The Third Gender: It’s a start

By Subhajit Debnath, GNLU

Editor’s Note: This set of research papers is an effort undertaken to understand the problems that are faced by the third gender in society. People belonging to the Third gender have been one of the most misunderstood people. This paper, while looking at the history of the Third Gender with special mention to religion will look at the present scenario with regards to the problems faced by the third gender. This paper will look at the various problems faced in current scenario along with economic problems. This will also look at various legislations that have tried to help the third gender. The above mentioned data will also be seen alongside with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.


The third gender among people is not a very new and surprising phenomenon. Rather, it has always been present across various cultures and lifestyles all over the world and innumerable mentions of it have been found in many scriptures including the ancient religious ones like Hinduism, Jainism, etc. with respect to Indian culture. Under this topic, it shall be discussed as to how the “third gender” has been dealt with historically around the world across various civilizations and religions along with their importance to the current age. It is quite interesting though, and may be noted that unlike in most other types of social norms and rules which progress with time, human behaviour towards third gender as a whole in various cultures deteriorated. In the context, it is important to note that the western cultures have witnessed the most deterioration as compared to eastern cultures like the Indian civilization which shall be in my focus. Let us take a look at the characteristics that were and still are with respect to the third gender in various cultures.


“Hindu society had a clear cut idea of all these people in the past. Now that we have put them under one label ‘LGBT’, there is lot more confusion and other identities have got hidden.”

— Gopi Shankar in National Queer Conference 2013

References to the third gender can be found in various Indian religious scriptures and literature. It is found in all the three spiritual religions which evolved in India – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and it is also evident that the sacred Vedas recognised the three genders prevalent at that time in the Indian society. A third sex is discussed in ancient Hindu law, medicine, linguistics and astrology. The foundational work of Hindu law, the Manu Smriti (c. 200 BC–200 AD) explains the biological origins of the three sexes:

“A male child is produced by a greater quantity of male seed, a female child by the prevalence of the female; if both are equal, a third-sex child or boy and girl twins are produced; if either are weak or deficient in quantity, a failure of conception results.”1

The Vedas (c. 1500 BC–500 BC) describe individuals as belonging to one of three categories, according to one’s nature or prakrti. These are also spelled out in the Kama Sutra (c. 4th century AD) and elsewhere as pums-prakrti (male-nature), stri-prakrti (female-nature), and tritiya-prakrti (third-nature). Texts suggest that third sex individuals were well known in premodern India and included male-bodied or female-bodied people as well as intersexuals, and that they can often be recognised from childhood.2

Even Sanskrit has three grammatical genders which are believed to have been derived from the natural three genders. The two great Sanskrit epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata also indicate the same. Same evidence can be found in early Tamil as well which had a third “neuter” gender. In the Buddhist Vinaya, codified in its present form around the 2nd century BC and said to be handed down by oral tradition from Buddha himself, there are four main sex/gender categories: males, females, ubhatobyanjanaka (people of a dual sexual nature) and pandaka (people of non-normative sexual natures, perhaps originally denoting a deficiency in male sexual capacity).3

Contrary to what is often portrayed in the West, sex with male (specifically receptive oral and anal sex) was the gender role of the third gender, not their defining feature. Thus, in ancient India, as in present day India, the society made a distinction between a third gender having sex with a man, and a man having sex with a man. The latter may have been viewed negatively, but he would be seen very much as a man (in modern western context, as ‘straight’), not a third gender (in modern western context ‘gay’).4


Inscribed pottery shards from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2000–1800 BCE), found near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), list three human genders: tai (male), sḫt (“sekhet”) and hmt (female). Sḫt is often translated as “eunuch”, although there is little evidence that such individuals were castrated.5


The evidence of third gender have been found in Mespotamian mythology as well. There had been references to types of people who were neither characterised as male nor female. In a Sumerian creation myth found on a stone tablet from the second millennium BC, the goddess Ninmah fashions a being “with no male organ and no female organ”, for whom Enki finds a position in society: “to stand before the king”. In the Akkadian myth of Atra-Hasis (ca. 1700 BC), Enki instructs Nintu, the goddess of birth, to establish a “third category among the people” in addition to men and women, that includes demons who steal infants, women who are unable to give birth, and priestesses who are prohibited from bearing children. In Babylonia, Sumer and Assyria, certain types of individuals who performed religious duties in the service of Inanna/Ishtar have been described as a third gender.6 Modern scholars cannot describe them specifically using their characteristics thus using the terms such as eunuchs, “living as women”, etc.


Aristophanes relates a creation myth which involved three sexes – male, female and androgynous with Plato’s work Symposium written around 4th Century BC. The myth of Hermaphroditus involves heterosexual lovers merging into their primordial androgynous sex. Other creation myths around the world share a belief in three original sexes, such as those from northern Thailand.7

Thus, many have interpreted the eunuchs of the ancient Mediterranean region as belong to the category of third gender. It has also been argued by several scholars that the eunuchs in Hebrew bible and the New Testament were thought to be the third gender during their time.


 There is evidence that the ancient Maya civilization may have recognised a third gender according to historian Matthew Looper. Looper notes the androgynous Maize Deity and masculine Moon goddess of Maya mythology, and iconography and inscriptions where rulers embody or impersonate these deities. He suggests that the third gender could also include two-spirit individuals with special roles such as healers or diviners.8

Anthropologist Rosemary Joyce agrees, writing that “gender was a fluid potential, not a fixed category, before the Spaniards came to Mesoamerica. Childhood training and ritual shaped, but did not set, adult gender, which could encompass third genders and alternative sexualities as well as “male” and “female.” At the height of the Classic period, Maya rulers presented themselves as embodying the entire range of gender possibilities, from male through female, by wearing blended costumes and playing male and female roles in state ceremonies.” Joyce notes that many figures of mesoamerican art are depicted with male genitalia and female breasts, while she suggests that other figures in which chests and waists are exposed but no sexual characteristics (primary or secondary) are marked may represent a third sex, ambiguous gender or androgyny.9


Thus, we see that how the third gender was specifically defined, treated and explained in some of the cultures across the world and in the light of the above mentioned data we can compare it to the present world scenario. In India, although the social status and condition of the third gender cannot be described as a very conducive one but still they are respected and people generally hold a religious view towards them. They are described in the native languages as “hijra” and they are called from time to time to perform various religious and social acts. In the context of the world also, it can be said that now their condition is gradually improving with various world governments recognising them and a lot more are on their way to do so. People are becoming well-aware day by day and their attitudes towards the eunuchs are also changing for food. They are also featured in mainstream media such as TV shows and movies. The world is gradually becoming a better place.

Edited by Hariharan Kumar

1. “”, last accessed on 19th March, 2014

2. “”, last accessed on 19th March, 2014

3. “”, last accessed on 19th March, 2014

4. Peter A. Jackson “Non-normative Sex/Gender Categories in the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures”

5. “”, last accessed on 19th March, 2014

6. Ibid

7. “”, last accessed on 19th March, 2014

8. Matthew Looper, “Ancient Maya Women-Men (and Men-Women): Classic Rulers and the Third Gender”

9. “”, last accessed on 19th March, 2014

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