Part 1 - Introduction | Third-Gender Men of the Bhagavata Purana | Lack of Specific Statements On Homosexuality
Part 2 - The Dharma Shastra
Part 3 - The Artha Shastra | The Ayur Shastra: Sushruta Samhita
Part 4 - The Ayur Shastra: Caraka Samhita | The Kama Shastra
Part 5 - The Duty of Satisfying Women | Courtesans and the Third Sex | Sikhandi and the Question of Gender Identification |
Third-Gender Births As Purifying
Part 6 - The Jyotir and Nimitta Shastra (Section One)
Part 7 - The Jyotir and Nimitta Shastra (Section Two)
( 1 ) Introduction
Hindu teachings are based on the Rg, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas as well as a vast array of corollary texts expounding their truths. In ancient times, Vedic knowledge was orally transmitted but eventually put into writing by Srila Vyasadeva at the dawn of Kali Yuga. These writings include the four Vedas mentioned above as well as the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanisads and texts known as the “fifth Veda”: the various Shastras, Samhitas, Itihasas, Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, etc. Lord Ganesha served as the celestial scribe in this enormous task. There are furthermore countless other texts expounding on Vedic knowledge and subsequently accepted as Vedic literature. These include the many sacred and revered texts written throughout the ages by previous acaryas, perfected saints and accomplished scholars.
People of the third sex are mentioned in nearly all of the literature cited above. Descriptions of any detail, however, are less common and found mostly in the texts presented within this chapter. Since there are no real English equivalents for the Sanskrit terms napumsaka, shandha, kliba, etc. and because these words cover such a wide range of different people, I prefer to translate them simply as “third sex” or “third gender.” These terms are less limiting and leave themselves open to interpretation. In most cases, the third-gender personalities mentioned in Vedic texts are not explicitly described as castrated, intersex, homosexual or anything else and to assign specific terms to them when this is not clearly indicated is speculative at best and incorrect at worst. I reject the traditional Victorian terms “eunuch,” “neuter” and “hermaphrodite” because they are not only archaic but also inaccurate and misleading. Similarly, the single word “impotent” does not fully convey the meaning of a third-gender man since one of the most common types—the homosexual—is not considered impotent in the modern sense. The phrase “impotent with women” is more accurate and the term “intermediate sex” is also suitable in some cases. Lastly, it should be kept in mind that the Vedic canon is extremely voluminous and new material is translated into English every few years. While this chapter represents the bulk of Vedic literature describing the third sex to date it is by no means necessarily complete.
Third-Gender Men of the Bhagavata Purana
The Bhagavata Purana, also known as the Srimad Bhagavatam, is one of the most important Vaishnava scriptures. It was composed by Srila Vyasadeva as his final commentary on Vedic knowledge and focuses on the subject of God realization. The following verses from the Bhagavata Purana serve as typical examples of the third-gender men (kliba, shandha, napumsa, etc.) mentioned here and there throughout Vedic texts. The first three recognize such men as a distinct category of gender:
Any cruel person—whether male [pums], female [stri] or third sex [kliba]—who is only interested in his personal maintenance and has no compassion for other living entities may be killed by the king. (4.17.26)
Sometimes you think yourself a man, sometimes a chaste woman and sometimes neither [na ubhayam]. This is all because of the body, which is created by the illusory energy. (4.28.61)
The Supreme Personality of Godhead is not woman, man, or third sex [shandha], nor is He an animal. He is not a material quality, a fruitive activity, a manifestation or a nonmanifestation. (8.3.24)
In some of his last notes on the Srimad Bhagavatam (10.1, Notes, p. 105), A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada mentions the third sex as follows: “The word puman refers to any person, whether man, woman or in-between.” In this instance, Srila Prabhupada mentions the third sex as an intermediate gender situated between male and female rather than simply as “eunuch” or “neuter.” As noted in Appendix 3, His Divine Grace was not at all satisfied with the latter terms.
The Vedic third sex is similarly mentioned throughout the other Puranas. For instance, the Garuda Purana (2.32.29) states: “Whatever the sex of the child—whether male, female or third sex (napumsaka)—it is born in the ninth or tenth month.” The Varaha Purana (142.50) also mentions: “If this regime [of self-control] is practiced without devotion to Me (Krsna)—despite having knowledge and whether man, woman or third sex—it will not yield rewards.”
The next two examples refer to third-gender men as effeminate and unmanly. In these instances, the subjects are not actually third gender but accused of such as a matter of insult:
[Urvasi rebuked her husband, Pururava:] “Now I am being killed,” she said, “under the protection of an unworthy husband who is actually a member of the third sex [napumsa] although he thinks himself a great hero…My husband lies down at night in fear, exactly like a woman, although he appears to be a man during the day.” (9.14.28-29)
[Pradyumna said:] “Except for Me, no one born in the Yadu dynasty has ever been known to abandon the battlefield. My reputation has now been stained by a driver who thinks like a member of the third sex [kliba]…Certainly My sisters-in-law will laugh at Me and say, ‘O hero, tell us how in the world Your enemies induced You to become so unmanly.’” (10.76.29, 31)
The Vishnu Purana contains a similar narration involving Garga Muni, the head priest of the Yadu Dynasty, who was ridiculed by the Yadavas as belonging to the third sex. Infuriated by their laughter, Garga vowed to beget a son who would terrorize the Yadus with the fury of Siva. Such a son, Kalayavana, was indeed begotten by the muni through the wife of a yavana king. This story is not directly mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana but often cited in relation to Kalayavana’s attack on Lord Krsna’s capital city of Mathura (10.50.43-48).
The following verse from the Bhagavata Purana serves as a good example of homosexual behavior that does not involve third-gender men:
Lord Brahma then gave birth to the demons from his buttocks, and they were very fond of sex. Because they were too lustful, they approached him for copulation. (3.20.23)
In his essay, Vaishnava Moral Theology and Its Application on the Issue of Homosexuality (2005), Hridayananda Goswami presents a thorough analysis of this verse in its entire context (3.20.23-37), referring to commentaries from well-known Vaishnava acaryas such as Sridhara Swami, Vira Raghavacarya and Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. All three acaryas agree that the demons were in fact lusty after women, as described at the end of the narration, and do not mention them as homosexual by nature. Hridayananda Goswami writes: “The godless demons who chased Brahma for sex were apparently attracted to the specific part of his body that manifests female beauty. Both in the Bhagavatam text itself, and in the commentaries of the great Acaryas, we find unanimous evidence that these demons were actually lusting after women…Therefore, it is clear that the demons had a strong heterosexual appetite, as well as an ambiguous attraction to a lusty female aspect of Lord Brahma.” It can also be noted that third-gender terms such as kliba, napumsaka, etc. appear nowhere in this narration. Thus, the demonic men of Srimad Bhagavatam 3.20.23 have nothing to do with the third sex or people born with exclusive homosexual orientation.
A possible reference to bisexual behavior as a symptom of Kali Yuga appears in the Twelfth Canto of the Bhagavata Purana (12.3.37), wherein it is stated that men will reject their relatives and friends to instead “associate with the sisters and brothers of their wives.” According to most commentators, the word samvadah or “associating regularly” in this connection refers to having sexual relations. Such men are also described as strainah or “controlled by women.”
Lack of Specific Statements On Homosexuality
Many Hindu scholars have pondered over the lack of specific statements on homosexuality in the most popular and commonly read Vedic scriptures. While homosexual desire and behavior are clearly described in less familiar texts such as the Sushruta Samhita, Narada-smriti, Kama Sutra, Kamatantra, Smriti-ratnavali and so on, the more widely-read scriptures seem to ignore the topic completely. In the essay cited above, Hridayananda Goswami further writes: “Srila Prabhupada taught that we must understand the spiritual science through guru, sadhu and sastra—‘one’s teacher, other saintly persons, and revealed scriptures.’ Srila Prabhupada also taught unceasingly that his own ultimate qualification, and indeed the qualification of any bona fide guru, is always to faithfully repeat the teachings of Krsna as they are found in revealed scriptures. Thus we must search the most important Vaishnava scriptures presented by Srila Prabhupada—the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam—for specific, explicit, unambiguous scriptural statements about homosexuality. The result? There are none. Remarkably, neither the Gita nor the Bhagavatam gives a single explicit reference to mutually consensual homosexuality…Thus according to Krsna’s own statement, since we do not find a specific, explicit, unambiguous set of rules for dealing with homosexuality, we must engage in spiritual reasoning about it.”
Of course, employing spiritual reasoning does not exclude us from considering the less-familiar Vedic texts mentioned above, which in fact can be quite helpful, and the Dharmasutras themselves enjoin: “When there are no specific rules in Vedic texts, Manu has said that one may follow the laws of one’s region, caste, or family” (Vasistha Dharmasutra 1.17). Nevertheless, it is true that people with exclusive homosexual orientation are not specifically addressed in any of the most important Vaishnava scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita, for instance, does not mention homosexual behavior or the Vedic third sex at all. Hindu scholars sometimes cite verse 7.11 as a condemnation of homosexuality (“I am sex life which is not contrary to religious principles…”) but this verse simply exalts religious sexuality as the highest representation of Lord Krsna. Krsna also states in the Gita (10.31), “of fishes I am the shark,” but this does not mean that all other species of fish are therefore condemned and useless. The Lord Himself does not dismiss people falling short of religious principles but instead encourages them to remain in the fold by working for Him (12.10). Furthermore, the key criteria of irreligiosity and social degradation cited in the Bhagavad Gita (1.40-43) are the exploitation of women and subsequent unwanted progeny—elements having nothing at all to do with homosexuality.
Since the major Hindu and Vaishnava scriptures are silent and consequently neutral in their approach to homosexuality, perhaps our teachers would do best to remain unbiased as well. Through this approach, sexual abstinence and responsibility can be promoted equally across the board regardless of a person’s sexual orientation or gender differences. Some of Srila Prabhupada’s more memorable statements such as “sex is sex” or “what is the difference if a person is held in this material world by a gold chain, or by a silver chain?” illustrate this preferred approach, wherein no particular class is demonized or excluded from the Vedic path.