Human society is built on the binary concept of sex. Males and females coexist and cooperate to take civilization forward. But these are not the only divisions present in nature. People like kinnars are not born with these characteristics. They are a bit diverse from the norms of society. It is how they are treated by a particular culture which defines how long that culture will survive. The poor treatment means that the moral code legitimising it is not sustainable in the long run and vice-versa.
Kinnars and Mahadev
Kinnars have always been an integral part of Bharatvarsh and its Sanskriti. The roots of their integration into our society can be found in their endorsement by Devon ke Dev Mahadev. Usually, Mahadev is considered the epitome of Paurushatva.
In binary division, it would mean that he would not have an iota of Prakritik elements in him. But Shiv Puran clearly elaborates that he possesses elements of both Purush and Prakriti within him. Prakriti is translated as feminine in the English language.
The Ardhanarishwar form in Purans
According to Shiv Puran, when Bhagwan Brahma was done with creating the world, he found that everything was static. He later found out that he had ended up creating only male beings. On the advice of Bhagwan Vishnu, he went to Devon ke Dev. Shiv Ji asked him to create Maithuni. When confused Brahma Ji asked him to explain, Mahadev took the Ardhnarishwar form. For the first time, half of his body was revealed to be feminine.
Skanda Purana describes how Devi Parvati helped Mahadev take the Ardhanarishwar form. Devi Parvati asked him to allow her to reside with him by embarrassing her “limb to limb”. When Andhka Rakshasha who was chasing Devi Parvati saw Ardhanarishwar form, he jettisoned the idea. Seeing all this, Bhagwan Vishnu was also surprised and was now able to picture himself in feminine form as well.
Though Devs are not technically kinnars, the message was clear. It is that humans possess both Purush and Prakriti in themselves, and no one fits in the technical binary. That is how Sanatanis consider kinnars to be an inseparable part of society and give them immense respect. Later various historical events have described the extent to which kinnars played a key role in civilisational development.
Kinnars have blessing of Bhagwan Ram
In Ramayan, when Bhagwan Ram was ordered by Raja Dashrath to stay in the forest for 14 years, people started to rally behind him. The kinnar community was also one of them. Bhagwan Ram ordered every Nar, Nari and child to return.
But kinnars stayed at their places. When Bhagwan Ram returned after 14 years, he saw that kinnars had not conceded their ground. They were standing at the exact same place where Maryada Purushottam had left them. Bhagwan Ram got quite impressed and gave them Vardaan to always stay happy and prosper more.
That is how the blessings of kinnars became so powerful. Even to this day when a child is born, kinnars visit at their doorsteps and families seek their blessings for the child. Elders explicitly tell us not to offend them. Kinnars are rarely known for cursing but when they curse, things, let’s just say do not turn out well for the person who has offended them.
Bhagwan Vishnu, Mohini and Iravan
But Vishnu avatars’ tryst with kinnars is not limited to Ramayan. Bhagwan Krishna, an avatar of Bhagwan Vishnu, had once taken the form of Mohini to provide relief to Iravan. He was the son of Arjun and Ulupi. Iravan agreed to sacrifice himself during the war to please Ma Kali.
But he did not want to die unmarried since it would involve burying, rather than cremation. But no king was not ready to marry his daughter to Iravan fearing that his daughter would become a widow. Resultantly, Shri Krishna took Mohini avatar to marry him. This is the main reason why kinnars in South India marry Iravan once a year.
Arjun as Brihanlalla
In Mahabharat, Arjun is another character who took the form of a kinnar. During the 13th year of the 14-year exile of Pandavs, Arjun lived in Raja Virat’s Matsya Kingdom. In his kinnar form, he took the name Brihanlalla. Arjun, a person supposed to have only physical strength, bulging muscles, stoicism and other virtues showed his feminine side by teaching Uttara, Raja Virat’s daughter singing and dancing.
Uttara later went on to become the wife of Abhimanyu, Arjun’s son. Later Brihanalla also served as the charioteer of Uttar, the Rajkumar of Matsya kingdom when Duryodhan attacked the empire.
Shikhandi’s role in Mahabharat
Shikhandi is another one of those kinnars whose role is part of folklore in Indian shastras. In the previous incarnation, Shikhandi was born as a girl named Amba. Amba had two sisters named Ambika and Ambalika. Bhishm Pitamah wanted the 3 sisters to marry his brothers Vichitravirya and Chitrangad. Bhishm was surprised when Amba revealed that she was in love with the king of Salwa.
Bhishm ensured that Amba returned safely to Shalva Kumar. The Salwa king told her that she had been won by Bhishm and so he couldn’t marry her. Disappointed Amba returned to Bhishm who requested Vichitravirya to marry her. When he declined, she made a similar request to Bhishm who also refused due to his vow of celibacy. Deeply saddened by the series of events, Amba vowed to destroy Bhishm and left eating and drinking. Due to this, she died.
In the next birth, Amba was born as Drupada’s daughter named Shikhandini. When Shikhandini grew up, she wasn’t sure if a girl could kill the greatest warrior of all time, so she started the fast unto death to exchange her sex. She was saved by a Yaksha who exchanged his genitals with her. Shikhandini was named Shikhandi! Later on the 9th day of the Mahabharat, Sikhandi became the reason for the demise of Bhishm, henceforth avenging Amba’s insult.
Islamists changed the course
The tradition of giving deserved respect to kinnars continued till Abrahamic waves hit our shores. Islamist invaders just could not comprehend what was going on in Bharatvarsh. When you do not understand something, you either mock it or change it.
Islamists did both. They started to treat kinnars as slaves, the roles of whom were mainly confined to serving the needs of various dynasties.
Here, it is pertinent to note the important distinction between a kinnar and a eunuch. While a kinnar is a natural-born person, a eunuch is a man who converts into a kinnar. In most cases during the Islamist rule, captured men and boys were forcefully castrated by the invaders and turned into eunuchs.
Malik Kafoor, a eunuch is the most prominent eunuch face of Islamists in India. Malik was born a Hindu and was a prominent slave-general of the Delhi Sultanate under Alauddin Khilji.
Situation got worse in Mughal era
The loyalty of eunuchs resulted in the castration of young boys in Islamic kingdoms, especially during the Mughal era. At the time of invading any territory, Mughals used to capture women and killed men and boys if they refused to serve Mughals. However, the service by men and boys was dependent on one humiliating condition by the Mughals. The men and boys who wished to remain alive had to be castrated by the Mughals to do so.
Mughals castrated them because it would become easier to exploit them for their servitude. Moreover, these eunuchs were used by rulers to guard their harems. Simply because, they were castrated, which meant that they no longer had any ability to engage in sexual activity with women, which would render them effective and safe bodyguards for rulers who wanted to keep their women ‘fresh for them’.
Eunuchs were exploited left, right and centre
They were made to pay for someone else’s sins in the harems. When two men had entered the harems under the knowledge of Raushanara Begum, the tyrant Aurangzeb did not punish the begum, instead, he punished the main eunuch who was in charge of the harem. Khwaja Hilali of Akbar’s court was made to give up on his beloved house because another noble got a liking to it. Itmad Khan, another eunuch holding considerable power under Akbar, was stabbed by a common soldier because of his harsh attitude.
Women of the harem were also exploiting those eunuchs who were present in their services. Manucci, a contemporary writer has written an elaborative piece in which he describes how women slaves used to harass their eunuchs for their sexual pleasure and used their tongues and hands in the most ‘licentious’ manner. Moreover, various instances of eunuchs getting punished for affairs with harem women are already there in history.
The British wanted to eliminate kinnars
When Mughal Raj ended, the British started to run the gun. The British Raj subscribed to Victorian morality. To define Victorian morality in one sentence, it would suffice to say that for them everything except heterosexuality is unacceptable. That is how they criminalised homosexuality in India.
Their attack on kinnars was much worse. They had specifically set up their goals to eliminate kinnars from the public sphere. Britishers considered them ungovernable. English commentators said that they invoked images of “filth, disease, contagion and contamination”. On the basis of Bhoorah’s affair with a man, the British went on to portray kinnars as people who were addicted to sex with men. They were criminalised as cross-dressers, ‘beggars’ and ‘unnatural prostitutes’. One Judge even went on to term them as ‘opprobrium upon colonial rule.’ It was for the fear of kinnars which conveyed to the Britishers to introduce Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code.
Institutionalisation of hate towards kinnars
In 1865, British rulers of North-Western Provinces (NWP), explicitly declared that they wanted to make kinnars extinct. Britishers launched an anti-eunuch campaign with the goal of extirpating or exterminating kinnars. The declaration was formalised into law when Criminal Tribes Act 1871 came into force. Kinnars were declared born criminals under the act.
They were subjected to heavy policing. Each and every part of their daily lives was subjected to extreme scrutiny to the last detail by British officials. Kinnars had to compulsorily register themselves to the government registers. After registration, they were prohibited from wearing female clothes and performing in public. The final frontier in their attempt to eliminate kinnars was snatching every child from kinnars’ homes and interfering with discipleship and succession patterns.
But kinnars survived
Modern day Uttar Pradesh was the place where they became the main target. This was because the British wanted to convey the message to every kinnar that if they can eliminate kinnars from the largest geography, they can do it anywhere else. But, kinnars started to roam from one place to another.
They became experts in breaking the law, evading the police and protecting their private properties. In the private complexes, they continued with their cultural practices as well, which is the reason why they are still a force to reckon with in independent India as well.
Lot more needs to be done
75 years have passed since we got freedom from foreign rule. Shades of colonialism are now disappearing from our daily lives. Supreme Court took a commendable step by decriminalising homosexuality as well. Governments all across the country are also making specific provisions for them. However, it is still a long way to go before fears around kinnars’ integration in society is removed from their as well as common people’s psyche.
In the end it pains us to see LGBT folks painting Hinduism as their enemy. No culture has given more respect to them in history than Sanatan. It is time they should recognise their actual enemies and friends.
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