Listen as Paul and Evan take you on a magical journey of Hindu queerness, in honor of our Hindu listeners. Which was pretty easy to do as Hinduism is quite full of gender variance and same sex love. From transgender war heroes to gay gods this episode is sure to intrigue. So hit play and learn how queerness and spirituality have always mixed.
As we continue to celebrate listeners around the world, today we pay special tribute to those in or from Southeast Asia. Specifically our Hindu listeners. Now, we realize that not every person from southern Asia is Hindu. But a vast majority do follow the religion, after all it is the third largest religion practiced around the world.. Especially in India and Nepal were 80% of the population adheres to some form of Hinduism. And of course we know we have Hindu listeners in other parts of the planet as well. We want to preface this episode and our uploaded script with a disclaimer. We are not religious experts nor do we have an extensive or deep knowledge of Hinduism. This episode is meant as a surface discussion on the Hindu religion and its queer ties, as reported by other journalists and experts. Also, please keep in mind that we are a comedy podcast and do not mean any disrespect through our lighter tone. So without further delay, let’s get queer.
There are many homo-erotic and gender fluid themes in Hinduism. But we must remember that as westerners are looking at these themes through our distorted, binary lens. In Hindu culture, the concept of three genders or fluidity between genders has been taught through stories of the gods and heroes for many millenniums. The break in strict gender roles defies European and American teachings the same way Eastern polytheism challenges Western monotheism. So while we are experiencing a modern enlightenment in the way we perceive gender and sexuality, in truth, these ideas are nothing new.
The Vedas is the oldest religious text in recorded history. Dating 6,000 years before the christian timeline, and 5,000 years before the birth of Islam. It is full of many sensual and sexual acts; however, they are rarely performed for pleasure. More often the acts are done as as a symbol or metaphor to a deeper lesson. One of the main ways we see queer themes presented in Hinduism is through the metamorphisis or incarnation of gods. The story of Shiva merging with the goddess Parvarti is one of the most well known in Hindu folklore. In the original telling, Parvarti wanted to share the experiences of her Lord Shiva. So she asked the god to literally join them together. In this bond they became known as Ardhanarishvara, which means “The Lord whose half is a woman”. Hindu scholar Sadhguru explained:
“What is being said is that if the inner masculine and feminine meet, you are in a perpetual state of ecstasy”
We see the blending of male and female gods repeatedly throughout Hindu teachings. As well as the morphing of male gods into female avatars. And often this would result in sexual encounters that didn’t fit a heteronormative box. For instance, when the god Vishnu transformed into the female seductress Mohini, things got a bit dicey. The enchantress is first introduced in the epic Mahabharata, where Vishnu transforms into her so that he might trick the demons into giving up the elixir of life. After accomplishing her task, Mohini is seen by the Lord Shiva who becomes “bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense.” He is so enthralled with the enchantress, that he spills in semen on the rocks turning them into gold and silver.
Shiva pursues Mohini, even after learning that she is the male god Vishnu in disguise. In one adaptation of the story, Shiva pleads with Vishnu to transform back into Mohini. The writer of this tale states that Vishnu is afraid that he will be turned to ashes by Shiva if he complies. Yet in another similar story, Vishnu happily transforms for Shiva. Prompting the god to ejaculate once again. This time creating the god Ayyappa sometimes known as Shashta, who became a great hero in Hindu legend. One author wrote that the mere sight of Mohini would cause Shiva’s seed to spurt. And another tale told of the two gods getting married, despite Vishnu pointing out that same-sex marrige was unfruitful. There are many, many stories of Vishnu and Shiva told in different Hindu cultures around the world. Each one is a little different. In some tellings the relationship is shameful, in others the love is beautiful, and in still others the romance is merely a footnote of little consequence. But the concept of two male gods falling in love remains the same regardless of the outcome.
Of course, homoerotic romance is not the only part of Hinduism that deals with queer issues. Themes of transgender and intersex people are incredibly strong in the religion’s teachings. Shikhandi (sometimes called Shikhandini) was a hero “born a male in a female body”. As with every other story in Hindu folklore, there are many legends surrounding Shikhandi. But our favorite is this one. Drupada, king of Southern Panchala, yearns for an heir but remains childless. He wanders into the forest hoping to find peace among nature and there stumbles upon a litte girl. He picks her up and a voice from the Heavens tells the king to take the child for his own. But, he must raise her as a man. Drupada follows the instructions and trains Shikhandi to become a great warrior.
In time, Shikhandi is married off to the princess of Dasharna who realized on their wedding night that her husband doesn’t have a penis. The princess complains to her father that her groom is a woman. Which prompts the king of Dasharna to send a band of men to discover the truth of this accusation. Panicked and ashamed, Shikhandi flees to the forest to escape his hunters.
There he met a Yaksha name Sthuna. These were magical creatures similar to the western legends of fairies. Tales of Yaksha’s show them being kind and benevolent, while other stories show Yaksha’s as mischievous and haunting. Fortunately, Shikhandi met a benevolent Yaksha who traded his male body for Shikhandi’s female body. The warrior returned to his bride and was thoroughly investigated. The princess’s father even sent a tribe of women to determine his “manliness”.
The trade of gender was meant to be temporary. Yet when the god of the fairies, Kubera, found out that Sthuna had traded his gender to Shikhandi, the god became enraged. He threatened to curse the fairy as a female for all eternity. However, after being calmed down by other Yaksha’s, the god instead cursed Sthuna as female until Shikhandi’s death. It is interesting and important to note the sexism in this story. Even in Hindu folklore, filled with goddesses and female warriors and transgender heroes and gods, sexism still runs deep in many of the pages. Shikhandi has a son with his wife and goes on to defeat the most powerful warrior in Hindu legend, Bhishma. Just a few days after this triumph, Shikhandi dies in the battle of Mahabharatha.
Another story of queer themes, if not odd, is that of the goddess Bahuchara Mata. We can’t decide if this story is homophobic, or femenists power, or third sex enlightenment, or maybe all three. We should note there are many devoted, transgender and intersex followers of the goddess. We will let our listeners decide for themselves what they think of Bahuchara. Her story begins when she was a mere mortal and was attacked by a highway robber named Bapiya. The marauder attempted to rape Bahuchara and her sister. But instead the two women cut off their breasts and bled to death. As payment for his crime, Bapiya was cursed by the gods as impotent. And Bahuchara was transformed into a goddess. However, there is also a variance of the story where Bahuchara follows her husband into the woods and finds him engaging in homosexual acts and dressing as a woman. She confronts her husband and demands to know why he married her if he didn’t want her. He explains that he was forced into the marriage by his parents and pleads for her understanding. Some legends have it that Bahuchara agreed to forgive her husband only after cursing him with impotence, and requiring that he and “his kind” dress as women and worship her as a goddess.
Once Immortal, Bahuchara begins to visit men who are impotent and creates them as a third sex. Removing their genitals and cursing them as Kliba – which means one of the third sex. However, this “curse” often worked to the advantage of the Kliba. For instance, when Arjuna was returning home after 12 years of exile, their new Kliba curse disguised them so that they could re-enter their kingdom without detection. But she was not only overseer of third sex and gender queer people. She definitely aided transgender warriors such as Shikanhdi (mentioned previously) and Tejpal. According to mythology, Tejpal was also raised as a boy like Shikanhdi. He also fled for his life after being outed as having female genitalia. In the forest, he found a magical pool which could transform any being into a different kind of being. When Tejpal entered the pool, his body changed to male form and he even sprouted a mustache. After his physical transformation, Tejpal built a temple to honor the goddess Bahuchara.
Another aspect of Hindu queerness are the many same-sex parents and single sex parents. The god Varuna conceived when his semen fell on a mound of termites. Varuna also had a male lover in the god Mitra. The two conceived two children together through surrogates. Their intimacy is marked through many forms of Hindu art. Most notably through the forms of the lunar phases that symbolize same-sex love. The Shatapatha Brahmana reads about the two lovers:
Mitra and Varuna are the two half-moons: the waxing one is Varuna and the waning one is Mitra. During the new-moon night these two meet and when they are thus together, everyone is pleased.
On that same night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed.
There is also the story of two widowed queens who were commanded by Shiva to “make love together and by my blessings you will bear a beautiful son”. The two queens obey without question and bear the warrior Bhagiratha – meaning born of two vulvas. He would go on to become the greatest king of India.
Throughout Hindu teachings, homosexuality and gender fluidity are never explicitly condoned or condemned. But yet they are depicted again and again through stories and images. In the temples of Khajuraho the walls are covered with pictures of sexual orgies. Many of them men on men and women on women. This would indicate that these encounters took place in the temple. And the sexual experiences were meant as spiritual rites of passage. Another queer point is that some of the gods worshipped, such as ILa and Budha Graha, were neither male nor female but a third sex. Again there is not specific teaching that indicates one can be third sex or intersex or transgender. But depictions imply these are not points to be argued, instead fluid gender and sexuality are simply facts of life.
We will end this episode with the god we’ve deemed the gayest. And again, remember we say this lightly in a humorous way and not meant as any disrespect. But we must mention the semen loving Agni. Agni is the god of fire and was quite literally created from fire. In one poem in the Vedas, Agni’s parents are two sticks whose friction creates fire – Angi. It is interesting to note that two sticks rubbing together was also a symbol of lesbian love. As for Agni, perhaps he is the one example of gay parents raising a gay son. Because though he did marry the goddess Svaha, it was known that he loved receiving the semen of other gods. He had a relationship with the god Soma and one story in particular notes how Agni received Soma’s semen into his mouth.
In another story, Shiva ejaculates and Agni eagerly catches the semen in his hands and swallows it. He is condemned for this wicket action but that does not slow him down. Folklore also tells of how Agni comes upon a mountain made of Shiva’s semen and is so aroused that he too ejaculates on the mountain. This is one of the many stories that precede the birth of Agni’s son Karttikeya. There are numerous adaptations of this story, but most end in Agni ejaculating and bearing a son alone. Or through a surrogate metaphor with Karttikeya being the product of two male gods. In one version, Shiva forces Angi to ingest his semen and then when Agni ejaculates into the Ganges River, the child is born. The son of two gods, known as the god of beauty and war.
And on that note we will end our episode of Hindu queerness. If you would like to check out a more comprehensive study on this topic then we suggest the book Tritiya-Prakriti; People of the Third Sex by Amar Das Wilhem. We want to point out that this book is 15 years old and some of the language surrounding queer identities is dated (Yes, even in 15 years we’ve come a long way). However the content is still solid and is from a queer Hindu with quite a bit of knowledge. The link to buy the book or download the Ebook (for only $3.99) is available on our published script at yourqueerstory.com. We would also encourage our queer Hindu listeners to check out the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association online. That link will also be published as the last reference in our script.
HRC – https://www.hrc.org/resources/stances-of-faiths-on-lgbt-issues-hinduism
WIKI – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_themes_in_Hindu_mythology
QUORA – https://www.quora.com/Are-there-any-LGBT-themes-in-Hinduism
Medium – https://medium.com/bhubaneswar-city/shikhandi-and-other-tales-they-dont-tell-you-by-devdutt-pattanaik-65b7c29e07c8
Bahuchara – https://www.bonobology.com/five-fascinating-stories-about-bahuchara-the-deity-of-transgenders-and-masculinity/
Tritiya-Prakriti; People of the Third Sex – https://www.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdetail.aspx?bookid=SKU-0022212002
GALVA – https://www.galva108.org/