Hindu Deities and the Third Sex

By Amara Das Wilhelm

Throughout Hindu and Vedic texts there are many descriptions of saints, demigods, and even the Supreme Lord transcending gender norms and manifesting multiple combinations of sex and gender.  These include male, female, hermaphrodite, and all other possibilities.  In Hinduism, God is recognized as unlimited and untethered by any gender restrictions.  For the purpose of enjoying transcendental pastimes (lila), the Supreme Lord manifests innumerable types of forms—just like an actor on a stage.

As parts and parcels of the Supreme Lord, the various living entities can also be seen to manifest within the full spectrum of sex and gender possibilities.  From the impersonal perspective, the soul is not male, female, or hermaphrodite, but from the personal perspective the soul assumes such forms according to desire.  In the mundane sphere, the soul manifests various gender roles in the pursuit of material enjoyment, but in the spiritual world these roles are adopted for the transcendental purpose of reciprocating with the Supreme Lord and rendering loving service.

The following list of Hindu deities provides interesting examples of saints, demigods, and incarnations of the Lord associated with gender transformation and diversity.  These include:

  • Deities that are hermaphrodite (half man, half woman)
  • Deities that manifest in all three genders
  • Male deities who become female, or female deities who become male
  • Male deities with female moods, or female deities with male moods
  • Deities born from two males, or from two females
  • Deities born from a single male, or from a single female
  • Deities who avoid the opposite sex, and
  • Deities with principal companions of the same gender

All of these different examples demonstrate the remarkable amount of gender-variance found within Hinduism.  In India, people of the third sex—homosexuals, transgenders, bisexuals, hermaphrodites, transsexuals, etc.—identify with these deities and worship them with great reverence and devotion.  Along with other Hindus, they arrive en masse to celebrate the large holidays and festivals connected with them.  In traditional Hinduism, such people were associated with these divine personalities due to their combined male and female natures.  They were included in the various religious ceremonies and viewed as auspicious symbols of peace, good fortune and culture.




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Sri Ardhanarisvara
Siva’s Hermaphrodite Form

Sri Ardhanarisvara is perhaps the most popular and widely known hermaphrodite deity in Hinduism.  One half of the deity is Siva (usually the right side, but not always), and the other half is his wife, goddess Parvati or Durga.  Ardhanarisvara is literally split down the middle with one female breast, one male breast, etc.  The male side is represented in masculine features while the female side is voluptuous and slender with one large hip.  The clothing and ornaments on each side of the deity are also usually represented in male and female attire.  The oldest-known statue of Ardhanarisvara is located in Mathura and dated to the first century A.D.

In the Brahmanda Purana (5.30) it is stated that Lord Siva assumed his hermaphrodite form of Sri Ardhanarisvara after duly worshiping his shakti through meditation and yoga.  The Kurma Purana (1.11.3) relates how Siva’s original form of Rudra was also hermaphrodite.  When Siva was generated from Lord Brahma’s anger at the beginning of creation, he appeared in a very fierce half-male, half-female form known as Rudra.  Brahma requested Rudra to divide himself in two and thus he became Siva and Parvati.  In Jayadeva Goswami’s twelfth-century text, the Sri Gita-Govinda (3.11), Lord Krsna praises Siva’s form of Ardhanarisvara while experiencing separation from His beloved Radha, as follows: “Just see!  Lord Siva lives happily with half of his body united with Parvati, whereas I am far from united with Radhika—I don’t even know where She is.”

Remarkably, the fantastic hermaphroditic form of Sri Ardhanarisvara is not unheard of in nature.  There is a rare type of mosaic intersexuality known as gynandromorphism in which a creature is biologically divided in half with one side (usually the right) male and the other female, often with a sharp line of demarcation between them.  While extremely rare in humans, gynandromorphism has been observed in a number of different animals including butterflies, spiders, small mammals, and especially birds—more than 40 cases of gynandromorphism have been reported in avian species like finches, falcons, and pheasants.  The gynandromorphic animal is literally divided in half by sex, with one testis and one ovary, and in the case of birds with male plumage on one side and female plumage on the other.  Some aboriginal societies highly value such intersexed creatures—they are kept separately and cared for meticulously in the belief that they bring good luck to the village.

Sri Ardhanarisvara embodies the fusion of the male and female principles and is said to represent all contradictions in nature such as masculine and feminine; light and darkness; impotence and fertility; harshness and compassion, etc.  The deity is often worshiped for blessings in fertility, marriage, progeny, and longevity.  People of the third sex, associated with this deity due to their combined male and female natures, are believed to possess similar powers.  Temples of Sri Ardhanarisvara exist throughout India and large festivals are held on the Siva-ratri day in the month of Phalguna (February-March).


Sri Arjuna
In Three Genders

In Vedic narratives Sri Arjuna manifests all three genders—male, female, and hermaphrodite.  He is most popularly known in his male form as the heroic warrior of the Mahabharata, the disciple of Sri Krsna in Bhagavad Gita and the husband of Draupadi.  He is very, very dear to Lord Krsna.  It is said that when Krsna first met Arjuna tears came to His eyes and He embraced Arjuna wholeheartedly—this was because Arjuna reminded Krsna of His intimate cowherd friend in Vraja of the same name.  Krsna and Arjuna became instant companions and spent many years together in deep friendship.  In the Mahabharata (Sauptika Parva, XII), Krsna states, “I have no dearer friend on earth than Arjuna, and there is nothing that I cannot give to him including my wives and children.”  In the Drona Parva of the same text, Krsna reiterates, “O Daruka, I shall not be able to cast my eyes, even for a single moment, on the earth bereft of Arjuna…Know that Arjuna is half of my body.”  Once, when Krsna had to leave Hastinapura for Dvaraka, He quickly hurried to the apartments of Arjuna and spent the entire night with him in happy slumber, even at the risk of upsetting His temperamental wife, Satyabhama.  As inseparable friends, Arjuna and Krsna are said to be nondifferent from the two Vedic sages of the Himalayas, Nara and Narayana.

In a lesser-known narrative from the Padma Purana (5.74.60-198), Arjuna is transformed into a female—the beautiful cowherd maiden Arjuni.  After continuously expressing his desire to know all about Krsna’s divine sporting affairs, Krsna finally relents.  He instructs Arjuna to bathe in a sacred lake, wherefrom he arises as a beautiful, youthful maiden.  Worshiping Sri Radha, the maiden Arjuni is granted permission to sport with Krsna.  However, upon seeing Krsna and His beautiful male features, Arjuni becomes wonderstruck and overwhelmed with love, exhibiting all types of ecstatic symptoms and then fainting.  Seeing her overcome with desire, Krsna takes Arjuni’s hand and guides her into His pleasure forest where He sports with her secretly and at will.  After some time Krsna returns Arjuni to Radha, who then instructs her to again bathe in the lake.  Arjuna thus regains his male form but is left depressed and heartbroken.  Krsna reassures Arjuna and, by touching him, restores his male awareness and nature.

One of the most popular narratives of Arjuna is his appearance as the male-to-female transgender, Brihannala.  When Arjuna refuses the advances of the celestial courtesan, Urvasi, she curses him to become a shandha—an effeminate man who dresses and behaves like a woman.  Indra reduces the curse to one year, and this turns out to be a blessing in disguise—Arjuna is able to use the so-called curse to his advantage during his exile in the capital city of Virata.  Arjuna enters the city as Brihannala, a most unusual transgender woman with masculine features but an exceedingly effeminate gait, manner of speech, and attire.  Brihannala is donned in a woman’s blouse and draped in red silk.  Wearing numerous bangles, earrings and necklaces, she enters the royal palace with the gait of a broad-hipped woman.  After Brihannala requests the king, Maharaja Virata, for employment, he grants her service in the lady’s chamber as a teacher of dancing, singing, music, and hairdressing—typical occupations for people of the third sex during Vedic times.  It is also said that during this one-year period, Brihannala performed all of the traditional duties of the shandha by dancing and offering blessings at wedding and birth ceremonies.


Sri Ayyappa
Son of Siva and Vishnu

The worship of Sri Ayyappa, also known as Hariharaputra and Manikantha, is very popular among the third sex, particularly in South India.  As described in the Brahmanda Purana and various medieval narratives, Ayyappa is born from two male deities—Siva and Vishnu.  Once, while chasing Vishnu’s exquisite Mohini form, Lord Siva spilled his semen upon the ground.  The earth goddess, considering that Siva’s semen should never be wasted, stored the first drop beneath her soil.  Eons later, Ayyappa appeared from the earth on the banks of the river Pampa with a jeweled bell around his neck (thus the name Manikantha) and was discovered by the childless king of Pandalam, Rajasekhara.  (In some narratives, Mohini catches the first drop of semen in Her palm wherefrom the child, Ayyappa, immediately appears.  Embarrassed, she entrusts the child to the earth goddess and runs away.)  The boy grew up to be a strong warrior and was very popular among the citizens, but due to family intrigue he renounced the crown to meditate as a celibate atop Mount Sabarimalai in Kerala.  Vavar, his dearmost yavana friend and companion, accompanied Ayyappa into the forest along with Lila, a beautiful nymph whom Ayyappa had once rescued but refused to marry.  It is said that Ayyappa told Lila he would marry her only when male devotees stopped visiting his temples, and for this reason throngs of male devotees faithfully make a pilgrimage each year to keep the demigod free from marriage.  The friendship between Ayyappa and Vavar was extremely strong and reminiscent of the relationship between Krsna and Arjuna.  At one point Ayyappa tells his father: “Consider Vavar as myself.”

The worship of Sri Ayyappa is believed to have originated in Kerala during the eleventh or twelfth century but has greatly increased in popularity over the past several decades.  The original temple of Ayyappa is situated on the Sabarimalai Mountain amidst dense, tropical forests and is open only during the pilgrimage season (November-February).  The main festival for Ayyappa is celebrated on the Makara-sankranti, when the sun enters Capricorn during its northern journey in mid-January.  It honors his killing of the demon Mahisi and retirement to the mountaintop for meditation.  During this time, tens of thousands of male pilgrims make their way up to the shrine where there is a great deal of camaraderie between the men—women of reproductive age are not allowed to make the pilgrimage.  Like the god Kartikeya, Sri Ayyappa is associated with maleness and worshiped for strength, purification, success in celibacy, freedom from marriage, and similar benedictions.  As the son of both Siva and Vishnu, he is said to represent harmony between the Saivite and Vaishnava traditions; as the friend of Vavar, he symbolizes mercy and friendship toward non-Hindus and outcastes.


Sri Bahucara-Devi
Goddess of Male Castration

Sri Bahucara-devi is an expansion of goddess Durga mentioned in both the Padma and Skanda Puranas.  She is especially worshiped by people who wish to lose or transform their sexual identity—transgenders, transsexuals, the intersexed, hijra, eunuchs, and so on.  She encourages such people to emasculate themselves through dreams and, like a mother, offers comfort and protection during the castration ceremony (or, nowadays, transsexual operation).  Bahucara-mata guides her followers through their hardship and is said to bestow special benedictions upon them including the power to bless and curse others.  There is a famous temple of Sri Bahucara-devi located at Bahucharaji Taluka, Gujarat, which is said to be the place were Lord Krsna performed His tonsure or hair-cutting ceremony.  Each day of the week Bahucara-devi rides a different animal carrier; on Sundays and full-moon days she rides a cock, and this is the special day for hijras and crossdressers to come worship the goddess.  The two largest festivals of the year are held on the full-moon days of Chaitra (March-April) and Asadha (June-July).

The life of Bahucara-devi is tragic and people of the third sex identify with her in many ways.  As a beautiful goddess, she is deceived into a false marriage with a man who neglects her in pursuit of other men.  Later, while attending a festival, Bahucara is forced to cut off her breasts to avoid being raped by an evil man.  As she bleeds to death, she curses him to become impotent.  The first story strikes a chord with many homosexual men and women who are forced into unnatural marriages, and the second with women or transgenders who have been assaulted or abused by men.  In the first story, Bahucara lies in bed at night wondering why her young husband will not reciprocate her love.  When she discovers him leaving home during the dark- and full-moon nights, she secretly follows her husband deep into the forest on the back of a jungle fowl.  To her surprise, she eventually finds him sporting in a stream with other young men and “behaving as women do.”  Addressing him, she asks, “If you were like this, why did you marry me and ruin my life?”  He replies that he was forced into marriage so that he could father children and continue the family line.  Infuriated, she castrates him and declares: “Men like you (who dishonestly marry women) should instead emasculate themselves and dress as women, worshiping me as a goddess!”  In the second story, the evil man begs for deliverance from Bahucara’s curse but her reply is similar: “Men like you (who rape women) will only be forgiven when they are castrated, dressed as women, and engaged in my worship!”  These narrations about the life of Bahucara-devi emphasize the Hindu teaching that women must never be abused or mistreated in any way.


Sri Bhagavati-Devi
Goddess of Crossdressing

Sri Bhagavati-devi is an expansion of the goddess Durga worshiped all over India.  The Kottankulangara temple of Bhagavati-devi located near Kollam, Kerala, is especially famous for its unusual stone deity of the goddess and annual crossdressing festival known as Chamaya-vilakku.  During the festival, men are invited to dress up as women and receive the special blessings of the goddess.  The crossdressing festival is based on a story surrounding the temple’s origin: Long ago, a group of cowherd boys worshiped a stone in the mood of shy, young girls.  After some time, the goddess Bhagavati personally appeared before them to accept their worship and become the stone.  The Kottankulangara temple was then constructed to house the stone deity and formal worship was commenced, along with the annual festival.

The Chamaya-vilakku crossdressing festival of goddess Bhagavati is very well organized and celebrated with great pomp each year on the tenth and eleventh nights after the Mina-sankranti (when the sun enters Pisces in late March).   During the ceremony, thousands of crossdressing men grasp tall, lighted lamps and wait for the procession of the goddess in the form of a sila or stone to pass by.  The goddess Bhagavati then blesses the pilgrims and showers all good fortune upon them.  This unique ceremony is especially popular with the third sex but appreciated by all.


Sri Bhagiratha Maharaja
Born of Two Women

Sri Bhagiratha Maharaja is famous for bringing the celestial Ganges River down to earth, a pastime narrated in the Bhagavata Purana (9.9).  Three of his forefathers had previously attempted the feat and failed, but due to Maharaja Bhagiratha’s severe austerities, Ganga-devi was pleased and allowed her waters to descend.  Bhagiratha also propitiated Lord Siva to bear the great force of the river’s descent upon his head (pictured above).  The Ganges River is considered pure because it touches the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, and to this day the river is still flowing through the Indian subcontinent and honored by millions of Hindus.

Maharaja Bhagiratha is known as the son of King Dilipa, but it is the story behind his miraculous birth that is most interesting.  The following narrative is found in both the Padma Purana and the fourteenth-century Krittivasa Ramayana, the most popular Bengali text on the pastimes of Lord Ramacandra:  Maharaja Dilipa was the king of Ayodhya but had no sons.  He left his kingdom to perform severe austerities for the duel purpose of summoning the Ganges and obtaining a son; however, he died accomplishing neither.  The demigods became worried—they had heard that Vishnu would be born in the Sun Dynasty, but how would this be possible if the dynasty’s line came to an end?  Lord Siva therefore went to the two widowed queens of Maharaja Dilipa and blessed them to bear a son.  The queens asked, “How is this possible since we are widows?”  Siva replied, “You two make love together and by my blessings you will bear a beautiful son.”  The two wives, with great affection for each other, executed Siva’s order until one of them conceived a child.  Unfortunately, however, the infant was born as a lump of flesh without any features or bones.  The queens cried out loud, “Why did Siva bless us with such a son?”  They decided to leave the baby on the banks of the Sarayu River, and soon after a great sage, Astavakra, found the child and blessed him to become as powerful and good-looking as Cupid (Madana).  He summoned the two delighted queens and gave them the charming, healthy boy.  Astavakra then performed the name-giving ceremony calling him “Bhagiratha”—he who was born from two vulvas (bhaga).  In this way, the dynasty of Maharaja Dilipa continued and Maharaja Bhagiratha eventually fulfilled the wishes of his forefathers by bringing the Ganges River to earth.


Sri Brahma
Born of Vishnu Alone

Sri Brahma is the first created deity in charge of engineering and propagating the material universe.  He was born from a single male parent—Vishnu—without any female assistance.  At the beginning of the universe, Lord Vishnu lies down upon the universal ocean and a lotus flower sprouts from His navel.  Within the lotus appears Sri Brahma.  The idea of demigods, demons and humans emerging from a single parent, whether male or female, is a common theme found throughout Vedic literature and transcends all stereotypes regarding reproduction.  Brahma himself often generates progeny without any female assistance and conceives Siva, Narada and many of the other demigods in this way.

In the Bhagavata Purana (3.20.18-37) it is mentioned that at the beginning of creation, male demons forcibly approached Brahma for sex.  To appease them, Brahma created a beautiful woman who completely captivated their lusty desires.  Although the demons in this story are commonly mischaracterized as homosexual, their ultimate attraction for a woman conclusively demonstrates otherwise.  In reality, the demons are nothing more than what is known as circumstantial or pseudo-homosexuals.

Lord Brahma is famous for his four heads, which represent the four directions of the universe.  His wife is the goddess of learning, Sarasvati, the presiding deity of the arts and sciences who is worshiped during the spring festival of Vasanta-pancami in Magha (January-February).  It is said that due to a curse by his son, Bhrgu Muni, the worship of Lord Brahma is not at all prevalent on Earth.  One exception is in the holy town of Pushkara, situated on a lake created when Brahma threw a lotus flower from heaven.  The largest festival honoring Sri Brahma is held in this town (located in the Indian state of Rajasthan) on the full-moon night in Kartika (October-November).


Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu
Radha and Krsna Combined

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is described in post-medieval Bengali texts as the combination of Sri Radha and Krsna.  He is also clandestinely alluded to throughout the Puranas and other Vedic texts as the incarnation for this age of Kali—the golden avatara, who descends to augment the chanting of the holy names of God.  In the Caitanya-caritamrta, two more confidential reasons are given for Krsna’s descent as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: He wanted to taste the ecstatic love experienced by Sri Radha for Him, and He wanted to propagate this confidential knowledge to anyone eager to receive it.  Thus, while appearing in a male form, Lord Caitanya’s inner mood and emotions were that of a female, His divine consort Sri Radha.

Lord Caitanya appeared in this world during the fifteenth century in Mayapura, Bengal (1486 A.D.).  He had two wives but never any children, having taken the renounced order of life (sannyasa) at the youthful age of twenty-four.  Caitanya Mahaprabhu popularized the chanting of the “Hare Krsna” mantra in India and traveled throughout the Indian subcontinent, making and instructing many important disciples.  He shared deep relationships with His confidential companions like Gadadhara Pandit, Ramananda Raya, Svarupa Damodara, and others, all of who are revealed as incarnations of Krsna’s cowherd girlfriends.  In one esoteric pastime from the Caitanya-bhagavata (2.18), Lord Caitanya and some of His intimate associates dress up as women for a dramatic performance.  Mahaprabhu disguises Himself as Laksmi-devi and is so convincing that everyone present believes He is none other than the Goddess of fortune Herself.  At the end of the pastime, Sri Caitanya bestows His mercy to all of the devotees by employing His mystic power and allowing them to suckle milk from His breasts.  A similar pastime from the Caitanya-mangala (3.9) describes Lord Caitanya crossdressing as a gopi and then adopting the mood of goddess Durga. In the latter years of His life, Caitanya Mahaprabhu spent His days pining away in separation from Krsna, experiencing all the ecstatic moods of Radha.  He left this world in 1534 A.D., at the age of forty-eight, by entering into the Deity of Tota-Gopinatha at Jagannatha Puri, Orissa.

After the disappearance of Sri Caitanya, several sects of religious crossdressers such as the sakhi-bekhis and gauranga-nagaris became prominent throughout Bengal and other parts of India including Orissa and Uttar Pradesh.  Members of these sects typically dress themselves as women in order to reinforce their identity as sakhis or girlfriends of Krsna and to attain the esteemed spiritual emotion known as sakhi-bhavaSakhi-bekhis consider themselves maidservants of Krsna whereas the gauranga-nagaris consider themselves to be dasis of Sri Caitanya.  These sects were later condemned as sahajiya (unauthentic) when some members began making public shows of their romantic feelings for Krsna while simultaneously having illicit relations with cudadharis—men dressed up as Krsna with a crown of peacock feathers.  In modern times, most sakhi-bekhis and gauranga-nagaris crossdress in private and are less conspicuous.

Lord Caitanya is very dear to people of the third sex and is well known for His inclusiveness and compassion toward all types of beings.  It is said that the more fallen and destitute a person is, the more qualified he becomes for Lord Caitanya’s mercy.  From His very birth, Lord Caitanya demonstrated kindness toward the third sex—transgender dancers were invited into His courtyard during the birth ceremony and the Lord graciously accepted their service and blessings.  Throughout His lifetime, Lord Caitanya continuously challenged smarta-brahmanas and mundane religionists who excluded the lower classes with their dry regulations and caste consciousness.

The mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has increased significantly over the past several decades and what was once an esoteric cult of Bengal has since become a worldwide-established faith.  This is single-handedly due to the efforts and devotion of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a pure devotee of Lord Caitanya who spread His mission to the West in 1965 by founding the Hare Krishna movement.  Lord Caitanya’s appearance day, Gaura-purnima, is observed on the full-moon day in Phalguna (February-March) and celebrated by millions of people all over the world, especially in Mayapura, West Bengal, where the Lord first appeared.  The day after this is known as Jagannatha-Misra-mahotsava and celebrated as the day when Lord Caitanya received blessings from the third-gender community.


Sri Chandi-Chamunda
Twin Warrior Goddesses

The twin warrior goddesses, Chandi and Chamunda, represent a curious tradition in Hinduism of female warriors, often depicted in pairs, who ride together in battle defeating men and exhibiting extraordinary strength and prowess.  Throughout India they are assigned different names in different traditions—Dayamava-Durgamma in Karnataka, Chotila-Chamunda in Gujarat, Keliamma-Chamunda in Uttar Pradesh, etc.—but the stories related to them are all very similar.

Sri Chandi and Sri Chamunda are expansions of the goddess Durga and the story of their appearance is as follows:  There were once two demons, Chanda and Munda, who performed great austerities for thousands of years in order to please Lord Brahma.  After some time, Brahma appeared before them and they asked for the benediction to become great warriors, strong enough to rule the world and conquer heaven.  Brahma granted the request but, because the two were demons, chaos quickly ensued.  They became more and more greedy and even tried to violate the abodes of Brahma, Siva and Vishnu.  It was agreed that Durga-devi should handle the matter and the goddess expanded herself into two forms, Chandi and Chamunda, who fiercely fought against the demons and emerged victorious.

Sri Chandi-Chamunda is said to be the embodiment of Durga’s power and strength.  The two deities assume fierce forms with large eyes, tridents in their hands, and ride a single lion together.  They are dressed in red and green and adorned with flower garlands.  There are temples to these twin goddesses scattered throughout India—a famous one is situated on the Chotila Hill in Gujarat.  Festivals are celebrated during Durga-puja in the month of Ashvina (September-October).


Sri Durga-Devi
Universal Mother

Sri Durga-devi is the universal mother and goddess of the material cosmos.  She is the wife and shakti of Lord Siva and, like her husband, has many different expansions such as Kali, Parvati, Sati, Uma, Bhagavati, and so on.  Durga rides on a tiger or lion and has eight arms holding the four symbols of Vishnu (a lotus, conch, discus and club), a bow and arrow, a trident, and a machete-like ax (khadagh).  One of her hands is raised, offering benedictions to all devotees.

Sri Durga-devi can be both loving and fierce.  As the universal mother she offers protection and shelter to all conditioned souls, but as the supreme chastiser she never hesitates to punish her children when they are bad or misbehaved.  Since mothers are always very compassionate and understanding of their children, goddess Durga is a favorite of the third sex.  The first nine days of the waxing moon of Ashvina (September-October) mark a festival known as Navaratri, which is celebrated all over India in honor of the goddess.  During this time, Hindus offer respects to Durga-devi and at many temples there is a tradition of crossdressing.  In Tamil Nadu, for instance, girl children are blessed with new dresses and sweets during Navaratri and treated as representations of the goddess.  In homes where there are no girls, small boys are crossdressed and honored in their place.  At some Krsna temples, the Deity is dressed up as a beautiful young girl with saris, jewelry and so on, while at certain Siva temples, priests wear saris and headdresses of the goddess while offering puja to Lord Siva on her behalf.  In Kulasekarapattinam in Tamil Nadu, men traditionally dress up as women during Navaratri and go house-to-house asking for festival donations.  On the tenth day of Dasara, they go crossdressed to the Mutharamma Durga temple to offer prayers and receive blessings from the goddess.  Durga-puja is held on the seventh day of the festival and during this time, Durga-devi’s divine yoni (womb) is worshiped as a symbol of fertility and the female principle.


Sri Gadadhara
Radha in Male Form

Sri Gadadhara, one of Lord Caitanya’s four principal male associates, is none other than Sri Radha Herself, the embodiment of Lord Krsna’s internal potency or shakti.  It is said that Lord Caitanya had so much affection for His dear friend Gadadhara that He couldn’t be without him for a moment.  In the same way, no one can describe the ecstatic affection that Gadadhara had for Caitanya; therefore another name for Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is Gadadhara Prananatha, the life and soul of Gadadhara Pandit.  Gadadhara was one year younger than Caitanya and appeared in the same village of Navadvipa, Bengal.  As childhood friends they were inseparable and played together constantly.

There are two confidential reasons for Sri Radha’s descent as Gadadhara Pandit: The first reason is so She could associate with Krsna without restraint. One day, Srimati Radharani praised the good fortune of Krsna’s cowherd friend, Subala, because he was always able to accompany Krsna and could embrace Him publicly.  She, on the other hand, faced so many social restrictions and restraints.  Reflecting on this, Radha desired to take a male birth in Lord Caitanya’s pastimes so that She could always have the Lord’s association.  The second confidential reason is so She could witness Her own ecstatic emotions in Caitanya Mahaprabhu and assist Him through them.

Gadadhara Pandit never married.  Rather, he accepted the renounced order of sannyasa like Lord Caitanya and went to Jagannatha Puri to be with Him.  Taking a vow to always remain in Puri, Sri Gadadhara nearly died when Lord Caitanya left to go on a pilgrimage alone.  When Lord Caitanya eventually departed from this world, Gadadhara quickly became very old and feeble out of intense anguish due to separation from the Lord.  Shortly thereafter he also left this world by entering into the Tota-Gopinatha Deity.

Gadadhara and Caitanya Mahaprabhu are often worshiped together as Sri Gaura-Gadadhara or as two of the five Panca-tattva Deities (pictured above).  A festival honoring Sri Gadadhara’s appearance is celebrated on the new-moon day in Vaishaka (April-May).


Sri Ganesha
Born of Parvati Alone

Sri Ganesha is famous as the elephant-headed god and is very popular among the third sex.  His birth is described in the Siva Purana (4.13.9-39) as follows:  Parvati, the wife of Lord Siva, desired to have a powerful son who would obey her alone.  She wanted a servant who would guard her inner apartments without being subservient to Siva, like all of the other ganas (attendants of Siva).  Thinking in this way, Parvati, along with her female associates, fashioned a strong and beautiful son out of clay.  She instructed him to become her gatekeeper, obeying no one other than herself, and then departed for the inner sanctums of her apartment to bathe with her companions.  Siva then appeared in a playful mood.  He was hoping to find Parvati but was instead checked at the entrance by Ganesha.  An argument ensued but Ganesha would not relent.  Siva tried to enter forcefully but Ganesha beat him again and again with a stick.  Becoming furious, Siva summoned his ganas and commanded them, “Find out who this boy is and what he is doing here!”  The ganas also argued with Ganesha but Parvati and her cohorts intervened and told Ganesha to stand firm.  A battle ensued and Ganesha defeated all of Siva’s ganas, including Kartikeya.  Siva then challenged Ganesha directly and a long, fierce battle commenced.  Ganesha fought valiantly but was ultimately beheaded by Siva.  Infuriated, Parvati threatened to destroy the entire universe unless her beloved son was revived and given an honorable position among the demigods.  Siva agreed and replaced Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant’s.

Lord Ganesha represents mysterious identities and the “queerness” found in Hinduism and nature—the idea that anything can be possible.  Throughout Hindu texts many strange, incredible creatures are found.  Garuda, for instance, the carrier of Lord Vishnu, has a form that is half man, half eagle.  Hanuman, the servant of Lord Rama, is half monkey, half god.  Vishnu’s incarnation of Lord Nrsimhadeva appears in a half-man, half-lion form.  The third sex is half man, half woman.  Many celestial beings are described in Vedic texts as kinnara (literally, “what creature?”) or kimpurusa (“what man?”).  The peculiar nature of Sri Ganesha’s birth and features continues in this tradition, making him very attractive to his followers and hinting at the inconceivable nature of God and His creation.

Sri Ganesha is traditionally worshiped as a bachelor although sometimes he is depicted as married.  He is also known as Ganapati (lord of the ganas) and Vinayaka (born without a male father).  He is famous as the celestial guardian and gatekeeper who removes all obstacles and permits a person to “cross over.”  Like Lord Siva and Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganesha is known to be very compassionate to those who are fallen and destitute.  Ganesha’s appearance day (Ganesha-caturthi) is celebrated all over India on the fourth day of the waxing moon in Bhadrapada (August-September), especially in big cities like Mumbai.  Many hundreds of thousands of people attend, including members of the third sex.


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Sri Gangamma-Devi
Goddess of Disguise

Sri Gangamma-devi is an expansion of Lord Vishnu’s spiritual shakti known as Yogamaya or Subhadra.  She is worshiped in South India as the younger sister of Lord Venkatesvara, a popular Vishnu Deity presiding over the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh.  When Gangamma-devi appeared on earth she was celebrated as the most beautiful of all women and known by the name of Ganga.  Seeing her exquisite beauty, a demonic king ruling the country at that time desired to enjoy Ganga for himself.  The unpopular king made many attempts to capture the girl and take her into his palace, but Gangamma-devi tricked him by assuming various disguises with her maya (illusory potency).  One day Ganga disguised herself as a small young girl and on another day she disguised herself as a man.  Ganga assumed seven disguises in all, but on the eighth day she became angry with the king and killed him after assuming one of her fierce forms.  The entire kingdom thus became very pleased with Gangamma-devi and worshiped her as the universal mother and goddess.  A terrible drought caused by the king’s sinful activities was also ended at this time.

A famous eight-day festival (Ganga-yatra) is celebrated in Sri Gangamma-devi’s honor throughout South India during the month of Jyestha (May-June).  The largest festival, held at Tirupati, is well known for its crossdressing festivities based on Gangamma-devi’s pastime of assuming the seven disguises.  During the festival celebrations, many people don costumes and the temple goddess is brought out in a grand procession.  The final four days of the festival are the main time for crossdressing and third-gender devotees attend from all over India.  Gangamma-devi is worshiped for her blessings and to usher in the auspicious rainy season.     


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Sri Harihara
Vishnu and Siva Combined

Sri Harihara is a form in which the two male deities of Vishnu and Siva are fused together, similar to the Ardhanarisvara form.  It is said that this form of the Lord appeared when Siva embraced Vishnu as Mohini—thus the right side of the Deity is Lord Siva (the male side) and the left is Vishnu (the female side).  Many variations of this form can be found throughout temples in India.  In traditional images, the right side depicting Siva carries a trident, has matted hair and is accompanied by Nandi (Siva’s bull carrier) or a gana (a dwarf-like attendant).  The left side with Vishnu carries a cakra, wears a crown, and is accompanied by a Vishnu attendant.  The picture above is a twelfth-century image of Sri Harihara from Rajasthan, located at the Bharat Kali Bhavan in Varanasi.

The Deity of Sri Harihara is not very common and little is known about this unique form.  To many, He is the father of Hariharaputra, Lord Ayyappa, while to others He symbolizes the union and deep relationship between Vishnu and Siva—bringing harmony between the Vaishnava and Saivite traditions.  Sri Harihara is worshiped mostly in South India and there is a famous temple of this Deity in the town of Harihara, just south of the ancient city of Vijayanagara (Hampi) in Karnataka.


Sri Iravan
Husband to Vishnu

Sri Iravan, known in Tamil Nadu as Aravan, is the son of Arjuna and the serpent princess, Ulupi.  In the Mahabharata, Iravan was a hero during the battle of Kuruksetra and served both Krsna and his father Arjuna by slaying many of Duryodhana’s soldiers.

The worship of Iravan in South India has become increasingly popular over the past several decades.  The main temple is located in Koovagam (near Villupuram), Tamil Nadu, and the deity worshiped there is known as Koothandavara (pictured).  A popular, six-day festival devoted to Iravan culminates on the Tuesday prior to the full-moon day of Vaishaka (April-May) and is attended by thousands of aravanis (crossdressing devotees of Iravan, also known as ali), homosexuals, and other people of the third sex.  The celebrations are based on Tamil versions of the Mahabharata in which Krsna assumes His Vishnu form of Mohini—the most beautiful of women.  During the battle of Kuruksetra, Iravan offers himself as a sacrifice to Kali to ensure victory for the Pandavas.  He asks for three benedictions before he dies, one of which is to marry and lose his virginity before death.  Since no parent would give up a daughter to a man about to be sacrificed, Krsna agrees to assume His Mohini form and marries Iravan for the night.  The next day, Iravan is sacrificed.

During the Koothandavara festival, thousands of aravanis dress up as women to reenact this pastime, bringing it to life.  On the day Iravan is slain, they mourn his death by wailing, beating their chests, breaking their bangles, etc., in order to commemorate Iravan’s sacrifice and the painful emotions experienced by his beloved friends and relatives.  In some temples, the Krsna Deity is dressed in a white sari (a sign of widowhood) on this day.  Like the demigoddess Bahucara, Sri Iravan is popular with the third sex throughout India and has become a patron saint for them.


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Sri Jagannatha
Lord of the Gotipuas

Sri Jagannatha is a popular Krsna Deity worshiped in Orissa and throughout the world.  He is accompanied by His brother and first expansion, Sri Baladeva, as well as by His sister, Subhadra, the personification of the Lord’s internal potency.  All three Deities are worshiped with great pomp in Jagannatha Puri, where the original temple is located.

The Jagannatha Temple has a long history of both female and crossdressing-male dance traditions.  In former times, the female devadasis were beautiful young girls whose lives were completely surrendered to the Jagannatha Deity.  At their peak they numbered in the hundreds and maintained elaborate dance and song traditions as an essential part of the daily worship.  The devadasis were divided into several different groups, each with their own specific codes of conduct, dance styles, and perimeters of worship.  The highest class (mahari) was comprised of celibate virgins who danced privately for Lord Jagannatha in the innermost sanctums of His temple, while the lowest class performed in public ceremonies outside the temple and often served as courtesans.  Another class known as nachuni danced before the royal courts of Orissa, entertaining kings and other celebrated nobles.

The current Jagannatha Temple was built in the tenth century A.D., after which many devadasis were imported from South India where the tradition was very prominent.  In the twelfth century, Maharaja Chodagangadeva (1076-1147) established much of the elaborate worship and also set stringent rules for the devadasis, forbidding all prostitution as well as any human contact for the girls.  After this, the devadasi tradition slowly began to decline and in 1360, Muslims attacked the temple and violated many of the devadasis.  Puri recovered, however, and by the early sixteenth century—under the reign of Maharaja Prataparudra (1497-1540)—all of the original worship was reestablished.  Sri Caitanya relocated to Puri at this time and inaugurated a great revival of the bhakti cult.

Crossdressing boy dancers, known as gotipuas, also have a long tradition in Puri and were especially popular during the reign of Maharaja Prataparudra.  In the gotipua tradition, beautiful male youths were trained in various dance techniques such as the bandha-nrtya, wherein they dressed up as devadasis with colorful saris and heavy makeup.  Unlike the devadasis, gotipuas performed mostly in public but were also connected with several important temple ceremonies.  In one of the most popular, a selected young gotipua performs a seductive dance before the Deity of Sri Baladeva.  The gotipuas were devoted to Jagannatha but lived outside the perimeters of the temple.  In ancient times the more accomplished gotipuas would serve as dance instructors, male courtesans, and act as liaisons to the devadasis.  In a time where all public entertainment was centered on temple festivals and ceremonies, the highly talented devadasis and gotipuas were the celebrated luminaries of their day.

The devadasi tradition of Puri is now nearly extinct.  In 1956, the number of devadasis dwindled to nine and by the end of the twentieth century only two elderly women remained.  It is not at all certain whether the ancient devadasi tradition will ever be revived or even preserved for future record; many of the traditional dance techniques and temple ceremonies have already been lost to time.  The gotipua tradition, on the other hand, is still extant to some degree and several gotipua dance troupes continue to perform in Puri and throughout the state of Orissa.

Despite the demise of the devadasi tradition, the Jagannatha Mandira remains one of the most popular and well-known temples in India.  Lord Jagannatha is especially merciful to the fallen and for this reason much adored by all Hindus, including those of the third sex.  Every summer in the month of Asadha (June-July), all three Deities parade through Jagannatha Puri in a grand festival attracting millions.  Known as Ratha-yatra, it is one of the largest religious ceremonies in the world and also observed in many prominent Western cities such as Los Angeles, London and Paris.


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Sri Kali
Goddess of Destruction

Goddess Kali embodies the wrath of material nature and has a very fierce form.  She has four arms carrying a trident, machete-like ax (khadagh), severed head of a demon and a vessel of blood.  A similar form known as Sri Bhadra-kali has ten arms yielding various weapons.  Kali has a blackish complexion and red eyes.  She wears a garland of human heads, a skirt of human arms, slaughters millions of demons and relishes drinking their blood.  Armies of scantily clad dakinis (she-demons) gleefully assist her in the slaughter.  The picture above is a modern shrine of the goddess from the Rajgir Hot Springs in Bihar.

Sri Kali is one of the many expansions of Durga-devi, the consort of Lord Siva and goddess of the material energy.  One time Kali was engaged in a universal war so fierce that her fury went out of control.  All the gods were terrified and no one could end her ruthless slaughter.  They approached Lord Siva as a last resort, and Siva, not sure what to do, prostrated himself before the goddess in full surrender to her power.  Kali unknowingly stepped on her lord and, realizing what she had done, recoiled back in horror, sticking out her tongue.  Remorseful, she cried out, “My Lord!” and in that way was brought back to her senses, ending the slaughter.

Sri Kali manifests an amazing display of power and might, shattering all stereotypes of women as only feminine.  As a divine warrior, she fights equally beside men and defeats them in battle.  As a goddess, she rides a tiger and carries out mass destruction—war, catastrophe, cyclones, earthquakes, etc.—are all manifestations of her colossal force.  “Kala” means time, and therefore Kali represents the destructive force of material time.  Kali is a very popular goddess, especially in Bengal, and there are many temples devoted to her.  Devotees of Kali generally worship her as the personification of the material energy (Siva’s shakti), to appease her wrath, and to pray for all kinds of benedictions.  Kali-puja is celebrated on the new-moon day in Kartika (October-November) and marked by animal or sometimes even human sacrifices.  The day coincides with the Hindu New Year and another popular festival known as Diwali or “the Festival of Lights.”  Since goddess Kali represents material time, it is appropriate that her holiday is celebrated at the juncture between the old and new years.


Sri Kartikeya
Son of Siva and Agni

Kartikeya is the son of two male deities—Siva and Agni—born without the help of any womb.  He is the god of war and commander-in-chief of the demigods.  Kartikeya is also known as Skanda, Subrahmanya, and Murugan, and portrayed as a brave, handsome youth riding on a peacock, sometimes in a six-headed and twelve-armed form.  Like his brother Ganesha, Kartikeya is traditionally worshiped as a bachelor who avoids women.  In the Brahmanda Purana it is stated that Parvati cursed Kartikeya so that he would see all women as his mother.  Thus he never married and instead took companionship from his fellow soldiers.  Another name for Kartikeya is Senapati—he was a lord or “husband” to his army.

Three Vedic texts narrate the birth of Kartikeya in somewhat different versions.  In the Mahabharata, Agni (the fire god) is aroused by the six Krittika goddesses (the Pleiades) and discharges his semen into the hand of one of them, named Svaha-devi.  She discards the semen into a lake from which Skanda (literally, “he who was cast off”) emerges.  Because the Krittikas nursed him, he was named Kartikeya.  The Mahabharata mentions that since the place where Agni discharged his semen was itself created from the seed of Siva, both gods are considered fathers of Kartikeya.  In the best-known version from the Siva Purana, Kartikeya’s birth is described as follows: The demigods needed a son who would lead their army against the asuras (demons).  Siva and Parvati agreed to produce such a son, but when they were locked in cosmic embrace for a very long time, the demigods became alarmed and interrupted them.  Siva spilled his seed on the ground and Agni, disguised as a dove and urged on by the other gods, swallowed the semen with his beak.  Parvati was enraged by the course of events and chastised the gods bitterly.  Agni was burned by the fire of Siva’s seed and submitted himself before the god.  Siva was pleased and allowed Agni to pass the semen on to the Krittikas.  The sagely husbands of these goddesses, however, accused their wives of unfaithfulness and therefore they discharged the semen onto the Himalayan peaks.  Himavata (the Himalayas personified and father of Parvati) was burned by the seed and tossed it into the Ganges River, which in turn deposited it into a forest of reeds—wherefrom a very handsome boy was born named Kartikeya.  His appearance made Siva, Parvati, and all the gods very happy.  In the Skanda Purana, the story is nearly identical with the exception that Agni swallowed Siva’s semen disguised as a male ascetic instead of a dove.  The Mahabharata also relates that when Kartikeya was very young, Indra feared he would usurp his throne and thus threw a thunderbolt at the boy.  Instead of killing Kartikeya, however, it simply produced from his body another fierce-looking youth named Visakha.  Indra then worshiped Kartikeya and installed him as commander-in-chief of the demigods.

Like Ayyappa of similar birth, Sri Kartikeya is associated with maleness and many temples in India prevent women from entering his shrines.  He is portrayed as the divine patron of warriors and represented by the planet Mars, battle, virility, progeny, bravery and strength.  There are temples of Lord Kartikeya throughout India, with special celebrations and festivals held during the month of Magha (January-February).  Like his brother, Ganesha, Kartikeya is generally worshiped as a bachelor although some traditions, especially in South India, depict him as married.  It should be noted that Hindu deities are often worshiped in many different forms and features, including married or unmarried, in accordance with the particular mood and tradition of the devotee.  For instance, some devotees of Lord Krsna worship Him as an unmarried youth in Vrndavana whereas others worship Him as a married king in Dvaraka.


Sri Krsna
Enchanter of Cupid

Sri Krsna is known as Madana-mohana—the enchanter of the male deity, Kamadeva (Cupid).  Indeed, the very name Krsna means “all-attractive” and His unsurpassed beauty captivates all beings whether male, female, or third-sex.  Kamadeva is known as the most exquisitely beautiful youth within the creation who charms and mesmerizes everyone as the god of sex; yet in spite of this, Kamadeva himself is completely enthralled and bewildered by the unparalleled beauty of Krsna.  Because Sri Krsna is adi-purusa—the supreme and original male—all other beings are regarded as female in relation to Him.

Vedic texts, especially the Bhagavata Purana, describe Krsna as the fountainhead and original source of Vishnu and all incarnations.  His unique feature is His madhurya-rasa—His unparalleled sweet and intimate conjugal pastimes—that place Him above all other forms of God such as Vishnu or Narayana.  God is normally worshiped in great reverence and formality but in Krsna all Godhood is left aside for the sake of divine love.  He is depicted not as a crowned king seated upon a royal throne, but as a fresh, charming youth—playing in the pastures with His cows and friends during the day and calling the gopi maidens with His flute at night.  Many sages and demigods have aspired to witness Krsna’s divine sport and males like Arjuna, Narada, and even Lord Siva have transformed themselves into females for the purpose of attaining Krsna’s intimate association.  In the Padma Purana it is said that during the advent of Lord Rama, the sages of Dandakaranya Forest became so attracted to the Lord they developed conjugal affection for Him.  Since Rama could accept only one wife, Sita, He blessed the sages to become cowherd maidens in Krsna’s pastimes, thus fulfilling their desires.

Krsna’s pastimes are very playful and sportive; narratives from the Puranas as well as post-medieval texts often portray Krsna and His friends (both male and female) crossdressing for fun and delivering messages in disguise.  Krsna has many male attendants (sahayakas) who meticulously dress and care for Him and His intimate priya-narma friends arrange rendezvous for Him to meet with the gopis.  These intimate friends are said to have nearly the same emotions (bhava) for Krsna that the gopis do and are always completely overwhelmed by Krsna’s beauty and the love they feel for Him.

Krsna is most famous for His loving pastimes with the gopis and His rasa-lila dances with them.  His chief consort is Sri Radha, the original source of all shaktis and Goddess of the spiritual energy.  Radha is Krsna’s life and soul; in His incarnation of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, He combines with Her to experience the ecstatic love She feels for Him.  Krsna’s natural complexion is bluish but when He combines with Radha He takes on a golden complexion and is thus known as Lord Gauranga.  In another popular pastime, Krsna disguises Himself as the beautiful maiden, Syamali, just to pacify the jealous anger of Radha.

In Dvaraka, Krsna manifests a majestic form of God known as Dvarakadisa or Vasudeva.  In this feature He becomes a royal king and speaks the Bhagavad Gita to His dear friend and disciple, Arjuna.  The Bhagavad Gita (which is a chapter from the Mahabharata) is the best-known Vedic text and stresses the importance of bhakti-yoga—the process of uniting with God in love and devotion.

Krsna is worshiped all over India and throughout the world.  A festival celebrating His appearance, Janmastami, occurs on the eighth day of the waning moon in the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) and is one of the largest festivals in India.  While ordinary people worship Krsna for all kinds of benedictions and even liberation, His pure devotees worship Him for the sole purpose of achieving krsna-prema or pure love of God.


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Sri Minakshi-Devi
Warrior Goddess

Sri Minakshi-devi is a mighty demigoddess who is especially popular in South India.  As an expansion of Parvati, she is the wife of Lord Sundaresvara (Siva).  Minakshi was self-born from a sacrificial fire to King Malayadvaja and his queen, Kancamanala, in Madurai.  She is named Minakshi because her eyes are compared with those of fish—she never blinks and is always watching over her devotees.  Like the goddess Kali, Minakshi-devi shatters all stereotypes of women as weak or in need of protection.  As a powerful princess of Madurai, Minakshi rode horses, tamed elephants, and wrestled bulls with her bare hands.  She was also fond of hunting, killing many tigers and other ferocious beasts.  She led armies all over India, fighting alongside her father and defeating many kings and warlords.  Goddess Minakshi eventually married Lord Siva and was blessed by Vishnu.

The worship of Sri Minakshi-devi is believed to have originated in medieval Tamil Nadu, sometime prior to the sixteenth century.  Like the worship of Lord Ayyappa, Sri Minakshi-devi’s puja has increased in popularity during recent years.  Minakshi-devi is revered as an expansion of the goddess Durga and worshiped for all types of benedictions.  She is said to guard over her devotees and protect them from all harm.   Festivals in her honor are held during the Durga-puja holiday in the month of Ashvina (September-October).



Sri Mitra-Varuna
Intimate Brothers

The two demigods, Sri Mitra-Varuna, are brothers of great intimacy and often mentioned together in Vedic literature. These sons of Aditi preside over the universal waters wherein Mitra controls the ocean depths and lower portals while Varuna rules over the ocean’s upper regions, rivers and shorelines. Mitra is furthermore attributed to the sunrise and day, which rise up from the sea, while Varuna is attributed to the sunset and night, which sink below its surface. Both deities sustain the sky and earth with their waters, respectively, and both are associated with the moon, the ocean, the tides and the western direction. In the physical body, Lord Mitra moves waste outwards whereas Varuna directs nourishment inwards. Mitra is thus associated with the body’s lower orifice (the anus and rectum) while Varuna governs the upper (the mouth and tongue).

In Vedic literature, Sri Mitra-Varuna are portrayed as icons of brotherly affection and intimate friendship between males (the Sanskrit word mitra means “friend” or “companion”). For this reason they are worshiped by men of the third sex, albeit not as commonly as other Hindu deities. They are depicted riding a shark or crocodile together while bearing tridents, ropes, conch shells and water pots. Sometimes they are portrayed seated side-by-side on a golden chariot drawn by seven swans. Ancient Brahmana texts furthermore associate Sri Mitra-Varuna with the two lunar phases and same-sex relations: “Mitra and Varuna, on the other hand, 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 they are pleased with a cake offering. Verily, all are pleased and all is obtained by any person knowing this. On that same night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed.” (Shatapatha Brahmana Varuna is similarly said to implant his seed in Mitra on the full-moon night for the purpose of securing its future waxing. In Hinduism, the new- and full-moon nights are discouraged times for procreation and consequently often associated with citrarata or unusual types of intercourse.

The Bhagavata Purana (6.18.3-6) lists Varuna and Mitra as the ninth and tenth sons of Aditi and both gods are described having children through ayoni or non-vaginal sex. For example, Varuna fathered the sage Valmiki when his semen fell upon a termite mound, and Agastya and Vasistha were born from water pots after Mitra and Varuna discharged their semen in the presence of Urvasi. Another celebrated child of Varuna is Varuni—the goddess of honey-wine and other intoxicating beverages—and Mitra is considered to be the father of Utsarga, Arista and Pippala—the three demigods presiding over manure, soapberry trees and banyan trees. The Mahabharata mentions that Mitra, the older brother of Indra, stood in the sky at the time of Arjuna’s birth. Because Mitra and Varuna sustain the sky and earth with their great ocean waters, these two demigods are worshiped along the seashore during the month of Jyestha (May-June) for the purpose of obtaining good rainfall. Sri Mitra-Varuna are worshiped together on the new- and full-moon days or individually during the waning half moon (for Mitra) and the waxing half moon (for Varuna).



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Sri Mohini-Murti
Vishnu as Female

Lord Vishnu once transformed Himself into the most beautiful woman in the universe—Sri Mohini-murti.  “Mohini” means “one who bewilders the mind,” and “murti” means “form.”  This pastime is narrated in the Bhagavata Purana (8.8-9) as follows:  The demigods and demons once combined their efforts to extract immortality-producing nectar from the ocean of milk.  When the nectar was produced, however, the demigods and demons struggled for it and the demons made off with the pot.  The demigods approached Lord Vishnu, who told them not to fear—He would resolve the issue.  Vishnu then appeared as Sri Mohini-murti, the most bewildering of women.  She is described as an extremely beautiful youth with a blackish complexion and attractive fragrance.  Her behavior and movements were very feminine and She attracted the minds of all men.  Mohini approached the demons and, taking advantage of their captivation for Her, convinced them to release the pot of nectar.  She told the demons She would distribute the nectar Herself and made them promise to accept whatever She did.  They agreed, and once Mohini received the nectar She proceeded to distribute it only to the demigods.  Thus the demons were never able to receive the nectar of immortality.

Later on, when Siva heard about the Mohini form from others, he desired to see its unparalleled beauty for himself.  He requested Lord Vishnu to reveal the form and Vishnu complied.  However, once Siva saw Mohini’s form—appearing before him as a playful Goddess—he became completely bewildered and enamored by Her exquisite beauty.  Siva forcibly embraced Mohini and chased Her all over the universe.  Only after fully discharging semen did he finally return to his senses.

There are a few temples of Sri Mohini-murti throughout India but Her worship is not very prominent.  The above image is an eleventh-century statue from Karnataka.  The largest festival and human gathering on earth—Kumbha-mela—originates from the pastime of churning the milk ocean.  It is said that while the demons and demigods were struggling over the pot of nectar, four drops were spilled in four places: Prayaga, Haridvara, Ujjain and Nasik.  These places are thus believed to have great mystical powers.  Kumbha-mela occurs four times every twelve years during the month of Magha (January-February), once at each of the four locations.  The exact dates fluctuate since they are calculated according to specific astrological alignments.  Every twelve years a special Maha-kumbha-mela occurs at Prayaga on the bank of the Ganges River and is attended by hundreds of millions of Hindus.


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Sri Narada Muni
Celestial Celibate

Sri Narada Muni is the transcendental sage of the demigods.  He was born from the mind of Lord Brahma and is a pure devotee of God.  Narada Muni is a lifelong celibate (naistiki-brahmacari) and is mentioned throughout the Vedic literatures.  He is often depicted traveling freely through outer space, plucking a stringed musical instrument (the vina), and preaching the glories of Lord Vishnu.  Narada Muni moves from planet to planet and in all three realms of the universe—upper, middle and lower.  His dear companion, Parvata Muni, often accompanies him.  He is somewhat of a cosmic instigator—constantly coming and going, setting things in motion and sometimes creating mischief—but always for the higher purpose of demonstrating Vedic philosophical truths.

Narada Muni’s character as a roaming, lifelong celibate is very appealing to many people of the third sex—the gender most often associated with solitude, asceticism and celibacy.  He is well known for his preaching against married life and convincing young men to quit their homes and take up a life of renunciation, much to the chagrin of their parents.  There is a popular narrative in the Bhagavata Purana (6.5) wherein Narada convinces the ten thousand sons of Prajapati Daksa to renounce marriage and become mendicants.  Saddened by the loss of his sons, Daksa begets a thousand more, but Narada also convinces these sons in the same way.  Infuriated, Daksa curses Narada to never remain in one place—a curse that Narada graciously accepts.

There are at least two instances in the Puranas wherein Narada Muni becomes a woman.  In one narration, Narada asks Vishnu to show him His maya (illusion).  Vishnu complies and instructs Narada to fetch Him some water from a nearby river.  Narada does so, but falls into the water and emerges as a female.  Narada then meets a man, falls in love, gets married, has many children, builds a home and establishes a prosperous farm on the riverbank.  She becomes very happy and satisfied for many years.  One day, however, there is an enormous flood, and Narada’s husband, children, home and farm are all washed away in the raging waters.  Narada laments piteously until finally the turbulent waters capture Narada herself.  Terrified, she screams for help again and again.  A hand grasps Narada and pulls her from the river.  It is Vishnu—He has shown Narada His maya!

In the Padma Purana there is a description of Narada’s transformation into the beautiful cowherd maiden, Naradi.  Narada Muni asks Krsna to show him His divine loving affairs, and Krsna complies by turning him into the gopi Naradi and sporting with him for an entire year.  This pastime is very similar to the one in which Arjuna is transformed into the maiden Arjuni, and it appears immediately afterward in the Purana.


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Sri Ramacandra
Benefactor of the Third Sex

Sri Ramacandra is one of the most popular incarnations of Vishnu, especially in South India.  He appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga and His pastimes are vividly described in the epic, Ramayana.  There are hundreds of versions of the Ramayana, both written and oral, that are read and recited all over India.  One narrative especially popular among the ali (a third-sex group of South India) is recited as follows: Ramacandra’s father, Maharaja Dasaratha, was forced to exile his beloved son to the forest for fourteen years.  As the young prince left to fulfill the order of His father, the bereaved citizens of the kingdom followed Rama to the edge of the forest.  At this point Ramacandra turned around and said, “Dear ladies and gentlemen, please stop your crying now and return to your homes without Me.”  The citizens obeyed the command but those who were neither men nor women—the third sex—did not know what to do.  They decided to remain in that place for the entire fourteen years, meditating on Rama, and when the Lord returned He was very pleased and gave them all His blessings.

In another story from the Padma Purana it is described that the sages of Dandakaranya Forest became so attracted to Sri Ramacandra they developed conjugal affection for Him.  Since Rama could only accept one wife, Sita, He blessed the sages to become cowherd maidens in Lord Krsna’s pastimes, thus fulfilling all their desires.

In the Valmiki Ramayana (4.5.11-18), Rama aligns Himself with the monkey king, Sugriva, and they officiate their sacred alliance with a Vedic friendship ceremony.  The ritual they perform is very similar to a Hindu wedding—fire is invoked as a witness, vows are exchanged, and the pair circumambulates the fire arena together.  In India, third-gender couples sometimes emulate such friendship marriages to demonstrate their own love and commitment to one another.

The Krittivasa Ramayana relates how two queens conceive Lord Rama’s illustrious ancestor, Maharaja Bhagiratha, without the assistance of any male.  In yet another version of the epic, Sri Hanuman witnesses several women kissing, embracing and sleeping alongside one another in the palace of Ravana.  The celibate monkey god, Hanuman, is famous as Sri Ramacandra’s beloved servant and his devotion to Rama is legendary.  It is said that Hanuman has so much love for Sita-Rama that whenever he hears Their names chanted, a flood of tears immediately rolls down his cheeks.  In another pastime, Hanuman actually rips open his chest to demonstrate how Sri Sita-Rama are literally situated within his heart.

There are many temples of Lord Ramacandra and Hanuman throughout India and both of their appearance days are celebrated in the month of Chaitra (March-April).  Rama’s appearance day, known as Rama-navami, falls on the ninth day of the waxing moon while Hanuman’s appearance is on the full-moon day and known as Hanuman-jayantiDasara, or Rama-vijayotsava, is a festival celebrating Rama’s defeat over the demon king, Ravana, and honored on the tenth day of the waxing moon in Ashvina (September-October).  The festival is observed by burning an enormous effigy of Ravana, along with fireworks.  Diwali, a holiday celebrating Rama’s return from exile, falls on the new-moon day of Kartika (October-November).


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Sri Siva
Lord of the Dance

Sri Siva is the lord of the material cosmos and husband of goddess Durga (his shakti).  Together, they are among the most popular deities worshiped in Hinduism.  Lord Siva is in charge of universal destruction and famous as Nataraja, or lord of the dance.  When the time comes for the universe to end, Lord Siva performs his cosmic dance and ends the creation.  Blazing fire emanates from his dancing body with the heat of millions of suns and the cosmos is destroyed.  The above image is a popular rendition of Siva’s Nataraja form.

Like the goddess Durga, Lord Siva has many different expansions and is known by a variety of names such as Rudra, Nilakantha, Sankara, Bhutanatha, and Dinabandhu.  The latter two names refer to Siva’s association with the dark side of material nature: ghosts, demons, and all sorts of shady beings accompany Siva and he is very merciful to them, gradually purifying their hearts and raising them to a higher platform of existence.  For this reason, Lord Siva is famous as the friend of the fallen.  Another popular image of Siva is as a great yogi meditating in the Himalayas.  He wears a deerskin cloth, has dreadlocks, a darkish complexion and holds a trident.  His carrier is Nandi, a large white bull.

In Uttar Pradesh there is a popular narrative about Lord Siva’s transformation into the beautiful girl known as Gopisvara.  Siva once desired to witness Lord Krsna’s rasa-lila dance with the gopis.  He performed austerities for a long time until Krsna’s yogamaya, Paurnamasi, appeared before him.  He prayed to her for permission to witness the dance and she agreed, assisting him to dip within the Brahma-kunda pond.  Siva then emerged as a very beautiful young cowherd maiden and went to the place where the rasa-lila was being performed—hiding within a grove.  Krsna and the gopis, however, sensed that something was different and stopped dancing.  They searched the groves and discovered the unknown maiden.  “Who are you and where are you from?” they demanded.  The new gopi was sorry but didn’t know what to say, so the gopis began slapping her in the face until she began to cry.  “Yogamaya!” she called out.  “Please save me!”  Paurnamasi quickly came and requested the gopis to have mercy upon the new girl.  “She is the object of my mercy,” Paurnamasi told them.  The gopis thereafter happily accepted the girl and named her Gopisvara, which means “she whose controllers are the gopis.”  Krsna, who had been standing on the side and smiling the whole time, blessed Gopisvara to become the guard of His sacred rasa-lila and said, “Henceforth, without the sanction of Gopisvara, no one will be able to enter My divine rasa-lila dance.”  From that day on, Lord Siva’s duty as Gopisvara was to carefully guard the rasa-lila and prevent any unqualified persons from entering.

Lord Siva also appears in the hermaphrodite form of Sri Ardhanarisvara and is therefore manifest in all three genders.  There are many large and famous temples of Siva throughout India and he is worshiped especially on Siva-ratri—the last day of the waning moon (Caturdasi) in Phalguna (February-March).  During the festival, Siva’s divine linga (phallus) is worshiped as a symbol of procreation and the male principle.  There is also a temple of Sri Gopisvara Mahadeva in Vrndavana, Uttar Pradesh.


The Six Goswamis
Gopis in Male Forms

The six Goswamis were ascetic saints who lived in Vrndavana, India (the pastime place of Lord Krsna), during the sixteenth century.  As pure devotees of the Lord, they spent their days constantly chanting Krsna’s names and absorbed in deep, internal meditation (samadhi).  They lived austere, strictly celibate lives, eating very little and sleeping under trees at night.  They wore only torn cloth and kept no possessions of their own.

As the principal disciples of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the six Goswamis accomplished many amazing tasks.  Lord Caitanya instructed them to uncover Krsna’s pastime places, install Deities of Radha and Krsna, compile scriptures on the science of bhakti (devotion to God), and propagate the rules of devotional life.  When the six Goswamis first moved to Vrndavana it was simply an overgrown forest with no houses or village.  Through their efforts, however, they managed to locate all of Krsna’s pastime places and commissioned the construction of large, beautiful temples and ghats (bathing ponds).  As erudite scholars, they composed scores of essential Vaishnava texts on the science of bhakti, and by their examples they set the proper standard for devotional behavior and practice.

The six Goswamis—Sri Rupa, Sri Sanatana, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta, Sri Jiva, Sri Gopala Bhatta, and Sri Raghunatha dasa—are revealed in Vaishnava texts to be the six manjaris—Sri Rupa-manjari, Sri Lavanga-manjari, Sri Raga-manjari, Sri Vilasa-manjari, Sri Guna-manjari, and Sri Rasa-manjari—respectively (there is some variance on a few of these names).  A manjari is a very young gopi maiden in Krsna’s pastimes.  These maidens are servants of Sri Radha (Krsna’s spiritual shakti) and are completely devoted to Her.  They have no desire to unite with Krsna; rather, their only desire is to serve and attend to Radha.  These six young gopi maidens, on the order of Radha, incarnated as males in Lord Caitanya’s lila to assist the Lord in His mission.  Thus they were especially empowered to reveal the pastime places of Krsna and expound upon the teachings of bhakti.

Today, Vrndavana (in Uttar Pradesh) is a bustling town with thousands of Radha-Krsna temples and is one of the holiest places in India.  Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit annually from all over the world, especially during the month of Kartika (October-November) and on Janmastami.  The large stone temples erected by the six Goswamis are still fully operating and have been preserved as national monuments.


Sri Sukracarya
Born of Siva Alone

Sri Sukracarya is the preceptor of the asuras and master of all kinds of supernatural powers.  He is associated with the planet Venus, material pleasures, beauty, magic and bewitchment.  The story of Sukracarya’s appearance as the son of Siva is narrated both in the Mahabharata and the Vamana Purana as follows:  A powerful mystic named Kavya knew all sorts of maya (magic) but did not have the spell for bringing the dead back to life.  Hearing that Lord Siva possessed this power, Kavya propitiated the god by hanging himself head down over a smoldering fire.  When Siva appeared, Kavya slipped into his mouth and remained there for a very long time, gaining access to Siva’s knowledge and powers.  After acquiring the spell for reviving the dead, he sought a passage out but could only find Siva’s phallus.  Emerging from there, Siva quickly caught the asura and decided to kill him.  The goddess Parvati, however, stopped her husband and said, “Since this asura has left your body through the phallus, he is to be considered your son.”  Siva agreed and from then on Kavya was called Sukra—“sprung from the semen of Siva.”

Sri Sukracarya is depicted in a four-armed form riding on a white horse.  He is blinded in the right eye, relating to a pastime in which Vishnu plucked his eye with a straw and suggestive of his lack of spiritual vision.  People generally worship Sukracarya in order to acquire mystical powers or fulfill material desires; however, his worship is not very prevalent in India today and there are few temples dedicated to him.


Sri Surya
Lover of Aruni

Sri Surya is the Vedic sun god also known as Ravi or Vivasvan.  He is in charge of illuminating the universe and empowered by the Vaikuntha Deity, Surya-Narayana.  In a popular South Indian version of the Ramayana, Surya falls in love with his charioteer, Aruna, after the god transforms himself into a woman.  The story is narrated as follows:  Aruna, the god of dawn, desired to see the beautiful courtesans dancing in the palace of Indra.  He thus transformed himself into the goddess, Aruni, and sneaked into Indra’s palace.  Indra noticed Aruni and was immediately captivated by her amazing beauty.  The two made love together and created a son named Vali.  The next day, Aruna was late for duty and Surya demanded to know why.  Aruna described the incident and Surya requested if he could also see the beautiful form.  Aruna complied, but Surya then became so captivated by Aruni he immediately made love to her, producing another child known as Sugriva.  The two offspring were later turned into vanaras (human-like apes) by the curse of Gautama Rsi.

There are many popular temples devoted to Sri Surya throughout India such as the Brahmanyadeva Mandira near Jhansi (Madhya Pradesh) and the Suryanarayanaswami Temple near Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh).  Other ancient sun temples stand in ruin such as the famous thirteenth-century Konark Temple near Puri (Orissa).  The impressive architecture of these temples, with their magnificent, sexually-explicit carvings—some of which include same-sex lovemaking—point to long-forgotten days in India when Hindus were free to display erotic artistry.  Many of the Surya temples are specifically designed so that the rays of the sun fall on the enshrined deity at the time of the equinoxes, when special festivals and ceremonies are held.  Sri Surya is generally worshiped for benedictions of strength, power and good health.


Sri Vallabhavardhana
Vishnu’s Hermaphrodite Form

Sri Vallabhavardhana is a relatively little-known hermaphrodite form of Lord Vishnu and Laksmi-devi combined.  Lord Vishnu is a transcendental manifestation of God who resides in the spiritual world known as Vaikuntha (literally, “beyond all anxiety”).  Vishnu maintains both the spiritual and material cosmos simply by His own sweet will—He is depicted as being completely aloof, lying peacefully on His serpent bed (Ananta-Sesa), attended by the Goddess Laksmi (His spiritual shakti), and served in awe and reverence by His devotees.  The demigods often call upon Sri Vishnu as a last resort for deliverance from their calamities.

Like many other deities, Lord Vishnu manifests Himself in all three genders—male, female (Mohini) and hermaphrodite (Sri Vallabhavardhana).  The Vallabhavardhana form of the Lord is literally split down the middle with the right half represented by Vishnu and the left half by Laksmi.  In the image shown above (from Kashmir), Sri Vallabhavardhana is seated and has an eight-armed form.  Most of the known carvings and sculptures of this Deity are from North India.  Sri Vallabhavardhana (literally, “half Vallabha or Vishnu”) is mentioned briefly in the Bhavisya Purana, but otherwise little else is known about this rare and unusual form.  There appears to be no prevalent worship of Sri Vallabhavardhana in India today.


Sri Yellamma-Devi
Goddess of the Devadasis

Sri Yellamma-devi is an expansion of the goddess Durga who is worshiped all over India, especially in south-central regions such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.  She is very popular with the third sex, and her appearance is based on narratives from the Bhagavata Purana (9.16. 1-8) and later medieval traditions.  There are several versions of the story but the basic description is as follows:

Lord Parasurama’s mother, Renuka, went to the bank of the Ganges to collect water for her husband’s daily yajna (fire sacrifice).  Once there, she saw the king of the gandharvas (celestial musicians) sporting with beautiful apsaras (celestial courtesans).  Distracted by the scene, Renuka returned somewhat late with the water.  Her husband, Jamadagni, could understand the reason and accused his wife of committing adultery within her mind.  Furious, he ordered his many sons to kill the woman but they all refused except for the youngest, Parasurama.  Understanding his father’s great mystic powers, Parasurama agreed to behead his mother and all of his brothers with his famous axe (some narratives mention Parasurama castrating his brothers rather than killing them).  When Parasurama attempted to behead Renuka, however, Durga-devi appeared as the goddess Yellamma—a celestial apsara with thousands of heads.  Unable to tolerate the sight of a son killing his mother, she stood before Renuka to prevent the matricide, but because Parasurama was so determined to fulfill his father’s order, Yellamma created an illusory Renuka and Parasurama beheaded that form instead.  Jamadagni was thus pleased with the obedience of his son and asked him for any benediction.  Parasurama requested that his mother and brothers be returned to life with no memory of the incident.  Jamadagni agreed and all were revived.  The illusory form thus remained with Jamadagni while the original Renuka dedicated her life to the goddess, becoming her inseparable associate and companion.

Sri Yellamma-devi is worshiped as an expansion of Durga and is the protector of her devotees.  Her name means, literally, “a mother to all.”  She is depicted along with Renuka (as in the picture above) but it is her association with the ancient Hindu practice of keeping devadasis, or temple courtesans, that is perhaps most striking.  Prostitution was permitted in ancient India under certain circumstances and Vedic narratives contain many references to prostitutes as part of the social construct in large cities and towns such as Lord Krsna’s capital of Dvaraka, Varanasi, and Puri in Orissa.  In recent centuries, however, the practice of keeping temple courtesans has been largely discouraged and is only visible within certain traditional ceremonies and rituals, usually related to the worship of the goddess.

Devadasis are maidservants whose lives are completely surrendered to the temple god or goddess.  They are often seen in town carrying large pots on their heads that contain images of the deity.  They wear brilliant marks of turmeric and vermilion on their foreheads and can be seen singing and dancing in the streets.  As temple dancers, devadasis maintain important religious dance traditions; as prostitutes, they make their services available to anyone and take donations that are given to the goddess.  Twice a year during the full moon in Magha and Chaitra, special festivals and ceremonies are held marked by large processions of jogathis (devotees of Yellamma) who parade unclothed through the streets.  The traditional nudity has since been largely curtailed, much to the protest of the jogathis (they now wear loose clothing or dresses made of neem leaves).  The temple courtesans are not only female—a large number of them are males, known as jogappas, which include both feminine transgenders dressed as women and masculine types who also offer their service as dancers and male prostitutes.

There are quite a few temples of Sri Yellamma-devi throughout India. Some of the more famous ones are the eleventh-century temple in Badami and the Renuka-Yellamma temple in Saudatti (Belgaum), both in Karnataka.  There are also two popular temples in Kurnool (Dandakaranya) and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.  Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend on the Saudatti temple during the biggest festival of the year, held on the full-moon night of Magha (January-February).  Initiations into the devadasi cult are held at that time—initiates are married to the goddess and vow to devote their lives to her.  In modern times, many of the devadasis come from destitute backgrounds and are no longer respected or treated well.

On Nonsectarianism

In Vedic literature it is stated that thirty-three million demigods preside over the various aspects of nature.  It is impossible, therefore, to fully account for and describe all of the innumerable Hindu deities and their pastimes.  Nevertheless, it can be observed that the majority of deities worshiped in Hinduism exhibit some form of gender diversity and that the two most popular—Vishnu and Siva—manifest in all three genders.

Hindu philosophy acknowledges many different levels of worship and for this reason, religious and sectarian tolerance is an important Hindu precept.  In India, all types of religions and sects are honored including monotheistic Vaishnavism; Saivism; monistic Brahmanism; Shaktism (goddess worship); polytheistic demigod worship, animism (nature and spirit worship), and even traditions outside of Hinduism.  Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Sufis and other religious groups have all sought shelter on the Indian subcontinent and, for the most part, in peace.  Below are a few inspiring words by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura on the importance of nonsectarianism and the recognition of different levels of worship:

“All human beings are grateful to God.  No matter how many sins they commit, occasionally they become aware that God is the supreme entity, and when they are endowed with this belief, they bow down before the extraordinary things of this world.  When ignorant people are inspired by their gratitude to God, they naturally offer respect to the sun, a river, a mountain, or to enormous animals.  They express their hearts before such things and display submission to them.  Granted, there is a vast difference between this type of worship of material objects, and transcendental affection toward the Lord.  Still, when such ignorant people adopt a mood of gratitude to God and reverence toward material objects, it gradually produces a positive effect.  Therefore, if one examines the situation logically, one cannot ascribe any fault to them.”

“We consider that it is essential to arouse bhava towards Bhagavan by any means.  The door leading to gradual elevation is firmly shut if people on any level of worship are ridiculed or condemned.  Those who fall under the spell of dogmatism, and thereby become sectarian, lack the qualities of generosity and munificence.  That is why they ridicule and condemn others who do not worship in the same way as they do.  This is a great mistake on their part.”  (Jaiva Dharma, p. 272)


(From the book, “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex.”)


©2004 GALVA-108