( 5 ) The Duty of Satisfying Women
A common theme found throughout Vedic literature involves the duty of first-gender males to satisfy women in terms of lovemaking, marriage, sexual intercourse and progeny. When a woman approaches a man for any of these he is generally expected to comply or risk being viewed as a member of the third sex. A prime example of this can be found in the Mahabharata story of Urvasi and Arjuna, wherein the celestial apsara was extremely offended when Arjuna refused her advances in lovemaking. Indeed, the Artha Shastra (5.6.30) states: “A woman approaching a man of her own accord curses him when refused” and Mohini-murti Herself declares in the Brahma-vaivarta Purana: “Any male refusing to make love to a woman tortured by desire is an impotent man of the third sex.” In the Yajnavalkya-smriti (1.81) it is furthermore stated, “A man should take care of the desires of his wife because Lord Indra has thus pronounced: ‘Any husband not addressing his wife’s passion during her female cycle will fall into hell.’ ”
References From the Dharma Shastra: Dharma Shastra texts such as the Narada-smriti clearly forbid the marriage of third-gender men to women:
These four—irshyaka, sevyaka, vataretas, and mukhebhaga—are to be completely rejected as unqualified for marriage, even by a wife who is no longer a virgin. (12.15)
The four types mentioned above include homosexual men, particularly the sevyaka and mukhebhaga types who have sexual relations with men and are completely unable to satisfy women in terms of romance and intercourse. The Narada-smriti further mentions that a girl may give up on a suitor if he has any of seven flaws, the third of which is being an impotent man of the third sex (kliba) (12.37). It states that it is not considered a punishable crime when a man has intercourse with a woman whose husband belongs to the third gender (12.61) and lists five “catastrophes” in which women are permitted to take another husband: 1) if the husband disappears, 2) if he dies, 3) if he renounces the world, 4) if he belongs to the third sex, and 5) if he becomes an outcaste (12.97). Bhavasvamin’s eighth-century A.D. commentary on Narada-smriti 12.14 further states that parents should be punished if they marry off a third-gender man to a woman without revealing his “flaw.”
The Baudhayana Dharmasutra passes harsh judgment on any husband who does not have intercourse with his wife during her fertile period, equating such a transgression to the sin of having non-vaginal sex or, if three years pass, an abortion. Similarly, a woman who suppresses her fertile period out of dislike for her husband is equated to an abortionist (4.1.17-21). The same text also mentions that if a woman’s husband turns out to be of the third gender (kliba), she may either leave him to marry someone else or obtain his permission to beget a child through another man (2.3.17, 27).
References From the Artha Shastra: The Artha Shastra (3.2.48) also confirms that a wife may abandon her husband if he is an impotent man of the third gender (kliba). Indeed, a marriage may be revoked and the dowry returned if either the husband or the wife proves to be sexually “defective” in any way. For giving away an impotent maiden in marriage, the Artha Shastra prescribes a fine of ninety-six panas; if a groom marries without mentioning his impotence, the fine is double that (3.15.12-15).
References From the Kama Shastra: In a section of the Kama Sutra discussing how a man should relax his newly married wife, it is stated:
According to the sons of Babhru, if during the first three nights the girl sees the boy lying like a corpse, without talking to her, she may imagine that he is a homosexual of the third nature. (3.2.3)
Yashodhara comments on this verse in the Jayamangala as follows: “Seeing him silent and motionless, making no attempt, like a village idiot, the girl says to herself, ‘How stupid I am. He is either homosexual or impotent.’ She considers his lack of initiative an insult.” The purport to this verse is that although intercourse is forbidden during the first three nights of marriage, amorous games of other sorts are required or the girl will worry that her new husband is homosexual. Vatsyayana reiterates at the end of the chapter that women disdain men with a lack of initiative and become wounded or hostile when they do not receive any signs of love (3.2.35). This brings to mind the story of Bahucara-devi, who cursed her husband for marrying her without any feelings of manly passion or attraction. Apparently, even in Vedic times, third-gender men would sometimes marry women for deceptive or ill-advised purposes and this was known even among young girls. In a later section of the Kama Sutra it is stated that women with impotent or third-gender husbands (kliba) look elsewhere for love and are therefore listed among the twenty types of wives suitable for adulterous relationships (5.1.54).
Courtesans and the Third Sex
Courtesans or ganikas have traditionally maintained close ties with the third sex, not only as temple prostitutes but also within general society. When Krsna arrived in Dvaraka, the Bhagavata Purana (1.11.19-20) mentions that He was greeted by city prostitutes along with “expert dramatists, artists, dancers and singers”—persons typically associated with the third sex. The Kama Sutra (6.1.22-26) similarly explains that a courtesan’s usual companions consist of male prostitutes, hairdressers, entertainers, perfumers, garland-makers, and so on—professionals also commonly associated with the third sex. Such men assist the courtesan in selecting worthy suitors and the Kama Sutra states: “If possible, the courtesan should first arrange for her suitor to make love with a male prostitute” (6.1.24). This curious bisexual arrangement is employed by the courtesan for the purpose of testing her suitor’s sexual prowess before accepting him as a lover herself.
In Vedic culture, courtesans and third-gender men are traditionally associated with public entertainment and knowledge of the fine arts. They are furthermore viewed as auspicious signs of social prosperity and cultural refinement. Regarding courtesans, the Kama Sutra states:
Prostitutes who are beautiful, intelligent, and well educated have an honored place in society and are known as courtesans [ganika]. Kings respect them and respectable people sing their praises; honored for their art, they live in the sight of all. (1.3.17-18)
In his commentary on Kama Sutra 1.3.11, Devadatta Shastri describes the Vedic custom of accommodating courtesans in society as follows: “In Indian society, courtesans have always been respected, not only for their beauty, their way of life, and their attraction, but also for their knowledge, their usefulness, and their social role…In ancient times, princes and princesses were sent to courtesans to learn the arts and good manners. Not only were the courtesans respected, but their presence brought good luck. They were known as the ‘faces of fortune’ (mangalamukhi).”
Part Six of the Kama Sutra covers the topic of courtesans in great detail. In the sixth chapter of that section a list of nine types of prostitutes, from the lowest in rank to the highest, appears as follows: 1) water carriers; 2) servants; 3) corrupt women; 4) lesbians; 5) dancers; 6) the wives of merchants; 7) divorcees and widows; 8) women living by their charms, and 9) high-class courtesans (6.6.50). Prosperous courtesans were valued members of Vedic society and contributed greatly to the worship of temple gods and other public causes. The Kama Sutra affirms this as follows:
Having temples and reservoirs built, setting up altars on raised platforms to Agni, the fire god, giving brahmanas herds of cows and covered vessels, arranging pujas and offerings to the gods, bearing the expenses involved with the money they earn, this is the concern of high-ranking courtesans who reap large profits. (6.5.28)
An entire chapter of the Artha Shastra (2.27) is devoted to the topic of courtesans and how a king should regulate their trade. Prices are set according to the woman’s beauty and various laws protect or punish courtesans in regard to business-related transgressions. The superintendent of courtesans or ganika-dhyaksa is enjoined to oversee all prostitution within the state and provide maintenance to the male instructors (veshyacaryas) who train young courtesans in the art of dancing, singing, lovemaking, music, and so on. Such instructors also train the courtesans’ sons, known as ganikaputra, to become chiefs among the actors, dancers and male prostitutes (2.27.28-29).
Sikhandi and the Question of Gender Identification
The story of Sikhandi in the Mahabharata raises several interesting questions in regard to gender identification. When Maharaja Drupada propitiated Siva for a son, the god told him: “You will have a child that is both female and male. Desist, O King, it will not be otherwise.” Sikhandi was accordingly born a girl, raised as a boy and finally transformed into a man by the boon of a yaksa or nature spirit. In his previous birth, Sikhandi was a girl named Amba who vowed to kill the hero, Bhisma, after he had ruined her life. During the battle of Kuruksetra, Bhisma refused to fight against Sikhandi because he recognized him only as Amba or female—a refusal that ultimately lead to his defeat and the fulfillment of Amba’s vow.
The question raised by the above story is this: How do we ultimately recognize a person’s gender? Is it merely by physical anatomy alone or should a person’s subtle body and psyche—the neurological brain, mind, inner identity, and so on—also be taken into account? And what about liberated personalities? Are the six Goswamis of Vrndavana, for instance, truly male or are they more accurately viewed as female manjaris in the guise of men? Similarly, is Lord Vishnu as Mohini truly female or is She simply a male Deity in disguise? The answer to all of these questions is multi-faceted and according to perspective.
Another interesting aspect of Sikhandi’s story is the gender testing he undergoes after transforming into a man. Sikhandi was married to a woman while female and his wife discovered the secret shortly after their wedding. Enraged, the bride’s father, Maharaja Hiranyavarna, demanded that Sikhandi be tested to prove his maleness. Sikhandi agreed but only after receiving his male form from the yaksa. Hiranyavarna consequently sent a number of beautiful young courtesans to test his new son-in-law and they all reported back to him, confirming that Sikhandi was indeed “a powerful person of the male sex.” This brings to mind the pastime of Arjuna as Brihannala, who was similarly tested by beautiful courtesans to confirm his identity as a member of the third sex. In both cases the gender testing involved not only a physical examination of the men’s anatomy but, even more so, an analysis of their response to beautiful young women.
Third-Gender Births As Purifying
A few verses from the Vedic canon refer to men taking birth among the third sex as a means of purification. In such cases, first-gender males who abuse women, or brahmanas who engage in prohibited sex acts, are reborn among the third sex after suffering punishment in hell. One example has already been cited from the Mahabharata (13.145.52) and a similar verse appears in the Narada Purana (15.93-95). The latter text states that twice-born males who deposit their semen in base wombs or places other than the vagina fall into hell and are forced to subsist on semen for seven divine years, after which they are reborn as “non-males” or neuters.
When these verses are taken in context we find that the subjects are addressed as first-gender males (pums or purusha) and not as men of the third sex (napumsa, kliba, etc.). Indeed, such men are reborn as the third sex in their next lifetime. Furthermore, the verses appear in sections devoted to brahminical standards of conduct. For example, injunctions admonishing intercourse in a base or sudra womb clearly do not apply to sudra men. Similarly, ayoni or non-vaginal sex is a general prohibition for twice-born men and not those of the lower classes. The Bhagavata Purana illustrates this point in a comparable verse:
When, deluded by lust, a twice-born man commits the sin of causing his wife of the same varna to drink his semen, in his next life he is thrown into a river of semen, which he is forced to drink.
(Bhagavata Purana 5.26.26)
Again, only twice-born men are condemned in this verse and the wife must furthermore also belong to the same varna or class. Men who are not twice born, or instances involving lower-class wives, are clearly excluded. Verses admonishing twice-born householders who engage in oral sex appear throughout the Dharma Shastra; for example, in a chapter describing proper behavior for snatakas, the Vasistha Dharmasutra states:
If a [snataka] performs the sex act in the mouth of the woman he has married, during that month his ancestors will feed on his semen. Sexual intercourse performed without transgressing (the vagina) is in conformity with the Law.
(Vasistha Dharmasutra 12.23)
Clearly, these verses and others like them are intended for married, twice-born males following higher standards of religious life. That they should automatically be extended to uninitiated men of the lower classes or unmarried homosexuals belonging to the third sex is highly doubtful.
In addition to the above considerations it is important to differentiate between viyoni and ayoni sex. Viyoni sex generally refers to forbidden types of vaginal intercourse whereas ayoni involves non-vaginal methods. The latter term includes male homosexuality but not the former, and while the Narada Purana employs both terms the Mahabharata uses only viyoni. Thus it is crucial to analyze the exact wording and context of every verse, particularly those deemed controversial or contentious.
Another interesting point to consider is this: Exactly what type of third-gender person is the offender reborn as? Since words such as napumsa and kliba are umbrella terms for many different types of impotent men, it is not clear if the next birth includes all of these types or only specific ones. In the case of Mahabharata 13.145.52, the context involves severe physical handicaps such as blindness, chronic illness, etc. and therefore most likely refers to people born with absent or deformed genitalia. This argument is strengthened if we consider how sex crimes such as adultery and rape are punished with castration in the Dharma Shastra. Similarly, in the story of goddess Bahucara, men who rape women or deceive them in marriage are cursed to become castrated crossdressers.
Some scholars opine that the third-gender birth mentioned in these verses must necessarily be homosexual—a stance typically adopted by anti-gay scholars and one of the few instances in which they agree to translate third-gender terms in this way. Yet another viewpoint holds that the offender takes birth as a homosexual, transgender or intersex person according to the severity of their sin, with a homosexual birth being somewhat purifying, a transgender birth more purifying and an intersex birth the most purifying of all. In any case, third-gender births are clearly portrayed as purifying in Vedic literature, especially in regard to men who violate women or twice-born males who deviate from the higher standards expected of them.
It is important to note that people take birth for a multitude of different reasons and therefore not all third-gender births are necessarily the result of bad karma or previous sins. The laws of reincarnation are extremely complex and kama or desire also plays a crucial role. We can hypothesize that intersex conditions and complete transgender identity are the result of bad karma since people do not desire to be born with deficient or inappropriate sex anatomy. In homosexuality and mild transgender behavior, however, a person’s sex anatomy and orientation are desired and thus more likely a result of kama. It is also possible that people who ridicule or mistreat members of the third sex will be required to take such a birth themselves in order to experience the same. Whatever the specific cause or origin, all births take place by the will of God either for the purpose of purifying sin or fulfilling desire.
Unscrupulous persons sometimes take advantage of these so-called bad karma verses in order to castigate people who are blind, crippled, impotent, etc. and to dismiss them as sinful, lowborn or guilty of previous transgressions. This is never the position of true spiritualists, however, who see only themselves as sinful and feel the suffering of others as if it were their own. Such saintly personalities deal with people based on their present qualifications, not on presumed sins from previous lifetimes. They see God’s mercy everywhere and know fully well that material disadvantages are often spiritual blessings in disguise.
(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 95-103)