This lecture focused on the Hindu view of life from the margins. While the “Hindu margin” is a fairly large heterogeneous group, this lecture laid the lens on the third gender, Kinnars (pejorative term hijṛā) and spiritual partners, categorized as “consorts.” Both these groups were discussed within the ritual praxis of “lived religions,” within the larger world of Śākta Tantra (Goddess esoteric traditions).
Sravana Borkataky-Varma is a historian, educator, and social entrepreneur. As a historian, she studies Indian religions focusing on esoteric rituals and gender, particularly in Hinduism (Śākta Tantra). As an educator, she is currently working as a Lecturer at Harvard University’s Faculty of Divinity and at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where she teaches introductory courses on World Religions and higher-level courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, Religion and Film, and History of Yoga. In the past she has taught at University of Houston, University of Montana, Rice University and DaLian Neusoft University, China. As a social entrepreneur, she is the co-founder of a non-profit, Lumen Tree Portal. Borkataky-Varma invests in building communities with individuals from various faith-backgrounds who believe in kindness, compassion, and fulfillment. She has a PhD in Religions from Rice University.
CHARLES STANG: Good evening, everyone, and welcome. My name is Charles Stang and I'm the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to the CSWR's annual Hindu view of live lecture. This annual lecture aims to address the current and urgent issues of our time from a perspective informed by insights and values arising from Hindu traditions, both of India and of Hinduism globally.
The inaugural lecture took place in 2016. And the series is meant to evoke the memory of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who spoke at the opening of this center in 1960. It's a distinct pleasure to welcome my friend and colleague Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma to deliver this year's Hindu view of live lecture. She is a historian and educator and a social entrepreneur. As a historian, she studies Indian religions focusing on esoteric rituals and gender, particularly in Hinduism. As an educator, she's currently a lecturer here at Harvard Divinity School and also at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she teaches introductory courses on world religions and higher level courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, religion in film, and history of yoga.
As a social entrepreneur, she is the co-founder of a non-profit called Lumen Tree Portal. Dr. Borkataky-Varma invests in building communities with individuals from various faith backgrounds who believe in kindness, compassion, and fulfillment. She received her PhD from the Department of Religion at Rice University. Her lecture this evening is entitled The Hindu margins, the third gender and women spiritual partners.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: Thank you, Charlie, and thank you for the generous introduction and for this invitation. And thank you, everyone for joining us today. So when Charlie called me-- and this should be some time, I think in January or February, and asked me if I would give the annual lecture on the Hindu view of life, instantaneously my thoughts went to whose view, whose life. In other words, I asked myself, who is a Hindu. Whose lives and which view points is Charlie referring to? Do we have the same understanding of what may be our Hindu identity markers?
This then led to another set of questions, which Hindu will I speak for today, and in doing so who am I excluding. I identified myself as a hybrid Hindu, a term I came across and Hugh Urban's writings. Further, I'm an insider with an outsider lens. By this, I mean I'm a scholar of Shakta Tantra which is loosely understood as Goddess Tantra, focusing on esoteric rituals and gender. At the same time, I'm a practitioner. I was first initiated into the Goddess Kamakhya lineage sometime around the age of eight or nine. And then took my second level Diksha, which is initiation at about 14 and 15.
For the two decades post my initiation, I was simply a practitioner. I had absolutely no idea that one day I would become a scholar of my own tradition. And my dissertation would end up being a sort of an auto-ethnography. I graduated in 2016 and over the last, now almost five years, my deepest struggle has been around how do I write about my own tradition in a way where I critique certain ritual practices, codes, and rules. Which are phallocentric for a large part, yet not reduce or be apologetic of them.
As an initiate, I swore to secrecy, which brought up deeper questions on what I will make public and what will remain private. I finally arrived at a point wherein I continue to keep my vows but not at the cost of subverting voices especially the ones that are marginalized. The two groups of Hindu I will speak about today, are people I care for very much.
We meet when I visit India, which was as recent as 10 days back, we are Facebook friends, we live on our phones through the WhatsApp, which is highly popular these days. Yet the irony is that these very people live a life that is largely hidden in what I call the contravene. An invisible and complex set of moral ritual political, religious, social, and gender codes that pushes for a large group of people to live a life of liminality.
Allow me a few more minutes of introduction here. It is imperative to contextualize my agency in this very world of Goddess Tantra because I'm often asked the question, how and why did I get access. I am from Assab, a state in India, globally known for its tea. I was born a Hindu, raised Hindu but it is not until the last decade and a half that I ask the question, who is a Hindu. My two classes here at Harvard Divinity School last fall brought forth fascinating conversations pertaining to our lecture today. The Hindu view of life from the center and how does that view look like when you're at the margins. And it is the margins that I mostly work with.
These very discussions today, are also deeply steeped in political, cultural, and social rhetoric. The Twitter and Instagram worlds are not necessarily spaces steeped in love and compassion. Especially when one is asking questions like who is a Hindu, who gets to speak, and for that matter, teach traditions-- Hindu traditions at universities. Hindu religious pride today, is tightly intertwined with national pride.
This merging of identities and pride in being a Hindu and an Indian is not just a phenomena in India, but is well present in the diaspora. Two examples come to mind. One, from the summer of 2020, midst the pandemic lockdown, the heated debates over Times Square in New York being lit up with images of Lord Rama, and the proposed design of the temple on the groundbreaking day of the Rama temple in a Ayodhya. And from 10 days back as I pass through immigration at Delhi airport to return to the US, the immigration officer asked me what I did for a living. It's like a standard protocol, they want to check if you are really the person you say you are.
So when I told them I was a scholar of Hinduism, he wanted my phone number and he said, and I quote here, "We never grew up thinking what is Hinduism. We were born Hindus and we remain Hindus. But now there is so much of discussion everywhere in India and I feel like a fool because I do not know how to define my own religion. I know very little of its history. We were never taught in school or went for any religious classes. I want to learn more. But I do not know where to begin", end quote. So I'm not here in support of a way of Hindu thinking. Today, I speak about Hindu view of life from the lens of the third gender, called Kinners, colloquially called hijras, a pejorative term.
The second group I will talk about, are spiritual partners. In scholarship categorized as consorts. My research is primarily from two temple communities in India, Kamakhya, which is in Assam, and Taraptih in West Bengal. And it's important to mention that these are temple communities. These are not the temples you would find-- the smaller temples that you would find on several streets or intersections if you have been to India, or for that matter, Nepal.
In addition to being an initiate, I'm fluent in three languages, Assamese, Bengali and Hindi, which helps me a great deal with regards to access into these tight knit spaces. I've divided this talk into three subsections. I will begin with a brief overview of my usage of the term Tantra and Shakta Tantra. And then I will move to the two groups I want to speak for, the kinners and the spiritual partners. So let's begin.
What is Tantra? The term Tantra is probably one of the most fiercely debated and still unresolved within academia as well as in the public arena. The modern day imaginings and understandings of Tantra are complex. And the roots, as one of my students here at the Divinity School, aptly said last fall, it's unpinnable. And I love the term unpinnable, so I do have a permission to use it. The term Tantra stands for many different elements of Indian religions, and Indian religiosity, and is widely used in Hindu [INAUDIBLE] chant traditions.
Over the long history, the three religions have enriched each other's understanding of the term. Yet there are distinct discontinuities in understanding between these religious traditions. So the term Tantra appeared in the Vedas, Rg Veda, Atharva Veda, around sometime around 1,500 to 1,000 BCE, meaning warp or loom. In Satapatha Brahmana around 1,200 to 900 BCE. And I am using a code from a forthcoming article of Paolo Rossotti and I quote, "Tantra took on the far more abstract meaning of essential part, of framework, whereas in the Mahabharata, around 500 BCE to sometime around 500th common era, it meant doctrine or scientific work."
There are several other usages of this term with a wide range of meanings from manuscripts written on palm leaves, governments and so forth. Etymologically speaking, Elizabeth Benard proposes a rather creative solution, which is to use the [INAUDIBLE] and the most popular understanding of the term within Tantra communities. "Many contemporary Hindu ascetics define Tantra as action done with the body (tanu) for the purpose of protecting/ bringing about release (tra). One etymology of Tantra divides the word into two roots, tan to stretch or expand and tra to save or protect. By combining these two roots, Tantra means the increase of methods available in order to liberate oneself from cyclic existence. Ideally, these methods should be efficacious and expedient."
In short, the term Tantra does not have a univocal meaning preserved throughout the religious histories of South Asia. What we can say and have largely come to agree upon is one, Tantra is developed out of prior mainstream, but not necessarily elite traditions. Two, Tantra is a body of religious practices that evolved through similar phases both within India and throughout its expansion into greater Asia. Three, for any given period of time, there has been a certain level of uniformity to the practices. So all of this is great but we still need a definition more so if we're going to use it.
Which takes us to what is Tantra, and what it is not. So let me share two oft cited definition. One is by Andre Padoux, who expanded and borrowed from Madeleine Biardeau and for Andre Padoux it is an attempt to place kama, desire in every sense of the word, in the service of liberation. Not to sacrifice this world for liberation sake, but to reinstate it in varying ways within the perspective of salvation. This use of kama and all aspects of this world to gain worldly and supernatural enjoyments, bukthi, and powers, siddhis, and to obtain liberation in this life, Jivanmukti, implies a particular attitude on the part of the Tantric adept towards the cosmos, whereby he feels integrated within an alll-embracing system of micro-macrocosmic correlations.
The second definition was proposed by David Gordon White. And for White, Tantra is the Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy or the godhead that creates and maintains the universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.
So like my colleagues, I too had to either come up with my own definition or use a definition that applied really well to my work. So I chose the definition of not a very well known scholar, Prem Saran. So [INAUDIBLE] Prem Saran and therefore by using his definition for me, Tantra is the term that stands for certain distinctive practices of a ritualistic and sometimes magical character.
Example, the use of mantra-yantra, meditation-diagram, chakra, nodes on the central axis of the inner visualized yogic body, for example the kundalini, shakti or female power that is visualized at the base of the yogic body, in the form of a goddess of that name. These practices are used as a means to reach the goal of either spiritual emancipation or of more mundane aims mainly magical domination.
So I'm going to stop sharing my screen here. Next is a term Shakta Tantra or goddess Tantra. In Devi Mahatmya which is a fifth, sixth century text, portion of the Markandeya Purana, the ultimate reality in the universe is understood to be feminine. Devi is simply not the knowledge that sets one free, but also the great illusion Mahamaya, that keeps one bound. It is only through the Devi's grace that one can act at all. In other words, Devi, which is the goddess, is the primary ontological reality. All exists through her body. She is the great deluder, and she is the one who redeems her devotees by incorporating them into the life divine.
In short, she is the effective agent on Earth. And cosmos is not masculine but feminine. She is Shakti. Douglas Brooks refers to [INAUDIBLE] definition of Shaktism, which is well accepted by most scholars. As it encompasses many elements of-- that constitute the term Shaktism. So I'm going to share my screen again. Shaktism is defined in different ways. Sometimes if it's incorrectly identified with, the cult of female deities in general. It can be shortly characterized as a worship of Sakti that is the universal and all embracing dynamics which manifests itself in human experience as female divinity. To this should be added that inseparably connected with her is an inactive male partner whose power of action and movement the Sakti functions.
It is therefore not enough to say that a Sakta worships the female as ultimate principle, nor is it correct categorically to say Saktism is characterized by the use of the five prohibited substances. In the Sakta sect proper Sakti is the chief divinity. Although Saktism is often defined also by means of typical ritual practices, it is advisable to restrict the use of this term for a world view oriented towards Sakti the white Tantra should be applied to a conglomerate of ritual and yogic practices and presuppositions.
While [INAUDIBLE] definition is simple and encompasses almost all aspects of Shaktism, it's important to note that [INAUDIBLE] makes amply clear not all Shaktas are Tantrics. Similarly, there is no one understanding of the goddess. Visual representations, text, and attributes such as gentle or fierce, benevolent or malevolent, mother or warrior and so forth. Also worth mentioning is that a majority of these beliefs and representations are subject to geography, sectarianism, historical, and political developments laced with oriental imaginings.
So I'll not spend more time in these two terms here because you've seen how I will be using Tantra and what is my understanding of Shakta Tantra. So let us now move to the two groups I'll be speaking about, the kinners and the spiritual partners. Who are the kinners? Kinners of the same group of people who are identified as hijras in India. hijras are a heterogeneous group of individuals, the LGBTQ+ and the various gender identities are not being currently used by this community.
Since they operate under a homogeneous umbrella, hijras of yesteryears, and kinners of today and possibly the future, I too am using it in the same manner. In other words, I do not and will not try to sub categorize them into different gender categories. Daniela Bevilaqua refers to Matthew [? Boysford ?] in the forthcoming article that the term hijra is associated with the Arab Hegira, departure, the term which describes Muhammad's exile from Mecca towards Medina in 622 common era. The word hijra would then refer to a gender displacement. A movement whereby an individual shifts from being a male to female gender.
Sibsankar Mal in his 2015 writings argues that [INAUDIBLE] word hijrah is derived from the Arabic root hjr, which means leaving one's tribe. This large group is aptly defined by Serena Nanda. And I do want to share her definition. So I'm going to share my slide again here. Given the large and complex society of India, the hijra community attracts different kinds of persons, most of whom joined voluntarily as teenagers or adults. It appears to be a magnet for persons with a wide range of cross-gender characteristics arising from either a psychological or organic condition. The hijra role accommodates different personalities, sexual needs, gender identities without completely losing its cultural meaning.
Androgynous narratives in the Hindu religion are well rooted. Quoting from Wendy Doniger and her work published in 1980 where she discusses the presence of androgyne figures in the literature. And I quote, "The true mythical androgyne is equally male, and female at the same time. They have some sort of equivocal or ambiguous sexuality and that disqualifies them from inclusion in the ranks of straightforwardly male or female.
These liminal figures include the eunuchs, the transvestite, or sexual masquerader, the figure who undergoes a sex change or exchanges his sex with that of a person of the opposite sex. The alternating androgyne, male for a period of time, female for a period of time, is what this group would largely mean."
During my fieldwork, I often found the members of the community narrating stories from two epics or using Chaitanya as an example. Let me briefly share these. First one is from the epic Ramayana. Before going to exile Rama told the males and females of Ayodhya to go back to their homes. But he did not include the people who are neither men nor women. They remained and waited for him to return.
Post his return, he thanked them for the devotion and bestowed upon them the power of wish fulfillment. In other words, it is believed that the words of a hijra have the power of becoming reality. Hence, people fear their curse and seek their blessings. The second story is from the epic Mahabharata. The nymph, Urvashi, fell in love with Arjuna, but he clapped his hands over his ears when she propositioned him, for, he said, she was like a mother to him. Furious, she cursed him to be a cancer among women. Devoid of honor, regarded as a non-man, eunuch.
But Indra, the father of Arjuna, softened the curse and made it valid for only a year. Years later, when it was time for Arjuna and his brothers to hide and disguise, Arjuna put on women's clothing. Though he failed to disguise his hairy and brawny arms and told his brothers, I will be a eunuch. He offered his services as a dancing master to the women in the harem of a king. The king was suspicious at first, remarking that Arjuna certainly did not look like a eunuch, but he then ascertained that her lack of manhood was indeed firm and so, let her teach his daughters to dance.
Another off narrative story, although I have to say this is more popular with the Kinners that I spoke with that come from Bengal or further East, is that of Chaitanya. Chaitanya was regarded by some as an avatar of Krishna, but by others, including himself as an avatar of Radha. Thus, it is said that Krishna became Radha in form of Chaitanya in order to experience what it was like to be Radha, and to make love with Krishna. And he became Krishna in Chaitanya's body in order to make love to Radha.
While such stories are well transmitted, the fact is that there is an ontological difference between saying God is androgynous versus God as androgyne. Further, as succinctly put by Ellen Goldberg, in the context of Ardhanarisvara, the status of male Shiva half, is privileged by the title ishvara, which then would be understood as god, lord, or master. Whereas the female Parvati half with whom Shiva shares his body, is simply designated as Mari women.
I, like many others in India, grew up with the Kinners. They were in the street corners asking for money in exchange for blessings, you can find them even today. Members of the community just magically show up if there is a wedding or a child is born. Now, one thing is kind of understood-- because these are large events, so one can tell that there is a wedding in the family. But I've often wondered, how they would come to know if a child has been born, especially more so if the child was not born at the house. And if the child was born in another city but to the same family.
Only then to know that they have an extensive network that they maintain with the ironing lady, with the drivers, with the security people. With the corner pawn and cigarette shops that are quite popular in India. But my first introduction to the larger community was when I worked for Gender Training Institute in Delhi back in 1999 and 2000. And we had won a large project to train and educate the members on safe sex and diseases that get transmitted through unprotected sex. It was only then that I entered a hijra household. Although they operate more like what we would understand as clans.
These households have stringent rules and elaborate structures defining different members and their roles. While I was very far from experiencing their roles in Shakta Tantra space, it was abundantly clear that the hijra commune functioned both as a residential as well as an economic unit. The units are run under very strict guidelines and surveillance. And while of the members contributed both physically and monetarily, the collective household provided the members protection from law enforcement and from the larger society who treat them with a lot of scorn. And also a lot of times they're met with violence.
Leaders of the commune are mostly Muslim. Thereby, a kinner must first convert to Islam, as documented by Gayatri Reddy in her work in 2005, while simultaneously accepting the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata as the Kuladevi, clan goddess. It was during my PhD fieldwork that I noticed the relevance of kinners in the rituals. Especially fertility rituals within the realm of Shakta Tantra. But even then, when I began my work I did not really-- I started noticing them but had not really made any forays with regards to the community and getting access.
This does not go to say that kinners are unique to Shakta Tantra. This liminal community includes the eunuchs and the transvestites, in other words, they're considered neither lopsidedly male nor female. If they're not eunuchs by birth, they must undergo Nirvan, wherein the penis and testicles are removed and a small part of the incision is left open because it is believed that after the release of the male blood, the individual is reborn as a receptacle for the parts of Bahuchara Mata, their clan goddess.
I will return to this shortly in the context of fertility rituals. When hijras lived in the community they did not take public stage. and this is back then. The public stage was more in the context of wedding, childbirth, and so forth but not so much a public stage in terms of fertility rituals. They came from the societal fringes and went back into the shadows. But 2016 marked a significant change. Under the leadership of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi-- that's the lady on your screens-- kinners appeared as a group at the Kumbh Mela festival in Ujjain. And by the way, this is the same Kumbh Mela that is under its way as we are speaking today, and will end I think on the 21st or the 22nd of this month.
And for the first time in the known history of Hindu religion, they were organized under the flagship of kinner Akhara. Before I move further into the content, I do want you to pay close attention to Laxmi Narayan Tripathi's forehead. What you will see are three horizontal lines, a red circle, and a red vertical line. So keep this in mind because I will be coming back to it very shortly. The Hindi term Akhara means wrestling arena, from which Akharia derives, meaning master fighter, skilled maneuverer, or strategist.
There is a network of Akharas throughout India particularly in the North where men train in wrestling and other methods of fighting. But sometime between 1540 and 1647, Hindu religious Akharas were [? formed. ?] Jane [? Foraker ?] in 1925 reported based on anecdotes that Madhusudan Saraswati, who lived sometime between 1540 and 1647, a well-known Vedanta philosopher, approached [INAUDIBLE] to seek advice and the protection of an order to which he belonged from harassment by armed Muslim fakirs. Long story cut short, the recruitment of [INAUDIBLE] into organized fighting units appears to have occurred around the same time, although it is unlikely to have been in response to attacks by the Sufis.
The leaders of each Akhara form what is known as Akhara Parishad. Until the advent of kinner Akhara, Akharas were completely dominated by men. Think of it as radical, hyper-masculine, warrior ascetic groups created by ascetic groups for the consumption of men created by men. Several attempts have been made by many female ascetics to have a woman Akhara but they have been unsuccessful and have been met with fierce opposition.
So the formation of Akhara marked the beginning of a new era in the lives of kinners. So here I'm going to share a video, it's about two minutes. But it is from 2019 when the kinner Akharas became formally kinner Akharas. So I'm going to share the video next.
- [INAUDIBLE] is all decked up to welcome devotees for Kumbh Mela.
Which is expected to be attended by people from across the country and more than 5,000 [INAUDIBLE]
[INDIAN SHAKER DRUMS]
On Sunday, kinner Akhara took out the first Peshwai or Devatvu Yatra at [INAUDIBLE]. Thousands gathered to have a glimpse of this historic possession.
The Akhara Mahamandaleshwar Swamy, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was sitting atop a camel. [INAUDIBLE] hundreds of transgenders from across India participated in this Devatvu Yatra.
[INAUDIBLE] procession stopped thousands of onlookers who approached [INAUDIBLE] to take blessings from transgender [INAUDIBLE]. They were all lined up to get the [INAUDIBLE] with them.
Akharas Mahamandaleshwar claims to have adopted [INAUDIBLE] Tripathi has been fighting for the rights of LGBT community and also been a major part in protests and debates against section 377. The kinner Akhara is set to get recognition from the Akhara Parishad.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: All right. And sorry once again, the joys of technology sometimes-- when it works it's magic, when it doesn't it always creates some confusion. But as you saw in the video, it says that the kinner Akhara was still waiting to get recognition from the Akhara Parishad. This was 2019 at the beginning of the Kumbh Mela but of course, by the end of it, they will be recognized. In 2019, what you saw was large gatherings of people who came to witness the entry of the kinner Akhara into the group-- at that time not an Akhara but the kinner group into the mela grounds.
The procession again, as in the video, was led by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. She was riding a camel and had a sword in hand and it was Hari Giri Maharaj, the head of juna akhara, who included the kinner Akhara among the Juna Akharas and signed an agreement declaring the total independence of kinner Akhara. And this is also mentioned in [INAUDIBLE] forthcoming article.
So this is the time-- this is a moment in time in history, so we are talking of 2019, so three years back, when kinner Akharas are formally recognized by Juna Akhara. And this has never happened in the history of Hindu religion in terms of Akhara inclusion and including non male members and giving them that kind of a status.
So I have just a few more pictures to show, no more videos. So this won't be a problem. All right. So they agreed-- so when it comes to the kinner Akharas, their greeting is now [NON-ENGLISH] And the kinner Akhara [INAUDIBLE] the markings on the forehead-- and that is what I was also talking when I had shown the image of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi-- was made of three horizontal lines typical of Shiva followers, with a vertical red line at the center symbolizing the feminine, the shri and a big red bindi.
So what you see are on the top left of your screen is this classical three horizontal line, red bindi and vertical red. But there is also some level of artistic allowances that you find on the field. So what you find on the bottom left of your screen is another variation and the right is another variation. And this is interesting because they are very intentionally integrating Shiva and Shakta into their understanding and how they are now going to be seen and how they will represent themselves in this Hindu milieu. The leaders today are called Mandaleshwara or Mahamandaleshwara as you again heard on the video.
Now this is a classic process of sanskritisation, a term that was coined by the sociologist M. N. Srinivas in 1952. Sanskritisation is a well known theory in the anthropological and sociological literatures in India. Sanskritisation is a widespread social and cultural phenomena that has occurred through the history of India and continues to happen as we see with the formation of kinner Akhara and their identity marker and greetings.
It was also in 2019 in Kamakya the Ambubachi Mela that I met a large group of kinner Akhara members. With respect to antiquity, Kamakhya surpasses most of the shrines in greater India and those in Eastern India. Most scholars agree that Kamakhya dates to the 8th century and continues to be one of the oldest and most revered of the early seeds of goddess worship. This temple complex also epitomizes the retention of many ancient practices. The Shakti Pithas in general and Kamakhya in particular represent a complex interaction of negotiation between mainstream [INAUDIBLE] traditions and indigenous elements from the pre-Hindu areas of India, as also mentioned by Hugh Urban in his 2010 work.
Additionally, a unique feature of the larger temple complex of Kamakhya, is that each of the 10 Mahavidyas, the wisdom goddesses, have a temple dedicated to their own practice and the complex also contains a temple for Shiva and Vishnu respectively. Further, unlike most Hindu temples, none of these goddesses are represented in imagery. Goddess Tripurasundari, one of the wisdom goddesses, popularly known as Sodasi and/or Tripura Bala is the primary goddess in Kamakhya.
She's also recognized with the name Raj Rajeshwari or the Rajarajesvari mostly comes in a very specific ritual context. One of the central rituals in Kamakhya [INAUDIBLE] is the Kumari Puja. Textual references to the worship of Kumari Devi, that is, the prepubescent girls [INAUDIBLE] and that's the image that you're seeing on your screen-- for example, is from the [INAUDIBLE] While the essence of Tripurasundari as Sodasi in Kamakhya is kept in the exoteric. The essence as Rajarajesvari is retained in the esoteric.
Mostly understood in the context of conflict rituals involving sexual fluids. Red being the female sexual fluid, white semen the union of the two. Raj Rajeshwari is primarily performed during Chaitra Navratri which by the way, started yesterday and will end again as I said, either on April 21st or 22nd, depending on time and date. There are several important festival celebrated and Kamakhya.
But one of the most unique is the Ambuvaci Mela. Ambuvaci is the celebration of the yearly menstruation of goddess Kamakhya. In 2016 it was estimated that 2.5 million people attended the festival, which numbers steadily growing every year. The temple remains closed for a period of three days since it is believed that the Mother Earth becomes unclean.
On the fourth day, rituals are performed after which the goddess regains her purity. While for three days the goddess is secluded due to perceived impurity induced by menstruation. The Prasada, on the fourth day, is distributed to the devotees in two forms. The menstruating fluid part of the body in this case, water from the spring, which is red in color, small pieces of cloth red in color, which was used to cover the yoni during the three days of menstruation.
So the why-- so while the goddess herself is impure due to menstruation the fluid, menstruating blood and the blood clot, are believed to be blessed substance which encapsulates power and delivers protection to the devotees who either wear it hidden in a talisman or keep it in their home shrines. In other words, the goddess is impure but the substance believed to be coming out of her body is pure.
Since 2016, there has been a steady rise in the number of kinners that visit Kamakhya for Ambuvaci. In 2019, there was a significantly large congregation and at sunset they would come out in procession dressed beautifully. And it was hot and humid and if you look at my pictures, by the time it was about 4:35 PM, I looked like a tomato, I was melting. But they looked gorgeous, they looked so beautiful and they came out and there was this beautiful procession. The crowds grew larger by the day because it's a three to four day festival, so there are lots of people over those days to get pictures and watch the procession.
When the crowds loved it, there was a palpable tension between the Kamakhya Deos, these are the priests that are mediators between the devotees and the [INAUDIBLE] and the kinners. One Mr. [? Saramha ?] called them charlatans and claim that several of them were involved in sexual and criminal activities. Another Mr. [? Saramha ?] was certain that the Kamakhya board of trustees would act to ban them from coming to future Ambuvaci Mela. [INAUDIBLE] to openly mock them. He resented the popularity which is directly-- which also directly translated into monetary gains because when devotees would go to them to get their blessings, they would also give them some money. So it was seen as an income loss by some of the priests in Kamakhya.
While most devotees-- and I'm going to stop my screen here-- so while most devotees sought the kinners for their blessings, I noticed patrons requesting them to perform fertility Puja which was rather fascinating. As I've written in several articles fertility is central to Kamakhya. It is after all the journey that is at the heart of the temple. In 2019, early 2020, before the COVID lockdowns and this March, which-- when I was in India, I have documented some of these Pujas and interview a few members of the community as well as the Mandaleshwaras.
In reference to the fertility Puja, the kinners performed for couples who do not have children, the kinner first invokes Bahuchara Mata, that's their clan goddess, and through her body it is believed that the goddess gives a boon to the couple. The kinner forming the Puja places one coconut, wheat, and Rupee-- one Rupee and 25 Peso, which would be like a quarter cent, but not equivalent, in the [? Choli ?] which is kind of a bag made either of the scarf, the Dupatta that the lady has put on her. Or the end of the pallu which is the end of the sari that is flowing.
In return, the patron promises to make the goddess, and thereby the kinners, happy by offering Puja if his wish is fulfilled. And of course this involves a monetary and material gifts. According to one of the Mandaleshwaras, sometime between yesterday and April 22, and I tried to call them today-- this morning but I wasn't able to do so. In Uchan, kinner Akharas will perform the Putrakameshti Yagna, which is performed for the sake of having a child, more so a male child, which according to her has not been performed in this age.
So the reason I was calling them is because given the rise in the COVID cases I'm not sure if they will do it this nine days or they will do it in October. So I wanted to confirm but anyway, I couldn't make the contact so that is what they told me in March of 2021. Yuga is the cycle of four worlds, the ages, and we are currently in the Kali Yuga. So she said that Putrakameshti Yagna was last performed in the ancient time. And upon the recommendation of sage Vasishta, King Dasaratha of Ayodhya performed the Putrakameshti Yugna.
After its successful completion the Lord of fire, Agni Deva, appeared and gave a bowl of sweets to the King of Ayodhya, which was provided to his three queens to promulgate his sons, Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna. This will be followed by the laying the foundation of what she called and I quote, "Largest and the most magnificent Bahuchara temple in Uchan."
So performing the Putrakameshti Yugna is a significant move on the part of the kinners, and as I said, whenever they do it, because by doing so, they make their role in fertility ritual mainstream. So I'm eagerly waiting to see what kind of press coverage they get and what kind of acceptance they will get. And this is as we speak. This is history in the making.
My hypothesis is that by performing a public Putrakameshti Yugna kinners are strategically bringing an acute focus on how by virtue of sacrificing the individual fertility, they have the ability to give universal procreative powers. So now let me move to my second group of people, the spiritual partners. Unlike the kinners to my absolute dismay, I was completely oblivious of the existence and their highly liminal and largely invisible group.
It was in 2012, yet again as part of my PhD dissertation, I met two sisters [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] That was the first time I was introduced to the world of spiritual partners on this liminal space of the cremation ground of Tarapith. And then, much later in 2014, 15, is when I read Lucinda Ramberg's Given to the Goddess. In the Brahmayamala a text composed between mid 7th century, 8th century. Sanskrit words for women, such as stri, vanita, nari, and abala are used.
Shaman Hatley's article that came out in 2019 further elaborates these terms. "In some cases, these may apply to female practitioners in particular highlights the frequent occurrence of Abala, powerless, a member of the weaker sex, suggesting that this usage contrast the powerless condition of womanhood with the possibility of apotheosis through tantric ritual. A transformation from abala to a state of divine power and autonomy. More often, the Brahmayamala employs terms which specifically intimate a woman's status as an initiated practitioner, principally sakti, duti, and yogini, and secondarily bhagini, bhairavi, and adhikarini."
So I'm going to-- Bhagini is understood as tantra sister, but adhikarini in the text is occasionally used in the sense of women entitled to the tantra teachings by initiation. Duti is used in alteration with Shakti, the female messenger go-between. In other words, a female companion that is ritual consort exclusively in the context of sexual rituals. Continuing to refer from Hatley's article, a passage in chapter 45 of the Brahmayamala depicts the ideal Duti as accomplished ritualist.
Beauty appears among her desired qualities but this is not expressed in particularly erotic terms. Given that this talk is in the public arena, I'm intentionally not sharing the verses except one. "Obtained by the command of the guru, lovely, possessing the marks of suspiciousness, who has mastered the sitting postures, possessing great spirit, purified but the true essence of tantras, devoted to the guru, the deity, and her husband, unfatigued by hunger and thirst, ever steeped in nonduality, free of discriminative thoughts and lust, well versed in trance, yoga, and scriptural wisdom, steadfast in the observances after obtaining her, a man of great wisdom should practice what is taught in this ritual manual."
So in this larger context of Shakta Tantra is introduced in Kamakhya and Tarapith ritualized sex is a form of ritual diagnostics. Through which an adept seeks to gain a vision of his past lives to identify obstacles impeding his quest for siddhi. The interviews with [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] were conducted jointly in Tarapith in 2012 and then in 2014. They're half sisters and have been practicing shakta tantra since they were little girls.
[INAUDIBLE] was seven years old when her parents brought her to guru in Tarapith, West Bengal. And I quote she says, "I was mad--" when she says mad she means she had some kind of a mental illness, "--and would get frequent epileptic attacks. My parents were poor, so they brought me here and they asked the guru if I could be cured." End quote. The guru observed her for a few days as she says and then the guru said cure was a possibility but a very expensive proposition.
And her family was really poor so instead, her parents donated her to the temple. The guru took care of her by giving her medicines and many amulets to wear. In a couple of years when [INAUDIBLE] believed she was about 10 or 12-- it's hard to tell age because they forget. He initiated her into the Shakta Tantra practice and married her to Lord Shiva. Her guru explained to her and I quote, "Shiva can come in form of any man. Your duty was to perform marital duties irrespective of the form Shiva took." End quote.
In other words, she became a consort. After a few years she brought her half sister on the request of a guru and bought-- so it's serving the male tantric seeker. It was a few years later in 2015, I was introduced to spiritual partners in Kamakhya. On the Nilachal hill top within then the Kamakhya community lives a group of consort. These women are highly trained ritual specialists and they play an integral role in several rituals.
One of them being the Raja Rajeshwari Puja that I mentioned earlier on. They are living and breathing dutis of the Brahmayamala. But here is the problem, of the larger society dutis are part of ancient Hindu past. For all practical purposes, they do not exist. Since they do not exist, the spiritual partners are relegated to the shadows of Shakta Tantra world. And they're disdain outside of the temple walls.
So to conclude my talk today, the two specific groups whose viewpoints I have chosen to highlight that of the Hindu kinner and that of the spiritual partner. One seems to be progressing toward a more positive role in the larger community. And the other does not. The life of a Hindu kinner is rapidly emerging from the street corners to be legitimately recognized as a ritual specialist who has the power to bestow fertility. An acknowledged, if not possibly in the future, honored position in the community.
But as the spiritual partners of Shakta Tantra world remains to be obscure, unacknowledged, invisible, and yet they are regarded as vital to the Shakta Tantra ritual practices. Even so for successful progress of the male conflict adept, thereby the spiritual partners in my analysis, Mr. [INAUDIBLE] That's it for today. Thank you so much and apologies for the little video glitch, and I'm ready for questions.
CHARLES STANG: I'm sorry, the lighting in my room is terrible. So I hope you can see me. But in any case, you can hear my voice. Sravana, thank you so much. There was so much in this lecture. And I have questions as do some of the folks who've already submitted. But often, people take a few minutes to formulate these questions. So I'm sure more will come in here.
But the first question I'd like to pose to you is from our friend and colleague, Frank Clooney. And he asks, given the current social and political debates in the US about trans identity and trans people and their rights, has the current and more conservative and politically charged tenor of public Hinduism in India today, prompted any controversies about kinners or hijras. Their place in society, their acceptance, et cetera. And fueled by charges that they are not quote unquote, "real Hindus."
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: Thank you, Frank for this question. So when we look historically-- so we did have the Article 377 for the longest period of time. And then, this has been a very, I would say, an active role in a very positive way that we find Laxmi Narayan Tripathi the current leader-- the Mahamandaleshwar, or Kinner Akhara, she's been to the United Nations, she has spoken in many forums. She is really-- and there's a lovely book by her called, Me hijra Me Laxmi, or Me Lakshmi Me hijra, something like that.
And it really-- what we are seeing, and it's new, it started really in 2016 but truly became an Akhara in 2019. 2020 was the pandemic. So you know-- we are kind of talking about two, three years. But what we are seeing is-- at least in the ritual space, the Akharas. There is of course a lot of tension between the priest and the kinner Akharas. But at least in the ritual space, what I have seen in the last three, four years, is definitely a larger acceptance of the kinners.
They are not necessarily being seen with that kind of scorn, but not every hijra becomes part of the kinner Akhara. So that's another thing to keep in mind because these Akharas are very stringent with their rules. They are really strict even to the point of who will speak to whom. I mean they are really controlled. So not everybody wants to live in that kind of a controlled environment. So you still have a lot of the hijras on the street corners begging and so forth.
So you still have them. But I think that it's shifting and because again, of the Juna Akhara giving the legally making kinner Akhara, kinner Akhara, I think that kind of lack of respect is going away. And I have seen more acceptance than rejection. I see a lot more positive direction that they are working. And there's another, which I didn't want to get into in this, is also the kind of identity they are creating for themselves.
So increasingly and finding the Muslim part of their history they're abandoning. And they are taking on this very highly Shiva shakta identity. From their marking, from their greeting, from-- if and when they do this Yugna, as I said, I was unable to confirm it this morning, they will do it. And they will create that temple, they will-- not create-- they will build that temple. So those are all going to be a big, I would say, step in the direction of acceptance and ritual authority when it comes to fertility rituals.
CHARLES STANG: I want to follow up on that point about the conversion to Islam because you mentioned that, and I didn't quite follow it, and one of the questions pertains to it as well, could you just explain for us again what is at stake in-- or the logic behind kinners needing to convert to Islam. Did I understand that correctly? And I suppose that also connects to this question of whether and how they are viewed as Hindu. As you're saying, some of them are shedding that identity of being Muslims. So could you help us understand that better. Those of us who are-- for whom that this is entirely new.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: So the head historically, even if you decide to join a kinner household, this is-- I'm not talking of Akhara. Akhara becomes the more Hindu. So let's talk about it before 2019, OK. So before 2019, if you wanted to-- or more so 2016, say before 2016, if you wanted to be a part of a hijra household-- The household that I worked with back in 99, 2000, the head or the-- leader or the head of the household, the senior the main person of the household at the top, would always be Muslim.
Whereas, so you kind of take-- you kind of-- if you don't come from Muslim-- from Islam background, you would then also take on the Islamic vow. So you do become Muslim. At the same time, you also take Bahuchara Mata, the goddess as your clan goddess. So it was a very syncretic relationship. And this now, when I asked this last month, and I said, because of the Kumbh Mela and all of this I said so your head of your household always used to be a Muslim, had to be a Muslim to be the head of the household. Is it still so? She'd be like, yes it is still so.
And I said, but now we don't share the Muslim elements anymore. You have become very outwardly Hindu. Your forehead markings is Hindu. Your greeting is Hindu. Your prayers are becoming more-- and as Laxmi Narayan Tripathi announced in 2019 they are now sanatani. So they are-- they have announced they are sanatani Hindus. So they have decided to consciously take on Hindu identity, Hindu identity markers, they are constructing the temple for Bahuchara Mata, they are going to be in this fertility space.
So why the Islam and the head of the hijra household of the hijra household remains to be a Muslim that will slowly and slowly kind of not be known. And even now, it's very unknown.
CHARLES STANG: So you mean-- well I suppose my question is still lingering which is, do we know why and when this tradition began. Where the head of a hijra household would have to-- if they were not already Muslim, would have to convert. What's the rationale for that?
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: So this was back in history. I have to look at the exact but-- really back in history. And [INAUDIBLE] where he also documents these Akharas. Back in history-- and I have to look at the date-- but essentially, the hijra community was a synthesis of Islam and Hindus. And for reasons some known some unknown, the head of the hijra household was always a Muslim.
But now, with the formation of kinner Akhara we are shifting, and we have shifted. And that is what has happened.
CHARLES STANG: I see, OK. Let me ask another--
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: I can-- sorry, Charlie. I can look up and maybe later send you and we can send it to the group whoever wants to know the exact specifics of what happened which year that happened, and it began.
CHARLES STANG: No problem. When you introduced the first group, the kinner, the hijras, I believe I heard you right, you said you were going to refrain from using the contemporary Western acronym LGBTQ and use these, so to speak, the native lexicon for this category. When we watched the video, the commentator in English referred to the kinners as transgenders in plural, and then also I believe said something about how this particular figure had done amazing work for the LGBTQ community.
So I'm wondering if you could reflect for us on how those two lexica, or those two vocabularies are kind of coexisting in India. This Western-- it was contemporary largely Western one, and then, so to speak, this indigenous account of [INAUDIBLE]
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: So for that, we have to just compare the same use in a Hindi or in a regional language and in English.
CHARLES STANG: I see.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: So when the same news is played in English there is-- and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi of course, very well versed in-- I don't know very well versed and not, but she's what versed. She knows very well the different categories, and she clearly has made herself-- has informed herself of these categories. So from time to time when she's speaking in English in the United Nations and so forth, she does use sometimes transvestites and she use the LGBTQ as LGBTQ.
But where the reason why I am not comfortable using it because everybody that I asked on the ground didn't know what and how do you differentiate between LGBTQ, right. They didn't know. They were like, they're hijras and that's it. So for them, they're hijras. And it's this very homogeneous category of hijras. And that is the reason why I feel ill at ease to then say, OK x is transgender y is this, z is that because they are not using it.
CHARLES STANG: OK, I'm going to combine two questions, both of which have to do with the spiritual consorts. So forgive me this might be a little rough because I'm paraphrasing. But as you described it Lord Shiva can show up-- in the words of the priest, who welcomed that-- or who initiated that young-- that girl into a role as a spiritual consort. He explained to her that Lord Shiva can show up in the form of any male. And the question that follows from that is, what makes these men Shiva, and do the consorts have any opinion on their duties to Lord Shiva.
That connects up to the second question, which is do you regard the spiritual consorts in Shakta Tantra as consenting to the sexual rituals. Or is it typically circumstances like the ones you described, poor family looking for a cure that forces them into this condition. So I suppose it's a question of-- to repeat the criteria. Are there criteria by which men can be seen as Shiva, or is any man who appears for these sexual rituals, are they regarded as Shiva. And then the second is about the circumstances and consent.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: So I'm going to reverse answer in the divorce order.
CHARLES STANG: Please.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: Choice, consent. I've come to understand them to be far, far more problematic than how we see choice and consent sitting in the United States. And also in Urban India. Choice and consent is very, very different in the world view where you are seeing-- not seeing, where you understand-- it's almost like, I call it the social cultural DNA, when your social cultural DNA drives a very kind of understanding that it has immense amount of impact on your karma, on your rebirth, on what will happen in the future.
Not just for you, sometimes for your entire kinsmen. For your entire family, and so forth. The concept of choice and the concept of consent becomes very, very, very different. So like-- so we have to one, consider that. How are we defining choice and consent? Choice rather. Consent is I would say, compared to choice, consent is a little more easy to define and to ask. Yes, it's not like it's-- yes, they can deny someone. So it's not like-- while when she was young her guru said any man who comes, but who will bring that man, the guru will bring the man, right.
It's not like anybody-- who has access to these consorts are very, very protected by the temple community. So it's not like anybody and everybody has an access. So you have to be on this path, you have to have taken initiation. Chances are, you will have to have a same guru or there is some access to these tightly knit communities. Where also it's not for mundane purposes.
And that's another thing we somehow missed when we look at ritualized sexual acts, right. So it becomes very-- it is not for procreation, it is not for pleasure, it is not for any sort of meaningless activity. Ritualized sexual acts are very, very significant purposes. They are introduced in the path for very specific reasons. There's a lot of training that is involved. Which involves a ton of bodily practices as well as, as you saw in the description I showed, as well as breathing techniques, as well as the whole thing.
Why you're doing it. So it's not like I'm saying-- and if that's what it came across let me stand corrected, I'm not saying Shiva comes in many forms as in any man. It has to come through this rubric of Shakta Tantra, of initiation, of guru, of going through years of practice where you may have reached a point where guru would say OK, you need to experience this or you need to learn this for learning this for this purpose, you need a sexual partner, or a spiritual partner.
And that's when they're assigned. So that's how it works.
CHARLES STANG: Sravana, I wonder if you could spend a little bit of time reflecting on the connections between these two groups because I for one, missed that. I mean, most of your presentation was on the kinner community and then a briefer treatment of the spiritual consorts. Now, I take one of your points to be obviously that any account of what the Hindu view of life is to choose which Hindus you're talking about. And you are highlighting these two marginal communities.
In some cases invisible or nearly invisible communities. But what connects these two communities? Other than their marginality.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: Rituals.
CHARLES STANG: Rituals, OK.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: And even within rituals it is the rituals either on one side it is the rituals that bestow fertility or rituals that-- rituals wherein the female bodies are instrumental in accessing some of the sexual fluids that are extremely essential for-- Recognition of those masculinity and femininity within an individual is extremely essential because in tantra the body is no longer rejected.
In tantra body becomes central. And we are talking of Jivanmukti, we're talking about mukti in this lifetime. Liberation in this lifetime. The physical body that we are looking at is no longer rejected and therefore, comes the yogic body, and so forth. So it's the ritual that connects the two. But the argument I'm making and what I wanted to showcase from the Hindi view-- and both groups are Hindus-- is that the kinners, because of how they have taken on a public space, they are-- the spiritual partners.
Because for all practical purposes they don't exist. Nobody talks about them. And you don't talk about them. There are no Akharas protecting them, there is no laws protecting them. How do we protect? How do we ensure minors don't get-- How do we protect children? None of that is being ever discussed because they don't exist. So if you go with they don't exist and that they existed in the historical past, that's a group of Hindu largely women, largely female, largely girls, who are then completely in the shadows of the Hindu life.
CHARLES STANG: We have time for at least one more question. I'm going to combine two and both of which have to do with colonial legacy. So it's very common today for students in introduction to world religions classes to be taught that the very category of Hinduism is a kind of colonial category that groups all these disparate traditions under one easily controlled category. And I'm wondering if you could comment on the utility of the category of Hinduism for your own work.
But generally, but also specifically in this case how were these two communities-- how has the interpretation of these two communities, the kinners and the spiritual consorts, been shaped by colonial observers and their legacy.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: So yes. So I completely agree. And that's why you would not hear me use the term Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism, any -ism for that matter. And that's why I specified very clearly that it is Shakta Tantra, even in Shakta Tantra I only work in the East of India which is West Bengal and Assam. How the ritual space, the scriptures, the practices that are followed in that part of India, if I were to take it down South and I map it to the [INAUDIBLE] tradition, it would sometimes look like North Pole and South Pole.
There would be just such a wide difference. So it's extremely important that we do not use this larger category of Hinduism, Tantrism, Shaktism, and so forth. We have to be very, very, very specific about what we are speaking. In terms of the colonial-- or the oriental colonial impact on the kinners and the spiritual partners. The spiritual partners clearly there were laws that were made by [INAUDIBLE] were abolished-- so-called abolished from the temples.
So there was and for all good purposes those laws were created. And that in the last 150, 160 years or so, as I said the narrative shifted to they don't exist. That is, [INAUDIBLE] were that of the past, but we see from [INAUDIBLE] book, from my work, and several others that that is not true. They very much exist. We have [INAUDIBLE] There are so many. They exist.
So I think one of the things that happened is the laws that came that then got adopted by India when it gained independence. I don't know if I can say that has been really a colonial oriental treatment of the hijras per se. I don't know. I mean, I'd have to look into it. I don't know if I can-- I can talk from the law standpoint but I don't know if I can really use that lens to say that because of these lenses because of these orientations. The hijras became hijras and were treated the way they were. I think they were treated for multiple reasons and I think a lot of it came from within the Hindu tradition, came from what happened with status of women, for example, through a very long history of Hindu tradition.
So I think with this status of women-- the non man, the non woman just got even more pushed to the bottom of the pile. So I think Hindu religions for the longest period of time, became the religion for men, written by men, for men, consumed by men, and so forth. Women were part of it but they had a very specific role. And so I think that's what I would want to, I guess, conclude with but I-- yeah, I'll have to look, I'm not so sure about the oriental treatment of the hijras.
CHARLES STANG: OK. Well we are at 6:30 and I want to say thank you for this fascinating lecture. There are many, many more questions left unasked and comments. So-- and I want-- those of you who have posed those questions and comments to know that we will share those with Sravana, although Sravana, you don't have any obligation to write them back, but just so you all know what questions and comments your lecture has posed.
And-- but in the meantime, Sravana I want to once again thank you for this fascinating presentation. And thank you all for joining us and please do look out for the next event at CSWR next week. I think we only have two more public events this semester. So I hope to see some of you there. Thank you Sravana.
SRAVANA BORKATAKY-VARMA: Thank you. Thank you, everyone, be well.
CHARLES STANG: Take care. Bye-bye.