Who: BUDH or BUDHA
What: Hindu god of Mercury
Skin color: Kind of greenish
Affiliation: One of the Devas, sky beings who came to be worshipped as gods and goddesses
Main enemy: Asuras, spirit beings of the earth who opposed the Devas and came to be considered demons
Trusty steed: A creature part elephant, part lion, called a yali
Parents: Tara, goddess of the stars, and … well, we’ll get to that.
I won’t sugar-coat it: Budh had problems. But who is he, really, and what’s meant by third gender?
Perhaps it’s best to skip lightly over modern politics and recede instead into the mists of legend, back to a time when the Devas, worshipped as gods of the sky, battled against the Asuras, reviled as demons from deep in the earth.
Devas lived in a sky paradise called Amravati, a place supposed to be without pain and suffering. Yet the Devas did suffer, because they brought it on themselves with their pride and coldness, their selfishness, passions, and infidelities. Because even the gods can’t have it all their own way.
To keep their power strong enough to stand against the Asuras, the rituals and sacrifices of yagna were required. Among the Devas, Brihaspati, god of Jupiter, guru of the gods, was responsible for yagna. He had a wife named Tara, goddess of the stars, who looked at her husband and felt dead inside. But she wasn’t dead, and when his disciple Chandra, radiant god of the moon, looked at her, she felt the passions of love stir again.
She was swept away to Chandralok, land of the moon, where she lived in happiness with her lover. Yet Brihaspati wanted her back and wouldn’t be refused. He fought for her, but in the end, he petitioned Indra (or Brahma, depending on the version) to force Tara to return before he would consent to resume yagna.
Indra looked with pity on Tara, shining like a star in the arms of Chandra, but he was very practical: The Devas needed the rituals to be completed, or they would lose their strength, and the world would suffer drought and desolation. The happiness of one must be sacrificed for the good of many.
So she went back to Brihaspati, but it was very obvious she was pregnant. No one knew which was the father, and Tara refused to tell. She kept her silence until the child himself compelled her to truth: He must know his origins. They acknowledged him as a truth seeker and named him Budh, and she told him he was the son of the moon, Chandra.
Brihaspati was furious and shamed by this constant reminder of his wife’s infidelity. But he revenged himself upon the innocent child: It would be cursed to be neither male nor female.
The Devas were shocked. Indra informed Brihaspati that, regardless of who sowed the seed, he owned the field (his wife), so what grew from it (the child) would be his. The Mahabharata version depicts not a dishonoured wife bent by censure, but a husband held accountable for the well-being of those in his household.
The little one was beautiful but in some ways uncertain of his place and destiny. He was a curious mixture of the qualities of his parents, biological and adopted.
Neither he nor she, Budh grew up in the shelter of Tara’s love, but he wondered if he would ever have a normal life. Would he be able to share the tenderness found between a man and a woman? Have children to play around him in the long years of life?
Tara assured him he would, but still he wondered: Would this special person she seemed so certain of be a husband or a wife? Then one day he saw a woman in the forest and fell in love: Ila.
Ila had received a different sort of curse. If Budh was neither man nor woman, Ila was both by turns. This child of Manu had been the victim of a thoughtless Deva spell that turned everything in a particular forest into females.
In the end, Ila would be a man during the waxing of the moon and a woman when it waned. And so they would balance one another, both feeling the pull of the moon in their inmost being — Budh by the blood of Chandra that flowed in him, Ila as her very being flowed with its tide-pulls of change.
They had a long life together, filled with many children who became known as the Chandravamsis (Chandravamshis). Their eldest son was Pururavas, who loved the water nymph Urvashi and became ancestor of the Kauravas and Pandavas, who battled each other.
Sometimes Budh is written of simply as a regular god, without this gender liminality. Sometimes Ila’s story is told as an intentional maneuver on the part of the Devas to bring the Lunar Dynasty into being — a counterbalance to the Solar Surya Dynasty, the joining of which is the creation of Bharat. But that’s another story … perhaps even the story of India itself, as the sharp edges of the history of the joining of many peoples is blunted by the mists of time.
Hindu sacred literature has more examples of gender ambiguity, androgyny, or hermaphroditism than you’d think.
I'm probably missing some, but it's this last example that India’s hijras celebrate in their own religious rites.
But I digress. Neither Budh nor Ila are precisely hijras. They do, however, serve as great examples of that broader category, the third gender, which is now a legally recognised gender category in India.