Indian Hermaphrodites: How two religions have altered their course in history
One religion honors them while the other banishes them
Religion, especially in the United States, has been an oppressive force on cultural subsets. We now know that the Mormon Church, for instance spent millions of dollars in California during the Proposition 8 campaigning to keep gay and lesbian men and women from the right to marry. Their religion demanded they do this. In their eyes, supporting a gay person’s right to marry someone they love was tantamount to condoning their “sinful” ways. This happens a lot. Why? Well, religion holds a strong bond with its believers. They can’t separate religious beliefs from rational beliefs. It can cause division in families and communities. But, are there situations where it’s supportive of a group that is otherwise relegated to being outcasts? In India, the predominant religion of Hinduism has been a blessing for Hermaphrodites, instead of an obstacle to being accepted. A once adored, then outcast, sub-culture is finally making its way back into acceptance and giving the world a good human rights lesson at the same time.
Hermaphroditism is the result of several different biological factors and has no one single cause. An intersexed birth occurs once in every 150,000 to 250,000 births. India has the second largest population on earth and is predicted to surpass China in the next 10 years. So, it’s no wonder that they have such a large hermaphrodite sub-culture. Statistically, China should too, but they “correct” this at birth and don’t live openly in culture if they live an intersexed life. This isn’t the case in India.
Historically, hermaphrodites weren’t cast out in India; they were revered. According to Ayesha Hoda, from South Asia Online:
“The Indian subcontinent saw hermaphrodites in the role of advisors in households of the nobility. Many of them guarded sacred or important places, and acted as a medium of communication between men and women. They were given a place in the rulers’ courts during the reign of the Mughals and often had high positions during this era. This is reflected from not only historical sources and references but also when we see them as characters in literary works of or about that period.
They have been acknowledged in ancient Hindu scriptures. They were linked to Sufi saints and shrines and due to Judea-Christian-Islamic influences, were thought to have special powers of blessing as well as cursing others; they were then treated with reverence, especially in Muslim-dominated areas. Some of them, a minority though, were engaged in prostitution and/or providing entertainment at social events.
Ironically, it was the ‘modern’ British system and western way of thinking that was mainly responsible for ostracizing them. Their new status of social outcasts deprived them of their rights to live as normal citizens and earn their living in an honourable manner.
Today, the only career paths open to them are begging, singing and dancing at social events such as weddings, birth ceremonies, etc. and becoming sex workers. Even educated hermaphrodites, from well-bred families in South India, claim to have been thrown out by their families and find it difficult to find employment in careers of their choice.”
It’s ironic that a religion of love (Christianity) caused these accepted people to be forced to beg for a living when it overtook India during the British occupation. How is it then that one religion can be so accepting and another so discriminatory? One word: tradition. Each culture has its own distinct story of where hermaphrodites come from. The Christian / British viewpoint is obviously derived from the ancient Greek stories (and also where we get the name “hermaphrodite”). Yael Haft Pomrock, a Chriologist and Psychotherapist from Israel, writes:
“The Hermaphrodite, according to the myth written in the Larousse Encyclophedia (New Larousse Encyclopedia. Hamlyn. London 1959 p. 132 ), is the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. The nymph Salamacis fell in love with him but he rejected her love. She, in desperation, cursed him with these words: “Cruel youth, you are fighting in vain. He Gods, make that nothing will separate him from me and that nothing will separate me from him.” (New Larousse Encyclopedia. Hamlyn. London 1959 p. 132 ). Thus he became one with her. According to this story, the Hermaphrodite, in fact, is a victim of the curse and the yearning of Salamacis. He is a victim of a possessive and an envious love.
This story makes me think about sexual identity and the psychological problem with regard to some of the homosexuals, but not only with them, as a problem of the possessive, envious relationship of the mother or the father with the son or daughter, and the latter’s continuous trying, which always fails, to extricate themselves from this problematic connection, together with the yearning to become one with her or him.
On the other hand, the Hermaphrodite in India represents the Primal Force. The Lingam, being the masculine principle, the phallus, in an eternal unity within the feminine principle, the yoni.”
If one culture sees being intersexed as a disorder, a punishment, or a curse, then they will demonize those that are born that way. Yet, Hindu tend to see it as a perfect marriage of both sexes. They view it as an emblematic blessing. It isn’t a disorder. These people are more perfect than the average single sex person.
Luckily, things are getting better in India for hermaphrodites. Rituparna Bhowmik wrote, in 2008, that, “Some propose creating a special category to help hermaphrodites fit in as they are, as in southern Tamil Nadu state, which recently granted transsexuals and transgendered people a “third gender” status with certain privileges.” Changes began occurring in 2005 nationwide. New passports have been issued in India with “E” (for eunich) as an option and is recognized by the government as a third gender. Hermaphrodites are now serving in local political office, holding regular jobs, and can be seen daily on public transport. They aren’t seen as disgusting anymore. While there is still some growth to be had in universal acceptance of them, India is starting to get back to its Hindu-based understanding of them. Whether their religion encourages them to treat hermaphrodites as people, or it’s a result of modern scientific understanding, the outcome is what’s most important.
It’s taken time in this country for us to view interracial couple the same way we view everyone else. Gay couples don’t get the same amount of stares they used to either. Cultural acceptance of everyone is a good goal for any country. Hermaphrodites in India have had a long and rugged history. They went from being revered to despised, and now back to being accepted. They may never be treated as supernaturally powerful human beings again. But, I’m sure just treating them like human beings is enough for them. They desire equal rights, a safe place to call home, the ability to earn a living, and a chance at happiness. That’s all any of us can hope for regardless of the country we are born in or the genitals we have between our legs.