Category Archives: e. Other Sects


Of Sanskrit origin, the term Trimurti is composed of the roots tri, being ‘three’ and murti, being ‘form,’ referring to the three-deity nature of the Hindu Trinity (Dent 2012). The origins of the Trimurti are thought to stem from the Harappan Civilization of pre-Aryan India but appear in later writings and art (Chakravarti 1986). The associated deities of the Trimurti are Siva, Visnu, and Brahma in the Puranas, though there are antecedents to the Trimurti in Vedic texts and art forms that are still under speculation (Vitsaxis 1977). To understand the complex nature of the evolution and rise of the Trimurti, the origins of its deities and their development with the expansion of Aryan culture and religion must first be examined.

The intermingling and interchanging of deities and their respective names in the Vedas allowed a fluid base for the concept of the Trimurti to begin its bout. Rudra is the fearsome Vedic god of howling wind, who represents fear and destruction (Chakravarti 1), but also a generous healer in the Vedas (Flood 122). Although he is not regularly mentioned in Vedic literature, his character is one that is built upon as the Aryans encounter the Harappan Civilization (more generally the Indus-Valley Civilization). Included in Vedic literature are the Aranyakas, Brahamanas, Samhitas, and the Upanisads. The worship of a proto-Siva deity in the Indus-Valley Civilization predates the arrival of the Aryans in the Indus Valley. This proto-Siva is arguably shown on seals dating back to near 3000 BCE (Flood 122). A seal from Mohenjo-Daro pictures the figure sitting with the soles of its feet together, arms rested above its knees, and horned headdress (trait associated with Siva) (Nagar 58), and others include animals or people surrounding the proto-Siva as shown by Chakravarti (plate 1). Such is evident of the gradual integration of non-Aryan beliefs into Indo-Aryan religion, and the beginning of the non-Aryan proto-Siva being impressed upon Rudra (Chakravarti 22-23). Synonyms of Siva (yajurveda, bhavas, sarva) were attributed to Rudra in Vedic literature, and Siva was used as an adjective in the Vedas, ascribed to multiple gods, particularly to Rudra, where the first linking of Siva to the Vedic god Rudra can be observed. Siva was later incorporated into the Trimurti and became predominate in the Hindu tradition (Chakravarti 73).

In the Svetasvatara Upanisad, Rudra, among other deities (isvaras), is given the title of Great God (mahesvara), and is regarded as having the qualities of the Trimurti (creator, preserver, destroyer); Rudra is the precedent of the Trimurti that officially appears later in the Puranas. There were examples of a triad in the Vedas, one example being in the Rgveda, where Agni is revealed to have three forms (sun, lightning, fire) (Chakravarti 54). Three deities in unison can be noted, as there is a tendency to reduce many gods to three major ones, namely those of the Trimurti in later texts (Chakravarti 54). An example (Chakravarti 54) in the Rgveda is as follows: “May the Surya protect us from the sky, Vata from the air, Agni from the earthly regions” (RV X, viii. 1). In the Upanisads, Visnu is linked with Surya, the Vedic sun god (Chennakesavan 48). Evidence of this correlation is slim, however, it does offer a connection from the Vedic proto-triad.

Brahma remained as the creator in ancient texts when Siva and Visnu were extolled on a much larger scale (see Glucklich 148). The dualism between Siva and Visnu is an antecedent for Trimurti doctrine that emerges later in the Puranas (Chakravarti 54). Rival, but not evidently hostile, cults, the Saivas and the Vaisnavas worshiped Siva and Visnu respectively (Chakravarti 54, 174). It was likely in efforts to harmonize the aforementioned cults in the Gupta period (approx. 300-600 CE) that brought such doctrine into being (Basham 310).

The first legitimate accounts of the Trimurti as an entity in Hindu literature appear in the Puranas, which date prior to 200-300 BCE (Bharati 106). The Puranas are diverse in the ways they are written as they were compiled over time by many authors (Bharati 106), and are thence named for the deity that they regard (Bharati 128). Differing from Vedic literature, Puranas encourage worship of a single, all-encompassing deity that has dominion over all reality, even though they exalt the three deities of the Trimurti as well (Matchett 138). Constructed to encourage greater religious devotion and awareness (bhakti), the Puranas, with time, introduced new means of worship in Hindu society; pilgrimage  (tirthayatras), alms (dana), and observances (vratas) began to replace certain Vedic rituals, shaping the common religious practices among the general majority of Hindus (Bharati 128). It is important to note that, in regards to dharma, the Vedas are considered authoritative over the Puranas, despite their significance among Hindus (Bharati 27). There are three groups (sattva, rajas, tamas) that the eighteen major Puranas are divided between, each devoted to a member of the Trimurti (Bharati). The rajas Puranas regard Brahma as a force maintaining equilibrium, capable of action. Visnu’s qualities of preservation and renewal are conveyed in the sattva Puranas, and Siva’s destructive nature is displayed in the tamas Puranas (Dallapiccola 2002).

The Trimurti is associated with the three gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas (Dallapiccola 2002; Sharma and Bharati 73). The guna to which Brahma correlates is rajas, as Visnu is to sattva and Siva is to tamas. Bharati (313) explains that gunas describe temperament or attributes. Brahma’s rajas guna is the quality of activity, the sattva guna is characteristic of Visnu’s stability and purity, and the rajas guna equates to the dark nature of Siva.

As Glucklich (148) notes, textual evidence for the roles of the Trimurti deities can be found in the Matsyapurana as well, which states, “Brahma creates the universe, Visnu fosters it, and at the end of the kalpa, Siva destroys it.” This further reinstates the central concept which the Trimurti endure. The significance of the Trimurti as creating, preserving, and destroying forces support the encouragement of worshiping a single figure that overshadows all reality (Matchett 138).

Sharma and Bharati (72) recall the poem, Kumarasambhava, of Kalidasa (approx. 400-500 CE) in which the creator, preserver and destroyer aspects of the Trimurti are regarded as being representative of birth, life and death, and morning, noon and night (see also Dallapiccola 2002).

An early story involving the Trimurti under its respective name is in the Devipurana. Mahadevi tells Visnu that the god Brahma will be born through his navel, and that Rudra will be born from between Brahma’s eyebrows (Mani 147). Brahma is to have the quality of activity (rajoguna), Rudra, darkness (tamasaguna), and Visnu is to be the preserver (sattva) of the world that Rudra will eventually destroy [Rudra here is homologous to Siva]. The Vamanapurana Mani (147-8) states “the Eternal Being is Brahma, Visnu, Siva.” Various stories in the Puranas involve all three Trimurti, who do not act as a unified deity, rather are portrayed more often as individualistic deities. A myth in the Lingapurana that involves Brahma, Siva and Vishnu also denote superiority in the triad as residing with Siva (Chakravarti 138-9). In this myth, Brahma and Visnu are in conflict over who is the rightful creator of the universe, when the sight of an expansive linga (phallus) that is aflame interrupts their quarrels. To locate the top of the immense ligna, Brahma turns himself into a swan, and flies off in search of it; to locate the bottom, Visnu takes the form of a boar and runs to search. They do not succeed in their attempt, as the linga was larger than they had thought it to be, and so they praise it. The linga is that of Siva, and so by praising it, they also bowed to him. Another example of Siva’s superiority over Brahma and Visnu in the triad is in the inscription on the Aug Chamnik that conveys Siva’s dominance over Brahma and Visnu, which stand with folded hands before him (Chakravarti 174).

Some scholars believe that a relief (raised sculpture), excavated from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan, detailing a single body with three heads, those of Siva (center), Visnu (proper right), and Brahma (proper left) is a depiction of the Trimurti (Chakravarti 56). Vitsaxis (1977) notes that although popular iconography of the three faces of Siva tend to have little differentiation from one another, in classical iconography, particularity in sculptures, there is a different expression on each of his three faces, possibly corresponding to his different attributes or revealing three different deities constituting the Trimurti. Another possible occurrence of Siva with Visnu and Brahma is depicted on a Huviskian coin (approx. 100-200 CE) where Siva wields his trident (trisula), and the symbolic weapons of Visnu (cakra: discus) and Indra (vajra: club)  (Chakravarti 54, 148).

While art forms and the literature containing Trimurtic doctrine remain and continue to be consulted by Hindus today, the implication of the Trimurti is rather limited. Unlike the familiar example of Christianity, the Hindu Trinity did not gain momentum or significant influence in the Hindu tradition (Basham 310). The strong tendency towards polytheism among Hindus meant that praising three deities equally was an abstract form of worship, which ultimately undermined any wholesome worship of all three deities together as one (Basham 310).


 Basham, A. L. (1988) The Wonder That Was India. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Bharati, Dayanand (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Chakravarti, Mahadev (1986) The Concept of Rudra-Siva Through the Ages. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chennakesavan, Sarasvati (1980) A Critical Study of Hinduism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Dallapiccola, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Dent, Susie (2012) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap.

Flood, Gavin 2004. “Saiva.” In The Hindu World, edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 119-139. Abingdon: Routledge.

Glucklich, Ariel (2008) Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hinnells, John R., and Eric J. Sharpe (1972) World Religions Education in Hinduism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press Limited.

Jamison, S. W., and M. Witzel. 1992. “Vedic Hinduism.” In Hinduism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (2015), edited by Will Sweetman, 258-350. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mani, Vettam (1975) Puranic Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Dictionary with Special Reference to the Epic and Puranic Literature. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Matchett, Freda (2005) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Nagar, Shantila (1998) Indian Gods and Goddesses: Vol 1. The Early Deities from Chalcolithic to Beginning of Historical Period. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation.

Sharma, Arvind, and Ray Bharati. 2000. “Chapter VI: The Hindu Trinity (Trimurti).” In Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction, 72-75. New York: Oxford.

Vitsaxis, Vassils G. (1977) Hindu Epics, Myths and Legends in Popular Illustrations. New Delhi: OUP.


Related Topics for Further Investigation







Rajas Puranas





Sattva Puranas


Tamas Puranas









Related Websites

This article was written by: Hannah Bouma (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.


The Kanphata Yogis

 The Kanphata Yogis refers to a monastic order of Hindu renouncers, found predominantly throughout India and Nepal, who worship the god Siva. They are also known as the Darsanis, Gorakhnathi or Natha Yogis. The name Kanphata refers to the split through the hollow of their ears and Darsani refer to the large earrings they wear through these holes, their most distinctive feature. Gorakhnathi or Nath refers instead to their supposed founder, Gorakhnath, who is also credited as the founder of Hatha Yoga. Though he is said to be the author of a large number of books it is more likely that he authored only a few and other followers of his have since added to the collection. (Bouillier 2018:18-26).

Gorakhnath takes on both the roles of founder and deity in the Kanphata Yogi order. On the one hand he is a Guru praised for his purity and asceticism, and on the other he is said to be a being born through the miraculous power of Siva and is also a form of Siva (Bouillier 2018:14). The mythology surrounding Gorakhnath’s upbringing is extensive and not all of the stories agree on all points. One popular story is that a barren woman was given ashes from Siva to eat. Instead she threw them into a heap of cow dung and 12 years later upon searching the heap of dung, a 12 year old boy was found within it. The boy was then accepted as a pupil by the mighty guru, Matsyendranath, who named the child Gorakhnath meaning filth or lord of cattle (Briggs 182). His relationship to his Guru was complicated as he acted at times as a pupil and at times as an instructor or even savior of his master, saving his master from temptations of the flesh and other worldly influences (Bhattacharyya 285). In these ways the followers of Gorakhnath through legend and mythology deify him and simultaneously establish his teachings as being directly from the Gods. Actual historical data surrounding his birth, life, and death are however largely hypothetical and many scholars disagree on the date and location of his birth (Bouillier 2013:158). In the books accredited to his authorship, he appears to have borrowed inspiration from Jainism and from Vajrayana Buddhism, both in the strong focus on the obtainment of supernatural powers, through Yogic meditation, and on the incorporation of tantric doctrines into their core ideals (Bhattacharyya 285, Briggs 259, 274-276). Examples of this focus are found in the Gorakh-bani (Sayings of Gorakh), in which their quest for superhuman powers and immortality or divinity is explained (Bouillier 2013:161). Supernatural powers are considered a gratuity, rather than the actual end goal of Hatha Yoga, which is to reach mukti or enlightenment. The ordered discipline of yoga serves as a vehicle to assist or aid the Yogi as he or she endeavors in this quest (Briggs 2, 262-265).

Kanphata Yogis take their heritage from the Himalayan foothills and share common ancestry with the Siddhas in Tibetan Buddhism, as Gorakhnath is identified as Luipada by the Buddhist texts (Bhattacharyya 284-285). A rift in the teachings between the followers of Gorakhnath and the Siddhas is illustrated in the account of Gorakhnath saving his master from lust and sensual pleasures, and so doing, changing the guidelines for his followers from the overtly sexual tantric practices of his predecessors to a chaste focus in the internal development of oneself (Bouillier 2018:16-17).  There is however a large focus on the maintenance of one’s body physically and spiritually, sexual practice of any kind is forbidden (Bouillier 2018:301-302). Many members of the tradition try to keep as far away from women as possible (Bhattacharyya 287-288), though some women, mostly widows, do join the order (Briggs 4-5).

Heavy focus is also placed upon the large earrings that they wear through the hollows of their ears. Some explain that the split through the cartilage of the ear is done in such a place as to cut through a mystical channel, thus assisting the bearer in their path to enlightenment (Briggs 6). Strict care is placed on the Yogi to protect their ears after the split has been made. There are some indications that, in the past, if one of the Yogis had the earring pulled out or their ear was mutilated in some other way that they would either be killed outright or be buried alive, though more recently banishment is a more common punishment (Briggs 8-9). These earrings, or mudra, are traditionally made of clay, but as these are easily broken they can be substituted for rings made of antler, horn, wood, precious metals, or shells. Kanphata Yogis also differ from orthodox Hindus also in their death rituals, namely that they bury their dead rather than cremate them. This practice is substantiated by the legendary dispute between Muslims and Hindus over who were masters of the earth. In response to this dispute Gorakhnath sat on the ground and called on it to yield to him, the earth then opened up and he sank below the surface (Briggs 39-40).

Kanphata Yogis and their supernatural powers have also played a part in the development of various kingdoms in the areas of Northern and Western India as well as Nepal. In Nepal in particular, a powerful Yogi is credited with using supernatural powers to assist the king of a small nation to unify the Nepalese area under one crown (Bouillier 1991:154-156). Similar stories can be found throughout India, and each Nath Monastery will generally have its own myths about the supernatural powers of the founding Yogi. These supernatural powers include controlling the weather, changing the physical size of the Yogi, exorcism, healing, the power of flight, necromantic powers, and psychic or telekinetic abilities to name a few (Briggs 271). These stories of supernatural powers gave the yogis a certain notoriety among both commoners and nobility, causing them to be warily honored lest they curse the public just as in the story of Gorakhnath’s visit to Kathmandu when he caused a drought to befall the people as punishment for receiving him poorly (Bouillier 2018:16).

Modern Day Kanphata Yogis exist largely in monasteries throughout India and South-East Asia or very occasionally as wandering ascetics and renouncers. Disciples known as Aughars rather than Yogis are inducted into the order of monastics through several stages of discipleship (Briggs 7-11). Contrary to what their name may suggest many Kanphata Yogis do not actively practice yoga (Briggs 251). They possess no official cannon of texts but instead cite a mishmash of books with varied and dubious authorship, including many texts that are nearly identical but with different titles or authors (Bouillier 2018:18-26, Briggs 252-257). Exact knowledge of the contents of these texts are also not largely stressed, but focus seems to be more on an oral tradition of legends and secret techniques which are passed down from Guru to Aughar (Briggs 7-10,251). That is not to say that the Kanphata Yogis are without modernization as they have formed the Pan-Indian Nath Yogi Association, and in some ways attempted to organize themselves by the 12 panths or branches of their order. There are currently more than 12 branches in existence but this number likely refers to an original division rather than a current one (Bouillier 2018:54-56).



Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

Bouillier, Véronique (1991) “Growth and decay of a Kanphata Yogi monastery in south-west Nepal” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 28,2: 151-170

Bouillier, Véronique (2013) “A Survey of Current Researches on India’s Nath Yogis” Religion Compass Vol 7 #5 (May): 157-168

Bouillier, Véronique (2018) Monastic Wanderers: Nath Yogi Ascetics in Modern South Asia. New York: Routledge.

Briggs, George W. (1938) Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jacobsen, K.A. (2012) Yoga Powers. Extraordinary Capacities Attained through Meditation and Concentration. Leiden: Brill.

White, D.G. (1996) The Alchemical Body. Siddha tradition in Medieval India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


This article was written by Christopher J Boehmer (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Dadu Dayal

Dadu Dayal is known as the saint of compassion. Dayal, meaning compassionate or merciful, is in part from where Dadu’s title as the saint of compassion stems (Gold 184). His compassionate actions and religious teachings earned him the title after death (Gold 184). The other reason for his title is from his divine birth and mysterious origins leading to the creation of his religious panth (Shomer and MeLeod 183). There are mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth and his unordinary beginning to life is very similar to other northern Indian saints such as Kabir and Nanak (Gold 221). Dadu Dayal was born in 1544 CE in Ahmedabad and lived in Narayana in the state of Rajasthan till his death in 1603 CE (Heehs 371). Dadu’s major religious teachings surrounded self-realization and japa along with the goal of unification of the divergent faiths (Sen 100). Dadu along with Kabir, Namdev, Nanak and Radias are considered the back bone of the Northern Indian Saint tradition (Zelliot 254). Dadu is the founder of the Dadu-Panth and is renowned for both his ability to compose hymns and his religious teachings. The main area in which his panth is presently established is Narayana in Rajasthan and is run by a disciple in the lineage of Dadu (Shomer and MeLeod 184). The Dadu-Panth has changed in contemporary times by adapting to the changing societal patterns and norms allowing it to maintain influence in its major centre (Shomer and MeLeod 184).

Rajasthan, a state in northern India, is where Dadu was born, lived and established his religious panth (Sen 100). Born in Ahmedabad in 1544 CE Dadu has several stories surrounding his mysterious birth (Shomer and MeLeod 182). The Dadu-Panth mostly recognizes the story in which Dadu was found in and taken from Sabarmati River near Ahmedabad (Gold 93). He was then raised by a brahmin family and received initiation from an old sadhu and that in his early adult life he worked as a cotton carder before beginning his religious journey (Heehs 371).The second most accepted within the panth is the story that he was born to a dhuni-woman which means a women of the river and was abandoned and was raised in a merchant family and pursued a career as a cotton carder until later becoming interested in religious life (Shomer and MeLeod 183). A cotton carder cleans and processes the raw cotton into lose strands to then later be further processed (Shomer and MeLeod 183). Most scholars, however, think that Dadu came from a Muslim family. This fact was concealed or changed to him being raised by a brahmin family or that he was adopted after being found in the river by a brahmin family (Sen 100). Although these origins are similar in nature, key differences are the source of much debate between scholars and followers (Shomer and MeLeod 189). One story describes Dadu’s divine birth to a woman and another his divine appearance upon the bank of a river. Many scholars theorize that the reason there are two conflicting accounts of his origins stems from the fourteenth verse of the Grantha Sadha Mahima (Shomer and MeLeod 185). The fourteenth verse can be translated in one of two ways, the first being “Dadu was born in the womb of a dhuni-woman” the second being “Dadu was found in a river” (Shomer and MeLeod 185). All tell the tale that his religious interest stemmed from a feeling of exclusion from the strict caste system and Vedic teachings (Shomer and MeLeod 6). In all accounts he was a cotton carder by trade and his renunciation and rise to religious power was not widely accepted by the Hindu caste system (Olson 182). His low caste birth but higher class upbringing made him an ideal teacher in the sant parampara tradition (Shomer and MeLeod 6). Like Kabir, one of his greatest influences was that he was born into a low class but with great religious knowledge which allowed him to form  his own opinions and beliefs outside of the strict Hindu tradition (Sen 101). Dadu died in 1603 at the age of fifty nine in Narayana city in Rajasthan. It is rarely speculated how Dadu died but some texts say he ascended to heaven from his shrine in Narayana when his work was done (Oman 133). In the same fashion as Kabir many sources speculate that his body miraculously disappeared after his death (Olson 182). Although his origins are mysterious he is only referred to under one incarnation unlike Kabir who in his panth is theorized to have appeared before (Gold 95).

Dadu’s religious teachings stemmed from his inability to find roots in the Vedas (Gold 49). Even though he was a man of great knowledge and devotion he struggled with some of the ideas and concepts within the Vedic teachings (Gold 49). In Dadu’s religious panth he rejected the concept that the Vedas held ultimate knowledge (Gold 49). In turn he believed in the power of self-realization and inner experience for achieving moksa (Heehs 371). Dadu believed that to fulfill this realization followers must surrender their lives entirely to god and subsequently reject their egotism (Kumar and Ram 99). He also rejected the class system and its social and religious conventions (Kumar and Ram 98). Dadu identifies himself as a house holder and believed that this stage was ideal for achieving self and spiritual realization (Kumar and Ram 100). Dadu encouraged his disciples to write in Hindi and to translate Sanskrit texts into Hindi to further the accessibility of these texts to everyone (Kumar and Ram 100). This he hoped would further his ideal of uniting the divided faiths.

The Dadu-Panth which was founded by Dadu himself, is a part of the Northern Indian sant parampara tradition (Gold 14). Its epicenter is located at its main temple in Narayana in Rajasthan (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 179). The Dadu-Panth is closely linked to Kabir’s Satguru Kabir panth and the Sikh tradition (Ralham 60).  In the Dadu-Panth Kabir is held in a revered position and his influence is noted in the Dadu-Panth text (Ralham 60).  In panth traditions the founder is often revered as the real guru, where as in the Dadu-Panth it is Dadu’s book of teachings and hymns, the Dadubani, and the Ram Mantra which receives the most attention (Gold 105). The repeated recitation of the Ram Mantra in considered a form of japa in the Dadu-Panth (Sen 100). Dadu did not initially seek to begin a panth but to expand his own concept of religious life (Gold 93). Dadu prohibited the eating of meat and all violence, but did not prohibit his disciples from marrying or still holding businesses in the world (Shomer and MeLeod 188). His disciples were allowed to pursue their religious life along with their social life within society to create a balance (Shomer and MeLeod 188). Dadu’s poetic aphorisms and devotional hymns were collected by his disciples and arranged in to a 5,000 verse bani (classical Indian music genre) titled the Dadubani (Gold 94). The book is revered as a sacramental object and a hand written copy is the most divine object within the panth (Gold 95).

The main center of the Dadu-Panth is still located in Narayana in Rajasthan where majority of followers in this panth live (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 179). Though the influence has dwindled through time the panth still is quite powerful within the area. The panth still holds some socioreligous roles in Narayana and surrounding area (Shomer and MeLeod 184). The panth has allowed makanvale (house-dwelling monks) to have wives and children unofficially (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 204). This breaks away from the tradition of monastic celibacy, previously seen as favorable within the panth, although it was never strictly upheld (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 204). The temple in Narayana is where Dadu was laid to rest in 1603 CE (Gold 94). Over time this site has been up kept by the lineage of Dadu’s disciples (Gold 95). In the present day an annual festival is held in Narayana on the anniversary of Dadu’s birth which is said to fall on the eighth day of the bright half of Phalgun (Shomer and MeLeod 186). The eighth day of Phalgun, which is the twelfth month in the Hindu calendar, falls in the end of February or beginning of March in the Gregorian calendar (Shomer and MeLeod 187). Though Dadu is not considered to have an important role in the Sikh tradition he is still respected as a great poet in his own right (Duggal 212). There is a story about Guru Gobind Singh in the Sikh tradition commenting on Dadu’s poetry and the Guru bowed his bow in front of a great shrine to Dadu out of respect (Duggal 213).



Duggal, K. S. (1980) the Sikh Gurus: Their Lives and Teachings. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd.

Gold, Daniel (1987) The Lord as Guru: Hindi Sants in the North Indian Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, J. S. and M. Juergensmeyer (trans) (2004) Songs of the Saints of India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heehs, Peter (Eds) (2006) Indian Religions: the Spiritual Traditions of South Asia- An Anthology. New Delhi: Pauls Press.

Kumar, R. and S. Ram (2008) Hindu Saints and Mysticism. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Olson, Carl (2015) Indian Asceticism: power, Violence and Play. New York: Oxford University Press.

Oman, John Campbell (1984) the Mystics, Ascetics and Saints of India: a study of Sadhuism, with an accounts of the Yogis, Sanyasis, Bairagis, and other Strange Hindu Sectarians. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Ralham, O. P. (2004) Great Saints of India Vol. 2: Kabir the Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity. New Delhi: Anmol Publication Pvt. Ltd.

Sen, K. M. (1961) Hinduism. London: Cox and Wyman Ltd.

Shomer, K. and W. H. MeLeod (Eds) (1987) The Sants: Studies in a devotional Tradition of India. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Zelliot, E. and R. Mokashi-Punekar (Eds) (2005) Untouchable Saints: an Indian Phenomenon. New Delhi: Lordson Publishers Pvt. Ltd.


Related topics for further reading


Ram mantra



Grantha Sadha Mahima

Sant parampara


Satguru Kabir Panth




Sikh Tradition


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Brienne Leclaire (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Mahanubhavas

The Mahanubhavas are a Hindu sect whose members are mostly located in Maharashtra. The people who live in this region are known as Maharashtrians and the language they speak is called Marathi. The sect was founded in 1267 by Harapala, who was from Gujarat, a state in the Western part of India. He is otherwise known as Chakradhara, because he began his career as an ascetic in Vidarbha under this name. It is here where he gathered many disciples and moved to Paithan. This would become the headquarters of the sect (Feldhaus 422). Their sacred text is the Sutrapatha, which consists of 1172 sutras and is divided into thirteen sections (Feldhaus 422). This sect has faced many controversies. One controversy concerning the Sutrapatha, is not about what the text entails, but about the language used to write it. It is written in an old form of Marathi and not in the usual Sanskrit language. Therefore, only people educated in this old way of writing are able to understand it.

Chakradhara was the son of a Gujarati royal minister. He became disgusted with his wife and, despite his father’s objections, set out on a pilgrimage (Bakker 88). Chakradharas’ guru was named Govindaprabhu and he is the fourth of the five avatars [For more information on Govindaprabhu refer to Raeside (1976)]. Chakradhara wandered the wilderness as a naked ascetic. During this journey he acquired his first female disciple. This meeting took place in 1266 (Raeside 587).  This Hindu sect did a great job of documenting their history. Two fundamental pieces of writings are the Purvardha and Uttarardha. These texts are written by Chakradhara’s disciples and give a detailed account of his wanderings. Also the texts explain how he is constantly teaching his doctrine and getting many more disciples, the majority of them are women (Raeside 587).  The elaborate account of Cakradharas death is quite striking. He was accused of living immorally with his female disciples, for this he was arrested and had his nose cut off. His enemies were still not satisfied with this punishment. Chakradhara was then arrested again and beheaded. [For more information on these events refer to the rajya karitam, this episode elaborates on the final event and how Chakradhara went north (Raeside 1976)].

The death of a leader has a profound effect on his/her subjects. Nagadeva became a very important figure for the Mahanubhavas and was the obvious choice as the successor because of his close relationship with the founder Chakradhara. He held the sect together and he stated that it was only him who could give initiation and teaching to the new recruits (Raeside 588). A leader is a person who needs to be able to assert his/her authority, take charge of the group and not be questioned by anyone. When the leader loses this authority, he/she also loses respect and members of the group will begin to look elsewhere for a stronger leader. This failure in leadership would happen to Parasaramabasa, who became the leader of the sect around 1390. By this time the sect was growing rapidly. He could not remain in control of the growing society and the result was a split from one unified Hindu sect into thirteen sub-sects (amnayas) (Raeside 588).  By the nineteenth century all of the remaining sects merged into two of the main sub-sects that had survived. The Upadhye and the Kavisvara: the differences between these two sub-sects were minimal. Kavisvara represented orthodoxy, the Upadhye did not, but had proven to be the strongest group, and the reason for the Upadhye being stronger is unknown. Each group only had slightly differing views on points of doctrine and dress details (Raeside 588).

All of the Mahanubhava beliefs and practices were written down shortly after the death of Chakradhara. The most important writings come from the Lila caritra, which was composed by Mhai-Bhatta and the text recorded all of Chakradhara’s life and sayings (Dalal 234). This was an enormous task as Mhai-Bhatta wrote down everything Chakradhara had said and all of his movements too. This was all done by memory and with the help from some of Chakradhara other disciples (Raeside 589). This text was divided into three parts and despite holding the spoken words of Chakradhara, it is not considered the ‘bible’ of the Mahanubhavas. The ‘bible’ name is attached to the Sutrypatha, the text was written by Kesobasa and contains his own recollections of Chakradharas teachings in the form of sutras. Later he decided to add another section which entails all the stories Chakradhara had used to illustrate his teachings (Raeside 589).

In order for the leader of a religion or a religious sect to gain disciples, he needs to have a set of beliefs and values that his admirers will follow. Chakradhara had four everlasting, always independent components of the universe: Jiva, Devata, Prapanca and Paramesvara/Brahma (Raeside 589). The purpose of Jiva is to attain moksha and the Devata is a powerful impediment to Jiva [For more information on Moksha and Jiva refer to Dalal (2010), here the two concepts are elaborated on and used in many different examples]. Despite this connection between the first two components Chakradhara’s teaching was mainly concerned with the relationship between Jiva and Paramesvara, also he refers to the highest deity as Paramesvara (Raeside 591) [For further information on Paramesvara refer to Raeside (1976)]. Other beliefs involved in this sect are the worship of smarana (remembrance) of the five incarnations including their incidents, objects related to their lives and pilgrimages to places connected with them (Dalal 233). The incidents being worshiped refer to important events in people’s lives and they show a great amount of respect to these objects because of how influential the item is.

Physically seeing the founder of a religious sect can have a very strong effect on some disciples. The mere sight of Chakradhara is said to have induced a trance-like state in people (Raeside 561). A trance is referring to a person being in a specific state of mind; they are not asleep nor completely awake, resulting in an inability to function without another person directing them. For women in this Hindu sect, trance is an extremely important part of showing their devotion and loyalty to their God. Female problems are alleviated through trance, if the woman is unable to trance, she sees this as a curse or type of bad karma (Skultans 81). Men do not trance, this is related to the part they play in society. If men are in a trance like state then mentally they would be incapable of performing their job. This is why only women are able to trance (Skultans 88). To other religions, trancing is a serious effect on the mental health of the women. To the Mahanubhava women, the ability to enter a trance proves to them and to their family their devotion to their God. [Skultans (2008) explores the importance of trance and the connection the women feel with their God when they are in this state of mind].

The Mahanubhava have many practices that are accepted by other religions. They have gurus (teachers) and shishya (student), also they have a leader and many texts that explain the sects beliefs and values. However, there are also several parts of the sect that are questioned and looked down upon by other groups that practice Hinduism. What the Mahanubhava face persecution for is their non-acceptance of the caste system and their rejection of using the Sanskrit language (Dalal 233). Because they are part of the Marathi society, they speak and record all of their texts in an old form of the Marathi language. However, when writing poetry the people in this sect adhere to the high tradition of the Sanskrit court poetry [see the Medieval Indian Literature (1997) for more information]. The caste system is a huge part of the Hindu religion, each jatis (caste) is grouped into four varnas (classes): Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, some people believe there is also a fifth caste for the Untouchables. Each caste has its own duties in society and must follow strict rules associated with their certain caste. The Mahanubhava rejected the caste system and allow anyone to join the Hindu sect. For some this was unthinkable; a Brahmin socially interacting with an Untouchable was not an event that happened a lot or at all and some thought of this as absurd. The Mahanubhavas also disregarded the teachings of the Vedas and do not recognize any deities except Krsna (Ranade 28). [For more information on the sects rejection of all deities except Krsna see Ranade (1982)]. The rejection of this system by the Mahanubhava’s founder Chakradhara brought a major change to society. This movement promoted equality among all varnas, instead of punishing the people for being born into a certain caste system.

Statistically thinking because anyone can join the Mahanubhavas Hindu sect regardless of their caste status, it would make sense if the number of members would be relatively high. The sect flourished towards the end of the thirteenth century (Feldhaus 201). However, from a membership estimation in 1901 there are only about 22,000 members and it is extremely hard to determine an accurate number for the past few years because the Mahanubhavas fall under the religion Hinduism, not a separate Hindu sect (Raeside 585). Even though the sect does not seem to have a huge following, the texts written by the disciples have received a huge amount of attention, especially over the past 50 years from Marathi scholars (Raeside 585). This sect feels a great deal of hatred from the Brahmin. They never complained about it until 1907 and it is here the mahantas (Mahanubhava religious leaders) began to defend their sect in court. They would need to present evidence in court to prove the Brahmins slander and the Mahanubhava presented multiple scriptures as evidence against the Brahmins. Some of which dated as far back as the fourteenth century and this was the same time era as the oldest Marathi literature known up to that time so it was a very impressive piece of evidence (Raeside 586). Certain members or groups in society could not accept the admission of all people regardless of their caste status, in spite of this the Mahanubhavas continue to worship their God.

The Mahanubhava is a Hindu sect that was founded by a man who rejected many aspects of the traditional Hindu society. Chakradhara was a powerful leader who taught his disciples his ideas about the universe. He asked his disciples to follow four precepts: non-violence, asceticism, celibacy and bhakti (Dalal 234). [For an in-depth look at Bhakti refer to Dalal (2010)]. Much controversy took place surrounding the founder’s death. He allegedly broke the rule of celibacy, but still the event was documented in great detail. This indicates the importance of recording all acts Chakradhara performed no matter what the outcome was and the negative impact it had on the Mahanubhava. Today the creation of this Hindu sect continues to be seen as a major change in society. Though the impact was located in a relatively small area in northern and eastern Maharashtra, between the old districts of Khandesh and Napur, they are strongest of all in Berar (Raeside 585). There is no question that the sect has produced some of the oldest forms of Marathi writing ever known, and for this reason scholars of the 20th century have become very intrigued with understanding the sect and all of their documentations.



Bakker Hans (1990) The History of Sacred Places in India As Reflected in Traditional    Literature: Papers on Pilgrimage in South Asia. The Netherlands. Leiden: Brill.

Feldhaus, Anne (1996) Images of women in Maharashtrian Literature and Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Feldhaus, Anne (1985) “The Religious System of the Mahanubhava Sect: The Mahanubhava Sutrapatha.” The Journal of Asian Studies P. 422.

Raeside I.M.P (1976) “The Mahanubhavas.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3. P585-600.

Raeside I. (1988) “Investigating Mahanubhava Practice and Beliefs.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 23, No. 3 p. 561-562.

Ranade R.D (1982) Mysticism in Maharashtra: Indian Mysticism. New Delhi: Motilal  Banarsidass Publisher.

Roshen, Dalal (2010) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books India.

Panikar, Ayyappap (1997) Medieval Indian Literature: An Anthology, Volume 2 Surveys and selections; New Delhi: Elegant Printers.

Skultans Vieda (2008) Empathy and Healing: Essays in Medical and Narrative Anthropology. United States: Berghahn Books.
Related topics for further investigation














Caste system






Noteworthy websites related to the Topic

Article written by Heidi Elsley (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its contents.

Hijra Religion

The Hijras are an institutionalized third gender in India. They live mainly in Northern India, with the major Hijra temple located in Gujarat, near Ahmedabad (Nanda 1990:xxii). Hijras are biological men who renounce sexuality and dress and act like women. Some Hijras are born hermaphrodites, or with ambiguous genitalia (Nanda 1990:5), but most Hijras are impotent or infertile men who undergo a sacrificial emasculation procedure called the nirvan operation, which involves the removal of male genitalia (Reddy 2005:56). This ritual emasculation is said to give them the power to bestow fertility to newlyweds and prosperity to newborn children (Reddy 2005:2). The traditional work of a Hijra is to perform at the birth of a child, at weddings, and at temple festivals; a group of Hijras will dance, sing, and bestow blessings in an exaggerated parody of female behavior, for which they receive payment (Nanda 1990:3, Reddy 2005:84).

Hijras practice a pluralistic form of religion: identity formation is related to Hinduism, but many Hijras also identify as Muslim (Reddy 2005:99). Hijras, being neither male nor female, are able to blur gender boundaries within Muslim traditions (Reddy 2005:102). They will sometimes embark on the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Karbala or Mecca or Medina, but unlike Muslim women, they do not need to be accompanied by a male relative (Reddy 2005:103). Muslim Hijras will wear a burqa when not performing (Reddy 2005:104), but are also permitted to wear male clothing upon returning from their pilgrimage (Reddy 2005:105). [see Reddy, 2005 for more information on Muslim Hijras]

Hindu Hijras trace their origins back to the time of the Ramayana (Reddy 2005:9). A common myth that Hijras tell regarding their history is that when Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was exiled from Ayodhya, the entire city followed him to the edge of town to say goodbye. Everyone was in tears when they reached the banks of a river, and Rama asked all the men and women to stop crying for him and to go back to their homes. The Hijras, who are not men and not women, waited for fourteen years on the banks of the river. Upon his return, Rama was so moved by their extreme devotion that he gave them a blessing: he told them they would be kings in the kali yuga (Reddy 2003:189). [A yuga refers to a cosmic period in Hindu Cosmology (Reddy 2003:189)] . It is interesting to note that we are currently in the kali yuga, and that Hijras are entering the political sphere in India (Reddy 2003:164) as somewhat ideal candidates for leadership due to their celibacy and lack of kinship ties (Reddy 2003:182).

Within the Hindu pantheon, Hijras identify primarily with the god Siva (particularly in his ardhanarisvara state, when he is portrayed as half man, half woman), Arjuna, a hero from the Mahabharata epic and incarnation of Visnu, and the goddess Bahuchara Mata (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). In one Hindu creation myth, Siva was appointed to create the world but he took so long that the job was given to another god, Brahma (the Creator). When Siva was finally ready to begin creating the world, he saw that it was already done, and was so angry that he broke off his phallus and threw it into the earth (Nanda 2003:195). Hijras, like Siva, bury their severed penises in the ground, which they believe gives them the power of creation (Reddy 2005:97). By giving up individual fertility, they acquire universal creative power (Reddy 2005:97). Another clear identification for the Hijras is with Arjuna from the Mahabharata epic (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). During the epic Arjuna spends a year in the court of king Virata disguised as a eunuch named Brhannala, dressing like a woman and teaching dance to the women of the court (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). However, worship of Bahuchara Mata (a version of the mother goddess particularly associated with transgendierism and transvestism) is the most important for Hijras. Each Hijra household has a shrine to her and it is in her name that Hijras bestow their blessings of fertility and prosperity (Nanda 1990:24). [See Nanda, 1990, for myths attesting to Bahuchara’s special connection to Hijras]

Hijras engage in two kinds of occupations: badhai work, (singing and dancing at marriages and births) which is seen as a respectful occupation, and kandra work (sex work), a practice which is criticized by senior Hijras but is still the main source of income for roughly half the Hijra population (Reddy2005:15,80). Some Hijras will even take on regular clients as ‘husbands’ (Reddy 2003:165). Reddy suggests that due to their association with sex work and their ambiguous gender identification, Hijras are generally viewed as outside of the social order (Reddy 2003:166). They are seen as besarm (without shame), and people are often afraid to interact with them (Reddy 2003:166). Hijras have the power to bless but they also have the power to curse; if they are not adequately compensated for their services they will threaten to expose their mutilated genitals, a sight which is believed to cause impotence (Nanda 1990:7). For this reason Hijras are socially marginalized, but they are also feared (Nanda 1990:8). Badhai refers to the payments Hijras receive for their services, usually in the form of flour, cane sugar, sweets, cloth, saris or money (Nanda 1990:3). At the birth of male children Hijras will dance, entertain, and bless the child with fertility, prosperity, and long life. They will also examine the genitals of baby boys; if they are ambiguous they will sometimes try to claim the child as one of their own (Nanda 1990:2-5). Hijras will also perform at marriages; the social class of the bride and groom determines how elaborate the performance will be. They will bless the newlywed couple with fertility in the name of the mother goddess (Nanda 1990:5).

In the Hindu tradition chastity and renunciation of sexual activity gives one tapas (inner heat) which is associated with creation (Reddy 2005:96). For men in particular, abstinence or semen-retention is seen as a way to generate tapas (Reddy 2003:175). A Hijra is seen as a kind of sannyasin (renouncer) who has transformed their sexual impotence into procreative power (Nanda 2003: 195). Hijra men are said to receive a call from the Goddess Bahuchara Mata to serve her: those who deny her risk seven cycles of impotent rebirths (Nanda 2003:195). The nirvan operation is a form of rebirth in many ways; and the post-operation rituals mirror post-childbirth rituals (Nanda 2003:195). Only after the nirvan operation are Hijras truly believed to be able to channel the power of Bahuchara Mata (Nanda 2003:195). Although the operation is currently illegal in India, it is still practiced. The operation is a way of gaining respect within Hijra communities (Reddy 2005:93). Sex work is seen as contradictory to the ascetic ideal of sexual renunciation (Nanda 1990:12). The view among Hijras is that the ‘real’ Hijras are the ones who renounce sexuality completely and undergo the nirvan operation as proof of their legitimacy (Reddy 2003:175).

The gender neutrality of the Hijras has captured the imaginations of gender studies scholars worldwide (Reddy 2003:164). They are also beginning to enter the political sphere. They have become increasingly visible worldwide. Many Hijras see this as a fulfillment of Rama’s diving prophecy, and believe this to be the beginning of a new era. [I have included some links to current events articles regarding Hijras and politics, see below]



Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company

Nanda, Serena (1985) “The Hijras of India: Cultural and Individual Dimensions of an Institutionalized Third Gender Role” in Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton eds. Culture, Society, and Sexuality: A Reader, p 237-250. New York: Routledge

Nanda, Serena (2003) “Hijra and Sadhin: Neither Man nor Woman in India” in Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender and Culture. Suzanna LaFont (ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 192-201

Reddy, Gayatri (2005) With Respect to sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. London: University of Chicago Press

Reddy Gayatri (2003)”Men Who Would Be Kings: Celibacy, Emasculation and the Re-Production of Hijras in Contemporary Indian Politics” in Social Research, vol 70 (1), p p163-200

Lal, Vinay (1999) “Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality” in Social Text, No. 61, p119-140: Duke University Press.


Related Readings

Cohen, Lawrence (1995) “The Pleasures of Castration: The Postoperative Status of Hijras,
Jankhas, and Academics” in Paul R. Abrahamson and Steven D. Pinkerton eds. Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Reddy Gayatri (2006) “Bonds of Love: The Desire for Companionate Marriages Among Hijras of India” in Hirsch, J and H. Wardlow eds. Modern Love: Companionate Marriage and the Politics of Love, University of Michigan Press


 Related Research Topics





-Bahuchara Mata



Suggested websites

General information

Current events\

Photos of Hijras



Written by Molly Matheson (April 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Thuggee Cult

The Thuggee Cult is a Hindu sect that is known for its notorious strangulations of travelers in India generally throughout central India (Gordon 404). The Thuggee Cult became more widely known during the 19th century when Sir William Bentinck, along with his chief captain Sir William Sleeman, took vigorous action against the cults during the 1830s. The history of the cult goes back many centuries, yet an exact date of its origins is unclear. What is clear is that the ritual killings were done in honor of the goddess Kali and that the killings were very distinct and highly ritualistic. The members of the Thuggee cult were considered to be hereditary killers; that is Thuggee was thought to be a trait passed down through generations. Sir W. Bentinck’s campaign for the eradication of the Thuggee Cult took measures that tended to be extreme in nature. The campaign all effectively eradicated the Thuggee Cult from existence entirely.

The first recorded arrest of a Thug (also known as thag) was Tipu Sultan in 1799 although at the time it was not known that he was a cult member and that the murder was ritualistic. Although the first arrest was in 1799, there has are records from 13th century of Thuggery, which suggests that the Thuggee Cult has more ancient origins. The Thuggee were a cult of professional roadside stranglers who preyed upon travelers as an act of worship to the goddess Kali; interestingly, they did not strangle any of the English who were in the area. The Thuggee Cult membership was passed down through heredity, yet this passage did not function as other castes do in Hindu society. Members of the cult may come from any region, religion, class or caste. Also, outsiders are welcomed into the cult. They are a coherent group in that they share language, belief in the practice that has many minutely observed rituals, prohibitions and superstitions.

Meadows Taylor’s novel Confessions of a Thug offers an explanation of the divine origins of the cult.

“In the beginning of the world according to the Hindoos, there existed a creating and a destroying power, both emanations from the Supreme Being. These were, as a matter of consequence, at constant enmity with each other, which still continues. The creative power, however, peopled the earth so fast, that the destroyer could not keep pace with him . . . [he] was given permission to resort to every means he could devise to effect his objects. Among others, his consort Devee, Bhowanee, or Kalee . . . assembled a number of her votaries, whom she named Thugs. She instructed them in the art of Thuggee . . . She endowed the Thugs with superior intelligence and cunning, in order that they might decoy human beings to destruction, and sent them abroad into the world, giving them, as the reward of their exertions, the plunder they might obtain from those they put to death; and bidding them to be under no concern for the disposal of the bodies . . . [Eventually] corruptions crept in . . . after destroying a traveler, [they] determined, instead of following the old custom of leaving the body unnoticed, [that they would] watch and see how it was disposed of . . . [Kalee] quickly espied them . . .
‘You have seen me,’ said she, ‘and looked upon a power which no mortal has ever yet beheld without instant destruction; but this I spare you; henceforward, however, I shall no longer protect you as I have done. The bodies of those whom you destroy will no longer be removed by me, and you must take your own measures for their concealment. It will not always be effectual, and will often lead to your detection by earthly powers, and in this will consist your punishment. Your intelligence and cunning still remain to you. I will in future assist you by omens for your guidance; but this my decree will be your curse to the latest period of the world.’
So, saying, she disappeared, and left them to the consequences of their own folly and presumption: but her protection has never been withdrawn.
(Meadows, 28-29)

This story is important in explaining the purpose of the Thugees. As many scholars have postulated, they are not an economically motivated cult. Although, there have been theories stating that the cult was materialistically driven. One of these theories pertains to the early colonization of India by the British. The members of the cult who were apprehended were often soldiers or officials, who had been under the employment of royalty in territories that were made into British states. This theory is, however, fairly problematic as the victims of the crimes were never British. Further, the Thuggees were actually widely integrated into Hindu culture, particularly into agrarian life. Among groups of organized criminals, the Thuggee were the most interwoven into local society. They held a symbiotic relationship within villages and were supported by “zaminidars (landowners), Indian princes, law enforcement officials, merchants and even ordinary farmers” (Roy, 125). Large landholders would allow them to live on their land so long as they received their portion of the Thuggee’s plunderings. They also provided protection to the area, for they did not harm locals nor did they allow other organized criminals into the area. In return for this, the Thuggee cult members were permitted to practice ritualistic killings for their goddess Kali.

This living arrangement would not last for an extended period of time, however. After colonization by the British the state of affairs would drastically change for members of the Thuggee cult. The first mention of a problem between the British and the Thuggee Cult occurred in 1810 (Roy 123) with the Commander-in-Chief’s instructions to Indian soldiers, who belonged to the East India Company’s army, about the dangers of traveling at night, especially with large sums of cash. Dr. Richard Sherwood’s essay for the Madras Literary Gazette in 1816 was the first time that the cult had been officially recognized by the British. However, it was not until 1830 when Captain William Sleeman, under Sir William Bentinck, took measures to eradicate the Thuggee Cult that had become more notorious. This campaign proved to be far more difficult than initially expected due to the elusive nature of the cult.

One of the reasons for this was that Indians were generally neither interested nor willing to give cult members up. To the British those of the upper echelons of society had no interest in condemning the Thuggee because the murders were often to their benefit. There also was a large amount of superstition surrounding the Thuggees. Although it was not unusual for peasantry to discover bodies in fields and wells, they went unreported. Added to this was the fact that members of the cult were often upstanding citizens who were very assiduous about their social and religious obligations. Yet, what was most difficult for the British to detect were the murders themselves. Due to the nature of the murders, there was often little evidence that the murders ever occurred: the victims were murdered by strangulation and buried immediately thereafter (Gordon 415).

Edward Thornton describes the ritualistic killings in his book Illustrations and Practices of the Thugs. The Thuggee members would wait on highways or outside of town in groups of three or four and often with a child of age 10 or so. They would appear as though they had all met there by accident. Then they would learn about any travelers who might be carrying goods and enter into conversation with them. The travelers would then be convinced that the cult members were really fellow travelers who would like to travel along with them for safety. Once the opportunity presented itself they would then throw a silk scarf around the victim’s neck. Two Thugs were generally required to perform the murder. Were one Thug to perform the murder singlehandedly he would be praised for his efforts by other cult members. The noose would become tighter around the victim’s neck as he/she struggled to get free. The body would then be taken to a spot to be buried face-down in a three or four foot grave. The nature of the murders made detection incredibly difficult to uncover (Thornton 7-11).

Adding to all these difficulties was Hindu law, which prohibited the testimony of approvers (one who had participated in the exploits of the gang and thus was fully culpable (Freitag 238)). In an attempt to counteract the difficulties that they were faced with, the Thuggee and Dacoity Department decided to implement Act XXX of 1836. The Act deemed that it was no longer just criminal deeds that would be punishable by law; rather, anyone who was deemed to be a Thug was prosecuted, regardless of whether or not they could be tied to any specific crime. Any person who was convicted of “having belonged to a gang of Thugs, liable to penalty of imprisonment for life” (Roy 33). The law applied retrospectively as well as established special courts for the trial of Thugs, permitting the arrest of not only individuals but also entire family (as Thuggee was passed down hereditarily). In addition the testimony of approvers was also allowed, as there was a major lack of independent witnesses.

Anyone who was identified as a Thug by testimony from an approver was found to be guilty regardless if he/she had been convicted of any single specific crime. The accused did not have the benefit of counsel so they were never cross-examined by prosecution. Upon confessing to being a part of the cult one could have the sentence of hanging or transportation (to a criminal penal colony) reduced to life in prison without appeal. Because of this Thugs were advised by the government to plead guilty to being cult members. There were numerable problems with this method of conviction. One of the problems may very well have been that imprisoned Thugs were now able to be creative in their methods of killing. Accusing one of being a member of the cult could mean having that person hanged by the courts, absolving them of the need to kill him/her it themselves.

Convicting was not the only job of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department, as British citizens they sought to rehabilitate the Thugs. Thugs who had not actually been convicted of a capital crime were the most likely candidates to be selected for the rehabilitation programme. Some were actually sent to work with the British police force while others were settled in colonies where they would engage in manual labor. They were also not allowed to reproduce as this would merely produce a new generation of Thugs. Between the years of 1831 to 1837, 3,266 Thugs were captured by the British, 412 of those were hanged, 483 provided evidence to the state, while the remainder were transported or imprisoned for life (Encyclopædia Britannica).


Dash, Mike (2005) Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult.

Encyclopædia Britannica. (2010)”Thug.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 15 March 2010 <>.

Freitag, Sandria B. (1991)”Crime in the Social Order of Colonial North India.” Modern Asian Studies 25.2: 227-261.

Gordon, Stewart N. (1969)”Scarf and Sword: Thugs, Marauders, and State-formation in the 18th Century Malwa.” The Indian Economic and Social Review 6.4: 403-429.

Roy, Parama. (1996) “Discovering India, Imagining Thuggee.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1: 121-145.

Taylor, Meadows. (1873)Confessions of a Thug. London: Henry S. King & Co.,.

Thornton, Edward. (1851) Illustrations of the History and Practices of the Thugs. London: Nattali and Bond.

Tihanyi, Catherine and Woerkens, Martine van (1995) The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


British colonialism


Indian History



NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES RELATED TO THE TOPIC:,9171,501020729-322673,00.html

Written by Danielle Lenaour (Spring 2010), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hijras

I hope to send “through the thickets of our separateness” the very human voices of individuals who seem, at first glance, very different from most people, exotic, perhaps even bizarre, but who share in our common humanity (Nanda 1999:xxi).

The hijras are a religious community of men who dress and act like women and whose culture centers on the worship of Bahuchara Mata, one of the many versions of the Mother Goddess worshiped throughout India (Nanda 1999:ix). There are many myths, legends, rituals, religious roles and themes in Hinduism which entertain the notion of “sexually ambiguous or dual gender manifestations” (Nanda 1999:20).

A true hijra is born intersex, that is, an individual displaying both male and female sexual characteristics and organs. While being intersex is rare, true hijras are also considered individuals that have had an emasculation operation, referred to as nirvana (cessation of rebirth) by hijras. During this operation, their genitals are removed to “become vehicles of the Mother Goddess’s power” (Nanda 1999:25). The emasculation ritual is considered a rite of passage for hijras as they are reborn from an impotent male into a hijra, an individual endowed with sakti (power).

In India, the emasculation operation is illegal, but it is still performed secretly in spite of potential urological consequences and operative mortality [Master and Santucci (2003) report on a case of male genital self-mutilation in America related to the desire to become a hijra]. A hijra, called a dai ma (midwife), performs the operation. The dai ma has no medical training, but believes that Bahuchara Mata gives them the power to perform the operation. Bahuchara Mata’s blessing is always sought prior to the operation by way of a puja (devotional worship). In addition, positive omens are sought after. For instance, the dai ma breaks a coconut; if it breaks evenly in half, the operation can take place, and if it breaks unevenly, the operation will be postponed (Nanda 1999:27).

The relationship between hijras, emasculation and Bahuchara Mata is told in the following legend of the origin of Bahuchara Mata’s worship.

Bahuchara was a pretty, young maiden in a party of travelers passing through the forest in Gujarat. The party was attacked by thieves, and, fearing that they would outrage her modesty, Bahuchara drew her dagger and cut off her breast, offering it to the outlaws in place of her virtue. This act, and her ensuing death, led to Bahuchara’s deification and the practice of self-mutilation and sexual abstinence by her devotees to secure her favour (Nanda 1999:25).

Hijras also refer to Indian epic literature in order to legitimize their existence and to gain respect in Indian society. From the Ramayana, hijras often allude to the following story.

In the time of the Ramayana, Rama fought with the demon Ravana and went to Sri Lanka to bring his wife, Sita, back to India. Before this, his father commanded Rama to leave Ayodhya [his native city] and go into the forest for 14 years. As he went, the whole city followed him because they loved him so. As Rama came to the banks of the river at the edge of the forest, he turned to the people and said, ‘Ladies and gents, please wipe your tears and go away.’ But those people who were not men and not women did not know what to do. So they stayed there because Rama did not ask them to go. They remained there 14 years and when Rama returned from Lanka he found those people there, all meditating. And so they were blessed by Rama (Nanda 1999:13).

Within the Mahabharata, hijras point to the following story involving Arjuna as the story of their origin.

Yudhisthira, one of the Pandava brothers, is seduced by his enemies into a game of dice in which the stake is that the defeated party should go with his brothers into exile for 12 years and remain incognito for the 13th year. The Pandavas lose and go into exile as required. When the 13th year comes around, Yudhisthira asks Arjuna what disguise he will take up for the 13th year in order to remain undiscovered. Arjuna answers that he will hide himself in the guise of a eunuch and serve the ladies of the court. He describes how he will spend the year, wearing white conch shell bangles, braiding his hair like a woman, dressing in female attire, engaging in menial works in the inner apartments of the queens, and teaching the women of the court singing and dancing (Nanda 1999:30) [See Lal (1999) for more accounts on the mythic dimensions of hijra origin stories].

Just as Arjuna participated in births and weddings as a eunuch (castrated man), hijras fulfill their traditional ritual roles by dancing and singing at auspicious occasions and by “conferring blessings of fertility on newborn males and on newlyweds” (Nanda 1999:5). In the process of conferring blessings in the name of Bahuchara Mata, hijras are able to give what they do not have, that is, “the power of creating new life, of having many sons, and of carrying on the continuity of [the] family line” (Nanda 1999:3). The faith in the powers of the hijras rests on the Hindu belief in sakti (Nanda 1999:5).

In addition to having the power to bless, hijras are also known to have the power to curse. If hijras feel that they have not been compensated (badhai) fully for their performance their audiences may face some extremely outrageous behaviour. The effectiveness of extortion through public shaming by hijras is legendary (Nanda 1999:49) [See Hall (1997) for a discussion on hijras and their use of insults].

As in Indian society, a hierarchical system is also evident in hijra communities. The relationships of gurus (teachers) and chelas (disciples) not only support social and family needs, but economic needs as well. In order to become part of a hijra community, one must be sponsored by a guru and a dand (fee) must be paid. For the most part, hijras live together in a household that is run by a particular guru. They are expected to contribute part or all of their earnings to the household as well as assist with household chores. In return they get a roof over their heads, food, protection from the police, and a place to carry on their business, whether this is performing, begging, or prostitution (Nanda 1999:39).

In addition to hijra households, hijras are also organized into seven houses, which are in essence symbolic descent groups. For each house within a region there is a leader called a naik (chief). These leaders get together in a jamat (meeting of the elders – modeled after the Muslim jamat) when there are new initiations as well as important decisions to be made, such as, “sanctioning hijras who violate community rules” (Nanda 1999:40). One of the most important norms in every hijra commune is honesty with respect to property (Nanda 1999:40) [Bockrath (2003) further explores the code and structure that hijras adhere to].

Considering hijras are unable to reproduce they engage in various patterns of recruitment in order to sustain their lineage. For instance, parents themselves may give a child to the hijras (especially one that is intersex), or upon growing up, individuals themselves may join the hijras, or in rare cases hijras may claim an intersex child as their right [Agrawal (1997) analyzes various recruitment practices of hijras as discussed in colonial literature].

As mentioned above, in addition to performing at auspicious occasions, hijras also earn a living by begging or prostitution [See Reddy (2003) for a discussion regarding hijras rapidly gaining visibility in contemporary Indian politics]. Hijras who earn a living performing at births and weddings are the elite of their community (Nanda 1992:10). Unfortunately the opportunities for these traditional ritual roles are declining, especially in light of the family planning programs the Indian government has been supporting, as such hijras have been required to find other means to support themselves. Hijras commonly view themselves as samnyasins (renouncers) since they have renounced all sexual desire and family life, and as such a second traditional and public occupation of hijras is that of asking for alms either from passersby on the streets or, more commonly, from shopkeepers (Nanda 1999:50).

Prostitution has also become a means of supporting hijras even though it contravenes the cultural ideal of the hijra as a samnyasin and it goes against the wishes of the hijra Mother Goddess, who is herself celibate (Nanda 1999:53). Hijras who are forced into prostitution as a way to earn a living are not only looked down upon by Indian society in general, but by their own hijra community as well. As one of the most marginalized groups in Indian society, “whether as performers or as prostitutes, hijras have effectively adapted to the society that surrounds them” (Nanda 1999:54), and in effect, they have created a place for themselves and will continue to survive as they fight to legitimize their existence and to gain respect [Bakshi (2004) further explores the possibilities and limits of the gendered performances that hijras undertake, including ritualistic and religious aspects].

References and Further Recommended Reading

Agrawal, Anuja (1997) “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender’ in India.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 31, no. 2, 273-297.

Bakshi, Sandeep (2004) “A Comparative Analysis of Hijras and Drag Queens: The Subversive Possibilities and Limits of Parading Effeminacy and Negotiating Masculinity.” Journal of Homosexuality 46, no. 3, 211-223.

Boccia, Maria (1995) “Physical Sex and Psychological Gender: Neither Man nor Woman, The Hijras of India.” Journal of Developing Societies 11, no. 2 (December): 276-278.

Bockrath, Joseph T. (2003) “Bhartia Hijro Ka Dharma: The Code of India’s Hijra.” Legal Studies Forum 27, 83-95.

Cohen, Lawrence (1995) “The Pleasures of Castration: The Postoperative Status of Hijras, Jankhas and Academics.” In Abramson, Paul & Pinkerton, Steven (Eds.), Sexual Nature, Sexual Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hall, Kira (1997) “’Go Suck Your Husband’s Sugarcane!’ Hijras and the Use of Sexual Insult.” Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender & Sexuality 430-460.

Hall, Kira & O’Donovan, Veronica (1996) “Shifting Gender Positions Among Hindi-Speaking Hijras.” In Bergvall, Victoria L., Bing, Janet M. & Freed, Alice F. (Eds.), Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. London: Longman.

Khemka, Anita (2006) “Munna Guru: Portrait of a Eunuch.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 7, 2.

Lal, Vinay (1999) “Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality.” Social Text 61, 17, no. 4, 119-140.

Master, Viraj & Santucci, Richard (2003) “An American Hijra: A Report of a Case of Genital Self-Mutilation to Become India’s ‘Third Sex’.” Urology 62, no. 3 (December): 1121.

Nanda, Serena (1984) “The Hijras of India: A Preliminary Report.” Medicine and Law 3, no. 1 (January): 59-75.

Nanda, Serena (1992) “Third Gender: Hijra Community in India.” Manushi: A Journal About Women and Society 72 (September): 9-16.

Nanda, Serena (1999) Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Toronto: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Ould, Patricia J. (2003) “Passing in India.” The Gay & Lesbian Review (May-June): 27-28.

Reddy, Gayatri (2003) “’Men’ Who Would Be Kings: Celibacy, Emasculation, and the Re-Production of Hijras in Contemporary Indian Politics.” Social Research 70, no. 1, 163-200.

Towle, Evan B. & Morgan, Lynn M. (2002) “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8, no. 4, 469-497.

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Article written by: Brooke Somers (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.