Author’s Note: In this article, in an effort to be true to the language often used in Hindu communities, the word “third-gender” (tritiya-prakriti) is used to describe individuals who fall outside of the male-female gender binary, and/or express non-heterosexual desire. The term LGBTQ+ is also used in this article to express a similar system of non-cisgendered/heterosexual categorization. Please google these terms to learn more.
While some religious groups see feminism as a Western or secular invention, and thus, a threat to their belief and organizational systems, many Hindu spaces in America are happy to brand themselves as feminist. However, what it really means to be a feminist space seems to be unclear in the Hindu community. Terms like “women’s empowerment” are thrown around, and yet, many Hindu spaces continue to unintentionally push young women and third-gender people away.
This is not to say that any other religious group is particularly better at being inclusive of feminist thought than Hindus are. Every group has its successes, as well as its failures. However, the examples in this article are based on conversations I have had with many of my female and non-binary Hindu friends, wherein we talk about how much we genuinely cherished the religious spaces we grew up in, yet were eventually pushed away by reasons that were inherently gendered.
Many of my Hindu peers do not regularly attend any temple. This is not because they are irreligious. We have conversations about religion and spiritual practices almost every day, and celebrate major holidays together. However, we are continually disappointed by the way our Hindu spaces continue to be dominated by the same people: uncles with superiority complexes and little valuable innovation to offer; young, entitled men who can do no wrong (according to their moms); religious leaders who read the same messages from the same texts with no concern for what we’re really facing in the real world. Not all, but many.
In my closest friend circle, my female friends faced more immediate discouragement. Growing up, a group of my friends regularly attended a Guyanese Hindu mandir (temple) in Queens. Not only did we go there every Sunday, but we regularly went for classes and pujas during the week. Even while in college, I attended at least three times a week. We formed some of our deepest friendships at this mandir, and gained our most formative connections to spirituality. We do not regret our time spent there.
And there, we also faced some of our deepest indignities, which were almost always along gendered lines. Young women’s characters were constantly judged by how much time we could devote to the mandir; whether we spoke to boys or not; what we wore both inside and outside mandir; how much we deferred our opinion to elders. At age 13, I first started showing symptoms of depression; in college, when I first started seeing a therapist, I uncovered how damaging all of this had been to my self-worth. Of course, I didn’t need a therapist to start to suspect that this all was having an impact on me. By the time I was in high school, my mandir friends and I had already began questioning things ourselves. Continue reading
“You know, Paro, so much beauty is not right for one person to have. Isn’t it obvious – the moon is marked because it is so beautiful. Come, let me mar your face and spoil its perfection.” –from Devdas, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
* * *
As Navratri approaches again, I am reminded of something I read last year about the artists who create devi pandals in West Bengal, India. During Navratri, the nine-night festival dedicated to honoring the Goddess (Devi) in her various forms, it is customary in West Bengal to create elaborate dioramas of Durga slaying the demon Mahisha, of Kali drinking the blood of Rakhtabija, or of the terrifying goddess Chandi. However, growing numbers of Hindus are requesting less violent imagery for their pandals. They want Durga holding flowers instead of swords, discuses, spears. They’d like a clothed, smiling, less bloody Kali.
I have also been spending my Monday evenings learning to chant the Sri Rudram, a set of mantras from the Yajur Veda dedicated to Rudra, a destructive form of Shiva. Certain epithets have stood out to me: the Leader of Armies, the Spear-Wielder, the Angry One. And yet, he is still described as compassionate, loving, abiding in the hearts of all.
Even if we ignore these outwardly violent forms of isvara and turn to cuddly, big-bellied Ganesha, we must remember that his head was severed before he could have his famous elephant head – by his own father, no less. Lakshmi, who embodies all that is sweet, beautiful, healing, was born from a heated push-and-pull of devas and asuras; love was born from a difficult and painful churning. There is no running from aggression when we face God. Continue reading