Transsexualism, gender, and anxiety in traditional India.

Author:Goldman, Robert P.

In Memory of Bimal Krishna Matilal (1935 - 1991)

"There is a vast difference between this world and the next." Every one knows that. This world and the next are really one and the same. But that is something you should not tell to anyone.(1)

THE QUESTION OF HOW A scholar "reads" or ought to "read" a text, whether it be oral, written, plastic, or performative--especially when the text is derived from a culture other than that of the scholar--has become increasingly central to a number of academic fields in recent years. Few disciplines have had to grapple with this issue more seriously than the cluster grouped uneasily under such names as "Asian" or "Oriental" studies. The question has, in fact, grown more complex in the last several decades by virtue of the introduction of theoretical and methodological approaches in both the humanities and the social sciences that specifically problematize such reading. Workers in anthropology, history, and literary criticism have sought to demonstrate that reading a text is, among other things, a political act, especially when the reader places himself (or herself) in a position of dominance vis a vis the audience for which the text was intended. Scholars such as Said, Clifford, Geertz, Spivak, and others(2) in their own ways have contributed to the erosion of the old orientalists' philological authority and the notion that a text could be studied and interpreted in a social and political vacuum with nothing to intervene between the author and the translator/editor and no one to contest the latter's reading.

But texts too, no less than our readings and constructions of them, are themselves political in that they have both prescriptive and descriptive value for the cultures of which they are artifacts. Yet certain texts, particularly the religious, philosophical, and mythological texts--both written and performative--of traditional Asian cultures, have only occasionally been read for what they can tell us about the inner affect and power relations associated with specific cultural and social configurations. This has been particularly true in the case of traditional India where textually based scholarship has tended to concentrate on philological, theological, and philosophical analysis and has rarely shown much interest in "reading" traditional Indian texts as vital elements in the social, political, and psychological matrix of South Asian cultures.(3) Nonetheless, to the extent that we fail to examine the cultural purposes served by specific texts and their recurrent themes, the ways in which they were intended to be "read" by their original audiences, and the ways in which they have been read by successive indigenous audiences, we may--for all our philological skill and hermeneutical wit--utterly misunderstand what they are "about," either in some probably irrecoverable intended meaning or in any of the other meanings constructed by historically particular users and consumers of these texts.(4)

A particularly good opportunity for an integrated study of textual materials in their social context is presented when we have, as in the case of much Indian literature, texts that are not merely ancient, but have continued to occupy a central role in the culture in a variety of forms from antiquity right down to the present. One such opportunity is presented by the themes and characters of the Sanskrit epics and major puranas which have fascinated the peoples of South Asia from the time of the late vedic bards to that of the modern television serial. A still greater opportunity is to be had when major recurrent themes of these documents are internalized and acted out for popular consumption by highly visible and influential figures in the religious, political, and artistic realms.

Themes and texts that have attained the kind of longevity and diffusion as these have are of profound significance to people among whom they are current, although it does not necessarily follow that the reasons for their significance are immediately apparent to or easily articulated either by these people or by scholars. This distance between the significance of a mythic theme in any given social or cultural context and the ability to account for it is especially great when these materials may speak, in some cases, to deeply and powerfully acculturated anxieties and fears which, by their very nature, may be difficult to confront in undisguised form. In South Asia, as in other largely patriarchal societies, these fears, which these texts may paradoxically both reinforce and partially alleviate, frequently cluster around a deeply problematized complex of issues involving the body, gender, sexuality,(5) power, hierarchy, and subordination.

A commonplace in the social, performative, and literary representations of these anxieties in virtually all patriarchal societies has been the expression of a highly charged and deeply ambivalent attitude towards women and women's sexuality. In many texts women are idealized as pure, spiritual, and nurturant when they are de-erotized and placed in clearly defined and sexually tabooed blood relationships such as those of mother, sister, or daughter. In others, when emphasis is placed on their sexuality, they are often vilified for this aspect of their nature and condemned as temptress, seductress, or whore. Thus although women are objectified and commodified as desirable and coveted male possessions, the very sexuality for which they are so highly prized is, at the same time, represented as dangerous and destructive to men. By such projective devices, male-dominated cultures have been able to establish a univocal yet hegemonic ideology of gender. A central and defining tenet of this ideology is that sexuality itself, especially when viewed negatively, arises chiefly through the agency of women who are unregulated by the societally defined constraints of kinship. This can be seen both in the recurrent ancient Indian mythic theme of the celibate male sage who has sex with an irresistible apsaras and then curses her, and in the popular and even judicial attitude of the contemporary world that holds women responsible for sexual assaults visited upon them.(6) One particular theme derived from this matrix of attitudes and anxieties has occupied a special role in the literature and religious life of traditional India. This is the phenomenon of transsexualism, the internalized or acted-out fantasy or desire (and, with modern surgery, the fact) of changing the sex with which one was born. This phenomenon is well attested in most cultures, and, along with the related phenomenon of transvestism, it has been the subject of many historical, statistical, cross-cultural, and psychological studies.(7) It has also often been featured in the various media of popular journalism.(8) In recent years this theme has even become a staple of mainstream Hollywood movie comedy.(9)

Few cultures have accorded this phenomenon so prominent a place in the realms of mythology and religion as has that of traditional India.(10) A study of Indian traditions of transsexualism will, I believe, provide material both for a clearer understanding of the traditional literature and culture of South Asia and for a better sense of the ways in which gender, sexuality, and power have been constructed in many patriarchal cultures, including those of the contemporary West. In the following paper, then, I will present and discuss a number of salient examples of transsexualism drawn from the religious and mythological texts of ancient and medieval India, the cultic practices at various shrines in north and south India, and the lives and teachings of several important modern Indian religious figures and members of organized religious communities.

The great preponderance of instances of transsexualism in India, as in many other cultures, involve the temporary or permanent transformation of men into women. Moreover, the whole phenomenon appears to be deeply bound up with a patriarchal culture's ambivalent construction of women and their sexuality. It will, therefore, be useful to review briefly some of the principal normative representations of this construction as they are articulated by representatives of the various indigenous South Asian religious traditions.

Expressions of a profoundly antipathetic attitude towards women, their strength, their intelligence, their fidelity, their chastity, their capacities for independence and spiritual liberation, and their very anatomy are commonplace in many of the most influential documents of the major indigenous Indian traditions, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, from the time of the very earliest texts of which we have knowledge.

The Rgveda's assertion of feminine inconstancy and treachery;(11) the early Buddhist literature's dwelling upon the Bodhisattva's revulsion at the sight of the unclothed female body;(12) the Buddha's reluctance and pessimism over admitting women to the sangha;(13) the shrill misogyny of Bhartrhari's subhasitas;(14) the prolonged and bitter Jaina disputes over women's eligibility for spiritual liberation;(15) Manu's often-quoted rejection of female autonomy;(16) Tulsi Das's famous verse grouping women with donkeys, drums, and low-caste Hindus as entities requiring beating;(17) and the anthologized verse in which sexual contact with a woman is said to undermine the mental, moral, and physical well-being of men(18) are but a few salient examples drawn from a vast, well-known, and profoundly influential corpus of textual sources providing an elaborate and ponderous negative counterweight to the equally well- buttressed construction of women as idealized lover, wife, and mother which the tradition also articulates.(19)

Such texts both reflect and reinforce a set of deeply ingrained attitudes in the traditional patriarchal cultures of South Asia and indeed the cultures of many, if not most, regions. As such they are of central importance to our...

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