Transgenderism in Indian culture

(by Devi)
This post deals with transgenderism specifically in India, but the commonalities between most eastern cultures - Buddhism spread to China, Japan and elsewhere from India, and Hinduism still influences life as far away as in Cambodia and Bali, Indonesia - mean that broadly similar attitudes exist elsewhere in Asia too. For examples, one of China's most celebrated medieval admirals, Zheng He, was a known eunuch.

Transgenderism takes several hues, from heterosexual crossdressers to 'hijras' or eunuchs. Traditionally hijras are the most well known part of the Indian transgender community, and they are culturally 'accepted'. There is no religious stricture against them - they're in fact a definitive part of several religious texts and customs, which date back about a couple of millenia. Traditional dances and plays often involve TGs or at least recognized gender impersonators who hone their skills at expressing the female role openly. There are multiple annual social gatherings for hijras, also involving other TGs, around the country - often conducted under the auspices of Hindu temples. No one asks why a man would choose to dress and express himself as a woman; it is accepted as artistic and/or devotional expression.

All this doesn't mean that there are no lumpen nitwits on the street who will laugh at them, or that there aren't people who wouldn't baulk at hiring one. If a group of hijras were to resort of prostitution, unruly behavior or something of the sort, they most certainly will receive a dim view from the law enforcement and the general public. The point is there's little socially sanctioned discrimination against them for being hijras per se, but more so for what they do. This site itself has explored how TGs have problems due to members of the community misrepresenting everyone.

Understanding what such acceptance constitutes is a difficult task to explain within the constraints of a western viewpoint and it takes at least some degree of familiarity with Indian or eastern culture. There's no specific list of commandments and "thou shalt do/not do XYZ" involved. I cannot simply pluck out the treatment the TG community receives and attempt to convincingly explain it in isolation, without going into how societal mores in general are like, though I'll try in succeeding paragraphs.

In general, descriptions of hijras/TGs on various websites are quite 'crude'; for example, they are not a 'caste' - a much misused term. In modern day India there's no real hierarchical system as caste implies, just a lot of endogamous communities, and even those lines are increasingly blurred by exogamous ties today. Implicit ceilings of various hues exist as with any other society, but none of them are inviolable - even the most sacred roles, that of temple priests, are increasingly held by those not traditionally from the priestly class.

There's a much larger gulf between legal and societal perceptions than in western societies. Take for example our President - in a nation traumatized by centuries of Muslim invasions he is a homosexual Muslim scientist (he led the Indian missile/nuclear weapons program) who is also an expert on Hindu religious texts, and one of the most bipartisanly popular public figures. Officially homosexuality is against the law in India (a law grandfathered from the old British penal code), but both the law and the tabloids stay away from his personal life. A somewhat analogous (and apt, since the social view is basically "laissez faire") western case I recall is that of how the French treated the presence of the late former President Mitterand's mistress at his funeral where his wife was also present, when both of them were allowed to mourn in quiet dignity.

Another thing that is visible everywhere in India, it is diversity. Of religion, culture, ethnicity, opinion, expression, clothing, you name it. A society of such heterogeneity cannot survive and flourish without an inbuilt ability to treat each new or 'different' stimuli not by rejecting it, but making it part of the society at large. In a more homogeneous society, rejection is often a natural reaction, but in a society of massive diversity like India, such a societal reaction to new or exotic influences does not work. It breeds conflict and strains the broad concept of coexistence that holds society together.

From a pedagogical perspective, transgenderism, or for that matter subjects like homosexuality, may not be academically studied and analyzed to the extent it is in the west. The average Indian who sees a hijra in the street or a TG en femme in a traditional dance would not understand gender continuum or the distinction between gender express, biological sex and sexuality. But unlike in the west, acceptance doesn't really follow on the basis of biological, psychological or sociological studies, or for that matter political action. Instead, while there will be grey areas and ignorance, society 'lets it exist' without any broad stricture against it.

Finally, an example that characterizes how Indian society is inclusive - English. India was under the yoke of British imperial rule for a century and a half. Yet, English was uneventfully chosen as one of the official languages and the primary link language of the nation right after independence; about half a billion Indians now speak the language with various degrees of fluency and an even greater diversity of local accents, some of them now lampooned in call center jokes. But no one claims English is an invader's language. With our own idioms, syntactic and semantic constructs, English is now very much an Indian language. Such an attitude is what applies in the case of transgenderism as well.


Jenna said…
Enlightening and insightful. It's a real pleasure to read your perspective. It's even more of a pleasure to witness your expression of thought.
Shannon said…
Devi, great article! Well written, insightful, and very thought provoking.

In many ways, we tend to think of transgenderism today as a new phenonmenon. Transgendered persons historically did not transition from male to female in Western society. They didn't have access HRT or SRS or that true wonder of modern science, the internet (lol). Tgirls today are much more visible, and perhaps that popularity and acceptance is on the rise.

But this avenue of human diversity has always existed. Human beings have changed very little over the last several thousand years. From an evolutionary point of view, we have so few selective pressures today, so there is little driving human 'biological' evolution. At the same time, however, Western culture has evolved around us rather rapidly.

I found it interesting you mentioned the theatre. There may be some commonality here. Males playing female roles was well accepted in Western stagecraft as well. This tradition was evident during Shakespearian times and dates all the way back to the Greek tragedy plays, the very origins of theatre itself.

What is lesser known is that a culture of transgender also grew up around the early Greek plays, perhaps the first known to ever exist. The actors spent time en femme, not only while on stage, but offstage as well. The 'cult of Dionysis' was well established within Greek culture, and Dionysis himself (the god of wine, theatre, and debauchery) is often pictured and an effeminate and perhaps bi-gendered male.

So given the common origins, one has to ask: Why the split? Clearly Indian culture is more accepting of the Hijras than Western society is of transsexuals today. Could Hinduism and its 'many paths' be more facilitative of gender diversity than Western Christian traditions and their 'one path'?

I tend to think so, but then ...s'not like I'm one to take up a controversial point of view. *grin*
Devi said…
Thanks Shannon and Jenna. Regarding your questions Shannon, well, I would rather not compare acceptance by eastern and western cultures. I think there are too many differences in what constitutes acceptance in either case, for me to compare one with the other. Besides I can't claim to be an expert on Western Christian traditions because I'm neither.

Perhaps the western view begins with something being proscribed in general, and it requires an academically rigorous study and/or political action for something like transgenderism to be accepted. On the other hand there's nothing specific in Hindu texts on the lines of "thou shalt not traipse around in a skirt if you have hairy masculine legs" (though that's probably something that merits a commandment against!).

Yet while society is generally tolerant, there'll still be ignorance of the actual reasons for transgenderism, and knowledge as well as legal acceptance will probably follow from a western precedent. However it doesn't take academic/medical backing, legal sanction and anti-discrimination laws for such acceptance to come about. It happens by default as long as a new influence is not at conflict with the rest of society. The ability to internalize pretty much every new or external influence is what lets such a diverse society like India's thrive. From my own perspective I do not think you can sustain a diverse society if you attempt to curtail diversity of opinion or expression.
Anonymous said…
hi Iam a 29 yrs old Indian Man working with an MNC in Chennai.Since the age of 12 I suddenly got interested in getting dressed like female ,earlier I used my moms clothing when nobody stays at home .Mnay times i got caught red handed by my parents when I was in ladies dress.Now I am staying alone cause my parents has shifted position due to my father's proffesional work assignment. I amstying alone in an appartment and enjoy wearing all kinds of female dress mostly Indian dress like saree gagra cholis. I can wear a Saree very neatly ,the only thing is that inspite of dressing neatly like a lady I have stay in my appartment alone to enjoy the fantacy,can any one tell me is there any secret association in INDIA is there where male cross dresser can meet together and share there views ,another promblem is that my penice get hard errect one i slip into a panties and peticoat ,I don't want to castrate my dear penice but it gives an ugly swelled up look beneth my saree or ghagra can any provide any solution to this promblem???
Louisa Marie said…
I enjoyed reading this as I have a close friend who lives in India and it gives me even more incentive to visit.

Thank you.

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