PRAYAGRAJ, India (RNS) — On a warm January evening, sadhus and devotees surrounded Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the former reality TV star, jostling to get a selfie with her. She obliged them one by one, posing with hands gracefully folded into a namaskar.
In this northern Indian city historically known as Allahabad, it is the festival of Kumbh Mela, when millions of Hindus come to take a dip at the confluence of the three holy rivers — Ganges, Yamuna and the Saraswati, the latter long dried up and known only in myth — and to catch a glimpse of the holy men and women who camp at the weekslong festival.
Tripathi, 40, now a transgender activist and founder of the first monastic order of transgender people in Hinduism, made her splashing debut earlier in the day with a dip the Indian media covered as if it were a movie premiere.
Outside the tent where Tripathi was receiving her followers, the crowd became impatient, but she beckoned to those swarming the entrance, giving out generous hugs, a pat on the head or a little slap of adoration on the cheek, keeping order by dispensing blessings.
That evening, after the long lines had dissipated, Tripathi removed her ceremonial makeup and discussed her transformation from television personality to activist to a religious leader. “Effeminate and sickly” as a child in a family of Brahmins, the highest priestly caste, she grew up in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. In addition to being different from an early age, Tripathi was abused sexually as a child.
A dancer and choreographer, Tripathi embarked on a career that ranged from music videos to Mumbai’s infamously seedy dance bars. For years she battled with being called gay for her innate femininity, until she met prominent members of Mumbai's hijra community — as trans people are referred to here — and aligned with her true identity. In 2011, she became a household name while starring in the Indian version of "Big Brother."
India is one of the few places in the world where transgenderism has an honored history. In the ancient war epic Mahabharata, Shikhandi, the woman-turned-man, commandeered a legion of transgender people to defeat the unconquerable warrior, Bhishma. Another epic, Ramayana, tells how the the hijras waited for 14 years for Lord Rama to return from exile. In return, he endowed hijras with the powers to both bless and curse, elevating them to demigods.
It was the 19th-century British colonizers who laid the foundation for the systematic oppression of trans people, criminalizing them and classifying homosexuality as “against the order of nature.”
The colonial legacy has reduced India’s trans people to lives of misery and estrangement from the mainstream. "Hijra" has become a derogatory term, often referring to the trans sex workers who beg and offer their services at traffic lights in major cities. But hijras also retain a sacred function, blessing marriages and newborns.
Beginning in the 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic hit India and decimated the trans community, Tripathi set out into the world of activism, creating a new platform for hijras to address their peculiar status.
In 2008, she became the first transgender person from Asia Pacific to speak about AIDS awareness at the United Nations.
Her court petition, along with those of many other activists, led to the 2014 landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of India legally establishing a “third gender.” In September 2018, the Supreme Court abolished Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized homosexuality.
It was about this time that Tripathi began to challenge the underlying stigmas against hijras, merging her activism with a challenge to Hinduism, which had long since disengaged with transgender and other sexual minorities. “Religion is the one avenue that connects with the masses and fills the gap that activism cannot,” she said. “Activists in the LGBTQ community are only connected with only a certain group of people in their own community. It’s an echo chamber.”
The founding of Kinnar Akhara, the trans monastic order, is Tripathi's way of both breaking out of activism's limits and changing religious attitudes toward her community.
Adi Shankara, the eighth-century scholar and philosopher, is credited with establishing the first Hindu monastic order. The akharas, or "armies" of holy sages — sadhus — safeguard the tenets of the Hindu way of life. Over time, the system branched out into the 13 present-day akharas, dominated almost entirely by men.
In 2015, right before the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, Tripathi said she had a transformative experience after visiting the Mahakaleshwar temple. She began rallying transgender people from across 22 Indian states and sought their support in establishing a monastic order of their own — the Kinnar Akhara.
“The night I went to Mahakala, I fell in love with him. He’s the hottest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. My lord is so sexy, so beautiful,” she said.
Tripathi's proclamation of a 14th akhara at the Ujjain Kumbh of trans people defies both authority and conventionality, rattling many conservatives.
“They (the kinnars) were never an akhara and never will be,” said Mahant Narendra Giri, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the supreme administrative body of the 13 akharas, whose clout is not only religious but political. “They won’t be able to sustain the monastic order. Their way of life is different than ours.”
Tripathi remains unfazed. “We have started the journey to reclaim our lost lineage and heritage. Why are they so worried about us?” she said.
The elders of Juna Akhara, the first and oldest of the monastic orders, have helped her cause by welcoming Tripathi and her followers to take the ceremonial dip this year under their aegis. “Juna Akhara had enough manhood to accept femininity and walk with it,” Tripathi said.
“In Juna Akhara there is a new consensus and consciousness. We believe in everybody’s rights, dignity, individuality and sensitivities,” said Avadheshananda Giri Maharaj, chief saint of Juna. “This is the age of equality, and dharma (the religious way of life) is an ocean where all streams should converge, and differences should evaporate.”
As head of his ancient institution, the Maharaj has been opening the akhara’s doors to many oppressed communities, taking on the challenging task of steering the ancient order of monks and godmen into the 21st century.
He recently appointed Dalits (formerly the "untouchable" caste) to positions of authority within the order. He is determined to help restore the dignity of the trans community as well. “They need that sensitivity and care which they have been deprived of,” he said, of the Kinnar Akhara.
Attracting attention from the nation at large while mobilizing the Indian trans community, Tripathi is part political leader, part patron saint and goddess.
In the West, said Antoinette DeNapoli, associate professor of religion at Texas Christian University, “many trans groups, feminists and LBGQT are striving to change religious cultures of shaming and more in the Abrahamic traditions. And it seems that India is setting a precedent particularly with religious patriarchal institutions.”
With national elections coming this spring, Tripathi has jumped into one of the most polarizing political debates in Indian politics, the proposed construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th-century Mughal mosque in Ayodhya, also held to be the birthplace of the god Ram. For years, the Ram Temple issue has caused Hindu-Muslim clashes.
In November, Tripathi said that her akhara fully supports this cause, drawing censure from other transgender activists who claimed she was appeasing right-wing Hindu politicians and fueling division.
“I have nothing to do with any political party. I feel that where my lord was born, his temple should be there. It's common sense,” Tripathi said.