Vedic Society And the Third Gender
Posted August 15, 2008
The Vedic literature is supreme, and unsurprisingly it it offers a very deep understanding of gender categories and sexual orientation. A verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam states that there are three states of gender identity: female, male and "none of both" (nobhayam), which Srila Prabhupada translated as "neutral eunuch."
maya hy esa maya srista
yat pumamsam striyam satim
manyase nobhayam yad vai
hamsau pasyavayor gatim
"Sometimes you think yourself a man, sometimes a chaste woman and sometimes a neutral eunuch. This is all because of the body, which is created by the illusory energy. This illusory energy is My potency, and actually both of us — you and I — are pure spiritual identities. Now just try to understand this. I am trying to explain our factual position." (Bhag. 4.28.61). In other places Srila Prabhupada refers to the latter group as the "in-between" gender (e.g. Srimad Bhagavatam 10.1, notes).
Various Vedic scriptures including Puranas, medical and astrological texts, etc., lay out the Vedic gender approach, clearly accepting a third-gender category. Specific definitions can be found in the Caraka Samhita (4.2, a Vedic medical text); Sushruta Samhita (3.2, a Vedic medical text); Narada-smriti (12.8-18, Dharma Shastra); Kamatantra (Kama Shastra); and Smriti-Ratnavali (a medieval Dharma Shastra summary), as well as in various Sanskrit dictionaries and lexicons such as the Amarakosa and Sabda-Kalpa-Druma. Therein references are made to "eunuchs" as "tritiya prakriti", a category which actually comprises all those persons that are physically and/or mentally not exclusively defined as male or female. This means that bisexual, homosexual, intersexual, transsexual and asexual persons are part of this third gender.
Many of the Dharma Shastra texts like Manusmriti, Narada-smriti, Yajnavalkya-smriti and the four major Dharmasutras state that the third gender should be at least minimally maintained by their family members since they do not (generally) have children (Manusmriti 9.202). The Artha Shastra also confirms this (3.5.30-32). The Vasistha Dharmasutra further mentions that the king should maintain third-gender citizens with no family members (19.35-36). The Artha Shastra also prohibits the villification of third-gender men or women (3.18.4-5). Besides these references, there is the example (in the Mahabharata) of Maharaja Virata protecting Brihannala as a guest in his city. Therefore it can be argued that Vedic scriptures accept the third sex as a constant part of human society, requiring and deserving protection instead of exclusion and discrimination.
Vedic society offered special protection to this group and established specific city districts for third-gendered people, amongst other protections. Suitable jobs were also specifically reserved for them in conjunction with a set of rules which are found to be less restrictive. According to Vedic astrology, an individual's charts would point to third-gendered persons having spiritual talents, and therefore, third-gendered children were often trained to live as lifelong celibates and to assume the role of priests later on. In India today, because of their spiritual talents, the boons of third-gendered persons are welcomed and their curses are feared. Because of their generally not being engaged in family life and, therefore, being less entangled in material activities, they are considered semi-saintly, which makes their blessings and curses especially respected.
In Vedic scriptures and within Vedic society in general a very advanced understanding of gender is found. Only in recent years, for example, has the modern scientific world discovered the intricacies of intersexuality, whereas the Vedas have categorised and analysed this gender category thoroughly a long time ago. This is just another proof for the timeless wisdom of India´s Sanskrit literature.
Unfortunately the pure teachings of the Vedas have been watered down over the ages, mostly by external influences, to such an extent that not only traditional Hindus but even Vaishnavas from Western backgrounds will propound homophobic views not actually found in Vedic philosophy.
A spiritualist needs to understand that attachment and aversion are two sides of the same coin of material identification and are both to be transcended in order to accept Krishna, his creation and his scriptures as they are. We are not in the position to judge the legitimacy of Krishna's creation. Our duty is to make Krishna available to all living entities ready to accept Krishna´s holy name. Lord Caitanya opened the treasure house of unlimited love of Godhead for everyone. We should be careful not to consider ourselves as the only beneficiaries of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's causeless mercy, thus blocking his stream of love of Godhead that reaches out to everyone. We should give the gift that we have received wholeheartedly to everyone who would accept it. Homophobic views deny the Vedic understanding of gender complexity and should consequently be rejected as representative of non-Vedic influence.
The essential point of the Bhagavatam verse (4.28.61), however, is to understand that whatever body we have is a manifestation of the external, material, illusory energy. The true identity of the soul is to be an eternal part and parcel of Krishna. The spirit soul is part of Krishna's higher, spiritual energy and is therefore eternal, full of knowledge and full of bliss (sat-cid-ananda). Neither bodily designations nor material desires exist on that platform. To lift our consciousness from the material plane up to this original higher state of Krishna consciousness is the only reason for, and the goal of, human existence.
In order for us to easily engage in His service Krishna designed the Vedic varnashrama system which gives everyone a specific place and function in a spiritually oriented society. One should understand and accept that there are four varnas, four ashramas and three genders, and be engaged in that system according to one's respective nature.
Same-sex partnership rituals have been performed in the third-sex community until today, even in Vaishnava lineages like the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya. The Vedas offer a variety of marriage and partnership ceremonies. Today the formal recognition of same-sex partnership is sometimes celebrated as a Gandharva marriage or friendship ceremony. For non-heterosexual devotees who want to live in the grihasta ashrama such a formalized and blessed partnership may be a legitimate way to practice bhakti-yoga while living in a relationship with another person. If this is the practice in traditional Vaishnava lineages in India, then it should be perfectly acceptable for any modern Krishna movement in the West.
We are witnessing increasing global inclusion of third-gendered individuals in all areas of social life. As Vaishnavas we should welcome this development as a sign of the world's rapprochement with the Vedic culture.