Uniting the Mind, Body, and Spirit: Understanding Hindu Perspectives on Transgenderism in Houston
By Navya Kumar
July 17th, 2016
The first time I saw a transgender person, I was 10 or 11 years old, in the backseat of a car on the busy streets of Bangalore, Karnataka. A woman approached the vehicle, sari-clad and makeup-caked, to beg (or so I thought at the time). When our driver shooed her away, she walked towards my window and I saw her strong jaw, facial hair, and Adam’s apple. She didn’t look like a woman or a man. Based on my limited knowledge of the world, she was unnatural, strange, different. My mother refused to talk to me about it, simply saying she was a beggar. I knew not to press the issue.
Later, as a senior in high school, I mentored a female-to-male (FTM) transgender individual. I was supposed to influence this kid to do well in school, to get along better with his peers, and honestly, to fit in. I did my job as best I could, asking him if he was keeping up with schoolwork, counseling him on his friends’ drama, and listening to him talk about his mother’s deep and entrenched disapproval. He told me how angry his mother was when he couldn’t be the girl he was “supposed to be.” He told me how angry he used to be with himself for the same reason. How trivial my task seemed, compared to the identity crisis that was coming from deep within him. We spoke for about 20 minutes each week, me helping him with his homework or listening to him rant about how he was grounded or advising him on how to woo this girl he was flirting with. Honestly, we only spoke about him being transgender in the very beginning. Since then, to me, he’s simply a normal 14-year-old boy with a great sense of humor. There were times I would forget that he was still biologically female. It just wasn’t a big deal to me, didn’t make a huge difference. I graduated from high school and our text conversations became fewer and far between. Snapchat keeps me updated, but other than that, I’m no longer a part of his life.
A year later, I went to college at Rice University. Although I grew up sheltered, I also grew up in Austin, a liberal city, and had friends who had progressive views. My mentality was: the transgender individual I had mentored didn’t choose to be transgender, the same way I didn’t choose to be Indian, so how could I hold it against him? And if I had pride in my cultural heritage, why shouldn’t he have pride in his gender identity? But for activities that did require a choice, I was not as liberal. Premarital sex, abortion, alcohol, all of these were lifestyle decisions, and I would judge people for “indulging.” When I got to college and saw for myself how people “indulged” and still were amazing, successful and spiritual individuals, my views began to change. I became more open-minded to different lifestyles. I saw a discrepancy between the openness of my new world and the close-mindedness of the world I had left behind, especially in expressions of sexuality that deviated from the normal. Hinduism and Indian culture go hand-in-hand, so when I started questioning my culture and community, I started to question my faith as well. Combined with the fact that I felt too busy to attend religious education classes, I began to distance myself more and more from Hinduism.
Later that year, I had applied for and was accepted to an Alternative Spring Break Trip that would go to Washington, DC and explore the social issue of gender inequality. Throughout the trip, my peers and I extensively discussed religion, in the context of abortion and women’s rights, but also generally. I realized during those discussions what a huge role Hinduism plays in my life, and even more so, how much I missed discussing and learning Vedanta. But the discrepancy between my new ideas and old worldview was still there. I had to find out if the social norms imposed by the Indian community were actually based in Hindu scripture, and I needed a way to conduct that research.
At the tail end of my freshman year, I applied to work at the ISH as a summer intern. Interns are required to propose a topic and then execute a project over the course of ten weeks. I knew I wanted to study a marginalized population and that I would want to incorporate Hinduism, my own faith, in my work. Something about sexual health, the physical, social and mental well-being associated with one’s sexuality, and gender identity drew me in. Something about the all-encompassing opinion that I, an Indian girl who grew up in a somewhat conservative community, should never study such “deviant” behaviors. Something about the casual homophobia and transphobia I noticed in my community only after high school. I remembered reading about Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharata, becoming Brihannala, a transgender woman. No one had questioned that Hindu story, but when Caitlyn Jenner came out, my parents were discomfited, to say the least. And the central question: Why was my faith open and accepting, but my community less so?
I had seen examples of this discrepancy my entire life. The caste system, first intended to be a labor division system, has been corrupted into institutionalized discrimination, yet Hinduism is a religion of extreme tolerance and compassion. Sex is an extremely taboo subject in Indian communities, yet one of the main necessities of a fulfilled life is kama, physical desire, part of it stemming from sexual pleasure.
This tension between clear scriptural acceptance and potent societal disapproval is the root of my project. What better place to study it than Houston, with a Hindu population of about 100,000? There must be more than one person in Houston, I thought, who is dealing with this tension on a personal level. More so, they are embedded in a community that is clearly conflicted about these issues.
Even within my own family, I saw this tension. When I told my parents what project I wanted to work on, they didn’t exactly jump for joy. In fact, they tried very hard to dissuade me. My mother, especially. She told me stories of the hijra population in India, a mainly MTF group. How they would steal girls from their parents and sell them to prostitution rings, how they were dangerous. She recalled when she was a teenager, how scared she was when any hijra approached her. I cannot deny that her fear is real, even though I found it hard to believe. In America, that is not at all how I feel around transmen. But my mother had an experience that led to deeply entrenched bias against all members of an already marginalized group. This made me more determined to find and expose the truth.
If spirituality is the “search for the sacred” (Pargament 2013) and religion is organized pathway for spirituality, then how does gender identity play a role within that search? My research on Hinduism has shown that it does not. There is no strong condemnation of transgenderism anywhere in any scripture, not the Upanishads, the Vedas, or the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, my understanding is that the ultimate goal of the Hindu is to attain moksha, or oneness, with Supreme Consciousness. As I see it, gender identity doesn’t seem to play a clear role in this journey. In fact, in my opinion, gender is a vasana, a tendency, and in order to attain moksha, the individual must shed his or her vasanas, his or her identities. The ultimate Truth of Hinduism is that all of these identities are merely roles in a grand maya, a grand illusion. Gender must be an illusion, as well.
I don’t claim to understand all of it, or even to presume what I think is correct. Hinduism is a very complex religion, building on themes that are understood only after years of intense contemplation. In order to gain some perspective, I sought out religious and community leaders.
I spoke with Dr. Venugopal Menon, one of the founders of the Meenakshi temple in Houston and a now retired physician, a specialist in allergy immunology. He had also experienced the divide between our constricting culture and open-minded religion. He attributed it to colonialism and the emergence of Victorian values over Vedic laws. I was intrigued. I wondered how those rigid Victorian era moral codes translate into somewhat progressive American lifestyle, and how Indian-American communities deal with that transition.
Dr. Menon’s explanation of Hinduism echoed much of my own understanding, that we are all manifestations of God, so transgenderism is just another expression of the Ultimate. He said that he never had issue with it as a physician, and never really saw the bias within the medical sphere.
Soon after, I spoke with Swami Shivaatmananda, a yogi with a vast understanding of Hinduism. He is affiliated with Chinmaya Mission Austin, where I had attended religious education classes growing up. The very first thing he commented on was the divide that I experienced so acutely, even going so far as to say, “we Indians are a quite narrow-minded people.” This, of course, in relation to our very accepting Vedic roots. Swamiji is a resource in my community for parents and for adolescents. He has counseled many parents who are confused by their child’s “bad” behavior, citing their own obedience when they were young. Swamiji tells them that America is different from India, that kids will be kids, and that teen angst is normal. He also brought up his upbringing as a reason for his open-mindedness, spoke at length about gender dysphoria, explained the phenomenon of Arjuna-Brihannala. He told me I might encounter pushback when I talked to other faith leaders, and that based on his liberal upbringing, he is accepting, but his counterparts may be less so.
I hope that through more interviews with Hindu faith leaders I can understand the true scriptural understanding of transgenderism. I hope that through interviews with medical professionals I can understand the health implications of gender dysphoria and see how the body can adapt to the mind. I hope that through interviews with transgender individuals I can understand the personal and maybe spiritual process of recognizing who one truly is. There is a unique mind-body-spirit connection that lies within all humans, and I hope to understand how it manifests in transgender individuals, by discovering how the transgender individual understands themselves and the world they live in, as well as how the world understands them.
Navya Kumar is an undergraduate student at Rice University, studying Sociology and Biochemistry. She is a Rice University-Baylor College of Medicine Scholar, and after 4 years at Rice University, she will be attending Baylor College of Medicine to pursue a medical degree, as well as further her interest in women’s health. Originally from Austin, Texas, Navya has been very involved with Chinmaya Mission Austin, graduating from the Balavihar course in 2015. She has attended multiple Hindu youth retreats and lectures and hopes to continue this involvement in some way at Rice University in the upcoming year.
Dr. Venugopal Menon, the eldest of seven from a middle-class family in pre-independent India, was raised with time-tested traditions. After earning his medical degree, he served as a doctor in the army and then left his centuries-old culture in search of the American dream. Dr. Menon established himself as a successful physician, became president of a reputable clinic, was inducted as a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of Medicine, London, and was involved in several professional, cultural, religious, and philanthropic endeavors. He and his wife raised three children who are successfully settled and involved in a variety of social causes while maintaining ties with India and their relatives. Dr. Menon has been married to Devi for fifty years, and they live in a Kerala-style home in Pearland, Texas, visiting their six grandchildren when they can break away from their social involvements. (Biography taken from https://migrantsmemoirs.com/about/)
Swami Shivatmananda, formerly Brahmachari Girish Chaitanya, is the resident Acharya of Chinmaya Mission Austin. Swamiji graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Upon completing his degree he worked as an environmental chemist and as an electrical engineer for more than 10 years in Northern California. In 2002, Swamiji left for Sandeepany Sadhanalaya in Mumbai to join the 12th brahmachari batch. He studied under the guidance of Swami Tejomayananda and under the tutelage of Swami Ishwarananda. Upon completing the brahmachari course he served Chinmaya Mission Los Angeles for more than four years, after which he was asked by Guruji to serve in Austin. In February 2015 Swami Shivatmananda was initiated into sannyasa in Mumbai, India on the auspicious day of Mahashivaratri. He is fluent in Gujarati, Hindi, and English and enjoys giving discourses on Vedanta. (Biography taken from Chinmaya Mission Austin website: http://www.chinmayaaustin.org/acharyas.html)
Pargament, Kenneth I., Julie J. Exline, and James W. Jones, eds. APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2013. Print. APA Handbooks in Psychology.