Adina Morguelan Ascher, PhD, LCSWProfessional Psychotherapy Services 
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Comparing and Contrasting Buddhist and Western Conceptionsof Self

Posted on October 12, 2013 at 6:50 PM

Comparing and Contrasting Buddhist and Western Conceptionsof Self

by Adina Morguelan

                It will be helpful to begin with a brief sketch of the Buddhist concept of the self before beginning to compare it with the Western viewpoint.  According to de Silva (1979), “The Buddha denies the existence of any permanent entity” including the self and sees it rather as a “psycho-physical complex” (p. 16). The Buddhist “law of dependent origination shows the conditionality of all physical and mental phenomena” and it follows from this premise that there is no “abiding substance” to be found in either the physical or the mental manifestations (de Silva, p. 16).  Rahula (1959) echoes this account, “According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like self” (p. 39).  Also, the “Buddha denied categorically, in unequivocal terms, in more than one place, the existence of…self, or ego within man or without” (Rahula, p. 57).  Finally, from the Buddhist perspective, “It is the vague feeling ‘I AM’ that creates the idea of self which has no corresponding reality, and to see this truth is to realize Nirvana, which is not very easy” (Rahula, p. 65). 

                Many scholars (e.g., Engler, 1993; Michalon, 2001; Welwood, 2000) assert that the concept of self is central to Western psychoanalytic theory as well as Buddhist psychology, or Abhidhamma.  While both traditions share the common goal of alleviating suffering amongst human beings, the main difference between the two approaches lies in how the self is understood and treated.  On the one hand, for Western psychology, the self is seen as something to be protected and bolstered; achieving a strong sense of egoic identity is seen as an important developmental milestone.  In Buddhism, on the other hand, the self is seen to be the problem; in this view, it is the act of clinging to the idea of a solid and distinct egoic identity that clouds our ability to experience reality as it really is.  

                For example, Engler (1993) writes, “The fact of the self is the central clinical issue in both psychologies.  But the fate of this self is also an issue on which the two psychologies under consideration seem diametrically opposed.  [For Western psychology] the deepest psychopathological problem is the lack of a sense of self…In contrast, from the Buddhist perspective the psychopathological problem is the presence of a self and the feeling of selfhood” (p. 118).  According to Engler, the main therapeutic goal of psychoanalysis is “to ‘regrow’ a basic sense of self” whereas for Buddhism it is to “‘see through’ the illusion or construct of the self” (p.119).  Although the ultimate goals around treatment of the self differ between these traditions, Engler contends that Buddhist psychology and psychoanalytic object relations theory posit similar views on the nature of the self.  For both approaches, “What we take to be our ‘self’ and feel to be so present and real is actually an internalized image…constructed by a selective and imaginative‘remembering’ of past encounters” (Engler, 1993, p. 118).  The tricky part about the self is that we experience it as real and solid even though it is really illusory.  Engler writes, “The sense of self is characterized by a feeling of temporal continuity and sameness over time” (p.118).  

                Likewise, Michalon (2001) writes, “In the West, the self is perceived as an enduring entity…a strong ego is affirmed as a key to success in work, interpersonal relationships, and life in general…ego is strengthened in therapy and low self-esteem is corrected” (p. 207).  In contrast, for Buddhism, “the self is affirmed as a nonenduring entity, a result of ephemeral mental and physical aggregates…an illusion leading to the creation of a sense of false continuity that resists the inevitable impermanence that comes with life” (Michalon, p. 207).  It is this unwillingness to accept the fact of the transient nature of reality that is seen by Buddhism as the root cause of suffering.  Michalon maintains that through sustained practice of Buddhist meditation techniques such as “deep concentration and mindfulness” it is possible to dissolve the boundaries of the separate self and “see deeply into the interconnectedness of a wide range of life experiences” (p. 207).  Despite differences between these traditions in how they treat the self, ultimately Michalon (2001) believes that the “complementarity of the two approaches, when practiced by correctly trained therapists, is gaining greater acceptance in view of their focus on different needs and timing in therapy” (p. 211).  He explains,“Western psychotherapies are expert at addressing intrapsychic conflicts…[whereas] Buddhist psychology address[es] more specifically the cause of our suffering as part of the impermanent nature of our self and its fictional aspects” (Michalon, p. 212). 

                Similarly, Welwood (2000) explains “Western and Eastern psychology do share an importantarea of agreement regarding the nature of the ego identity: they both see it as a construction, fabricated through the power of conditioning” (p. 40).  He goes on to state that, for Buddhism, the self “is the ongoing activity of holding oneself separate, making oneself into something solid and definite, and identifying with this split-off fragment of the experiential field” (Welwood, p. 42). Likewise, for Western psychology, “the conventional self is not something given in the nature of things, but is, rather, a construct…we are trying to establish some kind of sameness from day to day” (Welwood, p.152).  Welwood contends that both Western and Buddhist psychologies see the formation of the sense of self, or ego identity, as a solidifying of impressions that we receive from feedback about ourselves coming from our relationships with others and the outside world.  He states, “In this way we develop an ego identity [and] to form an identity means taking ourselves to be something, based on how others relate to us” (Welwood, p. 106).  

                According to Aronson (2004), Westerners “have oriented ourselves more and more to developing our particular notion of the independent self” (p. 19).  He asserts that we “strive for emotional separateness… [because] to be distinct is to be outstanding” in our culture (Aronson, p. 20).  Drawing on the work of cultural psychologists Richard Shweder and Joan G. Miller, Aronson points out that in the United States, our culture is such that “individuals and their unique preferences matter more than rules of correct behavior or a vision of how the parts of our society relate one with another” (p. 21).  Congruently, Aronson calls attention to the long line of developmental psychologist that have contended “children should grow up to have their own identity and make choices independent of others ’influence” (p. 21).  These culturally embedded attitudes have led most Westerners to highly value and become deeply identified with our independent and extremely individualized selves.  In contrast, for Buddhism, Aronson maintains the self “has no essence or substance that can be found…it does not exist in an ultimate way” (p. 68).  He maintains that, “The various Buddhist schools…all agreed that the mind operates through the conjunction of a variety of functions without a superordinate personal self that has ultimate existence” (Aronson, p. 73).      

                Epstein (1998) asserts along the same lines, “While psychotherapy has a long tradition of encouraging the development of a strong sense of self, Buddhism has an even longer tradition of teaching the value of collapsing that self” (p.xviii).  Epstein (1995) describes how Western psychology has been “preoccupied with…questions of the nature of theself...[and yet] has had trouble providing a satisfactory answer for the problem of the self” because it begins from the premise that the illusory self is a real and solid entity (p. 152).  He also argues that Western “psychology has been suspicious of the wisdom traditions of the world’s great religions because these traditions have preserved a capacity of the self that Western psychology has all but whited out” (Epstein, 1998, p. 85).  Western psychology has viewed “the self as something that has to be developed or improved throughout its one-way journey towards separateness…rather than…as an expanding and contracting, separating and merging organism” (Epstein, 1998, p.85).  In contrast to the Western view of the self, “Buddhism has always made the self’s ability to relax its boundaries the centerpiece of its teachings” (Epstein, 1998, p. xix).  Epstein (1995) proposes that Buddhist practice might help Western psychology better understand the true nature of theself.  He asserts that when Buddhist meditative practices are engaged, “When the powers of concentration and mindfulness are directed onto the actual experience of ‘I,’…what had once seemed very stable suddenly becomes very unstable [and] the reflection that had assumed an independent existence in the psyche is seen for what it always was –a metaphor or mirage” (Epstein, 1995, p. 153). 

                Our inability, especially in Western culture, to recognize the fallacy of our concept of an individual self causes much suffering and could be seen as the root of many of our modern societal problems. Buddhism teaches that “the self is not what we usually think it is and that it has no separate enduring existence as an entity” so that clinging to it cannot provide us with any true security and is ultimately a waste of time and energy (Segall, 2003, p. 98). Consequently, the distinct false self that we create and cling to “separates us from the rest of creation…we believe ourselves to be this free mental thing that stands outside of materiality and causality…[so that] when we wake up to our existential continuity with Being, we realize that when we harm others we are harming ourselves” (Segall, p. 97).  Segall (2003) contends that “Our clinging to a separate, enduring self can become a false refuge from existential anxiety and can impede a genuine awakening to our human condition” (p. 98).  It follows that awakening to the true natureof our relationship with reality leads to the understanding of our interconnectedness with all that is. This realization encourages the development of compassion because it leads to “the understanding that there is no difference between self and other, and that in helping someone else one is helping oneself and all beings” (Segall, p. 101). 

                An integrated Buddhist and Western definition of the self might look somethinglike this: “The emotional and intellectual expression of an experience of otherness in the present” (Twemlow, 2001, p. 13).  Twemlow (2001) asserts that modern Western psychology has begun to arrive at similar conclusions about the nature of the self that echo Buddhist teachings.  He lists the names of several theorists (such as Kirshner, Hegel, Winnicott, Klein, Stern, Hume and Lacan) who have been instrumental in outlining these modern Western psychological perspectives. By way of these theorists, the self has come to be seen as “intersubjective” – “as a verbal construct, rather than a reality in itself” (Twemlow, p. 13).  Furthermore, “the self does not exist until it is interacting and the individual does not exist…until he/she is interacting with the world around” (Tremlow, p. 15).  In elucidating the areas where these Buddhist and Western theories of the self converge and overlap, Tremlow draws attention to the potentialities that may arise from this orientation.  Particularly the emergence of “empathy, especially with those whose values are very different…[and] a less judgmental attitude” (p. 14). 

                If the Western attachment to the idea of a separate and distinct self could be loosened a bit by integrating into our psychological theories a Buddhist understanding of the self as impermanent and illusory then perhaps we could recognize our interconnectedness with Being.  The realization of our lack of solid boundaries and our extreme interconnectedness with all that is might then help us to realize deep compassion towards other living beings and towards the earth itself. This realization has potential for profoundly impacting our experience of and orientation towards the whole of existence.  



1.  Aronson, Harvey B. (2004). Buddhist Practice on WesternGround. Boston, MS: Shambhala Publication, Inc.  

2.  de Silva, Padmasiri. (1979). Basic Features of BuddhistPsychology. In An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology. New York, NY: Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

3.  Engler, John H. (1993). Becoming Somebody and Nobody:Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. In Roger Walsh & Frances Vaughn (Eds.), PathsBeyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision (pp. 118-123). New York, NY: G. P.Putnam’s Sons. 

4.  Epstein, Mark. (1995). Thoughts Without a Thinker. New York,NY: Basic Books. 

5.  Epstein, Mark. (1998). Going to Pieces Without FallingApart. New York, NY: Broadway Books. 

6.  Michalon, Max. (2001). “Selflessness” in the Service of theEgo: Contributions, Limitations and Dangers of Buddhist Psychology for WesternPsychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 55(2), 202-218. 

7.  Rahula, Walpola. (1959). What the Buddha Taught. New York,NY: Grove Press. 

8.  Segall, Seth Robert. (2003). On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist.In Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp.75-108). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

9.  Twemlow, Stuart W. (2001). Training Psychotherapists inAttributes of “Mind” from Zen and Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Part I: CorePrinciples, Emptiness, Impermanence, and Paradox. American Journal ofPsychotherapy, 55(1), 1-21.

10.  Welwood, John. (2000). Toward a Psychology of Awakening:Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation.Boston, MS: Shambhala Publication, Inc.  



Ardhanarisvara: The Divine Androgyne

Posted on October 5, 2013 at 3:40 PM

Ardhanarisvara:  The Divine Androgyne

by Adina Morguelan


Ardhanarisvara is an Indian deity which represents Shiva and Shakti (the male and female aspects of the divine) combined into one image of ultimate reality.  This image of God/the divine/the Self is of particular interest to me because it attempts to unify and balance the seemingly opposing forces of masculine and feminine.  According to the psychological theories of C.G. Jung, the unification and integration of contradictory opposites into a higher level of consciousness is the ultimate goal of the process of development that he termed individuation. Jung expressed this concept in the following, “the self…represents in every respect thesis and antithesis, and at the same time synthesis” (1968, p.19).  The Self can hold one extreme of a dichotomy, and the other extreme, and at the same time the union and blending of these into a new reality.  That the true psychological work of depth psychology stems from this notion of balancing opposites is expressed by Jung when he states, “Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness” (1968, p. 20).  Ardhanarisvara can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the process of integrating the supposedly opposite qualities of male and female into a view of reality that transcends the contradictions that color our everyday experience.  From the perspective of someone who is a woman; a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individual; or simply someone who does not fit into one particular gender category or the other; the symbolic representation of divine androgyny in the depiction of Ardhanarisvara, presents an opportunity to see themselves reflected in a divine principle that does not have to be envisioned as strictly male.  Using the Jungian approach of archetypal amplification, I will examine the following aspects of Ardhanarisvara:

1) Historical origin, context

2) Description of the image

3) Possible symbolic meaning

4) Psychological significance


Historical Origin/Context

Both Shiva and Shakti carry with them a legacy of meaning in their own right.  When they come together in the image of Ardhanarisvara, they bring significance and symbols from their own settings to form a new combination.  For example, as “the third member of the Hindu Trinity…Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Being…that continuously dissolves to recreate in the cyclic process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation of the universe” and he is said to “protect devotees from evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger…grant boons, bestow grace and awaken wisdom (,accessed November 17, 2007). Additionally, Shiva “oftenholds a trident, which represents the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shivaand Vishnu. It is also said to represent the threefold qualities of nature: creation, preservation and destruction” (,accessed November 17, 2007).  In association with Shiva, Shakti is often depicted in the form of Parvati - his consort.  “The earliest term applied to the divine feminine is Shakti.  The word Shakti means power, force, and feminine energy. She represents the fundamental creative instinct underlying the cosmos, and is the energizing force of all divinity, of every being, and every thing.  Shakti is shown in many forms…as Uma or Parvati she is the gentle consort of Shiva…[and] in the form of Durga she rides a tiger, [representing] the ego and arrogance that man must subdue” (,accessed November 17, 2007). 

Ardhanarisvara represents Shiva (the male aspect of the divine) and Shakti (the female aspect of the divine) unified to form one divine image.  According to Goldberg, Ardhanarisvara literally translates “as the ‘lord who is half woman’” (2002, p. 1).  Cassell’s Queer Companion defines Ardhanarisvara as“a form in which the Hindu deity Shivais represented with his right side male and left female, combining the male and female energies” and goes on the explain that “s/he is portrayed as the destroying force, but also the restorer of that which has been destroyed” (1995, p. 17).  Ardhanarisvara is “said to be a form of Shiva the destroyer who has combined with his consort the Goddess Parvati, also known as Durga, Uma, or Kali” and “when they become one it is said that Ardhanarisvara becomes a being of generative and constructive force” (,accessed October 30, 2007).  Ardhanarisvara is said to represent the “inseparability or oneness of the male and the female in cosmic creation” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 55).  

Description of the Image

In her extensive survey of the iconography of Ardhanarisvara, Goldberg (2002) has identified several distinctive features of Ardhanarisvara as the deity is most often depicted.  Though these features appear much of the time, there are variations between time and place in how Ardhanarisvara is shown.  She states, “The right half of the image is male, and the left half of the image is female” (2002, p. 12).  The deity is divided by a vertical partition right down the middle of the body.  According to Goldberg, “dissimilar earrings are one of the most noticeable diagnostic emblems demarcating the dual male and female nature of the deity” and “the deity is figured with either two, four, or three arms” (2002, p. 12-13).  “The central feature of the left/ female half is a woman’s breast that is characteristically round and well developed” (Goldberg,2002, p. 14).  The male half is typically shown holding “a rosary…and trident…and is adorned with snakes,” symbols associated with Shiva, where the female half holds “a mirror…and a lotus flower,” symbols associated with Shakti (Goldberg, 2002, p. 16).  A further difference is found in the coloration of each of the halves where “the Shiva half is described as white or ash color, and the Parvati half is gold or saffron” (Goldberg, 2002, p.22). 


Symbolic Meaning

In regards to the dualistic form of the deity Ardhanarisvara,Goldberg asserts, “as the ineffable void…proceeds from ‘transcendence to materiality’…or from formlessness to form, the dual or composite aspect…becomes ever apparent in his/her concretization of reality” (2002, p. 10).  Similarly, Jung points out, “in the deity, the opposites cancel out.  But as soon as the unconscious begins to manifest itself they split asunder” (1968, p.25).  Hindu deities are often, “depicted with a spouse in…traditional stories.  However, on a deeper philosophical level, the Supreme Being and the Gods are neither male nor female…In popular…Hinduism, God is depicted as male, and God’s energy, or Shakti, is personified as his spouse…This unity is depicted in the…icon of Ardhanarisvara…and in the teaching that Shiva and Shakti are one.” (, found at,accessed October 30, 2007). 

According to Goldberg, “it is instructive to perhaps consider [Ardhanarisvara] as a description of divine reality operating in the human realm” (2002, p.24).  Within the manifest existence of maya (illusion), dualities and seemingly irreconcilable contradictions are the reality of life.  Ardhanarisvara represents a level of consciousness that transcends the dualities of the everyday and is a symbol of what is possible through devotion to a spiritual path.  “The image of Ardhanarisvara, the divine androgyne, does not merely present asynthesis of masculine- and feminine-identified gender traits…but rather attempts…to portray in embodied anthropomorphic terms a fundamental belief in the possibility of personal transcendence, usually understood as the attainment of nondual consciousness” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 87).  Along these lines, “Ultimate reality is conceived as the Divine Unity of Shakti (the Divine Feminine) and Shiva (The Divine Masculine).  They are One, They are All, They are God…After all, the Supreme Divine is neither Female nor Male– rather, it encompasses and transcends all gender distinctions…Ardhanarisvara is, ultimately all about balance” (,accessed October 30, 2007).   Eliade states “the conjunction of opposites represents a transcending of the phenomenal world, abolished of all experience of duality” (quoted in Goldberg, 2002, p. 67).   And, according to Goldberg, “the universe at its divine macrocosmic and human microcosmic levels is perceived as essentially androgynous…the human being, as well as the cosmos, is ultimately identified with Ardhanarisvara” (2002, p.135). 

Psychological Significance

Of the psychological theories of C. G. Jung, Clarke explains, “Wholeness constituted…the goal and purpose of psychic growth, and was central to [Jung’s] conception of the self.  The process of self-transformation whereby this goal is pursued he called individuation, the bringing together of the disparate parts of the self, both conscious and unconscious, into a state of balance or equilibrium, a state of more complete self-realization” (1994, p. 74).  Further, Clarke states that for Jung, “the pursuit of liberation through the transcendence of opposites (ranging from hot/cold, through love/hate and honor/disgrace to good/evil and spirit/matter)…[ran] parallel with his own therapeutic practice” (1994, p.75).  Jung himself explains, “the realization of the opposite hidden in the unconscious…signifies reunion with the unconscious laws of our being, and the purpose of this reunion is the attainment of conscious life…the union of opposites on a higher level of consciousness is not a rational thing, nor is it a matter of will; it is a process of psychic development that expresses itself in symbols” (1938, p. 21).  Elsewhere, in a statement particularly relevant to the current discussion, Jung writes, “from time immemorial, man in his myths has expressed the idea of a male and female coexisting in the samebody” (1958, p. 29).  Clearly, based on Jung’s theoretical suppositions, the unification of opposites such as masculine/feminine plays a key role in psycho-spiritual development and can ultimately lead to a profound shift in an individual’s level of consciousness. 

According to Hopcke, “the goal of the analytic process is the coniunctio, or union of conflicting opposites” (1989, p. 165).   Here coniunctio, a term out of the alchemical framework that Jung incorporated into his theoretical assertions, is the symbolic representation of the ultimate objective of the process of individuation. Edinger states that the coniunctio “is produced by a final union of…opposites, and…it mitigates and rectifies allone-sidedness” (1985, p. 215).  Goldberg, in summarizing the Jungian understanding of the coniunctio, states, “This so-called union of opposites, which forJung is the end goal of all human striving, can be achieved by metaphorically reuniting or transcending such dualist and oppositional pairs as heaven/earth, fire/water, spirit/nature, good/evil, mind/body, light/dark,masculine/feminine, anima/animus, and so on” (2002, p. 115).  “Ardhanarisvara represents an archetype or a paradigm of sacred human knowledge…[the deity] encodes a description for attaining emancipation and representing divinity at the subtle level of metaphysics…providing a diagnostic paradigm for mapping the transformation of human consciousness” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 24).  In other words, Ardhanarisvara is a living symbol directing the way along a path leading towards the experience of coniunctio, or the transcendence of disparate opposites, and the formation of a higher level of consciousness.  Practitioners of the spiritual path in Hinduism attempt “to unify and embody fully the so-called feminine-Shakti and masculine-Shiva poles of their inner nature andsubtle being… [a concept which looks strikingly] similar to the comparative Western notion of coniunctio” (Goldberg, 2002, p. 67). 

Another Western parallel to the divine androgyny of Ardhanarisvarais that of the hieros gamos (sacred marriage).  According to Goldberg, “the anthropomorphic, vertical, two-in-one androgyne used…to categorize Ardhanarisvara coincides with the Greek term hieros gamos, or ‘sacred marriage’”  which “refers to the mythic metaphor of union between deities” (2002, p. 114).  Used by Jung interchangeably with the notion of coniunctio, the hieros gamos is also representative of the union of opposites constituting the final phase(s) of the full realizationof the Self.  Edinger gives the following example, “A major symbolic image for the coniunctio is the marriage and/or sexual intercourse between Sol and Luna or some other personification of the opposites” (1985, p. 217). 

Edinger further elucidates the union of opposites in psychoanalytic depth psychology when he writes of the psychotherapeutic process, “Gradually a new standpoint emerges that allows the opposites to be experienced at the same time” (1985, p.216).  This psychological breakthrough represents an advanced and sophisticated perspective in which two opposing views can both be held as true at once. To be able to view reality from two differing perspectives simultaneously, and then to integrate these into a new and more complete version of reality is the psychological challenge facing human beings.  It is fascinating that this process has been engaged by Hindu spiritual practitioners for thousands of years in the worship of Ardhanarisvara- in the symbolic representation and the actual practice of joining the male and female aspects of the divine into a transcendent reality. 


The importance of a symbolic depiction of a deity containing within it both maleand female qualities is immeasurable to the large segment of human beings (i.e.women; as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals) that do not see themselves reflected in traditional images of the divine.  Within the image of Ardhanarisvara is an affirmation of wholeness, an authentication of the divinity within all human expression. From a Jungian perspective, the unification of opposites inherent in this image is suggestive of a higher truth, approximating more closely ultimate reality, especially in comparison to other symbols which depict the divine as one or another aspect of an oppositional pairing.  Jung states, “If the powers of the left areas real as those of the right, then their union can only produce a third thing that shares the nature of both. Opposites unite in a new energy potential: the ‘third’ that arises out of their union is a figure ‘free from opposites,’ beyond all moral categories” (1958, p. 287).  This comment could be applied to the experience of androgyny, or the embodiment of both male and female characteristics, and could be viewed as a remarkable affirmation of the experience of such an individual as someone who is closer to the divine essence, an embodiment of the transcendent unification of opposites. The idea that androgynous individuals maintain a foot in two worlds, and hence possess a broader view of reality than others, is a notion similar to the Two-Spirit concept in Native-American culture, where androgyny is often revered, and viewed as sacred.  “Many Native-American tribes have three, five, or even seven genders” and, in this context, androgynous individuals “are treated with deference and respect.  It is thought that they are better able to be fair – seeing into the hearts of both males and females” and, as a result, “they are often called on to play the role of mediator” (,accessed November 18, 2007).  Within Native-American culture, as well as in the symbol of divine androgyny represented by Ardhanarisvara, there is a precedent for the application of Jung’s view of the sacred unification of opposites to the concept that this experience can be embodied in a gender-queer individual.  This view turns upside-down the current Western perception that androgynous individuals are afflicted witha psychological illness, and re-envisions this experience as a valid and important chapter in the human struggle to connect with the divine. 


1.,accessed November 18, 2007

2.     Cassell’s Queer Companion. (1995). p. 17.

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4.     Clarke, J. J. (1994). Jung and Eastern Thought. New York: Routledge.

5.     Edinger, E. F. (1985). Anatomy of the Psyche:Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. 

6.     Goldberg, E. (2002). The Lord Who Is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and FeministPerspective. Albany:SUNY Press.

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8.     Hopcke, R. H. (1989). A Guided Tour of the CollectedWorks of C. G. Jung. Boston:Shambhala Publications, Inc.

9.     Jung, C. G. (1983). Alchemical Studies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

10.  Jung,C. G. (1953). Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton:Princeton University Press.

11.  Jung,C. G. (1958). Psychology and Religion: West and East. Princeton:Princeton University Press.

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Exploring an Institutionalized Third Gender Category

Posted on September 24, 2013 at 3:15 PM

Outlining the Social/Cultural/Religious Role(s) of an Institutionalized Third Gender Category:  The Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit and the Indian Hijra/Hijara Traditions

by Adina Morguelan

Queering the Academic Space             

Both queer and gender theory have strong connections to feminist theory.  The pioneering work done by early feminists seeking to rediscover the lost wisdom of women, and rewrite cultural myths and stories to include the contributions of women in instances where these had been disregarded and lost, has paved the way for scholars to engage in a similar process with the hidden legacy of sexual and gender variant individuals.  Queering the academic space refers to this process of recovery, rediscovery, and re-envisioning what was lost, missing, misconstrued, pathologized, and misunderstood by past generations of scholars.  Looking to the past, and to other cultural milieus, for alternatives to the Western understanding of sexual and gender variation has helped to recast contemporary debates about the nature of sex and gender (e.g., the relationship between gender and sexual orientation), and to loosen the insistence on a rigid gender binary common to the West’s conception of sexuality and gender.  It is in this spirit that I have embarked on the present project comparing the Indian Hijra/Hijara tradition with the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit tradition. 

Recovering Our Lost Historical Legacy 

Examples of institutionalized third gender categories have existed in a variety of cultures and throughout history.  The Indian Hijra/Hijara and the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit traditions are two such examples.  Herdt (1993) points to other examples found in Byzantium, the Balkans, Polynesia, and New Guinea.  Scholarly researches on these alternative cultural frameworks for understanding sexuality and gender have traditionally been conducted from a positivist scientific perspective which has tended to objectify the individuals and cultures being studied.  In recent times, greater attention has been paid to respecting the contextual nature of such third gender phenomenon and the research paradigm has shifted to embrace an emic perspective.  Many modern Western gender variant individuals and researchers have looked to reports of alternative sexual and gender paradigms amongst these varied cultural context to validate their personal and research experiences and have begun to question the rigid sexual and gender binary that shapes our perceptions of gender variation in the West.  By comparing our own culture to others so different from our own, we have been able to understand the vast capacity in the human being to accommodate much more flexibility around sexual and gender roles than we typically assume possible in the modern Western world.  This is good news to those individuals invested in helping our society to expand its understanding of human diversity and to learn to accept those individuals who embody difference.     

Comparative Analysis

I have conducted the comparison between the Indian Hijra/Hijara tradition and the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit tradition along seven categories that emerged organically as I reviewed the research literature.  These include: 1) distribution – location in time and space, 2) origin of role/definition of category, 3) recruitment/inclusion criteria, 4) appearance/dress, 5) extent of institutionalization, 6) role of sex/sexuality, and 7) sacred/spiritual role.  Special attention was paid to assuring that these comparison categories are as unbiased and neutral as possible.  Following the comparison by category, I have highlighted some important points of similarity and difference between the two traditions. 

Distribution – Location in Time and Space 

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  The phenomenon of the Berdache or Two-Spirit (terminology will be addressed below) institution was found in many (not all) American Indian societies prior to Euro-American contact (Feinberg, 1996; Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  Conservative estimates by scholars place the distribution of the phenomenon at somewhere around 110 to 150 societies (Nanda, 2000; Sell, 2001; Stryker, 2004).  Common amongst the central plains and prairies, the Southwest, and California, Berdache or Two-Spirit individuals were found for example among the Navajo, Mojave, Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Dakota, Cree, Arapaho, Crow, Omaha, and Pawnee (Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  Due to contact with Western colonizers and their views about sex and gender, and persecution by colonial authorities, the institution of the Berdache disappeared almost completely by the 1930s (Feinberg, 1996; Nanda, 2000).  For example, Herdt (1991) cites the “conflictual match between the cultural ontologies of the Indians and those of the whites” (p. 488).  And, Blackwood (1984) clarifies, “The dominant ideology of Western culture…began to replace traditional Native American gender systems…variations in sexual behavior that had previously been acceptable were now repudiated” (p. 404). 

Hijra/Hijara.  Unlike the traditional Berdache or Two-Spirit role, the institution of the Hijra/Hijara (again more to come on terminology later) continues to remain in existence in contemporary times.  Approximately 50,000 Hijras are found today across India, most live in the north, but groups are found all over (Nanda, 2000).  Hijras typically “live in large communities in North India and Pakistan” (Bakshi, 2004).  They are known to come from all castes and from Hindu, Muslim, and Christians families (Nanda, 2000; Pettis, 2004; Shah, 1961). 

Origin of Role/Definition of Category 

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  The term “Berdache” stems from Arabic origins and actually means male prostitute (Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  According to Thayer (1980), Berdache “is sometimes translated as ‘half man, half woman’” (p. 287).  Berdache “refers to people who partly or completely take on aspects of the other sex and who are classified neither as women nor men, but as genders of their own” (Nanda, 2000, p. 12).  For the purposes of defining the category of Berdache, emphasis is on gender variant roles rather than on transition from one gender to another (Nanda, 2000).  “The Berdache was a figure that straddled two worlds – the world of men and the world of women…in both a symbolic and a social sense, a mediating figure” (Thayer, 1980, p. 289).  Feinberg (1996) reminds us that “‘Berdache’ was a derogatory term European colonizers used…Native people ask that the term ‘Two-Spirit’ be used to replace the offensive colonial word” (p. 21).  The term “Two-Spirit” was coined in 1990 by “urban American Indian gays and lesbians…conveying the spiritual nature of gender variance” (Nanda, 2000, p. 13).  As indicated by Sell (2001), “Two-Spirit” can be seen as an emic alternative.  In the context of this paper, I will use both the historical term Berdache, as well as the modern alternative of Two-Spirit.  I believe that these terms actually refer to two slightly different phenomena, the latter term Two-Spirit having been coined long after contact with Westerners had impacted perceptions of sex and gender in the Native American milieu.  In my view, the term Two-Spirit references a more modern representation of homosexuality in America, although closely related to the historical concept of the Berdache. 

Hijra/Hijara.  Nanda (2000) asserts that multiple sexes and genders are acknowledged in Indian culture.  Hindu origin myths feature androgynous ancestors (e.g. Ardhanari – the Lord who is half woman, and Arjuna – who takes on the disguise of a eunuch in the Mahabharata) and the descent of the Hijras are said to be related to these (Bakshi, 2004; Feinberg, 1996; Lal, 1999; Nanda, 2000; Shah, 1961).  “Hijra” is typically defined as neither man nor woman, and represents a cultural category consisting of individuals born as males who undergo a ritual surgical transformation to become an alternative third sex/gender category (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Shah, 1961).  The terms Hijra, Hijara, and Hijada are used interchangeable in the literature.  According to Shah (1961), a Hijra is “a man who is born impotent and has had his genitals cut off” (p. 1325).  Hijras consider themselves to be ascetics; they renounce sexual desire, abandon family and kinship ties, and depend on alms (religiously inspired charity) (Nanda, 2000).  Nanda (2000) maintains, “Hijras are deficient [impotent] men who receive a call from their goddess…to undergo a sex and gender change, wear their hair long, and dress in women’s clothes” (p. 33). 

Recruitment/Inclusion Criteria 

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  In the Native American context, early interest by children in “implements and activities of the opposite gender” indicated a gender variant individual (Nanda, 2000, p. 15).  Public rituals were performed to confirm a child’s preference for markers of the opposite gender (Blackwood, 1984; Nanda, 2000).  Some female gender variant roles were found amongst the Native American tribes, though not as many as those for men, though they were more common here than in most other cultures (Herdt, 1991; Nanda, 2009).  Female gender variant roles were found in one quarter to one half the societies where male gender variance occurred (Nanda, 2000; Stryker, 2004). 

Hijra/Hijara.  For the Hijras, becoming a member of the cultural category involves voluntary surgical removal of the genitals (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Sell, 2001; Shah, 1961).  Hijras also include intersex individuals (born with ambiguous genitalia) but this is rare (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 2000).  New Hijras first obtain the sponsorship of a guru who takes care of and initiates her into the community (Nanda, 2000).  There are very few examples of the female gender variant role in this context; it is less visible and less widespread compared with men (Nanda, 2000; Sell, 2001).  Although, “females who do not menstruate can become Hijras” (Nanda, 1997, p. 83). 


Berdache/Two-Spirit.  Berdache or Two-Spirit individuals often wore the clothing appropriate to the gender they were adopting (Nanda, 2000).  Although, they were also known to dress in clothing appropriate to both sexes.  Blackwood (1984) states that they “typically acted, sat, dressed, talked like and did the work of the other sex” (p. 29).  Often amassing great wealth due to their social role, these individuals are frequently shown with elaborate adornments on their clothing made of silver and other precious stones. 

Hijra/Hijara.  Similarly, Hijras typically adopt the female gender role in dress, mannerism (walk, gestures, expressions), and kinship terms (sister, aunty) (Lal, 1999; Nanda, 1997, 2000).  Lal (1999) states, “All the hijras dress in…garments common to women in north India, though a few have been observed in men’s clothes as well” (p. 128).  And Shah (1961) clarifies, a Hijra “is a man but behaves in many ways like a woman…wears the usual dress of…women, imitates their gait, speech, gestures, and manners, and adopts a woman’s name” (p. 1326).  Importantly, and in the same way as the Berdache/Two-Spirit, Pettis (2004) insists, “Hijras don’t attempt to ‘pass’ as the opposite sex” (p. 3).  This constitutes the primary reason that both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and the Hijra/Hijara communities have been referred to as constituting a “third gender” category.   

Extent of Institutionalization

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  Berdache or Two-Spirit people were often central rather than marginal in their societies (Nanda, 2000).  They were “in general, socially approved and ‘tolerated’” (Herdt, 1991, p. 48.  And, as Sell (2001) states, they were “always seen as an intrinsic part of the culture, not deviant but an established third-gender category” (p. 20).  Thayer (1980) explains that Berdache or Two-Spirit people “had a clearly recognized status and clearly defined talents” (p. 290).  They fully adopted the role of, and were acknowledged by the community as, women and accordingly married men.  “Sexual relationships between a man and a male gender variant were accepted in most American Indian societies” and generally not negatively sanctioned (Nanda, 2000, p. 1).  Gender variant individuals were able to become economically specialized and often became wealthy due to taking on roles belonging to both men and women (Nanda, 2000; Stryker, 2004).  “Historically, two-spirit people have been well integrated into their tribes, and have often held revered and honored positions within them” (Stryker, 2004, pp. 2-3).  Frequently regarded with ambivalence, they were both revered and regarded with apprehension: “On the one hand…highly regarded and…highly praised, but…also…feared” (Thayer, 1980, p. 290). 

Hijra/Hijara.  The Hijras also have been looked upon with uncertainty by the larger society.  “Hijras are generally regarded with ambivalence; social attitudes include a combination of mockery, fear, respect, contempt, and even compassion” (Nanda, 2000, p. 36).  The Hijra role is marginalized and normative; respected, ridiculed, and feared (Bakshi, 2004).  The “Hijras have a special place in Indian culture and society…an institutionalized alternative gender role of ritual performers” (Nanda, 1997, p. 82).  Hijras perform at marriages and births (usually of a male baby) (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Sell, 2001).  They are said to have special powers over fertility in their role as servants to the Goddess Bahuchara Mata (more to come on this below).  “Under British rule in India the Hijras lost some of their traditional legitimacy;” the British discouraged their customs and made their surgery practice illegal (Nanda, 2000, p. 37).  Emasculation surgery is still not legal in India and the Hijras practice it in secret (Nanda, 2000).  Additionally, they have few political rights due to their designation as neither man nor woman (Bakshi, 2004).  According to Lal (1999), “modernity has been inhospitable to the hijras.  They are increasingly losing their traditional means of livelihood” (p. 133). 

Role of Sex/Sexuality

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  For the Native American community, sexuality was not central to defining the gender status of Berdache or Two-Spirit people (Nanda, 2000).  Nanda (2000) states, “While male and female gender variants most frequently had sexual relations with, or married, persons of the same biological sex as themselves, these relationships were not considered homosexual…partners would be of the same sex but different genders” (p. 17).  And, Herdt (1991) concurs, “The partners of the berdache…are not [considered] ‘homosexual’” (p. 496).  “Native American ideology disassociated sexual behavior from concepts of male and female gender roles…Sexuality itself was not embedded in Native American gender ideology” (Blackwood, 1984, p. 35-6).  This is a key concept, and one that makes the institution of the Berdache or Two-Spirit so important for modern Western scholars in attempting to revision contemporary paradigms which conflate sexuality with gender.  For the American Indian community, this coalescence was simply not the case, demonstrating that the current Western view is one possibility among many and not the only way to envision the relationship between sex and gender.  Berdache or Two-Spirit individuals were typically not anatomically abnormal (Nanda, 2000).  Gender variance was defined more by cultural than biological criteria (Nanda, 2000). 

Hijra/Hijara.  The Hijra role is that of a “defective” male, and is associated with sexual impotence, and the inability to procreate (Nanda, 2000).  Hijras renounce sexual desire and activity to become ascetics; sexual impotence with women, and not sexual relations with men are what defines the Hijras (Bakshi, 2004; Nanda, 1997; Sell, 2001).  “Homoeroticism…is not part of – is indeed contrary to – the cultural identification of the Hijras” (Nanda, 1997, p. 84).  Although, in modern times, as their traditional societal roles have been disappearing, Hijras have been known to have sex with men in a receptive role, frequently as prostitutes (Nanda, 1997, 2000).  This change has had negative consequences on the perception of the Hijras in Indian society: “Knowledge of Hijra prostitution undermines their respect in society” (Nanda, 2000, p. 37). 

Sacred/Spiritual Role

Berdache/Two-Spirit.  Berdache or Two-Spirit people were often associated with Shamanism and spiritual powers (Blackwood, 1984; Feinberg, 1996; Nanda, 2000).  According to Nanda (2000), among the American Indians, gender variants were seen as holy persons.  “In the spiritual realm the berdache were…exceptionally powerful shamans” (Herdt, 1991, p. 49.  It was the mixed aspect (part male, part female) of gender variant status that was seen to be the source of supernatural powers (Nanda, 2000).  They were seen as mediators between worlds; between men and women, and between divine and human (Sell, 2001; Thayer, 1980).  As a result of this special in-between status, Berdache or Two-Spirit people frequently acted as go-betweens in marriage (Nanda, 2000; Thayer, 1980).  Supernatural sanction for the Berdache or Two-Spirit role appeared in visions or dreams (Blackwood, 1984; Nanda, 2000; Stryker, 2004; Thayer, 1980).  These individuals became ritual adepts and curers, and fulfilled special ceremonial functions (Forgey, 1975; Nanda, 2000).  Berdache or Two-Spirit peoples “were said to possess supernatural powers for healing…for naming [and] to have the gift of prophecy” (Thayer, 1980, p. 290).  They “had the right to grant infant boys a second name” which “was believed to have magical power to protect the young child from sickness and to bestow…long life” (Thayer, 1980, p. 290).  Berdache or Two-Spirits were regarded with respect and also with fear.  Herdt (1991) states, “The berdache could heal and also bewitch” (p. 499). 

Hijra/Hijara.  The Hijra/Hijara community is devoted to Bahuchara Mata (the Mother Goddess) (Bakshi, 2004; Feinberg, 1996; Lal, 1999; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Pettis, 2004; Shah, 1961).  According to Bakshi (2004), the Hijras “congregate annually at the Bahuchara Mata shrine” (p. 213).  Their lives are devoted to the service of the Goddess and consequently they are seen to be bearers of fertility blessings.  The castration procedure that the Hijras undergo to become part of the community is believed to lead to the attainment of divine and physical powers (Bakshi, 2004; Lal, 1999).  Pettis (2004) explains, “The emasculation ordeal is thought to confer special powers to the hijras” (p. 2).  The Hijras perform (singing, drumming, chanting) at marriages and births (usually of a male baby) to bestow blessings to increase fertility and prosperity (Bakshi, 2004; Lal, 1999; Nanda, 1997, 2000; Pettis, 2004; Sell, 2001; Shah, 1961).  “The Hijras…are individually impotent but nevertheless are able to confer blessings for fertility on others.  As creative ascetics, Hijras are considered auspicious and powerful, and this underlies their ritual performances at marriages and childbirth” (Nanda, 2000, p. 31).  The Hijras, “while themselves incapable of carrying or seeding children…appear to have some inexorable power over the reproductive process” (Lal, 1999, p. 123).  Like in the Berdache or Two-Spirit tradition, the Hijras are “also feared for their power to curse” (Nanda, 1997, p. 82).  They are “looked upon as sacred and their curse is very much feared” (Shah, 1961, p. 1328).  They can bless newly married couples with fertility, but they can also curse the same with lack of sons.  At the birth of a son, the Hijras will examine the male infant’s genitals to confirm his sex; intersex (hermaphroditic) infants are said to belong to the Hijra society (Nanda, 1997, 2000). 

Similarities and Differences

Many interesting and important similarities exist between the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions in terms of how each custom envisions and configures a third gender role.  Both Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara roles are characterized as neither male, nor female, but in-between or outside of the typical gender categories.  The third gender role of Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara was most common among individuals born as men, who became women, although some exceptions exist in both cases.  Also, in both cases, public ceremonies mark the transition from one gender to another.  In both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions, individuals dress in the clothing appropriate to the opposite gender than that into which they were born.  In both cases, they also take on the characteristics associated with the opposite gender.  Both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara communities were/are largely accepted and integrated into society, and also conferred special status.  In both cases, these individuals were/are revered and feared, integrated and marginal; in general, regarded with ambivalence.  Also, in both cases, contact with modern Western values has resulted in the loss of their traditional place in society.  In the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions, sexuality is not conflated with gender identity.  However, in the Hijra/Hijara role, sexual impotence, and abstinence is an important defining characteristic; whereas for the Berdache/Two-Spirit role, sex (and marriage) between partners of the opposite genders was commonplace. Again, this point is crucial for modern Western scholars pointing to the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara examples in order to challenge the concept of a rigid sex and gender binary.  These traditions illustrate more fluid and flexible containers for conceptualizing sexuality and gender.  Both the Berdache/Two-Spirit and Hijra/Hijara traditions are linked with special spiritual and ritual powers.  These powers are associated in both cases with fertility (marriage, birth).  Also, in both cases, individuals in these traditions claim sanctions from a divine power (although they differ in which divine power – Berdache/Two-Spirit sanctions come from the dream world, whereas Hijra/Hijara sanctions come from Bahuchara Mata) and are seen as powerful, carrying with them the potential to bless and also to curse.  In both cases, these special powers are gleaned by enduring a ritual transformation. 

Some Potential Pitfalls

Cross-Cultural Competency 

In an important article by Towle and Morgan (2006), the authors set out to examine critically “how ‘third gender’ concepts are used in popular American writing by and about transgender people” (p. 666).  This article is interesting and important because it highlights some of the potential dangers in appropriation and decontextualization of third gender phenomena, with the possible results being reductionism and exclusionism.  They state, “Understanding of other cultures is not enhanced by broad, decontextualized transcultural surveys or by accounts that encourage readers to take cultural features out of context” (Towle and Morgan, 2006, p. 668).  Similarly, in an article on cultural ontology and cultural comparison, Herdt (1991) states, “There is a tendency to nominalize cultural constructs as entities beyond the boundaries of a particular culture…The comparative study of sexuality across cultures…is saddled historically with the conundrum of situating entities, objects (roles, institutions), and meanings between universal processes and particular situations” (p. 484).  There is a tension inherent in doing the work of comparison across cultures, and across time periods, between respecting the particularities of a certain cultural circumstance, and making generalizations about what these particular conditions might say about the human capacity for flexibility and accommodation of difference.  The good news is that humans are not bound simply by the prevailing mores of our present times and places, but the danger is that our modern Western lens might obscure the unique manifestations of a culture that is not our own.  Commenting on this tension, Herdt (1991) states, “both universal and particularistic factors are necessary to interpret most cross-cultural studies, with the general proviso that one’s research interest determines which elements, in what combination, are significant for understanding” (p. 485).  When scholars look to alternative gender identity traditions such as the Berdache/Two-Spirit or Hijra/Hijara communities, what we see and how we see it is constrained by our own cultural traditions.  Towle and Morgan assert, “The ‘third gender’ is a uniquely Western concept produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability” (2006, p. 669).  This way of framing or understanding the Berdache/Two-Spirit or Hijra/Hijara traditions may not reflect how individuals within these communities think (or thought) about themselves.  But, there still may be useful fruits to be gleaned from the development of such theories, especially in so far as what these theories reflect back about us.  Herdt warns, “We must not romanticize these Others” (1991, p. 504).  I agree with this sentiment.  If cultural comparison is conducted from a self-reflective and self-aware place of sensitivity and openness, I believe that it can yield important new discoveries, and simultaneously remain responsible. 


In this paper, I have attempted to demonstrate the significance of looking toward other cultural contexts and milieus for examples of gender and sexual identity roles that challenge our modern Western paradigm.  I have looked to the Berdache/Two-Spirit and the Hijra/Hijara traditions as examples of conceptualizations of gender and sexuality that do not conflate sex with gender, and allow for more freedom and flexibility in gender expression than other cultures, particularly the modern West.  I have conducted the comparison between the Indian Hijra/Hijara and the Native American Berdache/Two-Spirit traditions along seven categories, including: 1) distribution – location in time and space, 2) origin of role/definition of category, 3) recruitment/inclusion criteria, 4) appearance/dress, 5) extent of institutionalization, 6) role of sex/sexuality, and 7) sacred/spiritual role.  I have reviewed the similarities and differences between these traditions and also examined some critical analysis of the prevailing understanding in the literature of the third gender category. I hope to have shown that much can be gleaned from such comparative studies, but that it is also important to conduct such scholarship from a responsible and self-reflective stance. Being aware of one’s personal lens is an important step towards contributing to a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of cross-cultural phenomenon than much of the research that has come before. 


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