Double-edged sword, best describes the life of a hijra. One on hand, they are looked at as individuals with supernatural powers, passed down to them from the Goddess Bahuchara Mata; able to bless or destroy one’s life. Yet, on the other hand it is a curse within itself to be a hijra. It all becomes evident in their after-death practice.
In Hindu belief, death is not seen as the end-all. Instead, death is viewed only as something that happens to the physical body, while the soul goes on eternally. The body serves as the shell or home to house the soul. Hindus believe that a person’s soul is recycled; returning to earth to settle within another shell. However, the only way for a soul to be released from the body, is for the body to burn. Hindus do not believe in burial, for it keeps the soul locked in the ground. Cremating the body, then releasing the ashes into the holy Ganges River, allows the soul to travel.
The transition into hijra culture is a difficult journey for the individual. There is an understanding that becoming a part of this society means that there are some traditions in the Hindu culture that has to be left aside. For them, this means the act of cremation. Instead of allowing their soul to continue on after their bodies have died, a hijra will opt for a burial instead.
Bengali amateur-filmmaker and hijra activist Debajyoti Mukhopadhyay, 33, said, “ When a hijra dies, they choose to be buried deep in the ground, covered by large stones. This way, their soul will not be able to return and condemn another person with this curse.” He said, “How sad it is that they are made to feel this way.”
On one hand, they are revered, sought-out and considered holy. On the other, they are feared, misunderstood and marginalized from society, often times residing in India’s most hostile slums. The answer to this lies within the political and social beliefs of India’s inhabitants.
Roshan Dutta, 23 of Bhopal, India said, “ They are not really considered to be a part of society. They are social outcasts.” This attitude is a reflection of the common way of thinking among non-hijras. Dutta’s mother Arundhati Dutta, 49 of Bhopal said, “ I believe they have certain abilities to curse and to protect. I have no problems with them, but I wouldn’t want to be around them all the time.”
When asked about their after-death rituals, Dutta, 49, said, “ It is not shocking that they get buried. Their life is a curse, but sometimes there has to be sacrifices for the common good.” She said, “ I don’t think they are bad people, I think that they do us a service, by blessing and protecting our families.”
Opinions vary when it comes to hijra lifestyle and culture. Even though, the Dutta’s represent popular belief, others have differing opinions about hijra culture.
Seventy-year-old, retired engineer, Achin Guha originally of Bombay, India holds an opposing opinion. Guha said, “ Indians are strange with what they believe. I don’t believe hijras have any kind of power to curse or bless. I think they have to act like that so they can survive without being hurt.” He said, “ I think a lot of them are men that wish they were born girls, or maybe even gay. India doesn’t want to acknowledge people like that,” said Guha.
Being that hijras are recognized as “holy” people, one could assume that they would be placed in the highest caste; that of Brahmin. Yet, they aren’t treated as such. According to BBC News, hijras are ignored by government when it comes to getting jobs, the right to vote, the right to obtain a passport and recognized marriages. More cases are being revealed with hijras getting married however aren’t allowed a valid marriage license. In the state of Bihar, government officials have allowed hijras to be employed as tax collectors but still isn’t enough to support the cost of living.
When hijras are not busy blessing marriages or the birth of a newborn male, they are often found on the streets begging or prostituting. Because there are no accurate census data in India, it is hard to estimate the percentage of hijras that sell their bodies to make a living. However, most interviews with them will reveal the darker-side to their life. It is not uncommon to hear of the violent acts committed against these individuals, whether it be beat-up for being outside the cultural norm, or more commonly, sexually violated.
Acts of violence against these individuals has attracted attention worldwide. Newstatesman.com reported, “ Thanks to a large number of internationally funded support groups that are gaining considerable momentum in many big Indian cities, hijras, as well as other sexuality minority groups, are slowly starting to get a better deal.” LGBT groups from around the globe have gathered to bring public aid and awareness to the hijras of India in need of government recognition.
There is no doubt that India is undergoing a cultural evolution. As traditions and belief-systems are challenged, a new mindset is approaching; one that allows people to live as they are. Neighboring countries Pakistanand Bangladesh have already begun the transition, recognizing hijras as citizens of a third-gender. It’s time for India to jump on board.
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