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When Sanskrit Grammar Uses More Than 2 Genders, Why Can’t Indian Society Accept Trans People?

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The most prized possession of a human being is their identity. Their selfhood. Where they come from and where they are going. Though it might seem like a given in the 21st century, this basic need of being identified in a community one wants to be ascribed to is not privy to everyone. One of those groups is the LGBTQ community.

June is International Pride Month and I can’t help but wonder whether or not something has changed for the LGBTQ community through the years. I mean yes, several changes have happened.

It was only last year that the World Health Organisation declassified being trans as a mental illness. Gender incongruence was previously regarded as a psychological disorder. Internationally, the classification has been used to refute the identities and health needs of persons who belong to a different gender than the one they have been ascribed by the society or at birth.

It was also last year that India decriminalized homosexuality, as under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an important step towards recognizing this long-fighting community’s inalienable rights.

During the 7th edition of Hijra Habba, a gathering of queer community and its supporters, at Select Citywalk, on September 11, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Hijra Habba is an annual gathering of the LGBTQI+ community and supporters with an aim to celebrate the being as well as talk about issues that plague them. Photo by Sarang Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

However, I must say that these steps—as progressive as they are—have come quite late. It was high time that a person’s right to self-identification, when it comes to their gender, started being taken seriously. The government and society may think that these steps help the LGBTQ community a lot, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger problem that lies ahead is the prejudice faced by the LGBTQ community and the taboo that the topic of gender incongruence has become in society.

After declassifying gender incongruence, the WHO issued a statement saying that keeping it in the mental health chapter was causing stigma and confusion throughout the globe. The definition has changed, but the years of stigma remain,

Where did this stigma come from? Has it existed since the beginning of time? I personally think that one of the most significant factors of transphobia is how our society and its inhabitants are forgetting our roots. The gender incongruence and stigma against transgender people is quite common in the 21st century. But, if we take a look at the history of the Indian subcontinent, there is little evidence of violence or malice towards queerness, especially compared to the present scenario.

Kinnar or Hijra people, whom the government now refers to as “the third gender”, have historically been regarded as close to the gods in Indian mythology (I am deliberately not using the world Hindu Mythology because these rituals and names existed even before the word Hindu was coined).

In India, there has been a long-standing tradition of Kinnars coming to weddings or a child’s birth to offer blessings. In fact, they are given hefty amounts of money and a lot of ceremonial gifts because their stature is considered similar to God itself, and hence, their blessings are believed to be quite pure and effective. It is forbidden in the Hindu religion to abuse a Kinnar, let alone hurt them physically, for fear of incurring the wrath of the only one that matters to every Indian: God.

If we go further back and look at our epics, like “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata”, we come across numerous instances of “the third gender” holding a significant part of the story. It proves how they have not only been considered a normal part of ancient and medieval society but have also held an essential place in the epics, which are considered to be holy by a large portion of the Indian population.

A popular title from author, historian, and LGBTQ community member Devdutt Pattanaik which tells the story of Shikhandi in detail.

For instance, Shikhandi, a transgender person who was a woman reborn as a man, was considered the key to defeating the Kaurava army in “Mahabharata”, and held a special place in Krishna’s eyes.

Another example comes from the language of the gods itself. Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, was used to write all major Hindu epics. Its grammar uses three genders: masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral. Trans-ness was clearly recognized in India’s past.

Lord Shiva manifests himself in a form called Ardhnarishivara—half man and half woman—which is worshipped all around India. Ardhnarishvara, as a figure, proves that fluid genders and sexualities have been an integral part of our culture.

Additionally, several minor tales of the LGBTQ community are prevalent as religious beliefs and urban legends alike. The story of Ila, a king cursed by Shiva and Parvati, to be gender fluid and alternate between being a man, and then a woman, each month, appears in several historic texts. Bahuchara Mata is the patron goddess of the Hijra community.

Having read many literary epics and different mythologies, I can go as far as to say that the extent to which the third gender has been represented in Indian mythology and the religious stories (an essential part of Indian culture) is unparalleled.

Though we can’t say with surety that this is an acclamation of the third gender by the Ancient Indian civilisation, it certainly means that there long has been recognition of gender(s) other than male and female in India.

Moral of the Story? We just need to return to our roots. Those who think that gender fluidity is against our culture and is a new fad, kindly pick up our epics and read them carefully. Otherwise, stop claiming that you’re working to preserve our culture, because it is your vague sense of our all-permeating and accepting culture which you are ultimately undermining here. Until you know all the facts, please reserve your judgement.

Let me be honest. I have no idea how a transgender person feels every day because I’m not one. But what I am is a writer, and I consider it my duty to not only write about issues important to society but research about them, in depth. In that respect I continuously try to understand why issues such as these take birth instead of diving face first into thinking how to eradicate the seeming problem.

I am not saying that’s what you should do, nor am I blaming anyone. However, perhaps we need to share some blame in sweeping yet another issue under the carpet instead of facing it in the eyes.

There’s an old saying that goes like this: The devil works by separating you from your loved ones and then taking you over to the darkness. Perhaps this rift between trans and cis people is nothing but a work of darkness trying to divide the community and spread chaos. Look carefully around you. Maybe the darkness is engulfing some of your friends. Try to be the light of their life. One moment of understanding from you can prove to be someone’s motivation to live.

Featured Image source: Getty Images. For representation only.
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