“We, the Hindus, are a society where members of the third gender have the status of demigod. Today, I feel that we need to go back to our roots.”
Excerpts from Swarajya’s interview with transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi:
In 2014, the Supreme Court, in a landmark verdict, granted India’s transgender community its rights and place as members of the third gender. With this verdict, the apex court accepted the broad definition of “transgender” as including people who do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the person at the core and helm of this great moment and movement, transgender rights activist, dancer and author, joined the hijras, her brethren, across Bharat, in celebrating the community she had found herself drawn to and had walked into, accepting the woman in her, accepting the tradition of guru and chela, years ago.
In 2016, Tripathi, as Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnara Akhara, walked towards another spiritual and symbolic milestone, at the Ujjain Mahakumbh. The community of hijras moved, in rapturous procession, stirred a new story, of assimilation, inclusion and acceptance, that transcended gender, as they whirled into the mela of millions, millions of Hindus, and gathered at a shivir of their own – a Kinnara Akhada shivir.
Today, Tripathi, the tireless representative of the hijra community and a global Bharatiya, not only shapes India’s LGBT discourse, but also moulds the Indic narrative on gender, dharma, identity and acceptance. She speaks to Sumati Mehrishi on hijras, Mahakaal, her identity and challenges.
Gender is not limited to biological sex, and transgender to gender. The landmark verdict from the Supreme Court (SC) changed lives. What thoughts cross your mind when you look back at the SC verdict?
The SC verdict restored the dignity of the transgender community. It gave hijras new hope and strength to meet challenges. Today, we need to do a lot more in order to provide hijras education, opportunities and jobs. Transgender people would do a wonderful job as people’s representatives. An Anglo-Indian can have two feet in the Parliament. Why can’t a hijra, too? They would do a wonderful job as people’s representatives in the higher echelons of power. Members of the kinnara community can do so much more. They can be employed in the different departments of the Railways. They’ll do a wonderful job as guards in compartments reserved for women. Why can’t they be given government jobs? They would do the job much more beautifully. Hijras have no respect and no political presence. But, I am sure, greater change will come. Rome was not built in one day.
When were you first drawn to dharma?
As a child, I was interested in dharmic teachings. I come from a Brahmin family and was drawn to religious stories and mythology. Later, I realised that I belong to the most modern religion. We believe in “Aham Brahmasmi”. We believe in accepting. We have been a modern society. We believe in Sanatan. We have suffered a lot owing to barbaric rules and have welcomed outsiders at the cost of our heads. We, the Hindus, are a society where members of the third gender have the status of demigod. I was drawn to the aspect of acceptance in dharma. Today, I feel that we need to go back to our roots.
In one of the interviews, you said you “came out” the moment you came out of your mother’s womb. What gave you this clarity about gender and self?
It is true. I “came out” the moment from my mother’s womb and I was out. I had enjoyed and still enjoy the femininity in me. A boy born in a Brahmin family, I was told I am gay. I was abused. I got the power to say “no”. The whole journey of Laxmi twisted once I got the courage to say “no”. I faced patriarchal pressures and many challenges in my evolving journey, but my faith and love in the power of the feminine and my own femininity, stood by me. I have been aware of my feminine strength. For my husband, Vicky, I am his woman.
You mention patriarchal pressures. You have found support in your father. Do you smile when you think of this balance in life?
(Laughs). My father is the real purusha. He came from an orthodox Brahmin family. He loved his religion, but never forced his ideas on me. He heard me out with an open mind. People defined and redefined me. But I searched for my roots. I reclaimed them.
What hurts the members of the kinnara community?
The feeling of not being loved. Members of the kinnara community are equal to men and women. The saddest story is that people who have been given the status of demigod in our great civilisation are begging on the streets. They are harassed and troubled. They have to sell their bodies. What for? They have been ostracised in the same society that seeks blessings from them. People ask kinnaras why they clap. The clap is their only weapon. They are “Mangala Mukhi”, but they face insults and so many challenges. People keep defining and redefining them.
What can the Hindu community do in order to protect the kinnara community, their cultural spirit and interests?
As Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnara Akhara, a lot of my energy is spent in fighting challenges from Hindus, my own people. I want to take many steps for the betterment and inclusion of the kinnara community in the larger Hindu umbrella, but I face a lot of opposition from other akharas – all Hindus – my own people, at so many levels. Isn’t it sad? The kinnaras deserve to be accepted. Their inclusion will only make us, Hindus, stronger, collectively and culturally. Our tradition speaks of hijras in eminent positions – as political advisers to generals, administrators and kings. Today, they face tiraskar. The situation cannot be changed without support from within the larger Hindu family.
What challenges have you faced as Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnar Akhara?
The Kinnar Akhada got its symbolic place and shivir in the Ujjain Kumbh, in 2016. One of the biggest challenges was that other akhadas opposed us when we asked for a piece of land for the Ujjain Kumbh. We are moving towards the Ardh Kumbh, which will be held in Prayag, in 2019, facing the same discouraging attitude from other akhadas. Some people call me “BJP ki beti, RSS ki bahu”. I am angry and exhausted fighting these akhadas when I should be spending my energies in creating opportunities and an equal space for hijras, my brethren, instead.
Will putting an end to this exclusion of hijras within the larger Hindu tent strengthen Indic cultural values?
It will not only strengthen us as a community, and as Hindus, but will also help us reclaim our culture, cultural roots and values.
Tell us about Mahakaal’s impact on you and your sringar.
I love Mahakaal. I am devoted to Him and I am in love with His sringar. I love doing sringar. I celebrate Mahakaal and I enjoy the feminine.
The tilak and the glittering bindi on your forehead point at a spiritual singularity of two elements. Are they a mark of love and respect for Mahakaal?
Yes. I travel the world as Laxmi, as a devotee, as a Hindu, as Acharya Mahamandleshwar of the Kinnara Akhara, as a dancer, an author, as Laxmi who loves Mahakaal and whose heart stays in Ujjain.
What is the next task on your mind?
Giving hijras the life they deserve and bringing back their dignity. I want to work towards my goal of establishing and strengthening the Shivshakti Vidyapeeth, in Ujjain, to ensure hijras safety, security, education and opportunities. For this, I need support from my own.
Thank you, Laxmi ji.
Thank you. See you in Ujjain some day.
Swarajya is proud to honour Laxmi with Sree Narayana Guru Award for social service at the India Ideas Conclave, Goa.