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India: The Fringes of Society
Country Study > Chapter 5 > Social Systems > Caste and Class > The Fringes of Society

THE FRINGES OF SOCIETY


India's complex society includes some unique members -- sadhus (holy men) and hijras (transvestite-eunuchs). Such people have voluntarily stepped outside the usual bonds of kinship and caste to join with others in castelike groups based upon personal -- yet culturally shaped -- inclinations.

In India of the 1990s, several hundred thousand Hindu and Jain sadhus and a few thousand holy women (sadhvis) live an ascetic life. They have chosen to wear ocher robes, or perhaps no clothing at all, to daub their skin with holy ash, to pray and meditate, and to wander from place to place, depending on the charity of others. Most have given up affiliation with their caste and kin and have undergone a funeral ceremony for themselves, followed by a ritual rebirth into their new ascetic life. They come from all walks of life, and range from illiterate villagers to well-educated professionals. In their new lives as renunciants, they are devoted to spiritual concerns, yet each is affiliated with an ascetic order or subsect demanding strict adherence to rules of dress, itinerancy, diet, worship, and ritual pollution. Within each order, hierarchical concerns are exhibited in the subservience novitiates display to revered gurus. Further, at pilgrimage sites, different orders take precedence in accordance with an accepted hierarchy. Thus, although sadhus have foresworn many of the trappings of ordinary life, they have not given up the hierarchy and interdependence so pervasive in Indian society.

The most extreme sadhus, the aghoris, turn normal rules of conduct completely upside down. Rajesh and Ramesh Bedi, who have studied sadhus for decades, estimate that there may be fewer than fifteen aghoris in contemporary India. In the quest for great spiritual attainment, the aghori lives alone, like Lord Shiva, at cremation grounds, supping from a human skull bowl. He eats food provided only by low-ranking Sweepers and prostitutes, and in moments of religious fervor devours his own bodily wastes and pieces of human flesh torn from burning corpses. In violating the most basic taboos of the ordinary Hindu householder, the aghori sadhu graphically reminds himself and others of the correct rules of social behavior.

Hijras are males who have become "neither man nor woman," transsexual transvestites who are usually castrated and are attributed with certain ritual powers of blessing. As described by anthropologist Serena Nanda, they are distinct from ordinary male homosexuals (known as zenana, woman, or anmarad, un-man), who retain their identity as males and continue to live in ordinary society. Most hijras derive from a middle- or lower-status Hindu or Muslim background and have experienced male impotency or effeminacy. A few originally had ambiguous or hermaphroditic sexual organs. An estimated 50,000 hijras live throughout India, predominantly in cities of the north. They are united in the worship of the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata.

Hijras voluntarily leave their families of birth, renounce male sexuality, and assume a female identity, name, and dress. A hijra undergoes a surgical emasculation in which he is transformed from an impotent male into a potentially powerful new person. Like Shiva -- attributed with breaking off his phallus and throwing it to earth, thereby extending his sexual power to the universe (recognized in Hindu worship of the lingam) -- the emasculated hijra has the power to bless others with fertility. Groups of hijras go about together, dancing and singing at the homes of new baby boys, blessing them with virility and the ability to continue the family line. Hijras are also attributed with the power to bring rain in times of drought. Hijras receive alms and respect for their powers, yet they are also ridiculed and abused because of their unusual sexual condition and because some act as male prostitutes.

The hijra community functions much like a caste. They have communal households; newly formed fictive kinship bonds, marriage-like arrangements; and seven nationwide "houses," or symbolic descent groups, with regional and national leaders, and a council. There is a hierarchy of gurus and disciples, with expulsion from the community a possible punishment for failure to obey group rules. Thus, although living on the margins of society, hijras are empowered by their special relationship with their goddess and each other and occupy an accepted and meaningful place in India's social world.

Data as of September 1995




Last Updated: September 1995


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for India was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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