Category Archives: 3. Gender Equality

Sexuality in Hinduism

Sexuality in Hinduism is most notable through the observance of kama, one of Hinduism’s catur-purusartha’s (four human aims).  Within the Dharma Sastras contain prescriptions for how one should live one’s life, as well as outlining various religious duties (dharma).  Kama in this instance refers to fulfilment of sensual and sexual pleasure (Lidke 108).  Attainment of kama for males is prescribed in the second of the four asramas (life stages), the grhastha stage. This stage of life is known as the householder stage, and in it Hindus are expected to marry.  Sexual relations within a Hindu marriage are meant to be for procreation, however it is expected that couples will be intimate for pleasure also.  Sexual indulgence can become a problem that will cause unhappiness for grhasthas and self-restraint is cautioned.  Mentioned in various scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita is extramarital sex, considered taboo as marriage is seen as contractual and for life (Mehta 66-67).  The catur-purusartha exists within Hinduism’s caste system, and only the upper three classes undergo the rituals that transition from one asrama to the next (Mehta 63).

Rgveda 10.85 begins by telling us that there is a divinity to human marriage, in that it is modeled after the gods, before focusing on more on the humanness of marriage.  Simply by being a woman, a bride is seen as having inherent value to not only her husband, but her husband’s family as well.  This has to do with the expectation that children will be the result of a marriage (Menski 56).  If a husband dies before the woman has conceived, she is not destined to remain a widow, but can be married to another member of her husband’s family in the hopes of conception.  Ideally the original marriage will bear children, and so gods are invoked in certain rituals in the context of fertilization; Indra is invoked for strong sons while Agni is invoked for many sons (Menski 56).  At the same time that a bride is seen as an asset to her husband and his family, she may also be seen as a danger.  On a couples’ wedding night there is an expectation that the hymen will break and a woman will bleed during the act of intercourse.  This, of course, will defile the bedding, but it is also seen as a destructive blood in a Vedic marriage.  For this reason, a husband may consult a Brahmin to purify the cloth and bring longevity to the marriage (Menski 58).

Some Puranas personify kama as Kamadeva, the god of desire and passion.  By contrasting this god with Siva in the Siva Purana, this Purana is full of insight into how Hindus view sexuality.  As Siva is sometimes seen as the eternal brahmacarin and supernaturally chaste, his interactions with Kamadeva show the sexual side of Hinduism (O’Flaherty 141). Much of the literature focuses on Kamadeva as he relates to Siva, but the information gathered in these texts give the reader some idea of what influenced Hindu attitudes and rituals relating to sexuality.

While Siva is seen as chaste in many rituals, the idea that he is tempted or does not remain chaste throughout are common. Some of the myths actually place him in the position of the creator, with an erect penis (linga) and seminal fluid that acts as the seed of creation (O’Flaherty 143).  Siva’s chastity is, however, his most powerful weapon in myths in which he is juxtaposed with Kamadeva.  In one such myth, Siva is responsible for burning Kamadeva up, destroying him.  Modern interpretations of this myth hold it as a temptation story, whereas early interpretations view it as a wholly asexual act.  Siva, being compared to fire, when the two interacted is said to have melted or destroyed Kamadeva, who is likened to snow.  In this analogy, Siva is so pure and chaste that Kamadeva’s sexuality could not possibly have affected him (O’Flaherty 143-34).

The Puranas include a different story of Siva burning Kamadeva.  Siva may be aroused by the act or bring Kamadeva back more powerful.  In the Puranas, it is suggested that Siva, rather than being so chaste that he is not affected by Karmadeva, in fact recognizes his power and possibly admires him (O’Flaherty 145).

Hinduism is unlike many western religions in that it does not have a single canonical text, but many.  Other texts from early Hinduism that mention sexuality include the Upanisads and the Tantras (Doniger 2011).  Some Upanisads compare Vedic rituals to sexuality, such as the oblation of butter into the fire resembling the acts of procreation.  Each action taken in the ritual has a counterpart in love-making and eventual birth.  The Tantras take this notion one step farther and suggest that sexual intercourse is not simply like a ritual, but that the act itself is a ritual (Doniger 2011). The most in-depth text dealing with kama is the Kamasutra, a text from approximately the third century B.C.E.  By modern standards, the Kamasutra is a liberal text, with thoughts put forth on subjects such as women’s sexuality and homosexual behavior (Doniger 2011).  In opposition to the Vedas, the author of the Kamasutra, Vatsyayana, dismisses the notion that people should only have to procreate.  There is also the idea that since people of all ages are capable of understanding sexual acts, all should be familiar with the text.  The idea of female pleasure and sexuality is strong in the text, even suggesting a woman leave her husband if he is not satisfying her, in contrast to what earlier law texts say (Doniger, 2011).

The Dharma Sastras’ view of homosexuality is one of taboo; a man who engages in same sex activity is to be punished, however slightly, for the transgression. Vatsyayana holds different ideas, where instead of the defamatory kliba [translated as eunuch, but holds many other meanings] he uses hijra, a term that means third gender.  Rather than transgressive, third genders in the text are described in a more neutral way; hermaphrodites and bi-sexuals are treated the same as all others.  Throughout the Kamasutra are references to servants and friends who perform oral sex on members of the same sex.  The Kamasutra is unlike other texts, it is not a law book, but rather one that categorizes and attempts to explain sexuality.  In this way, it is not judgmental (Lidke 124).  This lighter view of homosexuality and transsexuality is found throughout both ancient and modern India (Doniger 2011).

Homoeroticism is an important aspect of Hindu literature, even if textual authorities disagree on its morality.  The Hindu concept of rebirth, as well as its views of gods as being androgynous, means that gender and sexuality can be viewed as fluid.  Heterosexuality, however, is still highly regarded as the normative sexuality (Lidke 124-125).  Hijras can also be found in the stories of the epics, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  In the former is the story of Sikhandhin, who begins the tale as Amba and is captured by a warrior.  After spurning his advances in favor of one she loves elsewhere, she is eventually rejected by both the one she loves and later the warrior and his brother.  She is granted a boon by Siva and asks to be reborn a male.  She is reborn as a female hijra, her boon having not been granted as she had hoped (Lidke 126-127).  Despite a long history of hijra populations and homoeroticism attitudes about sexuality and behavior changed during and after colonization. The British imposed anti-sodomy laws in 1860 and worked to impose Christian values (Lidke 127).  Despite the efforts of the British, hijras still exist in India to this day and include those who proclaim themselves neither man nor woman.  For a majority of Hijras the dominant gender is female, with dress and mannerisms being feminine whether one is biologically male or biologically female.  In lesbian relationships this means that both partners are feminine, since masculine hijras are rare (Penrose 4).

The Kamasutra also speaks explicitly about females and their sexuality, not only in regards to hijras and males but also in regards to their relations with other females.  There are references to penetration with sex toys, both of males and females.  The word used for the penetrator is svairini, although some translators also put forth that svairini can also mean oral sex partner or prostitute (Penrose 15).  The Kamasutra describes women as penetrators, both of men and of other women.  The text, while describing homosexual acts, does not categorize the women as such (see Kama Sutra 2.8.13).  Women’s sexuality in this context is defined by her dominance in the act of penetrating, not by the gender of her partner (Penrose 16).

Sexuality in Hinduism has been influenced by divine myths and written and revealed texts and has an effect on many aspects of life.  Each of the four stages of life (asram vyavastha) have something to say on the topic and dharmic prescription in place.  Sexuality also includes how gender is defined for Hindu’s, as the large and continuing hijras population is proof of.  The texts also often have a lot to say about how one should conduct oneself in regards to sexuality, although with multiple texts there are often times contradictions.



Benton, Catherine (2006) God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Doniger, Wendy (2011) “From kama to karma: the resurgence of Puritanism in contemporary India.”   Social Research 78:1. Accessed February 7, 2016.

Herdt, Gilbert H (1994) Third sex, third gender: beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history. New York: Zone Books

Kalra, Gurvinder “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 5:121-26. DOI:10.1080/17542863.2011.570915

Lidke, Jeffrey S (2003) “A Union of Fire and Water: Sexuality and Spirituality in Hinduism.” In   Sexuality and the World’s Religions, edited by David W. Machacek and Melissa M. Wilcox, 101-32. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mehta, J.M (2009) Four Spans of Human Life: Ashram Vyavastha. Daryaganj: Hindoology Books.

Menski, Werner F (1991) “Marital Expectations as Dramatized in Hindu Marriage Rituals.” In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie, 47-67. Jawahar Nagar: Shri Jainendra Press.

Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijaras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) Siva the Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.

Penrose, Walter (2001) “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a “Third Nature” in the South Asian Past.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3-39. Accessed February 7, 2016.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Kamasutra

Ashram vyavastha






The marriage of the Pandeva’s

The Ramayana

The Mahabharata


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Adam Smith (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Hinduism and Feminism

Discussions of gender within Hinduism are particularly interesting because “Hinduism is marked by a heritage of patriarchal hierarchy” with “a strong matriarchal mythology” (Joshee 73). Although the trinity in Hinduism [Brahma, Visnu and Siva] is male, “their power cannot be enacted without the female aspect” or sakti (Joshee 73-75). Elements of Hinduism, such as sakti, can empower women, however, most uphold patriarchal ideals and gender roles. Feminism defines patriarchal societies as those that “control” women in three elements, “sexuality, reproduction and labour” (Desai 1676). The oppression of women is integral to the operation of this patriarchal society. Although there are some similarities between Hinduism and feminism and feminism in other parts of the world, the patriarchy manifests itself differently everywhere. As a result, there are contextual differences in the gender inequalities and the conversations around these inequalities. For the purposes of this article, feminism will be defined as the movement towards liberation in a patriarchal society through advocating and implementing change with the intent to create social, political and economic gender equality.

In Vedic times, women were able to participate in religious rituals, become educated, and marry at an older age. Their status “systematically deteriorated” so by the time of the epics it is evident that women were not appreciated or equal to men in the same way (Dhruvarajan 44). The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Laws of Manu propagate the ideal of “loyal and obedient wives whose only goal in life is to please their husbands” (Gross 74). Wives and women are seen in this text as needing to be under the control of and dependent on a man, their father in childhood and after that their husband. It is interesting to note that in the alternative oral retellings of the epics, patriarchal norms are disturbed (Sugirtharajah 100).

Entering into the wife role has traditionally been accompanied by a dowry. After marriage, if a woman is not able to produce a son, her husband is permitted to remarry by the Dharma Sastras (Chakravarti 2249). Stridharma is the duty of the wife to her husband. Despite such cultural and social practices, marriage is seen in the Hindu tradition as two halves, the husband and wife, joining as complementaries and “considers husband and wife spiritually one” (Nayar 210).

It has been suggested that “Aryan hegemony” dominated “Dravidian matrilineal traditions” and thus powerful goddesses were incorporated as secondaries to gods in the “Aryan patriarchal religion” (Dhruvarajan 45). This interaction with the Aryans could be one reason for the degeneration of the status of women. It has been also suggested that “the erosion of the position of women” can be associated “with the coming of Islam and the Mughal Empire” (Joshee 73). However, some suggest the status of women would have been better under Muslim law than Hindu law, at the time. A ruler of the Mughal Empire, Akbar, at one point attempted to abolish the practice of sati, making him the first to do so (Joshee 74).

Sati was the old Hindu tradition of the immolation of the widow on her late husband’s funeral pyre. Although the practice of sati may be classified as “murder of the cruellest kind”, some satis died with “courage and exaltation”, depending on the consent or willingness of the women (Nayar 446-447). Devout Orthodox Hindus believed that the practice of sati ensured the woman, her husband and their families would be rid of bad karma and “would be in paradise for 35 million years” (Nayar 256).

The social and cultural elements above illustrate the role of women predating the rise of feminist thought in India. In the 12th century, Mahadeviyakka, a female ascetic of the Virasaivism movement, did not conform to traditional gender roles and chose living naked and without a husband or male companion. She claimed to be “transcending” gender roles, therefore “attained to peace (Olson 498). Mahadeviyakka however is a rare example from India’s past of independent female thought and it is not until the 19th century that feminist thought and movements worked to elevate women’s social status.

19th century feminism was mainly focused on the gender inequalities faced by upper caste women and issues such as child marriage, sati and education. In 1818, Raja Ram Mohan Roy brought sati to the public’s attention. He distributed pamphlets that argued against claims for textual pro-sati evidence and petitioned for legal action on sati, mentioning that women were being “induced by the persuasion of their next heirs” (Sarma 19). Because of these actions, a government order abolished the practice of sati in 1829. In 1848, Mahatma Phule started a school for untouchable girls and a home for the upper caste widows who were socially outcaste because of illicit sexual relations. He claimed that the “‘softer’ forms of gendered domination that the upper caste women faced were no less oppressive than the expropriation of manual and sexual labour experienced by the lower caste women” (Ghosal 795). Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Phule were among the first to introduce feminist notions and challenge societal gender norms (Rani 64). With the influence of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj in 1872, Act III prohibited polygamy, permitted widow marriage and promoted higher education for girls (Rani 64).

Anandamayi Ma, a female guru in the early 19th century, provides an interesting example of the ideal wife role in Hinduism. Apparently there were no sexual relations in their marriage, Ma and her husband still loved and cared for each other. Ma was spiritually gifted and therefore was her husband’s guru (Lipski 7). Some unmarried girls could avoid disappointing their family by becoming spiritually devoted to Ma (Hallstrom 204). She still recommended women maintain their traditional role as the ideal wife (Hallstrom 210).

At the end of the 19th century, women leaders became more active in the feminist movement in India. With these leaders came the development of women’s groups and organizations. 1915-1925 saw the formation of Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women of India, Annie Besant’s Home Rule League and the All-India Women’s Conference (Rani 64). Annie Besant supported uplifting the status of women in India, while advocating for women to maintain their traditional Hindu roles. She supported feminism only to the extent that women would remain mainly absent from the public sphere. For example, she opened a school for girls, but only so they could learn to be better wives (Anderson 31). In 1921, women gained the right to vote in the Madras and proceeded to campaign for further political equality (Rani 64).

Mahatma Gandhi brought feminism into the movement for Indian independence [India gained independence in 1947], yet also advocated for women’s ideal role as serving her family. According to Gandhi, Sita from the Ramayana was an ideal wife and devotee (Dhruvarajan 44). Gandhi “worked for the Indian women’s emancipation tirelessly” and saw their political involvement as integral to the rise of women’s status (Baruah 13). He even said that “women is more fitted than men…. to take bolder action in ahimsa” (Sarma 6). He was greatly supportive of women’s freedom in India and within Hinduism because he believed daughters and sons should be treated with “perfect equality” (Sarma 8). He favoured a meritocratic shift, in which persons were valued without regard for gender. These radical notions not only brought about political and social change in the status of women, but also instilled a sense of “strength and power” in the “souls” of Indian women (Sarma 10). It was during this time of social reform that women were more encouraged to join the political sphere.

Post-independence India carried this view forward in legislation and under article 15(1) in the Indian Constitution there cannot be “discrimination by the State on the grounds of…sex” and 15(3) allows “special provisions” for women and children (Kalyani 75). At this point, feminism in India was largely removed from political discourse. It was seen to have been successful in achieving the original mandate. This decline also occurred in the western feminist movement after the suffragette or first wave movement (Kumar 20). It was not until the 1970s that feminism in India experienced a revival and could be because of a growing discontent amongst women regarding their involvement, or lack thereof, in India’s post-independence development. This position generally blames “patriarchal culture” for ”diluting freedom and equality”, therefore even though the constitution guaranteed equal rights after independence, women were not equally represented in the government (Rani 65).

The Committee on the Status of Women in India was established in 1971(Ghosal 799). Their report, Towards Equality, brought forward gender inequality issues into the political sphere (Ghosal 780). This report gives reasons why reserving seats for women would be of benefit to India and provides counter arguments outlining the fallacies in the opposition to this reservation. In the report it states that “[o]nly a system of reservations…will help to broaden the base of women’s representation” (Thakur 237).

In 1979 the “campaign against dowry murders” was the first time that dowry deaths were referred to as murders. Prior to this they were legally referred to as suicides (Kumar 22). In the 1980s, feminists like those involved in the “campaign against dowry murders”, influenced the government to pass and strengthen legislation regarding domestic violence. Additionally, feminists wrote simple manuals intended to help women escape domestic violence (Gangoli 103). Discussions around domestic violence and the uncommon practice of sati were further fueled by”the death of a young woman in Rajasthan in 1987” (Kumar 28). Following this, The Commission of Sati Prevention Act was enacted to prevent the practice and glorification of sati. The act clearly states that the practice of sati is “nowhere enjoined by any of the religions of India as an imperative duty” (

In 1990, the National Commission of Women was established to provide the State with information regarding the adherence to the laws regarding women and the progress made towards gender equality in India. The original constitution was amended in 1992 to mandate a reservation of one third of seats for women in local level elected bodies (Rani 66). Although women have been constitutionally allowed to hold parliamentary positions after independence, women have always held less than 8% of the parliamentary seats in India (Kalyani 8). The laws may change, but these changes do not always change the social, political and economic status of women in India. This is shown in the laws regarding violence against women, especially marital rape. In a 1996 UN report, 74% of judges prioritized women preserving their family, “even if she faces violence” (Kalyani 76). Marital rape is not an offense. The law defines rape as only “penetrative intercourse” and unless there is physical injury to the husband due to the victim’s resistance, the victim “is generally assumed to have consented to it” (Kalyani 75). 65.3% of women reported abuse in this 1996 UN report and the majority of these cases were not public abuse (Kalyani 73). Feminists offered considerations which were presented by a committee for amendments to this law, including expanding the provision on hospital and police rape. Because of these recommendations, child rape and child marriage were made legally separate categories. Child marriage is “reprehensible” and child rape within this marriage is seemingly impossible because “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife is not rape” (Gangoli 86).

The UN report also showed that for every 927 women in India, there are 1000 men. This population gap has only gotten worse in the last 70 years, despite development progress made by India as a whole (Kalyani 8-12). The “50 million missing campaign” works to solve this gap [see websites below Bibliography], these women are not missing persons, but instead have been eliminated from the population due to “female infanticide”, “dowry-related murders” and “maternal mortality rate” (Banerji).

In 2014, feminists at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Technology and Ambedkar University Delhi were asked to illustrate their own experiences with gender inequality in India through signs that were photographed in the campaign “#INeedFeminism”. One participant’s sign reads “I need feminism because I want my parents to know that it’s no sin to be me; to be a girl. That being a man does not give my brother an edge over me” [see websites below bibliography]. Another campaign has expanded on this with signs for why “India needs feminism”. The feminist movement sees a necessity for further improvements to be made regarding issues such as human trafficking, the Harijas or third gender, and sexual harassment or eve teasing.

Feminism continues to evolve to meet new challenges and strive for gender equality in every sector. For example, Reshma Saujani, a Hindu Indian American lawyer and politician started the organization “Girls Who Code” to minimize gender inequalities in the technology sector (Chanen 11). She aims to empower young women by providing an opportunity for them to learn to code.

Women are now able to learn the Vedas, partially because of western scholar influences and therefore increased access to religious information. Although some religious rituals are still restricted to men, women do assist or participate with some, if not most of the rituals, and there are rituals exclusively for women (Wadley 123). There has also been a significant rise in female gurus, who do not conform to traditional women’s roles of wife and mother, as they devote themselves to a life of asceticism (Wadley 123). This path counters the social norms and may not be accepted by the woman’s family.

Women in India are actively involved in addressing gender inequalities and changing the patriarchal society; they may even use traditional elements of Hinduism to do so. For example, a grassroots feminist movement began in 2002 known as “The Mahila Shanti Sena” and uses Ghandian principles of sakti as a “creative, transformative power” (Joshee 77). In this way, they are able to inspire women to have a role in politics by using a “positive and culturally appropriate model” (Joshee 81). They focus on non-violence so “when the United States army went to Iraq”, The Mahila Shanti Sena organized “rallies, formed human chains and created handbills” to bring attention to the harmful effects of war, particularly for “women and children” (Joshee 77). The power of sakti is used to empower women to be active, nonviolent initiators of change in their own communities. Hinduism and feminism continue to interact symbiotically to improve the status of women in patriarchal society, building on the advances outlined above made by feminists in the 19th and 20th century.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Anderson, Nancy Fix (2002) “‘Mother Besant’ and Indian National Politics.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 30(3):27-54. Accessed March 31, 2016.

Banerji, Rita (2009) “Female Genocide in India And The 50 Million Missing Campaign.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and The Pacific 22. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Baruah, Arunima (2003) Women in India (An Exhaustive Study). New Delhi: Anmol.

Chakravarti, Uma. 1995. “Gender, Caste and Labour: Ideological and Material Structure of Widowhood.” Economic and Political Weekly 30 (36):2248-56. Accessed February 6, 2016

Chandra, K. (2007) Women Marriage in India Past and Present. New Delhi: Cyber Tech Publications.

Devi, D. Syamala (1994) “The Contribution of Women Parliamentarians in India.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 55(4):411–16. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. (1999) “Hinduism and the Empowerment of Women.” In Gender and Society in India Volume One. edited by R. Indira and Deepak Kumar Behera, 33-49. New Delhi: Manak Publications.

Gangoli, Geetanjali (2007) Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies and Violence in India. Burlington: Ashgate.

Ghosal, Sarbani Guha (2005) “MAJOR TRENDS OF FEMINISM IN INDIA.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 66(4):793–812. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Gordon, Leslie A., Deborah L. Cohen, Jill Schachner Chanen, Martha Neil, and Stephanie Francis Ward. (2012) “Opening Statements.” ABA Journal 98(10):10-13 Accessed March 31, 2016.

Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma 1896-1982. New York: Oxford University Press.

Joshee, Reva and Karen Sihra. (2013) “Shatki as a Liberatory and Educative Force for Hindu Women.” In Gender, Religion and Education in a Chaotic Postmodern World. edited by Zehavit Gross, Lynn Davies, and Al-Khansaa Diab, 73-83. New York: Springer.

Kumar, Radha. (1989) “Contemporary Indian Feminism.” Feminist Review 33:20–29. Accessed March 27, 2016.

Lipski, Alexander (1988) Life and Teaching of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Delhi: Morilal Banarsidass.

Menon-Sen, Kalyani, and A. K. Shiva Kumar (2001) Women In India: How Free? How Equal?. Report commissioned by the Office of the Resident Coordinator in India: United Nations. Accessed February 28 2016.

Nayar, Pramod K. (2013) Women in Colonial India: Historical Documents and Sources. New York: Routledge. Volume III and V.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. P. 498

Pechilis, Karen (2004) The Graceful guru: Hindu female gurus in India and the United States. New York; Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Rani, Celine A. (2002) Emerging Pattern of Rural Women Leadership in India. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications.

Rath, Sharada and Jyotirmati Samantray (1999) “Women’s Movement: A Crave for Gender Equality.” In Women in India A Search For Identity, edited by Sharada Rath and Navaneeta Rath, 233-248. New Delhi: Anmol.

Sarma, Bina sKumari (2006) Role and Status of Indian Women Through the Ages. Kolkata: R. N. Bhattacharya.

Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002) “Hinduism and Feminism: Some Concerns.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18(2):97-104. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Thakur, Bharti “Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India” In Women in Gandhi’s Mass Movements, 235. Bharti New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications.

Wadley, Susan S. (1977)Women and Hindu Tradition.” Signs 3(1):113-125. Accessed February 26, 2016.

Related Topics



Raja Mohan Roy

Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Independence

Anandamayi Ma

Annie Besant

Politics in India

Women in Hinduism


Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Kate Korte (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Female Ascetics in Hinduism

Women in Hindu society generally take on a role of and are identified as householders, thus providing for a husband and family. However, some women, though a clear minority, choose a different life path which is the life of the ascetic. An ascetic is regarded as someone who abstains from worldly pleasures often in search of spiritual goals through renunciation (Denton 2). Ascetics seek to free themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely and thereby reach salvation. Although there are a variety of ascetic forms such as celibacy and tantrism, renunciation and the sannyasas or sannyasinis are the most recognizable.

The term sannyasa (male) or sannyasini (female) means ‘abandonment’ or ‘laying aside completely’. Entry into this lifestyle involves a dramatic ritual to symbolically discard the world in which they currently live. To take on the role of a sannyasini one must establish their ritual death. This is done by figuratively cremating oneself or performing their one’s own funeral rites and also by uttering the phrase “None belongs to me, to none do I belong” or a simpler yet no less powerful phrase “I leave absolutely everything behind” (Denton 94). Initiation ceremonies into ascetic life differ from one ascetic to the next, but ritual details such as offering balls of rice to ancestors and creating grass statues of themselves which they later burn to symbolically represent cremation, remain consistent elements to the initiation process (Leslie 219). This initiation ritual into asceticism marks the rejection or separation from householdership; a commitment to a particular path towards ideals such as liberation (moksa), acquiring knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman) or salvation (mukti) through union; and the admittance into a community of fellow ascetics. This initiation process completely relieves a woman of their original social identity and alters the former relationship they had with householder women. They thereby embrace a new set of values far different than those of the ideal woman, wife and householder in Hindu society (Leslie 214). As the practice of world renunciation is seen as a primarily masculine way of life usually for male twice-borns, females who take on the path of renunciation are seen as ones who have left the orthodox norm behind. However, they may often be found to say what is in the minds of many orthodox housewives in regards to their disagreement with family life, ties and what is expected of women at the householder stage (Clementin-Ojha 1988). Some ascetic women have declared nothing but relief over their choice to leave householdership. As one renouncer-ascetic (sannyasini) stated, “In the householder life, you know great pleasure and sorrow, but you cannot know peace. That life is in a state of constant change and so your mind cannot become still. In the ascetic life, you are single-minded and so you can achieve salvation” (Leslie 215). Each sannyasini is different in their pursuit of activities or religious path in that some focus on study, meditation and wandering, where others are found to focus on preaching and teaching ascetic values, hymns and sermons to householder disciples who visit (Denton 95).

An interesting fact about ascetic women and girls is their variation in appearance. One may choose to wear a white sari while others wear red; some tie ochre (gerua) cloth around their torso whereas others may choose to wear white or bright yellow (kesar). In regards to hair, some ascetics choose to have their heads shaven, others with loose and flowing hair; some will trim the hair at earlobe length and oil it and others form it into matted strands (jata) by rubbing ashes into the hair (Leslie 218). The vast majority of ascetic women fall in a cluster around the age of 60, but in the city of Varanasi there is a diversity in the age group of ascetics which correlate well with two types of asceticism, celibacy and renunciation (Denton 122). Since the majority of younger ascetics are unmarried and from high-caste families, it suggests that their families cannot afford dowries thereby leaving their daughters unwed and undesirable. This causes families to send their daughters to Varanasi where young girls will enter brahmacarya or celibacy, which guards their purity and guarantees them a ritual standing higher than that of an ordinary orthodox householder (Denton 123). While the younger ascetic females are free to leave Varanasi and ascetic life at any time, most choose to stay in the city or frequently travel to other city centres where ascetic festivals and feasts occur (Leslie 220). Cities such as Varanasi give proof that although ascetics may give up traditional values of the Hindu social world, they do not necessarily give up society and can actually be found to be comfortable with and accepted by others.

Ascetics tend to put forward a religious reason as to why they chose this life path of worldly renunciation to find their salvation (Clementin-Ojha 1988). However it is difficult to describe a religious practice of a female renouncer because in choosing the life of the ascetic one is no longer committed to a specific path (Leslie 22). A female renouncer-ascetic may follow a “path of knowledge” (Leslie 221) by engaging in the repetition of a mantra or “sacred utterance” (Rodrigues 70) and focusing on meditation. Some may also choose to devote the hours in the day to yoga or sitting in the lotus posture, while others may offer rituals of worship to a goddess such as Durga (Leslie 221). Since renunciation itself bestows such large amounts of freedom upon each individual that one can choose how they devote themselves to a religious path and how they explain their beliefs as well.

The life of a renouncer-ascetic may cause orthodox Hindus to put these women under criticism and scrutiny. Dharma is righteousness, duty, morality, law, social obligations or particular religious teachings (Rodrigues 546) that an individual is expected to follow in Hindu society. To not live according to one’s dharma is considered to be a main offense in Hindu tradition. Women who renounce the life of the householder and the orthodox traditions expected of them are considered to be adopting ‘adharmic’ behavior. They can be seen as rebels, as renunciation from the world is considered to be an effort at achieving their own individual freedom instead of following the life that the orthodoxy had prescribed for them (Clementin-Ojha 1988). Female renouncer-ascetics have strong beliefs, but do not use these beliefs as a way to criticise traditional aspects of Hindu society. By living amongst orthodox Hindus, ascetics show and encourage other members of society to respect their svadharma (one’s own dharma) as they respect the orthodox traditions and its stri-dharma (woman/wife’s code of righteous behavior (Rodrigues 564). Not only do these ascetic women respect the traditions of Hindu society, they often discourage other females to do what they themselves have done by leaving householdership. In research conducted by Catherine Clementin-Ojha, the late Svami Karapatri, a supporter of orthodoxy but also an ascetic, upheld that women could obtain a higher state of consciousness and could become ascetics and guides. However, he did not allow women into his ascetic order and denied that there have never been a “single real sannyasini in India” (Clementin-Ojha 1988).

Although not as common or influential, two other types of female asceticism exist: celibacy and tantrism, both different phenomena from renunciation. Celibate asceticism or a celibate student (brahmacarya) is often one of the first stages of life (asrama) prescribed for twice-born males. It can also occur in a number of other ways, such as a female choosing an institutionalized lifestyle of celibacy and regarding themselves as brahmacarinis, like the classical rite into studentship, or the first twelve years prior to initiation into sannyasa (Denton 96). Celibacy is the intention to remain pure for as long as possible and avoid pollution. Tantric asceticism on the other hand relies mainly on oral tradition. However, there is no ritual of initiation into tantric asceticism as there is for orthodox renunciation and celibacy. Those who define themselves as tantric undertake a “fierce discipline” (Leslie 225) and are said to have achieved powers (siddhi) by practicing difficult acts. It is believed that these acts include sex rituals (maithuna) and a disciplined relationship between themselves and their teacher (Leslie 225). Unlike renunciation, tantric asceticism acknowledges full liberation but also full divinization, putting emphasis on finding a state of bliss (ananda) or madness (pagalpan).

Evidently the life of a female ascetic in Hinduism is a complex, underappreciated and understudied phenomenon in Hindu society. With only little research conducted on the life of female ascetics, mostly over the past few decades, it is hard to determine what truly prompts a Hindu woman to leave the orthodox life of a householder, wife and mother, but it is exceptional to see that these women are willing to defy the norms of traditional Hindu female expectations and let themselves become equal with their male sannyasa counterparts and live out their svadharma and find liberation at their time of physical death.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu Tradition: Rules, Roles and Expectations. New York: Routledge Hindu Studies Series.

Chowdhry, Prem (1996) “Marriage, Sexuality and the Female ‘ascetic’: Understanding a Hindu Sect.” Economic and Political Weekly 31.34 2307–2321.

Clementin-Ojha, Catherine (1988) “Outside the Norms: Women Ascetics in Hindu Society.” Economic and Political Weekly. 23(18): WS34-6

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Cranbury: Farleigh Dickinson University Press

Mitra, Kana (1983) ‘Women in Hinduism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 20(4), 585

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism – the eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Teskey Denton, Lynn (2004) Female Ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Related Topics





Women in Hinduism

Women’s Roles in Hindu Society


Related Websites


Article written by: Kenzie Campbell (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hijra Religion

The Hijras are an institutionalized third gender in India. They live mainly in Northern India, with the major Hijra temple located in Gujarat, near Ahmedabad (Nanda 1990:xxii). Hijras are biological men who renounce sexuality and dress and act like women. Some Hijras are born hermaphrodites, or with ambiguous genitalia (Nanda 1990:5), but most Hijras are impotent or infertile men who undergo a sacrificial emasculation procedure called the nirvan operation, which involves the removal of male genitalia (Reddy 2005:56). This ritual emasculation is said to give them the power to bestow fertility to newlyweds and prosperity to newborn children (Reddy 2005:2). The traditional work of a Hijra is to perform at the birth of a child, at weddings, and at temple festivals; a group of Hijras will dance, sing, and bestow blessings in an exaggerated parody of female behavior, for which they receive payment (Nanda 1990:3, Reddy 2005:84).

Hijras practice a pluralistic form of religion: identity formation is related to Hinduism, but many Hijras also identify as Muslim (Reddy 2005:99). Hijras, being neither male nor female, are able to blur gender boundaries within Muslim traditions (Reddy 2005:102). They will sometimes embark on the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Karbala or Mecca or Medina, but unlike Muslim women, they do not need to be accompanied by a male relative (Reddy 2005:103). Muslim Hijras will wear a burqa when not performing (Reddy 2005:104), but are also permitted to wear male clothing upon returning from their pilgrimage (Reddy 2005:105). [see Reddy, 2005 for more information on Muslim Hijras]

Hindu Hijras trace their origins back to the time of the Ramayana (Reddy 2005:9). A common myth that Hijras tell regarding their history is that when Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was exiled from Ayodhya, the entire city followed him to the edge of town to say goodbye. Everyone was in tears when they reached the banks of a river, and Rama asked all the men and women to stop crying for him and to go back to their homes. The Hijras, who are not men and not women, waited for fourteen years on the banks of the river. Upon his return, Rama was so moved by their extreme devotion that he gave them a blessing: he told them they would be kings in the kali yuga (Reddy 2003:189). [A yuga refers to a cosmic period in Hindu Cosmology (Reddy 2003:189)] . It is interesting to note that we are currently in the kali yuga, and that Hijras are entering the political sphere in India (Reddy 2003:164) as somewhat ideal candidates for leadership due to their celibacy and lack of kinship ties (Reddy 2003:182).

Within the Hindu pantheon, Hijras identify primarily with the god Siva (particularly in his ardhanarisvara state, when he is portrayed as half man, half woman), Arjuna, a hero from the Mahabharata epic and incarnation of Visnu, and the goddess Bahuchara Mata (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). In one Hindu creation myth, Siva was appointed to create the world but he took so long that the job was given to another god, Brahma (the Creator). When Siva was finally ready to begin creating the world, he saw that it was already done, and was so angry that he broke off his phallus and threw it into the earth (Nanda 2003:195). Hijras, like Siva, bury their severed penises in the ground, which they believe gives them the power of creation (Reddy 2005:97). By giving up individual fertility, they acquire universal creative power (Reddy 2005:97). Another clear identification for the Hijras is with Arjuna from the Mahabharata epic (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). During the epic Arjuna spends a year in the court of king Virata disguised as a eunuch named Brhannala, dressing like a woman and teaching dance to the women of the court (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). However, worship of Bahuchara Mata (a version of the mother goddess particularly associated with transgendierism and transvestism) is the most important for Hijras. Each Hijra household has a shrine to her and it is in her name that Hijras bestow their blessings of fertility and prosperity (Nanda 1990:24). [See Nanda, 1990, for myths attesting to Bahuchara’s special connection to Hijras]

Hijras engage in two kinds of occupations: badhai work, (singing and dancing at marriages and births) which is seen as a respectful occupation, and kandra work (sex work), a practice which is criticized by senior Hijras but is still the main source of income for roughly half the Hijra population (Reddy2005:15,80). Some Hijras will even take on regular clients as ‘husbands’ (Reddy 2003:165). Reddy suggests that due to their association with sex work and their ambiguous gender identification, Hijras are generally viewed as outside of the social order (Reddy 2003:166). They are seen as besarm (without shame), and people are often afraid to interact with them (Reddy 2003:166). Hijras have the power to bless but they also have the power to curse; if they are not adequately compensated for their services they will threaten to expose their mutilated genitals, a sight which is believed to cause impotence (Nanda 1990:7). For this reason Hijras are socially marginalized, but they are also feared (Nanda 1990:8). Badhai refers to the payments Hijras receive for their services, usually in the form of flour, cane sugar, sweets, cloth, saris or money (Nanda 1990:3). At the birth of male children Hijras will dance, entertain, and bless the child with fertility, prosperity, and long life. They will also examine the genitals of baby boys; if they are ambiguous they will sometimes try to claim the child as one of their own (Nanda 1990:2-5). Hijras will also perform at marriages; the social class of the bride and groom determines how elaborate the performance will be. They will bless the newlywed couple with fertility in the name of the mother goddess (Nanda 1990:5).

In the Hindu tradition chastity and renunciation of sexual activity gives one tapas (inner heat) which is associated with creation (Reddy 2005:96). For men in particular, abstinence or semen-retention is seen as a way to generate tapas (Reddy 2003:175). A Hijra is seen as a kind of sannyasin (renouncer) who has transformed their sexual impotence into procreative power (Nanda 2003: 195). Hijra men are said to receive a call from the Goddess Bahuchara Mata to serve her: those who deny her risk seven cycles of impotent rebirths (Nanda 2003:195). The nirvan operation is a form of rebirth in many ways; and the post-operation rituals mirror post-childbirth rituals (Nanda 2003:195). Only after the nirvan operation are Hijras truly believed to be able to channel the power of Bahuchara Mata (Nanda 2003:195). Although the operation is currently illegal in India, it is still practiced. The operation is a way of gaining respect within Hijra communities (Reddy 2005:93). Sex work is seen as contradictory to the ascetic ideal of sexual renunciation (Nanda 1990:12). The view among Hijras is that the ‘real’ Hijras are the ones who renounce sexuality completely and undergo the nirvan operation as proof of their legitimacy (Reddy 2003:175).

The gender neutrality of the Hijras has captured the imaginations of gender studies scholars worldwide (Reddy 2003:164). They are also beginning to enter the political sphere. They have become increasingly visible worldwide. Many Hijras see this as a fulfillment of Rama’s diving prophecy, and believe this to be the beginning of a new era. [I have included some links to current events articles regarding Hijras and politics, see below]



Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company

Nanda, Serena (1985) “The Hijras of India: Cultural and Individual Dimensions of an Institutionalized Third Gender Role” in Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton eds. Culture, Society, and Sexuality: A Reader, p 237-250. New York: Routledge

Nanda, Serena (2003) “Hijra and Sadhin: Neither Man nor Woman in India” in Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender and Culture. Suzanna LaFont (ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 192-201

Reddy, Gayatri (2005) With Respect to sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. London: University of Chicago Press

Reddy Gayatri (2003)”Men Who Would Be Kings: Celibacy, Emasculation and the Re-Production of Hijras in Contemporary Indian Politics” in Social Research, vol 70 (1), p p163-200

Lal, Vinay (1999) “Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality” in Social Text, No. 61, p119-140: Duke University Press.


Related Readings

Cohen, Lawrence (1995) “The Pleasures of Castration: The Postoperative Status of Hijras,
Jankhas, and Academics” in Paul R. Abrahamson and Steven D. Pinkerton eds. Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Reddy Gayatri (2006) “Bonds of Love: The Desire for Companionate Marriages Among Hijras of India” in Hirsch, J and H. Wardlow eds. Modern Love: Companionate Marriage and the Politics of Love, University of Michigan Press


 Related Research Topics





-Bahuchara Mata



Suggested websites

General information

Current events\

Photos of Hijras



Written by Molly Matheson (April 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.