Hindu Society – Transgenders And Homosexuality

As a Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice TS Thakur agreed to hear the curative petition filed by gay rights activists and NGO Naz Foundation against the apex court’s December 11, 2013 judgment upholding validity of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and the January 2014 order, by which it had dismissed a bunch of review petitions, the homosexuality debate is back again. As ‘intellectuals’ of all sorts are rooting for repealing the controversial section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, it is imperative upon us to first understand transgenders and homosexuality, and how they are viewed in Hindu society, before commenting on the section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.


Throughout history, the trans gendered person has existed and it wasn’t until Abrahamic religions began to exert their “understanding” on non-believers that people began to shun them; as it is basic human nature to shun what is not understood, and this often turns to fear of the unknown i.e. xenophobia. There was no definable cause for the trans-gendered person, so this fear was natural even though misplaced. While trans-gendered individuals are now often lumped in with gay folk under the “LGBT” umbrella (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender), there are basic differences that are important to understand. Trans-gendered individuals are either intersex or experience gender dysphoria, which makes them different from homsexuals (gays, lesbians) and bisexuals.


Homosexuality (from Ancient Greek ὁμός, meaning “same”, and Latin sexus, meaning “sex”) is romantic attraction, sexual attraction or sexual behavior between members of the same sex or gender. Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics, while gender refers to behaviors, roles, expectations, and activities in society. Sex refers to male or female, while gender refers to masculine or feminine. The differences in the sexes do not vary throughout the world, but differences in gender do. In sociological terms, ‘gender role’ refers to the characteristics and behaviours that different cultures attribute to the sexes. What it means to be a ‘real man’ in any culture requires male sex plus what our various cultures define as masculine characteristics and behaviours; likewise a ‘real woman’ needs female sex and feminine characteristics.

It is, at this juncture, crucial to understand that the trans-gendered community is different from homosexuals and they face a whole lot of problems which homosexuals seldom do. Also a trans-gendered person need not necessarily be homosexual as well. Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture.

Homosexuality, Hindu Society, and the third gender

Ancient Hindu literature has much to say about transgender, both explicitly and as part of a broader third-gender category that includes all types of people described as impotent.  Despite recent attitudes of taboo and the criminalization of homosexuality, Hindu Society is demonstrably far more understanding in ts approach.

Several Hindu literature explicitly describe transgenders and those with a homosexual nature.  Among these, three stand out—the Narada-smriti (a first-century BCE text of social codes attributed to the sage Narada), the Sushruta Samhita (a 600 BCE medical text compiled by the sage Sushruta) and the Kama Sutra (a third-century CE text on the art of lovemaking by the sage Vatsyayana).

The Sushruta Samhita similarly lists five types of men who are impotent with women and known as kliba. [1] The Kama Sutra uses the term tritiyaprakriti (third sex or nature) to define transgender and those with homosexual desire. [2] The Jayamangala (a twelfth-century CE commentary on the Kama Sutra) equates the term tritiyaprakriti to napunsaka (impotent) [3] and the Caraka Samhita (a 200 BCE medical text compiled by the sage Caraka) lists eight types of napunsaka. [4]

Hindu society recognizes two genders—male (purusha) and female (stri)—but also acknowledges a third, less common gender (tritiya-prakriti) considered to be a natural combination of the male and female natures.  Many verses throughout our literature affirm that the sex of the living entity is determined at the time of conception.  [5]

With this basic understanding in mind, our ancient society did not punish or attempt to correct transgenders, but rather accepted their nature as it was and incorporated them into society accordingly.  The Kama SutraMahabharataArthashastra etc. mention transgenders working as domestic servants, guards, barbers, masseurs, and florists. [6]  Transgenders are described as especially talented in the feminine arts of music playing and dancing.

Another role held by transgenders in traditional Hindu society was their special non-procreative status and association with supernatural powers.  Revered astrological and omen-reading texts such as the Brihat Jataka and Brihat Samhita all mention planetary alignments at the time of conception that indicate a third-gender birth.  Such births are associated with the three napumsa planets (Mercury, Saturn and Ketu) and indicate intelligence, mastery of the arts and sciences, detachment from family life, and clairvoyant abilities.[7]  In Hindu society, people of the third gender are believed to hold special powers that allow them to bless or curse others, and this traditional belief can still be seen in Bharat today. [8]

Several codes in the ancient Hindu law books protect transgender citizens from abuse by the general public.  For instance, the Narada-smriti states that people of the third sex should never be fined [9] and the Arthashastra enjoins that parents must provide basic necessities (food, clothing, etc.) to their third-gender offspring.  In cases when there are no relatives, the king is responsible for such provisions.  The Arthashastra also declares it an offense to vilify or publicly mock any transgender (kliba) and punishes such offenses with various small fines. [10]

Hindu Scriptures

The Hindu scriptures such as Srimad Bhagavad GitaSrimad BhagavatamIsopanisadRamayanaMahabharata, etc.  do not explicitly address homosexuality, but their important teachings are equally applicable to all classes of human beings without discrimination. The third gender appears briefly in some of these texts but is never explicitly defined or described in much detail.

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s well-known stint as the cross-dressing transgender, Brihannala, serves as a particularly notable example of the acceptance of transgenders in ancient Hindu society.  Brihannala’s traditional role as a skilled teacher of the fine arts and her acceptance by Maharaja Virata into his kingdom are all truly exemplary. [11]  Shikhandi, a skilled commander and brother of Draupadi, is another notable example of a transgender playing an important and respectable role in society.

Our scriptures furthermore emphasize qualities such as truthfulness, honesty, revealing one’s mind in confidence, compassion, inclusiveness, and so on.  Isopanisad, one of the most ancient scriptures, declares: “those who see the Supreme Being within everything never hate anything nor any being,” [12]


[1] Sushruta Samhita 3.2.38-45

[2] Kama Sutra 2.9.2

[3] The Complete Kama Sutra by Alain Danielou; Jayamangala commentary by Yashodhara, p. 183

[4] Caraka Samhita 4.2.17-21

[5] Sushruta Samhita 3.3.4.

[6] See Kama Sutra 2.9; Mahabharata (Virata Parva), and Arthashastra 1.21.1, 1.20.21 and 1.12.21.

[7] Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, pp. 103-123.

[8] This belief is well known in Bharat and ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada cites an interesting example wherein “eunuchs” bless the baby Nimai, an incarnation of Radha and Krsna, over 500 years ago in Mayapura, West Bengal.  See Outline of Lord Caitanya Play, Part One, Tape no. 67-002 and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta 1.13.106, purport.

[9] Narada-smriti 15.15.

[10] Arthashastra 3.5.32 and 3.18.4-5)

[11] Mahabharata (Virata Parva).

[12] Sri Isopanisad, verse 6.

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About the Author

Parin Shah
Foot-soldier of Hindutva, History Lover, News Junkie, Political Commentator; Electrical Engineer By Training and Electrical Contractor By Profession.