We are born. A gender and sex is immediately assigned to us. We grow up, enter puberty, and emerge into adulthood.
Throughout this period, our gender identity (man/woman) may or may not be in conformation with our category assigned at birth (male/female).
A person’s sex is defined by the genitals s/he is born with. Gender, on the other hand, refers to the social role (man or woman) an individual would like to perform, irrespective of their sex. Therefore we can clearly posit that a person born with male genitals might not conform to the gender of a man. In fact, a person could have been born with genitals of one type but could wish to express either genders or none. Clearly, gender spans a wide spectrum of categories, and this is what gives rise to terms like gender fluidity. A person who fluctuates between genders or expresses multiple genders at a given time is called Gender Fluid.
On a chronological scale, gender fluidity or non-conformity to gender binary has always been extant. Hinduism presents us with perhaps the most ancient and diverse cornucopia of human culture. The sprawling and complex literature intermixed with the ensemble cast of wondrous personalities makes it's understanding elusive. Hinduism is one religion that is accustomed to changing shapes. Divine beings or Gods change appearances often. Sex and gender for such beings seem more a matter of convenience than necessity.
In fact, both sex and gender have been used, crossed, and transcended in carrying out their divine purposes. Stories of Shikhandi, Mohini, Ila, Bahugami, and many more mythological characters are quite popular and are fine examples that showcase gender crossing and fluidity. However, raconteurs have not voiced the stories which have been hidden in some sects of Hindu philosophies. Pushtimarg, founded by Vallabhacharya Mahaprabhu (Braj, Uttar Pradesh), is a school of philosophy centered on Lord Krishna. It has interesting anecdotes of Krishna. In his divine sports or Leela, Krishna expresses gender fluidity in the form of cross-dressing.
For instance, during Holi Leela, Krishna is seen to cross-dress at the drop of a hat! Pushtimarg has a humongous collection of poems contextualized on Krishna’s life. In a poem, by Surdas, a celebrated poet, we see the depiction of Krishna changing into a woman:
“Shyama Shyam so hori khelat aaj nayi
Nand-Nandan ko Radhe banaye, Madhav aap bhai
Sakhi sakha bhaye sakha sakhi bhaye, Yashomati bhavan gayi
Bajat taal mridang jhaanjh duff, nachat ta ta theyi Gore Shyaam sanwri Radhe, yah moorat chitayi Ulto roop dekh rani Yashomati, tan sudhibisar gayi
Faguva mangay leeno rani Yashomati, kanchan ratan mayi
Soor shyam ko vadan vilokat ughar gayi kalayi”
Surdas refers to Krishna as Shyam (the black-bodied) and Radha as Shyama (one who is in love with Shyam). The poem refers to an instance when Shyama decides to play a new type of Holi with Shyam. Krishna (Nand-Nandan) will dress up as Radha and Radha would dress up as Krishna (Madhav). All the girls (sakhi) would change into boys (sakha) and the boys into girls! In this cross-dressed manner all of them visit Yashoda’s house playing various musical instruments and dancing to their tunes. When Yashoda espies a fair Krishna and a dark Radha, she is amazed and goes into a trance. She then distributes ‘Faguva’, a delicacy made of maize, to all of them and Surdas concludes that seeing this sport he feels blessed.
Another story relates how, during Holi, the Gopas (boys) of Gokul lead by Krishna fight a colorful war with the Gopis (girls) of Barsana led by Radha, Krishna’s beloved. In this playful war of love, the girl gang manages to steal Krishna’s flute and Pitambar (a golden-yellow Dupatta around his neck). The Gopis then dress him like a girl in a manner suggested in this poem by Narayan, a poet of Braj origin:
“Rasiya ko naar banavori, Rasiya ko
Kati lehenga gal maah kanchuki, chunar sheesh odhavori
Baah bara bajuband sohe, nakvesar pehraori
Gaal gulaal, drigan bich kajal, bendi bhaal lagao ri Aarsi challa aur khagvari, anpat bichua pehraori Narayan taari bajay ke, yako Yashomati nikat nachaori Rasiya ko naar banavori, Rasiya ko”
Krishna is referred to as ‘Rasiya’, meaning someone who takes ‘rasa’ or pleasure in luxuries of all kinds. The Gopis make him wear a lehenga down his waist (kati) with a blouse (kanchuki). They also drape a dupatta (chunar) around his head. Following this he is adorned with ornaments like big armlets (bajuband), nose pin (nakvesar), red powder on his cheeks (gaal gulaal), kohl in his eyes (drigan bich kajal) and a ‘bindi’ on his forehead. He is not spared yet as the Gopis continue to dress him with toe rings (bichua) and finally he is shown a mirror (aarsi). They all clap and make Krishna dance in front of his mother Yashoda. The intriguing part is that Krishna takes this very sportingly and even after losing every time he would turn up the next day (the festivities of Holi go on for several days).
In this poem particularly and in many others, the devotees sing of Krishna being dressed as a woman by the Gopis. This form of poetry, prevalent in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh, is meant to be sung during the days preceding Holi.
Another Leela of Krishna which depicts this type of fluidity by Krishna is the ‘Sanjhi Khel’. Sanjhi refers to the time of dusk. During the last 15 days of the lunar month of Aasoj (somewhere near mid-September), the girls of Braj used to worship the goddess Katyayani for a suitable husband. The goddess was worshipped with a Rangoli of flowers. The maidens used to pluck flowers from forests in the Braj region. Krishna, being curious, would leave his herd of cows to follow these maidens into the forests. However, to maintain his anonymity, he would dress up as a girl and chat with them. A thorough read into Krishna’s life reveals certain nuances that indicate that there was no hesitation towards expressing his fluctuation in gender via cross-dressing.
The Pushtimargiya devotees claim that their leader (Vallabhacharya Mahaprabhu) is an incarnation of Krishna and Radha born into a single body (hence, inter-mingled genders). He is viewed as an exemplar of how Radha and the other Gopis served Krishna. In fact, the philosophies and traditions of Pushtimarg are based on how Radha and the rest of the Gopis doted on Krishna. Their path to salvation is to emulate the Gopis and serve Krishna. This engendered a new emotion of worship: ‘Sakhibhava’, meaning emotions (bhava) of a Sakhi (female friend, here referred to Gopis).
The distinctive idea in Sakhibhava is that Krishna is the Purna-Purushottam i.e. he epitomizes ‘maleness’ and all other beings have to play female to his ‘maleness’. The devotees venerate Krishna’s favorite consort Radha and seek to be her attendants. Only then will they be uniquely privileged to witness the Krishna-Radha relationship and be a part of it. Therefore the whole idea, in a nutshell, is that the path to salvation is becoming a ‘sakhi’ of Krishna.
In that case, the male devotees would be left behind! However, there is a way out; even they can practice this ‘Sakhibhava’. Quite interestingly, male devotees assume the name of Gopis, believe Krishna to be their husband, and go to great lengths while developing feminine behavior. In Braj, a lot of men worship Krishna after assuming the female gender.
Thus, our Hindu sacred literature is replete with instances of gender fluidity and gender transformations. It is a very common gesture to imitate the ones whom we venerate. Therefore mortal imitation of the immortal gods is fair. The idea impressed from the stories is that diversity is well-respected in religion, and that gender fluidity has always been a part of Hinduism. Having worked (and, in a way, decoded) these veiled stories I leave the interpretation as an exercise for the reader!