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.
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).
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.
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 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 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 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-bhava. Sakhi-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 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.
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.
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 Krisna is known as Madana-mohana—the enchanter of the male deity, Kamadeva (Cupid). Indeed, the very name Krisna 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 Krisna 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.
Krisna’s pastimes are very playful and sportive; narratives from the Puranas as well as post-medieval texts often portray Krisna and His friends (both male and female) crossdressing for fun and delivering messages in disguise. Krisna 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 Krisna that the gopis do and are always completely overwhelmed by Krsna’s beauty and the love they feel for Him.
Krisna 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, Krisna 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 krisna-prema or pure love of God.
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).
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.
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.”)