Many deities in Hinduism and Indian mythology are represented as both male and female at different times and in different incarnations or may manifest with characteristics of both genders at once, such as Ardhanarishvara, created by the merging of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati.
The name Ardhanarishvara means “The Lord whose half is a woman”. This form of Shiva represents the “totality that lies beyond duality”, and is associated with communication between mortals and gods and between men and women.
Alain Danielou says that “The hermaphrodite, have a symbolic value and are considered privileged beings, images of the Ardhararishvara.”
A similar merger occurs between the beauty and prosperity goddess Lakshmi and her husband Vishnu, forming the hermaphrotitic or androgynous Lakshmi-Narayana.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu takes the form of the enchantress, Mohini, in order to trick the demons into giving up Amrita, the elixir of life. Shiva later becomes attracted to Mohini and they have a relationship that results in the birth of a son. In the Brahmanda Purana, Shiva’s wife Parvati “hangs her head in shame” when she sees her husband’s pursuit of Mohini. In some stories Shiva asks Vishnu to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Stories in which Shiva knows of Mohini’s true nature have been interpreted to “suggest the fluidity of gender in sexual attraction”.
Pattanik writes that those focusing only on homoeroticism miss the narrative’s deeper metaphysical significance: Mohini’s femininity represents the material aspect of reality, and Mohini’s seduction is another attempt to induce Shiva into taking an interest in worldly matters. He cites another story to show that only Vishnu has the power to “enchant” Shiva: a demon tries to kill Shiva by taking the form of a woman (placing sharp teeth in “his” vagina). Shiva recognizes the impostor and kills the demon by the placing a “thunderbolt” on his “manhood” during their act of “lovemaking”.
In the later, Puranic story of the origin of God Ayyappa, Vishnu as Mohini becomes pregnant from Shiva, and gives birth to Ayyappa, who he-she abandons in shame. Pattanaik writes that rather than Mohini becoming pregnant, Ayyappa sprang from Shiva’s semen, which he ejaculated upon embracing Mohini. In another version, the Pandyan king Rajasekhara of Pantalam adopts the baby. In this version, Ayyappa is referred to as ayoni jata, “not born from a vagina”, and later Hariharaputra, “the son of Vishnu and Shiva”, and grows up to be a great hero.
Ardhanarishvara means “The Lord whose half is a woman”. Shiva and Parvati in Unison;
According to Tamil versions of the Mahabharata, the god Krishna – an incarnation of Vishnu – also took the form of Mohini and married Aravan. This was in order to give Aravan the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan’s death. This marriage and death of Aravan are commemorated annually in a rite known as Thali, during which Hijra (Indian “third gender”) take on the role of Krishna-Mohini and “marry” Aravan in a mass-wedding, followed by an 18-day festival. The festival ends with a ritual burial of Aravan, while the Hirjas mourn in Tamil style: by beating their chests in ritual dances, breaking their bangles and changing into white mourning clothes.
The Concept of Third Gender in Hinduism
Even though there is no specific mention of homosexuality, Hinduism recognizes people showing the signs of both sexes. The terminology used for such person is tritiya prakriti, literally third nature. The third gender is the common term for human being that is between a man and woman.
India, the country with highest Hindu population in the world, does not officially recognize the third gender, except in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu. In India, the followers of Radha-Krishna worshiping cult believe that everyone on earth is a woman and only Lord Krishna is a man. Based on their belief, the male devotes dress as a woman.
Nepal, the country with world’s second largest Hindu population, officially recognizes the third gender. Nepali definition of third gender includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
In India and Nepal, transgender people, commonly called Hijra, identify themselves as a third gender. In some Hijras community, the members go through ritual castration to look more like woman. The Hindus in India and Nepal do not consider a man who copulates with a Hijra a gay.
Ardhanarishwar is believed to be neither Shiva nor Parvati, but the God and Goddess in unison.
Hindu religion also has a deity in third gender form. He/she is called Ardhanarishwar, literally half-male and half-female God. Ardhanarishwar, the hermaphrodite deity in Hinduism, has left part as a female and right part as a male. Ardhanarishwor is an androgynous form of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati.
The Third Gender in Hinduism Scriptures
The Hindu scriptures give enough references of third gender i.e. alternate sexual identity. In the Hindu Epic Mahabharata, which is designated as the gist of Hindu religion and philosophy, there are there are two major third-gender characters: Shikhandi and Brihanla.
Shikhandi, a transgender in a royal family of Panchal
Shikhandi, who was born as a transgender in a royal family of Panchal during the Mahabharata era, is mentioned both as a man and as a woman. In his/her previous life form, Shikhandi was a princess named Amba, who wanted to revenge Bhisma because he destroyed her marriage. Amba worshiped Lord Shiva and asked him to bless her with the power to kill Bhisma. Lord Shiva said, when she would be born as Shikhandi in another life form, she will be able to kill Bhisma. With the help of Shikhandi, Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, was able to kill Bhisma.
Arjuna, too, had to live as a transgender for a year because a nymph called Urvasi cursed him. According to the Hindu mythology, Arjuna went to live with his father Indra, the Lord of Heaven, for some time. In the Heaven, Urvasi fell for Arjuna and asked him to satisfy her desire. Arjuna flatly denied saying Urvasi is like a mother figure for him because eons ago she had been a consort of his ancestor. Urvasi, in a bout of anger, cursed Arjuna that his potency will collapse. When Indra heard about the curse, he said Arjuna will live only one year as transgender, which will be very helpful to him. When Arjuna, along with his four brothers and wife, was hiding from his arch enemy Duryodhana, he changed into a transgender form. Arjuna, as a transgender, was called Brihanla. According to the Mahabharata, Arjuna did not cross dress as a woman but was biologically changed into transgender
Hindu Scriptures Purna also mentions about alternate genders. According to Mastya Purana, Ill, also called Illa, was a son of King Manu. However, he changed into a woman because of a curse from Goddess Parvati. Every month his gender changed, as a man he was called Ill and as a woman she was called Illa.