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Transsexualism, gender, and anxiety in traditional India.

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 formation of a clear understanding of these cultures, their attitudes towards women and sexuality, and the very real consequences these attitudes continue to have for the societies that have adopted them in general, and the women of these societies in particular. They have, however, already been discussed in a number of scholarly contexts, both indological and feminist, and I do not intend to treat them in any detail here. Rather, I have alluded to them in order to provide a context in which the textual materials from ancient and modern India that I will be addressing in this paper may be situated.

These well-known passages must be kept clearly in mind because the thrust of the materials upon which I will focus may seem, in many respects, to be contradictory, even diametrically so, to the spirit that animates them. And, having presented the substance, or at any rate the outline, of some less well known textual passages that may at first reading appear to project a positive valuation of women and femininity, I shall return to the better-known passages and attempt to resolve, or at the least illuminate, this seeming contradiction. In doing so, I hope to be able to shed some additional light upon one of the sources of traditional India's characteristic configuration of attitudes concerning women, sexuality, and gender.

The episodes with which I will be dealing here are drawn from both ancient literary and religious documents as well as from the biographies of modern spiritual leaders and ethnographic descriptions of monastic communities; yet they have one common central theme. Unlike many of the better known passages in which the issues of sex and normative gender role are engaged, episodes such as the Savitri legend, the crisis between Dasaratha and Kaikeyi, the touching devotion of Sita, Rama's fateful encounter with the raksasi Surpanakha, or Srikrsna's play among the gopikas of Vraja, these texts rarely concern themselves chiefly with the transactions, positive or negative, between members of the opposite sexes. Instead, the focal moment in the materials upon which I will concentrate involves the transformation of a person from one sex to the other through the exercise of some supernatural power or as the result of a powerful wish.

I will not attempt to provide a comprehensive treatment of all references to transgenderism and transsexualism in the vast, diverse, and copious literary, religious, and folkloric traditions of India. I will not, for example, be dealing with instances where, whether in a single life or over the course of a person's transmigrational history, a change of sex is merely an index of a change in moral stature or degree of spiritual merit, nor with those where such a transformation is deliberately undertaken on a temporary basis through the use of spells or magical articles, usually for the purpose of deception in connection with a romantic involvement. Rather, I will be concentrating on those religious, literary, and historical texts in which, I believe, this theme most powerfully illuminates the complex set of attitudes concerning sexuality, hierarchy, deference, and power relations characteristic of traditional South Asian culture and society. The majority of these episodes relate variations on the theme of the transformation of a man into a woman, although a few represent the reverse metamorphosis. And yet, although it is of frequent occurrence in significant contexts in the mythological and religious literatures of South Asia and has not seldom been remarked upon by scholars, this motif has generated little in the way of analytic or theoretical discussion to date.(20) Although tales of sexual transformation are attested from the literatures, oral and written, of many cultures, South Asia appears for some reason to have provided unusually fertile ground for texts informed by this theme.(21) Indeed, in several forms and contexts, the theme may be discovered in a wide variety of traditional and modern contexts of Indian cultural history. The question of such transformation and of complete or partial sexual and gender ambiguity is readily observable in a number of widely familiar manifestations such as the ubiquity of the curious hijra phenomenon,(22) the common iconographic representation of Siva in the hermaphroditic form of Ardhanarisvara--a representation treated quite playfully by some devotional poets,(23) the complex and highly charged erotic devotionalism characteristic of the Bhagavata literature and the performative traditions of the Krsna cult,(24) and even the Buddhist literature.(25) I will return to some aspects of these figures later on, but to begin I should like to turn to some less well known but still widely disseminated legends in which we see unambiguously articulated the notion of complete and literal transsexualism.

One of the oldest such legends of which we have a record and the one most frequently recounted in the traditional literature is the tale of King Ila.(26) Variants of this legend are found in both of the Sanskrit epics(27) and many puranas.(28) It is closely bound up with the ancient and widely disseminated cycle of tales centering on Ila's son Pururavas, ancestor of the Lunar dynasty, and his ill- fated love for the apsaras Urvasi.(29) This cycle is well established in the vedic literature, and although the episode involving Ila's transformation is not fully developed there, it is detailed in an account quoted at length by the commentator Sayana(30) as providing the historical context for the birth of Pururavas. According to this version, the prince Ila, out hunting, inadvertently enters the trysting spot of the Goddess (devikrida) at a moment when her husband, the Lord Siva, is making love with her. In order to prevent any other male from seeing his wife in his embrace, the God, through his divine power, had ordained that any male entering this forbidden spot would be turned into a woman. The king undergoes a transformation into a woman, which is the source of acute shame. The woman Ila implores the God to reverse this transformation but is told that she must propitiate the Goddess. She throws herself upon the Mother's mercy, and the Goddess grants that Ila will be restored to manhood at the end of six months. It is during his semester of femininity that s/he is wooed by King Budha by whom s/he is impregnated and to whom s/he bears a son, the prince Pururavas.

In the first book of the Mahabharata, there is a genealogy of the Candravamsa in which we find a terse reference to the birth of Pururavas, of whom it is enigmatically stated that he was born to Ila who was both his mother and his father.(31) The fact that such a startling statement goes unexplained in a text not noted for its aversion to prolixity may perhaps be seen as an indication that the poet assumed that the tale was quite familiar to his audience. A fairly elaborate version is related in the Uttarakanda of the Valmiki Ramayana(32) where the motif of the feminization of the masculine in the face of the Mother's sexuality is carried so far that, in order to please her, Siva turns not only all other male beings in the vicinity into females but effects this regendering upon himself as well.(33) Here too, Ila is represented as being both distressed by her loss of manhood and is rebuffed by the God in her request for its restoration. She once more throws herself upon the mercy of the Goddess who grants her only half her wish, so that the king is permitted to alternate between the two genders on a monthly basis. During her first month as a woman, she falls in love with Budha and conceives Pururavas. S/he then shifts back and forth between the genders on a monthly basis alternating accordingly between the erotic dalliance of a woman and the manly exercise of kingly duty until, having performed the Asvamedha rite, he permanently reverts to the male sex and is thus restored to his previous state of happiness.(34) An interesting variant of this motif may be found in the widely known Mahabharata episode in which the virile hero Arjuna, visiting the heavenly court of his father Indra, rejects the sexual advances of the apsaras Urvasi precisely because her well-known liaison with his ancestor Pururavas places her in the position of a "mother" to him.(35) The nymph is furious at being thus spurned and curses Arjuna to lose his manhood and become a napumsaka, a feminized transvestite of ambiguous sex and feminized gender. But, like the curse of his forefather Ila, this one too is modified so as to have its effect restricted to only a limited period. Indra intervenes on his son's behalf and sets the term of the curse at one year. It is Urvasi's curse, thus modified by Indra, that provides the underlying explanation for the necessity of Arjuna's having to adopt the humiliating guise of the feminized transvestite Brhannada during the Pandavas' year of enforced concealment at the court of Virata.(36) Without question the most complex and elaborate single instance of a case of sexual transformation in the literature and one of the few significant accounts of female to male transsexualism(37) is the strange minisaga of Amba, the princess of Kasi, who, having become unmarriageable as a result of her abduction at the hands of the Bharata prince Bhisma, performs fearsome penances in order to be reborn as a man so that she may kill him in retaliation.(38) Here too, the god Siva intervenes, promising that Amba shall obtain the desired transformation and be reborn as the warrior son of King Drupada. Accordingly she immolates herself with this as her final all-consuming wish. Amba's metamorphosis into a man, however, is not to be so easily accomplished. Drupada, the tale continues, was at this time performing austerities of his own for the more conventional purpose of obtaining a son and heir. Siva instead grants him a daughter, in whom Amba is reincarnated, promising that she will in the end become a man. Thus the girl is raised as a boy and the king, relying on the infallibility of the great god's promise, agrees to find a wife for her. The bride is greatly astonished--not to say dismayed--when, upon her wedding night, she discovers that her new husband is also a woman.(39) The bride's father threatens to kill his deceitful brother-in-law, and the girl-groom Sikhandini, in despair, sets out to kill herself yet again. This time, however, she encounters a yaksa who, through his superhuman powers, effects an exchange of sexes with her.(40) This is the origin of the "woman" warrior Sikhandin who, true to the death vow of Princess Amba, will be the cause of Bhisma's destruction. For it is s/he who will serve as a shield from whose inviolate shelter Arjuna will shoot down his unresisting "grandfather."(41) This entire strange complex of episodes, a mere fragment of which I have mentioned here, has important implications for our understanding of the constitution of the primal triad of father, mother, and son in traditional India, and I have discussed this passage and its consequences in the Mahabharata more fully elsewhere.(42) Interestingly, the story makes a sort of detour, in keeping with the tenor of the Ila/Ila tale, to report on the fate of the yaksa/yaksi Sthunakarna who, by virtue of his switch with Sikhandini, has become female. S/he is disgraced by what is regarded as a form of degradation and is cursed by his/her lord Kubera to remain female. This curse too is modified, however, to permit the recovery of his original male sex upon the death of Sikhandin.(43)

A somewhat more illuminating episode of sexual transformation, one that focuses more directly upon the question of sexuality than the Mahabharata tale of Sikhandin, is related in the Anusasanaparvan of the same poem. Bhisma, responding to Yudhisthira's question as to which sex, male or female, derives greater pleasure from the act of sexual intercourse, narrates the "ancient tale" of King Bhangasvana.(44)

According to this story, the king who, like so many epic monarchs, is distraught over the lack of a son to succeed him, chooses, in an effort to procure an heir, one of the several remedies the texts hold forth as options,(45) in this case the performance of a ritual whose purpose is the propitiation of a specific divinity. He performs the Agnistut rite to propitiate the god Agni. This performance, although it is effective in producing no fewer than a hundred sons for the king, has also the undesired effect of antagonizing another powerful and vengeful patriarchal figure, Indra, king of the gods. In his jealousy, Indra seeks some opportunity to punish Bhangasvana and finds one when the king, again in keeping with a common epic schema, becomes separated from his retainers and loses his way while hunting. Exhausted, hot, and thirsty, he refreshes himself in a forest pool only to discover, to his shame and horror, upon emerging that he has become a woman.(46) In this so new and weaker form s/he is barely able to remount his horse and ride back to his capital, wondering what on earth to tell his wives, courtiers, and subjects. Once there s/he realizes the unfitness of a woman to rule and so confers the unambiguously phallic rod (danda) of sovereignty upon his one hundred sons collectively and retires to the forest to take up the life of a religious recluse. But there, like the similarly transformed Ila, s/he meets a male ascetic to whom s/he bears a second set of one hundred sons. S/he brings the second set of sons to the capital and persuades their elder brothers to share power with them. At this, Indra, perceiving that he has only increased the felicity of the man (now a woman) who had so provoked him, intervenes once more to stir up a deadly feud between the two sets of sons so that they annihilate each other. Then, taking the form of a venerable brahman, the god approaches the grieving woman to savor his triumph. He gently inquires as to the cause of her suffering and, when Bhangasvana tells him, the god reveals himself and gloats over his enemy. The woman humbly begs Indra's pardon for an offense committed only to gain sons, and the god, relenting, grants as a boon the restoration to life of whichever set of sons s/he may choose. S/he chooses the younger group and, in response to the astonished god's question, replies that she has done so because a mother feels greater love for her children than does a father. Indra is delighted with her answer and is moved not only to restore both groups of sons to life but to let her choose the sex in which she would like to remain. Without hesitation she chooses to remain a woman. The god is again astonished and demands an explanation. Bhangasvana explains that she prefers being female because as a woman she derives greater pleasure from sex. The god is satisfied and departs. Bhangasvana's choice provides a unique empirically derived confirmation of the belief--found in a variety of Indian sources--that a woman's pleasure in the sexual act is greater (usually eight times greater) than that of a man.(47)

Another illuminating story, and one that echoes the Bhangasvana saga's empirical demonstration of the superiority of maternal over paternal affection, is the tale of Thera Soreyya, attributed to the Buddha in the commentary to the Dhammapada.(48) As the story begins, a prosperous young householder named Soreyya is on his way to bathe with a companion when he happens to catch sight of the Buddhist elder Mahakaccayana, who is dressing at the bathing spot. When he sees the monk's exquisite golden body, the young man suddenly conceives the desire that the Thera might become his wife or that his actual wife might come to have a body as splendid as that of the holy man. No sooner does this illicit fantasy cross Soreyya's mind, however, than his genitalia vanish,(49) only to be replaced by those of a woman. Like Ila and Bhangasvana, Soreyya is said to be humiliated by this transformation, but unlike the latter, does not return home but flees without a word.

Falling in with a caravan bound for Taksasila, Soreyya, now the beautiful young woman Soreyya, becomes the lover, or perhaps wife, of a man of that city. In the course of a few years, she bears him two sons. As Soreyya was already the father of two sons in the city of Soreyya, he thus becomes, like Ila and Bhangasvana, both a mother and a father. One day Soreyya happens to see his old friend from the city of Soreyya who, having heard the woman's strange tale, manages to bring Mahakaccayana to her house for alms. The friend intercedes for Soreyya, begging the monk to pardon the offense. The Elder consents and Soreyya is instantly restored to his original sex. Taking leave of his sons, Soreyya declares his intent to quit the householder's life and is initiated into the Buddhist order under Mahakaccayana. Now known as Thera Soreyya, he is questioned by curious townsfolk as to which pair of his sons are dearest to him and--just like Bhangasvana when questioned by Indra- -he replies that he is fonder of those of whom he is the mother. Later, reflecting on the transience of existence, he attains true detachment. After that, whenever the question is repeated, he replies that he no longer retains any emotional attachment whatever. Other traditional texts allude, sometimes elaborately, to a change of sex that a person experiences either as a fantasy or full-fledged delusion through the power of sexual desire. The most productive source for this motif is, of course, the often repeated and embellished legend of Krsna Gopala, the adolescent lover of the gopis of Vraja. In several versions of this story, one finds references to the love-maddened gopis who, in their frenzy at being abandoned by the mischievous Krsna, project fantasized sexual transformations upon themselves and engage in love play with one another.(50) Similarly, one comes across references to the gopas' wish to become women so that they may directly experience the madhuryabhava, or state of erotized bliss, generally regarded as the highest expression of bhakti. An analogous phenomenon related to this may be seen in the contemporary performance of the Raslila in which the adolescent boys who play the roles of the gopis exaggerate the conventionally effeminate speech and gestures that their roles and assumed gender demand.(51) Even in the generally more straitlaced atmosphere of the Rama cult and the general de- erotization of this avatara of Visnu, compared with the paradoxical mixture of chastity and unbounded sexuality in the Krsna legend,(52) this theme may surface. Thus, for example, the learned Sri Vaisnava commentator Govindaraja, treating the verse from Valmiki's Ramayana in which Rama is described as "ravishing the eyes and hearts of men through his virtues of beauty and generosity,"(53) explains this description as follows: "Or [it may refer to] the desire, on the part of men who see him, which takes the form of the thought, 'If I were to become a woman, I could enjoy him sexually.' This is similar to the thought expressed in the verse that runs, 'The women who watched lotus-eyed Draupadi bathing her deep loins experienced the fantasy of becoming men.'"(54) This theme of a change in sex, actual as well as fantasized, resulting instantaneously or in another life from powerful homoerotic desire, recurs in a number of interesting contexts in Vaisnava and Buddhist texts.

The theme of a man's turning into a woman or of being both a mother and a father is not, however, restricted to myths and legends drawn from ancient sources. It occurs widely in the biographies of several modern Indian spiritual figures and in the beliefs and ritual practices of contemporary groups, ranging from the flamboyantly transsexual hijras to south Indian cultic priests and established north Indian monastic orders. Indeed there is also a body of evidence suggesting that this fantasy is a particularly common one among Indian men, and one that is deeply implicated in the attitudes and anxieties concerning women and sexuality that psychiatrists have found in the course of their work with Indian patients.(55) I shall be referring to a number of instances, some well known in the West, in which this idea goes far beyond the mere suppression of male sexuality and beyond even the biophysical changes reflective of this that are, for example, traditionally numbered among the characteristic signs of a Buddha.(56) Two such well-known figures are Paramahamsa Sri Ramakrishna, the great nineteenth-century spiritual master of Dakshineshvara in Bengal, and Paramahamsa Swami Yogananda, founder of the Self Realization Fellowship and one of the first Hindu swamis to settle and establish a lasting movement in the United States.

One of the most noteworthy and often recurring themes in the various accounts of the miraculous life of Ramakrishna(57) is that of his constant desire to dress, behave, and experience the world as a woman. From his biographers' fond reminiscences of the young Gadadhara's pranks, such as cross-dressing to infiltrate the women's quarters in the home of a prominent villager, to their accounts of his later efforts to be alternately the mother and the "spiritual consort" of Lord Krsna, during which he would wear women's clothes and mimic women's gestures for up to six months at a time, the theme of becoming a woman assumes tremendous importance in these accounts. Great emphasis is placed on the Master's being able to assume both genders and especially on his periodic loss of male consciousness and the difficulty of recognizing him as a man at such times even on the part of his most intimate associates. Indeed, it is argued that it was not only the outer appearance, voice, and gestures of the Master that changed when the "mood" came upon him. His biographers are fond of telling us that he underwent genuine biophysical changes during those periods and that, for example, "drops of blood oozed out from his skin from the pangs of separation from Krsna." In some places it is even suggested that this phenomenon represented a sort of menstruation.(58) There is also considerable evidence that, although Ramakrishna frequently fantasized about being or becoming a woman and often even appeared to lose himself in elaborate fantasies of being reborn as one of the gopis of Vrindavan or a brahman child-widow of Vraja who would then know only Krsna as her lover,(59) he simultaneously entertained a powerfully phobic attitude towards the female body whenever it was represented as an object of male sexual interest. He is thought never to have had sexual relations with his wife, to whom he always referred as the "Holy Mother," and on occasion even the thought of touching her body was enough to cause him to faint and lapse into a trancelike state.(60) Once, when a prostitute was sent to him in an effort to cure what was seen as an insanity caused by sexual continence, he said that he saw the Divine Mother in the woman and that "his genitals became contracted and entered completely into his body, like the limbs of a tortoise."(61) Indeed, he was quite explicit about his phobic reaction to women whom he viewed as threatening, devouring, and--as this last incident suggests--castrating ogresses, the dread of whom could be allayed only by concentrating upon their maternal aspect. Mahendranath Gupta quotes him as follows:

I am very much afraid of women. When I look at one, I feel as if a tigress were coming to devour me. Besides, I find that their bodies, their limbs, and even their pores are very large. This makes me look upon them as she-monsters. I used to be much more afraid of women than I am at present. I wouldn't allow one to come near me. Now I persuade my mind in various ways to look upon women as forms of the Blissful Mother.(62)

On the other hand, throughout his life Ramakrishna made every effort to identify himself with women in dress, attitude, and behavior. Gupta also records the following quote:

How can a man conquer passion? He should assume the attitude of a woman. I spent many days as the handmaid of God. I dressed myself in women's clothes, put on ornaments, and covered the upper part of my body with a scarf, just like a woman. With the scarf on I used to perform the evening worship before the image. Otherwise, how could I have kept my wife with me for eight months? Both of us behaved as if we were the handmaids of the Divine Mother.(63)

Ramakrishna's powerfully ambivalent attitude towards women, expressed both in his phobic flight from them and in his counterphobic desire to become one, at least to the extent of a kind of protective mimicry, is in a way paradigmatic of the interplay of desire and the anxiety generated by that desire which underlies much of the mythic and cultic material under discussion.

Let me turn now to the case of Yogananda. The information we have of his life is, as in the case of Ramakrishna, largely derived from his own accounts and those of his disciples. But unlike Ramakrishna, whose autobiographical anecdotes are invariably mediated by the pen of a devotee, Yogananda's career is most fully reported in the form of an autobiography, Autobiography of a Yogi, a remarkable and widely influential work. Since its first appearance in 1946, the book has gone through numerous printings and may have been the most widely read introduction to Indian spiritualism among at least one generation of Americans. The book and the many strange and remarkable events it purports to chronicle provide us with considerable insight into both the formation of the spiritual personality and some of the darker aspects of the guru- disciple relationship. I will, however, confine myself to those that bear directly on the question of sexual ambiguity. From what Yogananda tells us of his childhood as Mukundlal Ghosh, we can clearly perceive his profound and vital bond to his mother, a woman whom he depicts unambiguously, very much in the manner of Ramakrishna and his wife, as identical with the Divine Mother. Upon learning by means of telepathy at the age of ten of his mother's death, he began to think about suicide and entered a state of profound depression from which he emerged only upon seeing a vision of the Divine Mother who comforted him with the revelation that his earthly mother was but a manifestation and that she had not abandoned him. It is also at this point that he resolved to abandon the world and become a yogi in the Himalayas.(64)

Yogananda's relationship to his father was much less close. Bhagabaticaran Ghose's children regarded him with a "certain reverential distance" and not even Yogananda's idealized and sentimental memoir quite succeeds in concealing the portrait of his father as a stern, self-righteous, miserly, and pious disciplinarian. Given this austere, distant patriarch whose attitudes towards human sexuality were such that they permitted him intercourse only once a year and then only for the purposes of procreation,(65) it is little wonder that young Mukundlal grew up, like Ramakrishna, obsessed with the notion of women as manifestations of the desexualized Mother, and of men as all- knowing and potentially menacing gurus. It is also not surprising that all of this was accompanied by an irresistible impulse to flee the world. It is interesting, too, in the present connection to note that, no doubt as a result of his particular constellation of relationships and anxieties, the mature Yogananda and his disciples after him tended to resurrect and revalorize the fantasies of sexual transformation and the androgynous parent that occur so frequently in Indian myth, legend, and theology. His own father, his guru, and he himself came to be characterized in his writings and those of his disciples by a prevailing and cherished ambiguity regarding sex and gender: a belief that these men have or could somehow become women.(66)

To his own flock in Los Angeles, Yogananda, like his own widowed father, would become "both father and mother" not merely by virtue of a dual role nor even through a metaphor derived from his tenderness and compassion, which are frequently regarded as "womanly" characteristics. For, as in the case of Ramakrishna, the femininization of the guru was something that, at least in the eyes of his disciples, entailed perceptible biophysical changes. Consider the way in which Yogananda's closest disciple and successor Kriyananda, born Donald Walters, repeatedly refers to his master in feminine and maternal terms. Describing the scene as Yogananda's disciples view the body of their late Master immediately following his death in Los Angeles in 1952, he remarks: They brought Master's body to Mt. Washington and placed it lovingly on his bed. One by one we went in, weeping, and knelt by his bedside. "Mother!" cried Joseph, "Oh, Mother!" Indeed Master had been a mother to us all, and how much more than a mother.(67)

That this maternal quality of the Master was thought to have an actual biophysical manifestation is clear from Kriyananda's caption to an undoubtedly somewhat androgynous photographic likeness of Yogananda reproduced in the book. In it he states:

Master exemplified the androgynous balance of the perfect human being. He had the compassion and love of a mother, and the wisdom and will power of a father. In this picture we see exemplified the mother aspect of his nature.(68) The notion that real, as opposed to mythological, figures can actually or symbolically change their sex is not restricted to these two purely spiritual masters. Powerful indications of it continually surface, for example, in the life and works of one of modern India's most powerfully influential figures, Mahatma Gandhi, and in those of his followers. Not only did Gandhi share many of Ramakrishna's phobic attitudes about women and his culturally normative anxiety about the negative consequences for men of engaging in sexual activity,(69) he clearly inspired in at least some of his followers something of the mother fixation that we see in the case of Yogananda. This is perhaps best illustrated by a memoir of one of his disciples entitled Bapu, My Mother.(70) Gandhi's lifelong struggle with his sexuality is extremely well documented in his autobiography, as well as in his other copious writings and the numerous works of his biographers.(71) This continuing conflict culminated near the end of his life in his controversial and public "brahmacaryapariksas," his experiments with celibacy, and was, if we are to accept the testimony of his personal secretary, Nirmal Kumar Bose, closely tied up with the spiritualized fantasy of becoming a woman. Bose writes:

In order to follow more fully the discipline known as brahmacarya, Gandhi adopted a curious mental attitude which, although rare, is one of the established modes of subordination of sex among spiritual aspirants in India. It was by becoming a woman that he tried to circumvent one of the most powerful and disturbing elements which belong to our biological existence.(72) Central to Gandhi's somewhat phobic attitude toward women when they were viewed as objects of male sexuality are his complementary and overdetermined struggles to desexualize them by bringing them within the confines of the incest taboo and so to regender his male self as to obviate the possibility of heterosexual desire. Like Ramakrishna he regarded--and urged others to regard--women towards whom they might normally entertain sexual feelings as their "mother." Thus he urged those who would write literature praising women's beauty and desirability: I suggest that before you put your pens to paper think of women as your own mother, and I assure you the chastest of literature will flow from your pens. . . . Remember that a woman was your mother, before a woman became your wife.(73) In discussing Gandhi's attitude towards women and sexuality, Kakar makes the following observation:

Whereas desexualizing, idealizing, and perceiving only the "milky" mother in the woman is one part of his defensive bulwark which helped in preserving the illusion of unity intact, the other part consists of efforts at renouncing the gift of sexual desire, abjuring his own masculinity. Here we must note that the Hindu Vaishnava culture, in which Gandhi grew up and in which he remained deeply rooted, not only provides a sanction for man's feminine strivings, but raises these strivings to the level of a religious- spiritual quest. In devotional Vaishnavism, Lord Krishna alone is the male and all devotees, irrespective of their sex, are female. Gandhi's statement that he had mentally become a woman or that he envied women and that there is as much reason for a man to wish that he was born a woman, as for women to do otherwise, thus struck many responsive chords in his audience.(74)

Similarly, the transformations of sex that are associated with the legendary companions and devotees of the principal avataras of Visnu, particularly Krsna and to a lesser degree Rama, are widely known. Among the various emotive values (bhava) associated with the worship of Krsna and analogous to the various types of human affectual relationships, maternal, friendly, servile, etc., it is clear that the most powerful and heavily invested in the bhakta tradition is the so-called madhuryabhava, the emotive state of "sweetness," that is, of passionate, all-consuming erotic love. Indeed this rasaraja, or "king of emotive states" as it is sometimes called, is unquestionably the driving force behind several of the various Krsna-oriented sampradayas, margas, and panths of the Vaisnava tradition. Given the preeminence of madhurya and the unambiguousness of the heterosexual erotic imagery that drives it, it follows that for a man to partake of it he must, in some sense and to some degree, "transform" himself into a woman to fully experience the love of God. Indeed, such transformation is in many cases textually mandated as necessary for the "proper attitude of the worshiper towards Krsna" which is that of the gopis. This transformation, according to Dimock, was accepted quite literally by the followers of at least the Sahajiya tradition.(75) In at least one historical instance, a woman was able to use such a theologically constructed sexual transformation to break down, at least temporarily, the socially grounded taboo on certain male religious figures having contact with women. The poet-saint and Rajput princess Mira Bai, whose behavior was not infrequently cause for scandal in her highly patriarchal society, is said to have once come to Vrindavan in order to meet Jiva Gosvami, one of the great Gaudiya Vaisnava acaryas of Vrindavan. The acarya was scandalized and refused her request for an audience saying that it would be highly improper for him, as a man, to meet with her as he had taken a vow never to set his eyes upon the face of a woman. Undaunted, Mira sent back a message stating that she had heard that Krsna was the only male in Vrindavan. Whence, she inquired, had this second man come? The acarya was shamed by this and thus had no choice but either to assent to the interview or, in essence, admit the fictive quality of the sexual and gender transformation that lies at the heart of Gaudiya theology. The interview was granted.(76)

Indeed, according to some authors, the desire of the male devotee to mask or eliminate his maleness as an obstacle to union with Krsna may go beyond emotional transformation to involve varying degrees of modification to both one's costume and even anatomy. Summarizing a few of these writers, Serena Nanda, in her study of the hijras of India, notes:

Several esoteric Hindu ritual practices involve male transvestism as a form of devotion. Among the Sakhibhava (a sect that worships Vishnu) Krishna may not be worshiped directly. The devotees in this sect worship Radha, Krishna's beloved, with the aim of becoming her attendant: It is through her, as Krishna's consort, that Krishna is indirectly worshiped. The male devotees imitate feminine behavior, including simulated menstruation; they may also engage in sexual acts with men as acts of devotion, and some devotees even castrate themselves in order to more nearly approximate a female identification with Radha.(77) That this desire on the part of a man to become woman, in order to experience to the full the love of the Lord, arises from a powerfully homoerotic impulse is strongly suggested in many episodes, not the least of which is the Vaisnava legend that the original gopis, the cowherd girls of Vraja, were female reincarnations of the male sages of the Dandaka Forest who, ages before, had experienced sexual desire for the exquisite body of Rama, himself an earlier manifestation of Visnu. This connection is explained as follows in a puranic text:

When the cowherd women saw Acuyta (Krsna) who surpassed in beauty the curved tip of the Love God's bow, they were all smitten by the arrow of the god of desire. For long ago when the great sages dwelling in the Dandaka Forest had seen Rama, who is Hari, with his splendid body, they desired to enjoy him sexually. And later, having all been born as women in Gokula, they at last made love with Hari and thus were released from the ocean of existence.(78)

This assumption on the part of a man of the sexuality and gender role of a woman, either to intensify the love of a male God through the metaphor or emotional equivalent of heterosexual longing and passion or to defuse or deny any such suggestion of sexuality in the case of the female divinity, is not only undertaken by individuals but may be a group phenomenon as well. An interesting example of the latter has been observed in the activities of the subgroup of the Ramanandi monastic order of Ayodhya whose members refer to themselves as rasiks. This group, also known as sakhis or "female companions," organizes its communal life around a special form of temple worship and devotion to both Sita and Rama known as madhuropasana, or "sweet worship." But the intimate physical operations involved in the daily routine of serving the female divinity present certain problems to these monks. The social anthropologist Peter van der Veer, in his elaborate study of the Ramanandis, describes the situation as follows: In the common seva of the Ramanandis it is Ram, the Ultimate Being, who is served by the worshiper. In the rasik tradition it is the divine couple, Ram and Sita, what they call the yugal sarkar, 'the royal couple.' The worship of Ram and Sita together creates a problem. Male sadhus cannot serve Sita; they cannot, for example, bathe her. Therefore when serving Sita they must think of themselves as women who are female friends (sakhis) of Sita.(79)

This practice is regarded as having had its precedent in the actual story of Rama and Sita.

According to the rasiks this idea originated when Ram and Sita returned from their exile to Ayodhya. Hanuman, among others, had asked to be allowed to serve not only Ram, but also Sita. They became the first sakhis of Sita. As sakhis they also got new names as follows:
Male Female

Hanuman Charushila
Lakshman Lakshmana
Vibhishan Padmaganda sic
Sugriv Vararoha
Bharat Subhaga
Jambavan Sulocana
Shatrughna Hema
Angada Kshema(80)


The provision of these very feminine names to the heroic brothers and allies of Rama suggests that, as in the other mythological episodes discussed above, the transformation from male to female is not thought to be merely a change of mental attitude but a genuine- -if not necessarily permanent--biophysical metamorphosis. This is, I think, both confirmed and replicated, in some of the more esoteric practices of the rasiks as reported by van der Veer. The sadhus, like Ramakrishna, are not averse to dressing as women and even associate themselves with the processes of the female reproductive cycle. According to van der Veer:

Nevertheless, rasik practices do take things rather far. The female identification of the male devotees is very strong. During the temple worship the sadhu puts on a female dress (sari) and female ornaments. Some of the rasiks even wear these dresses and ornaments in public like transvestites. There are personal differences among the rasiks as to the extent of their identification as well as to the openness with which they behave. An esoteric feature of their life as females is that they sometimes observe the Hindu taboos of the menstruation period. These things are never openly discussed with outsiders, so that it is hard to go deeply into these matters. The relationship between sakhis and Ram is also a matter of esoteric secrecy. Although the rasiks emphasize that they are acting as unmarried innocent girls (mugdha), I found that in at least some temples a part of the Hindu marriage ceremony (karagrahan) was performed as a rasik initiation. In this way the sadhu was symbolically "taken by the hand" by Ram who was subsequently not officially married with "her," but could enjoy "her" body. In this initiation the devotee identifies with one of the sakhis and enters into an erotic parakiya relation with Ram. These practices are, however, kept "back stage" and could only be found out with considerable difficulty. The common "front stage" view is that Ramanandi rasiks do not enjoy real erotic love for Ram, but help the divine couple to enjoy it.(81)

This kind of ritualized transsexualism on the part of male devotees and officiants of a divinity is not confined to the Vaisnava movements of north India(82) but occurs in a variety of ritual contexts in the south as well. Aside from the interesting ceremony surrounding the group marriage of hijras along with Krsna to the hero Aravan in Tamil Nadu described by Shetty and Nanda,(83) there are examples involving a variety of cults centering on shrines in various other regions of the south.

A particularly interesting cultic worship involving transsexualism in Karnataka has been described by Nicholas J. Bradford.(84) This is the cult of the goddess Yellamma, identified with the epic- puranic figure of Renuka as well as with other representations of the goddess, as she is worshiped at her shrine near the town of Saundatti in Belgaum district of northern Karnataka. According to Bradford, many men who are possessed by the goddess are thereby changed into "sacred female men" or jogappa. These transgendered acolytes adopt female names, hairstyles, and dress and take on feminine occupations and modes of ornamentation.(85) Unlike ordinary women, but like hijras, they flaunt an exaggerated "female" sexuality. They also engage in both flirtation and sexual intercourse with men.(86) Like the transsexuals who participate in the Aravan cult of Tamil Nadu, the jogappa of Karnataka are also ritually married and "widowed" at the same time as these events befall their indwelling divinity.(87) Another example of such a cult, for which I am indebted to J. Richardson Freeman of Harvard University, occurs in Kerala. According to Freeman, in a recent unpublished conference paper,(88) and in personal correspondence, a class of low-caste priests of the teyyam cult, who are said in Malayalam to be veliccappatu or "illumined," must, before entering the shrines to which they are attached, take a ritual bath and receive a ritually purified waistcloth from a low-caste washerwoman." Freeman notes that the same bath and change of waistcloth was traditionally required to purify middle- and high- caste women after their periods of menstrual seclusion. Indeed, he notes, the term for the change of garments in both cases, marru, is most generally understood to refer to the ritual of purification after menstruation. Moreover, he adds, local people recognize that during these ceremonies the priests' dress is "more like a woman's than a man's." The priests, it should be noted, resist their identification with menstruous women, but Freeman notes that the fact of the ceremonies for the priest being carried out monthly on the Tuesdays sacred to the goddesses further suggests a convergence. These beliefs and practices, some of which represent what van der Veer and others have called the "Krishnaization of Rambhakti," like the ancient legends and beliefs of some modern "saints" and mystics, clearly speak to the same underlying and evidently powerful fantasy. In most cases, whether mythical or associated with historical personages, transsexualism, which overwhelmingly occurs in the direction of male to female, takes place as the consequence of a desire to avoid or defuse a potential sexual liaison with a prohibited female seen as the property of a powerful and revered male and/or the desire to be passively enjoyed sexually by such a male. Thus Ila is made female because of the sages' visual transgression in casting their erotized male gaze upon the Mother Goddess engaged in the sexual act with the powerful phallic divinity Siva. Sri Ramakrishna began playing at being female and dressing as a woman in his youth as a way of gaining sexually unthreatening access to the women's quarters of a wealthy and powerful neighbor's house. Later in life he appears to have often "become" a woman in order to indulge in romantic fantasy about Krsna and to engage in intimate but de-erotized, and therefore not anxiety generating, contact with the Mother Goddess both in her proper representations and in the form of his own wife. A similar dual purpose can be clearly seen in the adoption of the personae of sakhis on the part of the rasik sadhus of the Ramanandi order. Even the feeling on the part of the disciples of Yogananda and Gandhi that their masters were in some sense their "mothers" may be viewed, in part, as a consequence of an attempt to deny the element of passive homoeroticism that informs many manifestations of the guru-disciple relationship.(89) In those mythic instances in which the change of sex is the result of a curse, as in the tales of Ila, Bhangasvana, and Soreyya, it appears that we have a multiform of the sort of Indian "Oedipal" pattern that I have treated at length elsewhere, the pattern in which a real or surrogate son is punished, typically by castration or impotence, for intruding upon the sexual life of his "father."(90) In all of these cases, however, the victims actually become biological females and can legitimately enjoy sexual intercourse with and even be impregnated by the kind of powerful forest sage that functions, in the more typical legends, as a standard father-surrogate.(91)

The saga of Amba-Sikhandin, the major instance of female to male transsexualism, appears to be more complex in its formulation and signification than the others. For one thing, the process of transsexual metamorphosis it describes is far more complicated, gradual, and overdetermined than those recounted in the others, taking place, as it does, over the course of two lifetimes and functioning as a significant element in three complex and interconnected narratives. Moreover, the object and quality of the transformation seem somewhat different. For although Amba's ultimate sexual transformation, like those involving religious devotees, is volitional on the part of the central figure, it has as its purpose neither the avoidance nor the facilitation of an erotic relationship. Instead, its goal is vengeance. Then too, while the cases of male to female transsexualism may involve only temporary or periodic transformation, the transformations themselves appear to be thoroughgoing and accepted as such by the associates of the central figure. In the case of Sikhandin, however, the desired acquisition of a male body is achieved, despite the ruined princess' penances and dying wish (nidana), the ritual acts of her father, and the promise of Siva, only through the intercession of a sort of deus ex machina in the form of the yaksa Sthunakarna and, even then, only through an exchange of genders that balances her shift to maleness with his more typical shift to femininity. The transformation is, moreover, not accepted as fully genuine; for after all, the entire narrative rationale for the episode in the central story of the Mahabharata is that Bhisma, the great patriarch of the Kurus, will not fight with a woman and so submits to death at the hands of his surrogate son Arjuna rather than take up arms against Sikhandin.

Still, the issues and relationships underlying this carefully hedged and evidently more problematic female-to-male transsexualism are not entirely different from those involved with the variants of the more common type of transsexualism. At the heart of the whole elaborate episode is the traditional culture's powerful investment in the rigorous definition of gender-appropriate roles and its profound disquiet when such roles are questioned. In essence it is Bhisma, the archetypal renouncer of his own male sexuality in deference to that of his father,(92) who prevents Amba from fulfilling her culturally determined roles as wife and mother. Only when he has abducted the princess to make her the bride of the Kaurava dynast does Bhisma realize that she has already been betrothed to, and so become the "used property" of, another man. Her suitability for marriage thus destroyed, he attempts to return her to her originally intended husband. But he too is forced by the patriarchal code of honor to reject her, for from his standpoint she has now been sexually "used" by the fact of her abduction. Caught in this impossible bind, the princess attempts to compel Bhisma himself to marry her.(93) But Bhisma too is constrained. For having made his famous vow of celibacy in deference to his father's sexuality, he is no longer able to function as a sexual being. Bhisma's own act of self-degendering,(94) then, leads inevitably to a corresponding functional degendering of Amba that is merely actualized through her transaction with the yaksa. Amba can now no longer be either a virgin or a wife. She has, therefore, no socially viable alternative to the death she chooses. It is this that gives rise to her strange vow to inflict upon the author of her dilemma the consequences of his theft of her womanhood. But the result of this episode, the death that Bhisma must himself suffer, cannot come simply at the hands of the woman-become-warrior. Instead, it must be situated in the context of the Mahabharata's ubiquitous concern with the central but often disguised triangle of father, mother, and son. As the immediate consequence of his rejection of Amba, Bhisma is forced to fight his own guru, the dreaded brahman martial arts master Rama Jamadagnya, in an odd reconfiguration of the Oedipal triangle in which the young girl, whose name means 'mother,' takes the mother's role. Although he is victorious here in the role of the defiant son, he must still pay the price. In a later reconfiguration of the primal triad he will assume the role of the father and will be slain by his "son" Arjuna hiding, as it were, behind the skirts of his "mother" Amba in her sexually ambiguous form of Sikhandin. Arjuna, as noted above, the victim of another case of degendering in his feminized form as the transvestite Brhannada, will later suffer a similar death at the hands of his own son Babhruvahana only to be resurrected through the intervention of the boy's mothers, Citrangada and Ulupi.(95) Throughout this complex episode and the events that both lead up to and follow from it, the themes of degendering, regendering, and the powerful tensions underlying the Oedipal triad are clearly foremost in the minds of the authors.

From its prevalence and broad distribution in the other epic and puranic episodes and accounts of the lives and practices of spiritual masters and religious communities discussed above, the fantasy of a man's becoming a woman thus appears to be of considerable significance to traditional Indian culture. In some contexts this transformation is regarded as a demeaning punishment for some kind of Oedipal transgression against a powerful and dreaded male figure, while in others it is represented as a deeply longed for metamorphosis that makes possible an erotic liaison with a powerful and desired male. In a few cases, such as that of the legendary king Bhangasvana, elements of both situations may be found.

What are we to make of this powerful and recurrent theme? What, if anything, links the vedic and epic legends of transsexual metamorphosis with the deep concern with transsexualism expressed by modern Indian monks and mystics? How are we to explain this endless fascination with the idea of a man's turning into a woman in a profoundly patriarchal culture where both literary and religious documents, as well as deeply ingrained social usage, so frequently reflect the most radical misogyny? In order to begin to answer these questions, it will be helpful to recapitulate briefly.

Clearly a number of powerful and closely interrelated concerns run through much of this material. One is the frequent portrayal, in plain or disguised form, of a man confronted with the sexual activity of a powerful couple and/or the looming presence of a dominant and potentially malevolent male. In one of the oldest surviving and most widely distributed complexes of tales animated by this theme, the story of Ila/Ila, there are repeated and sometimes quite explicit references to the most primal of primal scenes, the lovemaking of the parents of the entire universe.(96) As indicated above, the king inadvertently stumbles into the trysting spot of Siva and Parvati and therefore must be punished by his "father," the rightful "owner" of the mother's body.(97) The nature of the crime can be judged from the form of the punishment.(98) Thus we can see that the visual transgression of Ila is regarded as the equivalent of actual Oedipal intercourse from the fact that his punishment, literal or functional castration, is very much the same as that meted out to Indra when he seduces the venerable Brahman sage Gautama's wife or to Pandu when he unwittingly assaults a powerful holy man engaged in the sexual possession of his wife.(99) In other words, the transgression in word, thought, gaze, or deed upon the sexual property of the father is inevitably punished with the destruction of that which makes the transgression possible, the transgressor's maleness. But what we have here in the tales of Ila, Bhangasvana, Thera Soreyya, and other figures from ancient mythology and, I would argue, in the biographies of Ramakrishna, Gandhi, and Yogananda and in the behavior of the Ramanandi rasiks, represents a more fully realized and somewhat less menacing response to the negative Oedipal castration anxiety that I have discussed at length in another paper.(100) Here--most clearly in the tale of Bhangasvana and also in the teachings of some Vaisnava groups--we see an extension of the theme. For in actually becoming a woman, and thereby identifying wholly with the Mother, one can fulfill a powerful fantasy of sexual possession by the very father the fear of whom lies at the root of the focal anxiety centering on one's own maleness. Bhangasvana's decision to remain a woman and his assertion of a heightened erotic pleasure in a female body can be seen--like Ramakrishna's elaborate fantasy of being the bride of Krsna or the rasiks' semisecret tradition of being sexually enjoyed by Rama--as a form of displaced homoerotic desire for a figure that is at once beloved and terrifying. Certainly this set of deeply conflicted emotions can be seen at work in Yogananda's reminiscences of his parents. This theme represents, I believe, an effort to master a powerful complex of anxieties that is generated by specific features of traditional South Asian family and social life and is heavily reinforced through the use of literary and religious texts whose contents, in the form of myths and legends structured as cautionary or exemplary tales, deeply inform the consciousness of the cultures of the region.(101)

Such fantasies do not, I believe, represent either a contradiction or a genuine counterforce to the prevailing misogynistic tenor of the traditional literature of the indigenous patriarchal cultures, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina, of India to which I alluded at the beginning of this paper. Rather, I would suggest, they are on one level reflexes of a carefully acculturated male dread of the autonomous power of women, especially as it is seen as a consequence of their physiology and sexuality. For along with the professed desire to be a woman and to be treated sexually as a woman comes the clearly expressed fear of erotized contact with the female body. Whether it is expressed in the cliches about the loss of physical, spiritual, and mental powers that men are said to suffer through sexual intercourse with women,(102) the legends about loss of manhood on the part of those who intrude upon or witness the sexual life of their elders, or the lapsing into a transic state (samadhi) at the very thought of touching the female body, the fear is the same. But what, after all, is the source of this fear? Much of the evidence of the texts we have been considering suggests that the fear of women and their sexuality is at least in part a kind of screen. No doubt the manifest content of this screen is very significant and maledominated cultures have not scrupled to exploit it fully at the expense of women. And yet a careful study of the relevant documents of traditional Indian culture suggest that underlying the fantasized fear of harm deriving from women and sexual intercourse with them is a more deeply rooted but far less explicitly stated anxiety derived from the coercive and potentially castrative power of dominant males such as fathers, older brothers, gods, gurus, and sages. It is on this point that I would wish to extend the prevailing explanations of myths, fantasies, and acts intended to extirpate a person's maleness and assume--to a greater or lesser degree and for a greater or lesser period of time--the emotions and the physiology of a woman. Aside from the spiritually oriented explanations of the phenomenon of transsexualism such as we have seen in the writings by and about figures like Ramakrishna, Yogananda, and Gandhi, there have been a number of efforts to provide explanations of the phenomenon in South Asia. These range from modern Hindu apologia which essentially reformulate traditionalist hermeneutics through attempts to validate what is represented as a specifically Hindu ability to tolerate ambiguities and even outright contradiction to psychoanalytic studies.(103) Thus Nanda, in her quite interesting study of the hijra community in contemporary India, puts great store in traditional India's recognition of a "third gender" as evidenced by her title, Neither Man Nor Woman. Thus she argues, "where Western culture strenuously attempts to resolve sexual contradictions and ambiguities, by denial or segregation, Hinduism appears to allow opposites to confront each other without resolution."(104) In this she follows the lead of O'Flaherty, whose 1973 work on the polar contradictions built into the representation of Siva as both terrifyingly ascetic and boundlessly erotic similarly argues for the nonexclusivity of traditional Indian thought.(105)

Yet while it may be true that traditional Hindu mythological texts appear to be more tolerant of ambiguity than their Western counterparts and, although the culture has, at least since the epic period, allowed that there are three genders analogous to and homonymous with the three grammatical genders of Sanskrit,(106) these facts alone do not provide a very penetrating analysis, whether in the terms of the traditional culture itself, or in those of modern students of that culture, of the pervasive and deeply invested phenomenon of transsexualism that we have been examining.

Writers with a psychological or psychoanalytic bent such as Lannoy, Spratt, Carstairs, Kaker, O'Flaherty, and Nanda have been aware of traditional India's fascination with transsexualism and the shifting of gender roles and have tended to see it--no doubt correctly--as an artifact of powerful unconscious forces at work in the individual psyche. These forces, it is argued, are greatly strengthened by the patterns of mother-son interaction typical of the traditional Indian family.(107) The argument, most elaborately articulated by Kakar, is that the traditional family, in discouraging the overt expression of erotic love between a man and wife and in enforcing the cultural premium on bearing a son, creates a situation in which a mother's affectual and erotic energies are concentrated disproportionately upon very young male children. The powerful emotional and physical bond that this forges, it is further argued, is abruptly shattered when the child reaches the age of six or seven. The child's response to what is represented as the sudden deprivation of a devouring and erotized mother-love is, it is urged, a self-protective withdrawal reinforced by the psychic construction of women as insatiable, devouring mother figures, contact with whom drains a man of his physical and spiritual resources.(108) One resolution to the tension thus created between incestuous desire and fear of abandonment, this line of argument concludes, is the culturally reinforced shift, in fantasy or reality, from the male to the female or "third" genders. This line of reasoning is doubtless based upon both observation of the acculturative and child-rearing practices of the Indian family and analysis of the relevant literary, mythological, religious, and sociological materials. Indeed it may well explain at least some aspects of the powerfully ambivalent attitude towards women expressed in the traditional literatures of India and in iconic form in such representations as the antipodal renderings of the Goddess as sometimes nurturant, beneficent, and maternal and at other times as wrathful, bloodthirsty, and terrifying. It does not however, in my opinion, fully explicate either this attitude or the fascination with and even yearning for the extirpation of maleness that we have seen expressed in the mythological literature and in the writings, teachings, and actions of some Indian religious figures. For one thing, the case studies of Bose and Kakar are, after all, case studies. That is to say that they represent in most instances the fantasies and behavior of people who feel themselves to be sufficiently out of harmony with their social and cultural milieux and are sufficiently Westernized in their thinking to present themselves to a psychoanalyst for treatment. It is risky, perhaps, to generalize from such cases, as they probably tend to represent the extremes rather than any norm of the society. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the fantasies these patients report are wholly syntonic with those that can be adduced from the traditional literature and the lives of several of the outstanding religious figures discussed above. In my opinion, it is the omnipresent examples represented by the popular mythology and the very visible and widely known lives of saints, mystics, and others, that serve--for the vast majority of people--as the means of reinforcing the acculturation carried out in the normal, as opposed to the pathogenic, family. It seems to me that these texts, if they are to be more fully understood, must be read in the context of the other texts of the culture that deal with the matter of actual, symbolic, or functional emasculation. I have dealt with many of these texts elsewhere;(109) in them, as in many of the texts addressed in this paper, the principal anxiety expressed by the central figures is directed not principally at women at all, but rather at the menacing, implacable, and punitive representations of the father that so heavily populate the myths, legends, and literatures of traditional India. In the majority of those texts the woman, in the role of actual or symbolic mother and the focus of the possessive erotic energies of both father and son, becomes objectified as the prize in an endlessly repeated contest that the son can win only at the price of his sexuality.(110) The only alternative the traditional culture holds out in such cases to castration at the hands of the father is a kind of voluntary preemptive castration or renunciation of sexuality, such as is represented in the well-known Mahabharata legends of Bhisma and Puru.(111) This act of degendering serves to eliminate the sexual conflict inherent in the Oedipal drama by removing the mother/woman as an object of sexual desire while pacifying the father. In this way one is able to retain the de-erotized love of the former and the newly re-erotized love of the latter. One strategy for accomplishing this is to renounce sexuality entirely, a project facilitated by a carefully cultivated gynophobia with its negative obsessive focus on the female body and its reproductive functions. Another is to cultivate a familial regard for all women, to view them all as sisters and mothers, and so invoke the aid of the powerful incest taboo. A third strategy is to abandon male sexuality and gender entirely and "become" a woman either in emotional/libidinal terms alone or more completely through the outward appearance of a transvestite or the more profound physical metamorphosis of a hijra or true transsexual. With this last strategy, the emotional resolution of the conflict would appear to be most thorough, for along with the retention of the mother's love, the transsexual can now become, in fantasy or reality, the passive recipient of the now heavily erotized love of the "father."(112) In short, I believe that much of the fascination with becoming a woman that we find in the Indian tradition, as well as the seemingly contradictory misogyny that is another of its recurrent features, proceeds not from a primary anxiety about women but rather from a deep and, in many cases, well-founded anxiety about men in the form of culturally validated authority figures. Although it is abundantly clear that a variety of voices from the "great" and "little" traditions genuinely inculcate and seek to bolster the phobic attitude towards women as sexual beings and towards heterosexual intercourse in general,(113) it would appear that here, as elsewhere, both the indigenous tradition and contemporary psychoanalytic scholarship have tended to "blame the victim" in portraying women--whether constructed as the sexually voracious apasaras/raksasi or the "devouring mother"--as somehow responsible for what Kakar has so aptly termed a "vicious circle" that leads eventually to "adult men who fear the sexuality of mature women."(114) In a real sense, South Asian women have been casualties, caught in the middle of a male power struggle, a struggle whose real issues are only rarely fully articulated and are generally camouflaged by a screen made up of profuse and varied pronouncements and "speculations" on the biological, intellectual, moral, and spiritual capacities of women.(115) It is in this sense that women often function as pawns in an occult male game that in the end emerges from a thoughtful reading of the tales and practices of transsexualism that I have discussed above. Many of these texts--the legends of the popular epics and the word and actions of monks and spiritual masters--provide important keys to an understanding of the cultural, psychological, social, and ultimately political transactions that lie at the heart of all forms of human intercourse, in India as elsewhere.

The kinds of myths, legends, and fantasies cited in this paper, and the social, psychological, and political realities of which they are expressions are by no means restricted to South Asia. The simultaneous disempowerment of women and the construction of them as agents rather than victims of such disempowerment is an unpleasant feature of most of the societies and cultures--ancient and modern--of which we have knowledge. Innumerable examples of this can be adduced from European, East Asian, Islamic, and other traditions. Let me offer, however, only one instructive parallel from the literature of modern Europe in which the overwhelming anxieties generated by a truly terrifying father led his son to the creation of powerful myths and fantasies centering around his being transformed into a woman for the sexual use of God. The bizarre, fantasy-filled memoirs of the German Jurist Dr. Paul Daniel Schreber,(116) analyzed by Freud in his "A Case of Dementia Paranoides,"(117) presents a strange and moving example of a combination of transsexual fantasy and religious fervor strongly reminiscent of the case of Ramakrishna. Dr. Schreber, whose central fantasy was that he was, as part of the divine plan, being turned into a woman by and for the enjoyment of God, can now be more clearly analyzed in the light of information that has become known since the publication of Freud's paper. For it is now clear that Schreber's paranoid delusions were rooted in at least two elements of reality. First, we now know that Schreber's father, the great nineteenth-century authority on child pedagogy, had subjected his son to an especially oppressive version of the cruel and obsessive discipline he preached.(118) Second, it has been revealed that Schreber's psychiatrist, Dr. P. E. Flechsig, who was in charge of his treatment and of the asylum in which he was confined, the very person whom Schreber, in his delusion, regarded as the agent whereby his transformation into a woman was to be effected, was among those medical authorities of his era who advocated and even practiced both castration and extirpation of the ovaries on those patients--male and female respectively--whose sexuality and general behavior they saw as transgressing societal norms.(119) Here we have--through the unusual coincidence of the father's systematization and publication of his rigid and obsessional beliefs about child rearing and the son's insistence on publishing the memoir of his delusional illness--an all but unique opportunity to see how the unmanageable anxieties generated by the unhappy combination of two repressive and tyrannical patriarchal figures, a disempowering father and a literally castrative doctor-keeper, are partially alleviated through the creation of an elaborate system of myth and religion whose focus is the transformation of the subject into a woman who will then be sexually enjoyed by the supreme patriarch, God.

Whether in the East or the West, there can be few paranoid fantasies that are not grounded in some real and painful reality to the identification of which they are the occult signposts. The myth or fantasy of a man's being turned into a woman for the sexual enjoyment of some more powerful male which has persisted in many forms for at least two-and-a-half millennia is unlikely to be an exception. The investigation of the complex nature of the reality that has animated this particular fantasy for so long both in literature and in the lives of historical figures of unusual prominence.
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Author:Goldman, Robert P.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:13330
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