Transgender or No Gender? The Indian Ethos

A friend of mine recently sent me this article on the honouring of transgender people in India.

I am grateful that Indian philosophy has progressed in the ways that it has. It leaves a lot of room, as well as a lot to think about, in that inner ever meshing, threshing dialogue that we all engage in, some more consciously than not.  I find that the deep honouring of the differences between the genders in India has allowed each to blossom in ways that are not threatened by the other.   Here in the US,  gender debate does not even begin to encompass the natural and wonderful differences that our Creator has endowed us with, but seems a reaction to the valuing of men and women by an economic system that has no use for positive feminine qualities, as they are known.

A Transgender God?

Ardhanarishwara, or Half-Woman-Half-Man, a God in the Hindu Pantheon, associated with transgenders.There is Ardhanishwara, the depiction of God as being half-man, half-woman.  The symbolism can be taken many ways: To demonstrate that it doesn’t matter what gender you are; to remind people that what is God, is both male and female, and beyond both; the creative force, the sustaining power; the harmony of male and female energies.  Creator, Creation, One.

There is even a ‘temple’ to Ardhanishwara in NY City, seems like it is in a residential area:

Address: 129-35 135th St, South Ozone Park, NY 11420

The main principle behind it all is societal and personal self-acceptance and tolerance. We are not the body, but that which sustains the body, our life force, the supreme being within us, which has no gender.  Growing beyond the limited identifications we have of ourselves, be they gender, religious, national, racial, all the identifications, is a goal in self actualization, to know ourselves as being an indivisible part of the ONE.

India accepts the natural differences of people (note that its mostly men in the article) and finds ways to celebrate them.  I know many western men, who once in India for extended stays were positively relieved to have such a deep intrinsic societal support for being men. Several expressed to me that they felt ‘freer’ to be men. Western women, myself included, conditioned to equate equality as having the same social freedoms as men, often felt more cramped in terms of choices for social activities. However, those who stayed very long in India began to recognize the freedoms that the innate and honoured strengths that women have, are socially condoned to be able to express; being able to bring our feminine qualities to bear or influence on situations, for positive, peaceful, righteous outcomes. Men and women are in different worlds, entirely different worlds in India, and in most traditional societies: the intersection points are complementary familial and functional for society.

In the Western ethos we are firmly identified with our minds. People have difficulty to admit mental illnesses, as anxiety, depression, grief, restlessness, etc. Even mentally retarded individuals are often looked down upon. These natural, normal occurances in anyones’ life and mind are viewed negatively by our society.  Therefore, we have a proliferation of drugging businesses to keep people in some sort of state of ‘equlibrium’.  In India however, even extended depression, anxiety, grief, fears, anger, are viewed as natural and temporary states of the mind, even necessary; dependent upon numerous factors of context, including personality and experiences. Mentally retarded people are seen as special gifts, for their minds do not cloud their hearts.

Realism or Deprecation?

A young G Flaubert, who was himself bi-sexual.

A young G. Flaubert

My research has shown me that our Western fondness for intellectual ‘realism’ can be seen to have begun with the influence of Flaubert and the reaction of the state judiciary in response to his work, Madame Bovary (1856).  At the time the national ethos in France saw itself as devout, God-fearing, a land of piety and saints. Flauberts’ book first appeared as serialized articles in a public newspaper. His novels were fantasy, encouraging adultery, women as sexually insatiable, both men and women obsessively lust filled. The state was alarmed at the potential deprecation it would cause to the morals of society (long before radio, TV, movies, and the internet) and brought a case (and therefore, much publicity as well) against him. Eventually, the case was dropped, the book published, and a ‘school’ of ‘realism’ began.

Speed forward almost two centuries. In the present Western ‘realism’, every ideal, every hero or heroine, every social leader who has welded the force of pure ideals in their struggle for justice in one way or another, is a case-study target for pot-shots.

Bust of Mother Theresa. Sculptor: Dr. Frank Jerome, Columbus, Indiana

Bust of Mother Theresa. Sculptor: Dr. Frank Jerome, Columbus, Indiana

My question: does obscuring and marring perceptions of the ideal through such irresolute discussions help people to form conceptions of pure ideals by which they can develop their own philosophical standards? There is enough realism going wrong with the endless wars, increasing violence in society. Should we not be seeking ways to turn our minds towards a better way of being together? Perhaps we owe much to the Catholic Church’s insistence on the capacity of people to become ‘saints’, e.g., to become transformed through concentration on pure ideals within themselves.

Knowing Our Being

We have the will to live, and simultaneously, the urge for self-destruction. The mind, conditioned or not by prudence, wisdom, love, can cause our ascent, or descent. The mind is sometimes like litmus paper, a chameleon: always changing, always growing in one way or another; it has many faculties – imagination, memory, rationality, etc., and is not the supreme being within one.  The mind is a means to garnering inner forces in that contemplation, mustering up gumption, sieving out clarity of intention, discerning with the sharpness of a needle as to what is reality, what is absurdity, and self-deceit.  It is one of our great aids to express the journey, but, not the supreme being or truth, the activating force within us.

We have many means’ at our disposal to know our being. Another one is our body, and through it, our sexuality. Without restraint in the use of our bodies, our minds can become dissolute, dissipated, confused: unable to climb out of the mires of excessive lust. With stringent self-regulations, we have clear choices, informed by the positives of the mind, including reasoning. The body has its purpose and functions, needing to be guided by a clear mind. Unfortunately, so many of us have had abusive experiences that cloud the capacity of the mind to guide: strong and confused emotions become the wind in our sails. Numerous studies and research indicate that even watching pornography and violence also harms our minds; it can actually be a self-abusive experience, hurt our emotional state, alter our relationship to our conscience in ways detrimental to the good of society.

Used incorrectly, the mind can kill us, kill, hurt, damage, maim others, and lead society far from peace, pollute the atmosphere morally and chemically, as is shown throughout history. The mind needs intense discipline and training to be useful, and even more to be beneficial to ourselves and society. Our western education gives us no shade of that.

Our minds don’t necessarily grow with the body.  They require education of a real sort in order to grow well. I find that Indian philosophy is cognizant of this fact, and seeks to expose minds from before birth onwards with concepts of duty, purpose of life, etc.  The goal is to raise well-adjusted, tolerant people, capable of handling what life throws at them without becoming imbalanced, capable of having some sort of something to offer to the good of the whole, capable of functioning in family life.  For that they need humility, modesty, chastity, etc.  Of course, its just a philosophical exposure, how it will translate into the growth of mental, emotional, maturity is dependent upon zillions of other factors, including nutrition and pollution…

Gandhi, looking pensiveIn contrast to the Cartesian “I think, therefore, I AM” I like how Gandhi demonstrates the reasoning capacity of his mind here, in a conversation with a female friend, at age 73. He said,

“…in `God is Truth’, it certainly does not mean equal to nor does it merely mean is truthful. Truth is not a mere attribute of God but He is That. He is nothing if He is not That.

Truth in Sanskrit means Sat. Sat means `Is’. Therefore truth is implied in Is. God is, nothing else is. Therefore the more truthful we are, the nearer we are to God. We are only to the extent that we are truthful.”i

A very deep philosophical Indian ethos respects each person as having the supreme being, (and that’s the truth) within them. That respect gives room for people to be true to their conscience; there is tolerance for individual predilections in response to conscience manifested through choices in lifestyle and behaviours. This attitude allows people a degree of greater self-acceptance, less social friction by society at large, and and less personal reaction to the ever changing chatter and show in the mind.

Indian philosophy has many layers, like an onion.  The outer layers appeals to those minds who are not ready to look deeper towards the inner layers.  Thus we see stories of Krishna having 16,000 wives.  These are allegorical, as with the Krishna-Radha romance, same with Rama-Sita.  While there may have actually been a person, a King, named Krishna, and one called Rama, what has been attributed to them throughout the eons is for the edification of society and cultivation of moral fibers in the individual. There may have been bad things going on in their lives. (And how not? Were they not Kings? There are legends of wars and murders) Yet, these were trimmed and revised in such a way that the examination of the life became a discussion of duty, of dharma, for the good of society. The entertaining moral stories of righteousness, good versus evil, capture the imaginations of people, until they are willing to look deeper into the principles suggested. It is always important for people to work for the GOOD of society, morally and otherwise.

Radha-Krishna, a harmoniously balanced romance


Rama-Sita and Courtiers, exemplars of duty and fidelity in married life.




It is a little sad to me to see people in our  country so concerned with their outer appearances rather than their inner identifications.  But, we have to be where we are, and be true to where we are.  Digging deeper into an understanding of our duties to one another, to our children, to our interdependence, will affect what we feel we need to express outwardly. Our country’s philosophy has devolved into individualism, rather than evolved in an increasing and heightened awareness of our duty to the Good of Society, Good of Children.  The change is most noticeable since 1960. May we all be the change!

i Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Volume 77: 102. May 29, 1943. Age 73. Talk with Mirabehn (Madeline Slade).

PK Willey

PK Willey, Ph.D., is an American, a Gandhian scholar, author and entrepreneur, who has delved deeply into Gandhi's Earth Ethics. Willey seeks to enhance philosophical discourse around the world where globalization has altered ethical values, particularly in the USA. Willey finds Gandhi's ideas, thoughts, and example, to be invaluable in this effort. Currently, besides numerous articles and book projects,Willey is developing a new framework for qualitative research that employs Earth Ethics, guided by a Gandhian compass and Weibust's Transformative Paradigm.

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