Non-Binary Gender Constructions in Asian Religions

On February 21st the last of the Religion and Trans Lives in a Global Perspective Seminars occurred in the Krannert room of Clowes Memorial Hall. Titled “ Non-Binary Gender Constructions in Asian Religions”, the keynote was given by Dr. Lucinda Ramberg, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. Her respondent was Indu Vasudevan a local writer and editor who is a leader and well respected member of the Indianapolis Hindu Community.

Dr. Ramberg began her address by discussing the relationship between the concept of gender and the influence culture has on such a concept. She pointed to the western idea of gender complementarianism, which suggests men are made for women and women for men. Ideals such as these are rooted in cultural and religious trends and enforce an ideal of either-or binary gender constructions. Ramberg suggested that while religion can be seen as a cultural institution that enforces such culturally conditioned norms, in the context of Asian religions this is not always the case. In the context of Dr. Ramberg’s area of specialty, the religious and sexual practices of practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism in southern India, there are several groups of people whose religious identity leads them to identify neither as rigidly female nor rigidly male, and in some cases are recognized legally by the Indian government as a third gender with all the legal rights that come with this distinction.

Dr. Ramberg continued her address by bringing light to examples in the sacred texts of southern Indian religions where gender, either amongst the gods or human beings, was treated in a fluid manner. Ramberg pointed to the example of Shikhandi, a character in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, who is born as a girl and raised as a man, or in some versions of the story becomes a man. Stories like this and others found in both Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts use gender transition to serve as a vehicle for a greater spiritual transformation, and a realization of the transitory nature of all human life.

After her exploration of sacred texts Ramberg moved to an examination of the focus of her ethnographic research, which are devotees to the goddess Yellamma. Ramberg spoke of the ways in which female devotees to Yellamma, known as Jogatis, would adopt male clothing and mannerisms, and speak of the deity as both their husband and their mother. Similarly male devotees, called jogappas, would often adopt the clothing and mannerisms of women. These changes of gender identity and gender roles by devotees has implications for relationships of kinship, work and the societal obligations that are typically assigned to men and women as well. Ramberg noted that when we look at bodies as the only signifier of gender, we can lose our understanding of the role work and kinship responsibilities have in gender identity. Speaking more of Yellama, Ramberg explained, “The complex and generative power of the devi is manifest in gender transformation”. The power of the goddess Yellama is so strong that both men and women throw off the gendered expectations and responsibilities that culture dictates to them in order to more fully devote themselves to the goddess. In the cases of some this results in women who dress and take on the responsibilities of men and men who dress and take the responsibilities of women.

Speaking to the view of Yellama’s devotees and other third genders in India, such as the Hijras, who identify as Muslim and have legal status as a third gender in India, she said despite the higher prevalence and in some cases legal protections that are given to them in India, these third gendered people are still subject to abuse and discrimination, even formalized in ways such as anti-sodomy laws. While acceptance is greater, there is still a large amount of misunderstanding and fear of third-gendered people in greater Indian society.

Concluding her talk Dr. Ramberg asserted that while secular culture looks at gender in terms of biology and psychology, religion does not necessarily limit itself to those categories. Rather, as the narratives of gender transformation in Asian religions suggest gender may be less biological and more a fluid experience, and a call of the gods.

Indu Vasudevan in her response indicated Dr. Ramberg’s address reminded her of an experience she had while giving tours of the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana. During one of her tours a participant pointed out it seemed the male deities had feminine features. Vasudevan remarked that she hadn’t noticed that before, but this reminded her of the fact that in the Hindu tradition God is beyond simple created representation. No depiction of God, masculine or feminine can depict the full spectrum of who God is. She continued, saying that the gendered deities one finds in the Temple are all depictions of of singular encounters with the divine, and that, for her, to have a depiction that was strictly feminine or strictly masculine would not be as fully divine.

Continuing on this thought, Vasudevan exclaimed that in her opinion, the purpose of the temple is evolution, even outside considerations of gender we are constantly in a process of discovering and affirming our identity based on our past and current experiences. For her, being trans can stand for that idea of constantly finding our own identity and constantly recreating ourselves. Regardless of the way we choose to identify our gender in our life we all identity in some ways with the fluidity of existence, and in the idea that life is a constant practice of transition.

After a brief Q & A that covered topics such as the climate of acceptance of LGBTQ people in India, and what the opinion is of transgendered people in an American Hindu context, the seminar concluded with a brief reflection from a transgender student named Vic, who had attended all four of the seminars and was a member of the class constructed around the seminar series. Vic began by addressing their own difficult experiences in faith communities, pointing out “when there doesn’t seem space for you somewhere, it’s hard to remain there.” That being said Vic explained the seminar series did serve as an important impetus to tackle the personal questions of religion that they had been avoiding. In critique of the seminar series Vic pointed out transgender students had hoped there were more transgender respondents on the panels throughout the series. However, Vic continued, this is perhaps just indicative of the barriers that remain that stop transgendered people from access to the tools and opportunities to engage in a scholarly study of their own history. Vic also noted the importance language had in throughout the seminar series, as trans people in other faiths and cultures use different terms to describe themselves.

As Vic’s comments demonstrated the Religion and Trans Lives in a Global Perspective Seminars helped attendees learn the diversity of ways that transgender people all over the world have used different language to describe themselves, and how oftentimes religion has played a key role in the self-identity of transgendered people for better or worse. These seminars helped remind us of the role religion and culture have in forming our own identities, and that the interplay between religious identification and personal self-identity  is always something that is in a state of transition.

By Andrew Weller

Partners: Center for Faith and Vocation and Seminar for Religion and Global Affairs at Butler University

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