The notion of gender as a spectrum may feel to some a modern revelation, but Hindu literature and mythology for centuries has taught of the figures who defied the binary. And while the reproductive connection between man and woman has always been revered in the faith, Hinduism, unlike most Western faiths, historically treats homosexuality as a natural behavior, one documented in folk tale and religious text alike. Behold, this incomplete list of Hindu deities and divine descendants who defied gender and sexual norms back in the day.
1. Shiva and Parvati
The supreme god of Shaivism, Shiva has often been held as the ultimate embodiment of masculinity, but as far back as the Kushan era, there have also been depictions of Shiva in the Ardhanarishvara form, an androgynous composite of Shiva and his wife, Parvoti. The form originated when Parvoti, desiring to share Shiva’s experiences, asked for their forms to literally be joined. “What is being said is that if the inner masculine and feminine meet, you are in a perpetual state of ecstasy,” explains Hindu scholar Sadhguru. Most often, the Ardhanarishvara is depicted with the female form of Parvoti on the left and the masculine attributes of Shiva on the right.
A major deity of the religion regarded as protector of the world, Vishnu is clearly depicted in the faith as gender-fluid. This major Hindu deity frequently took on the female avatar of Mohini. Vishnu even procreated with Shiva in the Mohini form, resulting in the birth of Ayyappa, a major figure still worshipped by millions who make pilgrimages to shrines in India. The avatar Mohini frequently gets describes as an enchantress who maddens lovers.
An incarnation of Vishnu, the popular deity Krishna also took the form of Mohini in order to marry Aravan to satisfy one of the hero’s last requests, according to the Mahabharata. After Aravan’s passing, Krishna stayed in the form as the hero’s widow for a significant period of mourning.
This warrior in the Kurukshetra war in most tellings of the Mahabharata was female at birth but changed gender later in life. Born Shikhandini, the girl in one version of the story was raised as a male by King Drupada, the girl's father. The king even had her married to the princess of Dasharna. Upon complaints from the new bride, Shikhandini fled into the forest and met a Yaksha and exchanged genders. Now taking the name Shikhandi, he remained a man until his death at the battle of Mahabharat.
5. Bahuchara Mata
Bahuchara Mata was traveling with her sisters and threatened by the marauder Bapiya. After she and her sisters self-immolated their own breasts, Bapiya was cursed with impotence until he began to dress and act as a woman. Today, the Hindu goddess is worshipped as the originator and patron of the hijras, trans and intersex Bangladeshis considered in the faith to be of a “third gender.”
Another origin story for the hijras comes from the Ramayana, which tells the tale of Rama gathering his subjects in the forest before his 14-year adventure. He tells the men and women to return to their appropriate places in Ayodhya, but upon his return from his epic journey, Rama finds some have not left the place of that speech and instead merged together in an intersex fashion. He grants hijras the ability to confer certain blessings, the beginning of the badhai tradition.
7. The Khajuraho Temples
These medieval temples famously include depictions of people in sexual congress, a demonstration of the importance of sexual interaction within the Hindu faith. Included in the carvings are a number of depictions of gay sex, sometimes in orgy situations where several women are involved in intercourse with a single man, but there also are images of men having sex and engaging in fellatio with one another.
The god of fire, creativity, and wealth is depicted in the Hindu faith as married both to the goddess and Svaha and with the male moon god Soma. Connor and Sparks relate that Agni importantly received Soma’s semen orally. British scholar Phil Hine says Agni gave a divine blow job to Shiva as well, resulting in the birth of Skanda, the god of war.
9. Mitra and Varuna
These sons of Aditi from Vedic literature are depicted frequently as icons for brotherly affection and intimate friendship between men, according to the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association. Ancient texts of the Brahmana in fact depict the two as alternate phases of the moon who join in same-sex relations. On nights of the new moon, Mitra injects his semen into Varuna to start the moon cycle, with the favor returned upon the full moon.
10. Budha Graha
In addition to providing a pivotal role in Hindu astrology as one of the planets, specifically Mercury, Budh Graha also represented a huge blow to the paradigm of gender roles millennia before the current vogue. Raised as the child of Sage Brihaspati and Tara, Budha was actually the product of adultery between Tara and the moon god Chandra. Sage Brihaspati, angered at this revelation during Tara’s pregnancy, cursed that the child would be born neither male nor female, and established the tradition that the husband of a child’s mother would be considered its father.
The chief progenitor of the lunar dynasty, Ila appears in many stories alternately as female or male. In the Ramayana, a meeting with Shiva and Parvati results in Ila alternating between genders every month. Ila ultimately marries Budha, producing the offspring Pururavas during one of the months when anatomy allowed, thus producing a lunar dynasty. In the Vishnu Parana, it is said Ila’s manhood was ultimately made permanent, upon which he took the name Sudyumma.
A Vedic sage and a Job-like figure in Hindu myth, this devotee of Vishnu once boasted he was above being a victim of maya. Vishnu encouraged Narada then to take a dip in a pool, which erased the sage’s memories and turned him into a woman. In that state, Narada would marry a king and produce several sons and grandsons doomed to die in war. While Narada was in mourning, the sage’s gender was restored to male, and he had a greater understanding of the power of maya.
One of the 12 alwar saints of Tamil Nadu, this mystic poet often expressed as female and wrote as many as 1,000 devotional songs in the persona of a woman pining for her lover, Lord Vishnu. Indeed, at an annual festival, an icon of Nammallvar in drag is brought into a sanctum of Vishnu to unite to the literary lover with her lord.
The Radha Krishna are collectively known within the Hindu faith as the aspects of the male and female facets of God. Radha is regarded as the supreme goddess in control of the god Krishna, and members of a Vaishnava sahajiya sect of the faith that identified with Radha dressed and lived as women as a way of perfecting their love of Krishna, according to Vedan literature. In fact, a 15th-century leader, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, claimed to be a manifestation of Krishna in union with Radha. As in, “I am Chait”? OK, maybe that’s a stretch.
15. The Kama Sutra
Want proof to show your homophobic uncle that same-sex unions have been recognized by faith leaders for thousands of years? Tell him to grab that copy of the Kama Sutra he keeps in a dresser drawer and read Chapter 9, which in addition to offering instruction on fellatio makes clear that this skill can also be used acceptably in homosexual interactions. It’s even been cited by the Human Rights Campaign. Of note, the Kama Sutra existed as a religious text celebrating the union of individuals in sexual interaction.
A protagonist in the Mahabharata, Arjuna spent a year in exile, cursed by a rejected Urvashi to live as a eunuch. But on the request of King Indra, that sentence was reduced and Arjuna lived just a year as a woman, taking the name Brihannala and teaching princesses to dance.
The son of Krishna today is considered the patron of eunuchs and transgender people, but his history sounds like modern myths about Target bathrooms. Connor and Sparks write that Samba, or Shamba, would dress in women’s clothes to more easily sneak into the company of women in order to seduce them.
18. The mothers of Bhagiratha
The Hindu king Bhagiratha was credited with bringing the Ganges River to Earth, but his arrival on Earth originated in the sapphic and the divine. Historians Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kiswai note the king’s name indicates he was born of two vulvas, and discovered a story of Maharaja Dilipa, the king of the Sun Dynasty, dying with no heir. Shiva declared the king’s two widows could make love to one another to produce a true offspring, and Bhagiratha was conceived.
Bhagavati-devi is considered today to be the goddess of cross-dressing, and more than 5,000 male worshippers dress as women each year for the ritual Chamayavilakku festival in Kollam. Temple leaders say the tradition has been in place for hundreds of years.