I am interested in mothers that are fathers, fathers that are mothers, and other forms of queer gestation and parenting. I am thinking of a butch friend whose daughter calls her “Papa” and of “Mapa,” as the adult children in the television show Transparent call their progenitor. I am remembering Pepper LaBeija in Jennie Livingston’s documentary of house culture, Paris is Burning. Speaking of gender and parenting, they say: “I am not a woman, I am a man who impersonates women,” and also, “I am the fiercest mother out of all of them.” I cannot resist the allure of John Water’s frequent collaborator Harris Glenn Milstead’s character, who took the form of a big-hearted foul-mouthed superhumanly strong mother in the film Polyester. Now that’s Divine!
My own mother inspired my earliest inquiries into the gender of divinity. A devout Episcopalian, she was passionate about inclusive liturgical language. Her quest for the feminine face of god led her to study Hebrew and biblical Greek in order to bypass masculinist conventions of translation. This was the 1980s and we were reading Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father alongside Audre Lorde’s response, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” After studying feminist liberation theology in seminary, I helped found “Seminary Lesbians Under Theological Stress” or, the SLUTS. We formed a contingent in the 1991 pride gathering in San Francisco where we marched in lacy bras handing out hot pink stickers to a queer public thrilled by our mash up of naughty sex and illicit religion. The stickers read: “The goddess loves you. xo The SLUTS.” Now, that, too, was divine!
An encounter with a South Indian goddess opened me up to the question of the divinity of gender. To play on Mary Daly’s provocation, how might we go beyond the divination of binary gender described by divine fatherhood and divine motherhood? The devi, or goddess, Yellamma, whose cult and whose women in Karnataka, South India I have been studying for twenty years, is an autochthonous goddess with a mustache. When asked what that is on her face, her priests (pujaris) respond matter-of-factly and without hesitation: “a mustache.” When I further inquire why she has a mustache, they say, “She is strong, like a man.” In her unmarried form she is a “fierce” and “hot” goddess understood to play a role in the regeneration of the cosmos and the production of sovereignty.
Transformations in gender and sexuality are a mode and medium of the Devi’s power. She plays with people, her devotes told me over and over again, especially those she desires and calls to serve her. Her priests are female and male sexed women whose initiations are conducted as a rite of marriage. They are called jogatis and jogappas, or devadasis, and they call this goddess their husband and mother. As one priest put it to me, “Yellamma is not simple, she makes men into women.” Saying “she came to me in a dream and called me to her temple,” women withdraw from sexual relations with their husbands and leave untenable marriages. They take the path of divine service out of gendered kin obligations, which are otherwise extremely difficult to escape in this rural context, where endogamous relations remain the most powerful arbiter of social belonging. Other women exchange saris for dhotis and turbans, renounce the kin obligations conventionally assigned to women, and take up men’s work in Yellamma’s name. Called ganda udigi (literally, dressed as a man), such masculine women are said to embody the god Shiva. One woman described how her mother-in-law came to put aside her sari and begin to wear pants and a shirt,
The Devi gave her lots of trouble. First she had four children and then the Devi said ‘I will take you from your family life (janma). I need you.’ She left home and began living alone and the Devi made her wear white clothes and bells (geje). Yellamma is so powerful she gave her a different manifestation (rupa).
At Yellamma’s festivals, jogappas—male sexed women in whom the goddess is very strong—wrap saris, conduct the rites and give blessings, play sacred instruments, dance, and sing in her name. Typically, they travel together and live in groups headed by a guru or teacher they call amma (mother). The loss of a conventional family life and a change in bodily manifestation is a sign of the Devi’s trouble, her desire, and her power.
The goddess Yellamma is herself the product of a radical bodily transformation. In her origin story, as narrated by the male and female sexed women who wander in her name, she begins as a chaste and dutiful wife and ends as a fierce independent Goddess. She was married to a great sage, Jamadagni, and was so pure that she was able to perform miracles. Forming a pot from loose sand on the bank of the river and coiling a cobra into a pot rest, each day Yellamma brought water to Jamadagni for his morning puja,or worship. One day as she was walking, balancing this pot on her head, she saw a king and queen playing in the river. Distracted by pleasure, she lost her concentration, the pot dissolved, and the snake slipped away. When she returned home, Jamadagni immediately recognized that she had strayed from chastity. He became very angry and ordered their three sons to cut off her head. The two eldest refused and were cursed with impotency by their father for this failure of loyalty to him. Jogappas trace their origin to these maternally identified sons. The youngest son, by contrast, followed his father’s orders, dutifully swung an axe and cut off his mother’s head. His father was so pleased with him that he granted him a boon and Parashurama asked for his mother to be restored.
Many versions of this origin story incorporate another element. In this version, Parashurama chases after his mother, who is running away from his axe. When he catches up to her, he swings the axe so vigorously that he inadvertently also cuts off the head of an outcaste woman walking by. When Jamadagni grants his son’s boon, he tells Parashurama to reattach his mother’s head in order to restore her. In his haste, Parashurama reverses the heads, making Yellamma a goddess with the head of an outcaste and the body of a Brahmin. Yellamma thus embodies a reversal of the Varna order of caste, and her sexuality manifests itself as an uncontained and abundant fertility. This is the goddess in her aroused state, tempted by pleasure, cut down by matricide, disrupting orders of caste and gender, and reborn in a dangerous and powerful form. She manifests the divination of outraged womanhood.
Yellamma takes hold of the bodies of those she chooses to represent her—provoking changes in gendered comportment, sexual disposition, and domestic arrangements. In the terms my interlocutors offered: “This is the power of Yellamma, which no one has yet understood, this is her play, her trouble.” This framing of the power of the devi as a form of play that takes gender as its object brings the ludic dimension of gender forward. In this context, gender is not just dharma (duty), karma (ethical fate), or kama (lust, pleasure), but also lila (the play of the gods). Lila translates from Sanskrit as “sport” or “play.” As a concept, lila encodes the Hindu elaboration of the idea that the dramas of human life and regeneration of the world are—for the gods—territories of creativity and self-amusement.
What does gender as lila bring to these notes on divine motherhood? Lifting up divine motherhood centers female and feminine powers. It also undermines the monopoly paternity has all too often held over the sacred and the divine. As an autochthonous goddess with a mustache, Yellamma exceeds the binary logic generating two discrete positions: motherhood or fatherhood. To frame gender trouble as the play of the gods is to open up other possibilities for divinity.
Within the field of sexuality studies, transitions and transformations in gender and sexuality disrupt the naturalization and universalization of sex as binary and heterosexuality as compulsory. How might they be made to speak in the house of religion? Sequestered within binary logics divinity straightens gender and sacralizes what Judith Butler has called the heterosexual matrix. However, if we consider gender trouble as a form of divine play, we admit the possibility of the queer function of religious forms and practices. If all the gods are either mothers or fathers, divinity is working to straighten gender. But if we take lila as a lens, we might also glimpse the ways divinity can proliferate other possibilities of gendered and sexual being and doing. How divine!