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Confessions of a Tantric Androgyne

by Ganapati Sivananda Durgadas
photos by Amy Conger

My father often eyed me with distrust. During one of his frequent rages at my mother, he pointedly told me he doubted I was his biological offspring. I wonder whether his machismo allowed him the empathy to realize the irony in his breaking the news in a tone of concern for me. I think my father's concern was genuine, but I was beyond caring by the time of this supposed revelation. As a teenager, I had so successfully learned to numb myself against his almost uninterrupted stream of emotional, verbal and physical abuse that I felt only the dullest and haziest irritation in response.

I suspect what rankled my father was my not being the man he was. Fact was, I had only a vague notion I was a "boy," some generic social group or category I was supposed to merge into, but which I was only doing a half-hearted job of accomplishing. From the start I was possessed by the sense that maleness was more like something imposed from outside rather than generated from within. I was aware of having a self, of being someone in a body, but not necessarily a boychild's body governed by an intrinsic "male" character. There was definitely an interior feeling of girlishness I knew I could not afford anyone else discovering. Externally there was femme fleshiness because of my fatness, which I tried hiding because of a shame indoctrinated into me by others. I can't say I felt completely "female" because I didn't know what that was anymore than I knew what being completely "male" felt like. Yet I was terrified to realize I was past the boundaries, somewhere in between. I was frightened into secrecy.

If they see
breasts and long hair coming
they call it a woman

If beard and whiskers
they call it a man:

but, look, the Self that hovers
in between
is neither man
nor woman.

-- Devara Dasimayya, 10th century CE1

For my Puertorriqueño father, maleness was definitely a predetermined hereditary repertoire of traits expected to be automatically passed on with his genes. He became repeatedly enraged that I did not meet his expectations, as if I purposely refused to do so. For me it was all a game: a series of roles played to keep my skin intact. I had secrets, like my love of dolls and my desire to trade in my ugly green or gray chinos for the flow of skirts. By the early '60s I was able to make a poor compromise with baggy shirts over jeans. This improved with the hippie counter-culture's inception: I wore gender-noncommittal clothes and third-world ethnic wear. This signified the physical and emotional space I was putting between my aging father and myself while I escaped his household via the release of drugs and sexual exploration.

With the glitter/glam of the early '70s, the pop-culture aftermath to Stonewall -- and my father's not-coincidental death -- I finally permitted myself to live fully within the borderland between male and female. From unisexual hippie through would-be Bowie boy, I moved on to semi- and then full drag. I relished all the stops along the way, but still felt not quite fulfilled.

Reflecting this was my bisexuality. With innumerable male and female partners, I felt like a shifting presence within each of their embraces. I was a screen onto which they projected specific definitions of maleness and femaleness. What surprised me was their apparent certainty of being a man or a woman. I resented the accompanying demand, either implied or explicit, that I conform completely to their definitions of who I was or should be.

Men either wanted me to be their femme, to service and nurture them, or else rejected my obvious androgyny because it suggested a feminine side to gayness which they escaped via hyper-butchness. Ironically, they sometimes carried that extreme into blatant drag itself. Women, even those I thought ardent feminists, expected me automatically to "top" them; that is, to be an utterly phallic male in bed, if nowhere else.

Almost every one of my lovers, with few notable exceptions, had shockingly rigid inner gender schema, which they sprang upon me within moments of initiating intimacy.

By now I have become pretty blasé about the regularity of this. It's become routine. Yet the expectation that I conform, "be a man", still triggers a hesitation in me, while simultaneously dulling any incipient desire. It's back to playing the accustomed charade of childhood and adolescence: passing as the gender others want me to be, distilling whatever enjoyment remains while going through the motions.

Parallel to my sexual exploration has been my spiritual search. Gender outlawry creates an imperative to try to figure yourself out. A hopeless bibliophile, I sought solace in books during periods of often socially imposed isolation -- Jungian psychology, gay liberation manifestos on genderfuck, bios of androgynous pop stars and coffee-table photobooks full of shemales. I searched for reflections of the inner me that I was defiantly revealing to the outside world. I ransacked stacks of mythology featuring twin-sexed gods like Dionysus and Yemaya-Olukun, or discovered anthropological ancestors like the hijra and the berdache.

Look here, dear fellow:
I wear these men's clothes
Only for you.

Sometimes I am man,
Sometimes I am woman.

O Lord of the Meeting Rivers
I'll make wars for you
But I'll be your devotees' bride.

-- Basavanna, 10th century CE

The Divine Itself was a shemale. God appeared to be most at home in that borderland between male and female. Most human beings had fallen into a spiritual exile because of their gender dualisms, which they mistook for reality. For this reason, occultism and mysticism developed a seductive hold on me.

I began practicing meditation and mild yoga, and studied Eastern philosophy after a long fling with Neopaganism.Then I discovered Tantrism, a branch of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual practice. Tantra guiltlessly uses sexual symbolism and openly accepts androgyny as much as the West shuns and suppresses it. And it was with Tantric Hinduism that I finally felt that I had come home.

In Hinduism, the feminine is the dynamic creative principle while the masculine is the cognitive or conscious one. Shakti is the Divine Feminine side of God personified as the Maha-Devi, or Great Goddess of Many Names: Ambika, Parvati, Uma; Annapurna in Her pacific aspects; Kali, Durga, Tara in Her militant aspects. She is the Universal Mother and the active power of the universe.

Shaktism constitutes a separate yet affiliated sect of Hinduism that overlaps with Shaivism, the sect of Her consort, Lord Siva. Both descend from the original matriarchal religion of the Indus Valley civilization that dominated the Indian subcontinent prior to the patriarchal Aryans who imposed the orthodox Brahminism when they gained power.

A Hindu counterculture that runs in parallel opposition to Brahminism, Tantrism disregards orthodoxy's caste and gender proscriptions. It's a resurgence of India's primal faith of Shiva and Shakti and a religion of the masses. It is also a movement of social protest and a school of esoterica. Its life-affirming, non-dualistic philosophy has provided a strong counterbalance to the mind/body splitting asceticism and social elitism that periodically overcome all Indian-based religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism included. Tantra returns one to the borderland between male and female, not as a patriarchally3 defined mistake of nature, but as an emanation of Sacred Reality.

Tantra is not just an assortment of esoteric schools, nor is it the ancient collection of sex manuals that some Western populizers might have it. It's a mindset, a way of life in which one gradually withdraws from dualistic and compartmentalized perceptions of ourselves and the universe -- a universe we're intimately a part of, but which we've been brainwashed into thinking is opposed to us.

Locks of shining red hair
A crown of diamonds
Small beautiful teeth
And eyes in a laughing face
That light up fourteen worlds
I saw His glory
And seeing, I quell today
the famine in my eyes.

I saw the haughty Master
For whom men, all men
Are but women, wives.

I saw the Great One
Who plays at love
With Shakti,2
Original to the world,
I saw His stance
And began to live.

-- Mahadeviyakka, 10th century CE

Hinduism thrives heartily upon contradictions. The most ascetic sects live alongside the most sensual, with nothing more than a mild philosophical debate between them. More a way of life than a religion per se, conservatism coexists with the broadest sorts of tolerance. You can find the most sharply defined sex-roles assigned to biologically defined men and women, as well as changes exerted by feminism and modernism, along with sanctified castes of transgendered people, all accepted within the same spiritual and social spectrum. It doesn't hurt that Hinduism's main deities, such as Shiva, Durga and Vishnu, are omnierotic and pangendered.

Within this religious context, I can acceptably wear multiple earrings and nose-rings, cosmetics and extensive jewelry -- not to mention my torso and arms full of God/dess tattoos -- along with a waist gown (called a dhoti, and usually made of cotton or silk).

By helping us withdraw from the false, imposed dualisms that attach constricting and alienating identities upon us, Tantra offers a healing philosophy and set of practices. These enable us to tap into, even merge with the underlying Divine Wholeness that sustains the incessant flow of phenomena we mistake for a static and sharply categorized world.

Through Tantric Hinduism, I achieve a fulfillment never felt before. There were occasions where I came close, but those other times were hemmed by a fear created by the clear and present fact that such fulfillment was only acceptable among fellow outlaws, along with a realistic danger accompanying it. The difference here is that I am given tacit spiritual approval.

Sometimes I am even given explicit approval as well. Five years ago, during a temple festival commemorating the completion and consecration of several shrine areas and the installation of the deities within them, a visiting Vaishnava brahmana (priest of Vishnu) repeatedly expressed curiosity about me. At first, I thought it was about my appearance, one of the few times I've felt self-conscious about it among my Hindu peers. However, I learned it was instead my obviously non-South-Asian ethnicity that piqued his interest. Explaining my androgyny, my adopted brother Balu, the assistant temple priest, explained that I was a convert and an Ardhanarisvari, a bhakta or devotee of God in His/Her half-male/half-female form of Ardhanarisvara. From that moment on, the visiting priest treated me with the most affectionate courtesy.

It's difficult to correlate our dichotomous Western culture with India's polycentric one, and Western categories of sexual orientation and gender generally do not translate very well into those in India.

For example, those the West classifies separately as strictly gay, lesbian or categorically transsexual all constitute "the third nature" (Tritiya Prakriti) or intersexually intercaste (intercaste because, the logic goes, none are prone to actively seek to procreate and thus, unlike heterosexuals, are not bound by the hereditary caste guidelines).5

Moreover, I fall into the spectrum between these two categories because, although androgynous in gender variation, I am bisexual. This makes the number of India's categories of sexual orientation four, compared to the West's standard two.

If only my father could really see me now.

Ganapati Shivananda Durgadas is a fifty-one year old Hindu with a Master's in Psychology. After more than thirteen years in Human Services and Social Activism, he is more than ever convinced that lasting solutions to suffering can only be found spiritually.


  1. This and succeeding poems are free-verse lyrics written by South Indian Shaiva bhaktis (mystics devoted to the God Siva), collected and translated in A.K. Ramanujan's Speaking of Siva (Penguin Books: 1973, Baltimore, MD)
  2. See History of Shakta Religion (Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya, Manoharlal Publishers: 1974, New Delhi, India); The Indian Mother Goddess, 2nd Ed. (Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya, Manohar Book Service: 1977, Delhi, India); While the Gods Play (Alain Danielou, Inner Traditions International: 1987, Rochester, VT); and Gods of Love and Ecstasy (ibid).
  3. See The Tantric Way: Art, Science, Ritual (Ajit Mookerjee and Madhu Khanna, New York Graphic Society: 1977, Boston, MA); Shakti and Shakta (Arthur Avalon, Dover Publications: 1978, New York, NY); Kashmir Shaivism: The Central Philosophy of Tantrism (Kamalakar Mishra, Rudra Press: 1993, Cambridge, MA); and The Tantric Tradition (Agehananda Bharati, Samuel Weiser: 1975, New York, NY).
  4. Most noted in the West is the Hijra, a Persian-influenced North Indian term. Joggapa is the South Indian languages' equivalent. They constitute a legitimate third sex, yet it is difficult to accurately characterize them in Western terms because gradations of transgenderism are classified in this category, including sacred transvestites, cross-dressing sex workers and transsexuals in various pre-, post-, and non-operative stages. South India's Joggapa are a caste of transgendered person predominantly at the transvestite side and sacerdotal in vocation. The Hijra lean towards the transsexual side, and labor in various vocations. Individual variations are many. See Neither Man Nor Woman: The Third Sex of India (Serena Nanda, Wadsworth: 1990, Belmont, CA) and "The Hijras of India: Cultural, Social and Individual Dimensions of an Institutional Third Gender Role," Third Sex, Third Gender (Gilbert Herdt, ed., Zone Books: 1994, Cambridge, MA).
  5. See While the Gods Play and Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation: The Four Aims of life in the Tradition of Ancient India (Inner Traditions: 1992, Rochester, VT). The contemporary fading of caste is likely to effect added modifications to this schema, but this all only confirms the social construction behind gender.

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