Harihara is worshiped mostly in South India and there is a famous temple of this Deity in the town of Harihara, just south of the ancient city of Vijayanagara (Hampi) in Karnataka.

Sri Iravan

Husband to Vishnu

Sri Iravan, known in Tamil Nadu as Aravan, is the son of Arjuna and the serpent princess, Ulupi. In the Mahabharata, Iravan was a hero during the battle of Kuruksetra and served both Krsna and his father Arjuna by slaying many of Duryodhana’s soldiers.

The worship of Iravan in South India has become increasingly popular over the past several decades. The main temple is located in Koovagam (near Villupuram), Tamil Nadu, and the deity worshiped there is known as Koothandavara. A popular, six-day festival devoted to Iravan culminates on the Tuesday prior to the full-moon day of Vaishaka (April-May) and is attended by thousands of aravanis (crossdressing devotees of Iravan, also known as ali), homosexuals, and other people of the third sex. The celebrations are based on Tamil versions of the Mahabharata in which Krsna assumes His Vishnu form of Mohini—the most beautiful of women. During the battle of Kuruksetra, Iravan offers himself as a sacrifice to Kali to ensure victory for the Pandavas. He asks for three benedictions before he dies, one of which is to marry and lose his virginity before death. Since no parent would give up a daughter to a man about to be sacrificed, Krsna agrees to assume His Mohini form and marries Iravan for the night. The next day, Iravan is sacrificed.

During the Koothandavara festival, thousands of aravanis dress up as women to reenact this pastime, bringing it to life. On the day Iravan is slain, they mourn his death by wailing, beating their chests, breaking their bangles, etc., in order to commemorate Iravan’s sacrifice and the painful emotions experienced by his beloved friends and relatives. In some temples, the Krsna Deity is dressed in a white sari (a sign of widowhood) on this day. Like the demigoddess Bahucara, Sri Iravan is popular with the third sex throughout India and has become a patron saint for them.

Sri Jagannatha

Lord of the Gotipuas

Sri Jagannatha is a popular Krsna Deity worshiped in Orissa and throughout the world. He is accompanied by His brother and first expansion, Sri Baladeva, as well as by His sister, Subhadra, the personification of the Lord’s internal potency. All three Deities are worshiped with great pomp in Jagannatha Puri, where the original temple is located.

The Jagannatha Temple has a long history of both female and crossdressing-male dance traditions. In former times, the female devadasis were beautiful young girls whose lives were completely surrendered to the Jagannatha Deity. At their peak they numbered in the hundreds and maintained elaborate dance and song traditions as an essential part of the daily worship. The devadasis were divided into several different groups, each with their own specific codes of conduct, dance styles, and perimeters of worship. The highest class (mahari) was comprised of celibate virgins who danced privately for Lord Jagannatha in the innermost sanctums of His temple, while the lowest class performed in public ceremonies outside the temple and often served as prostitutes. Another class known as nachuni danced before the royal courts of Orissa, entertaining kings and other celebrated nobles.

The current Jagannatha Temple was built in the tenth century A.D., after which many devadasis were imported from South India where the tradition was very prominent. In the twelfth century, Maharaja Chodagangadeva (1076-1147) established much of the elaborate worship and also set stringent rules for the devadasis, forbidding all prostitution as well as any human contact for the girls. After this, the devadasi tradition slowly began to decline and in 1360, Muslims attacked the temple and violated many of the devadasis. Puri recovered, however, and by the early sixteenth century—under the reign of Maharaja Prataparudra (1497-1540)—all of the original worship was reestablished. Sri Caitanya relocated to Puri at this time and inaugurated a great revival of the bhakti cult.

Crossdressing boy dancers, known as gotipuas, also have a long tradition in Puri and were especially popular during the reign of Maharaja Prataparudra. In the gotipua tradition, beautiful male youths were trained in various dance techniques such as the bandha-nrtya, wherein they dressed up as devadasis with colorful saris and heavy makeup. Unlike the devadasis, gotipuas performed mostly in public but were also connected with several important temple ceremonies. In one of the most popular, a selected young gotipua performs a seductive dance before the Deity of Sri Baladeva. The gotipuas were devoted to Jagannatha but lived outside the perimeters of the temple. In ancient times the more accomplished gotipuas would serve as dance instructors, male courtesans, and act as liaisons to the devadasis. In a time where all public entertainment was centered on temple festivals and ceremonies, the highly talented devadasis and gotipuas were the celebrated luminaries of their day.

The devadasi tradition of Puri is now nearly extinct. In 1956, the number of devadasis dwindled to nine and by the end of the twentieth century only two elderly women remained. It is not at all certain whether the ancient devadasi tradition will ever be revived or even preserved for future record; many of the traditional dance techniques and temple ceremonies have already been lost to time. The gotipua tradition, on the other hand, is still extant to some degree and several gotipua dance troupes continue to perform in Puri and throughout the state of Orissa.

Despite the demise of the devadasi tradition, the Jagannatha Mandira remains one of the most popular and well-known temples in India. Lord Jagannatha is especially merciful to the fallen and for this reason much adored by all Hindus, including those of the third sex. Every summer in the month of Asadha (June-July), all three Deities parade through Jagannatha Puri in a grand festival attracting millions. Known as Ratha-yatra, it is one of the largest religious ceremonies in the world and also observed in many prominent Western cities such as Los Angeles, London and Paris.

(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 124-144)

[Continued in Part Two...]

Image: Sri Ayyappa, son of Siva and Vishnu.

bottom of page