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Pregnant Males, Barren Mothers and Religious Transvestism: Transcending Gender in Bengali Heterodox Lineages

  • Dr. Carola Erika Lorea
Wednesday 26 October 2016
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

In her talk, she aims to discuss one particular aspect of the oral literature and of the practices of some Bengali heterodox lineages, whose path towards liberation includes the necessity to transcend one’s own gender identity. Accomplished practitioners are said to be able to “get pregnant”, while enlightened female practitioners are depicted as sterile mothers. A consistent part of the mental and physical practice (sādhanā) of the male practitioner (sādhaka) is thus dedicated to the exercise of becoming a woman in order to be able to experience divine love (prem). This transformation is achieved through diverse methods: identification in meditative states (āropa), intake of female bodily fluids, cross-dressing and other practices discussed in the oral teachings and in the literature transmitted among unorthodox Vaishnavas, Bauls and Fakirs. 

Several scholars have attempted to interpret from a psychoanalytical perspective similar phenomena of religious transvestism and transgender ideals in Indic and especially Tantric religions (e.g. Kripal). While discussing the inadequacy of the adoption of both mainstream and feminist psychoanalytical theories, she tries to contextualize such practices upon the historical panorama of Bengali anti-patriarchal religious movements. The discussion on the sādhana of reaching beyond the biological boundaries of one’s gender is supported by textual sources, oral sources collected during her field-work conducted in West Bengal, as well as by primary sources in the form of esoteric songs, proverbs and oral teachings transmitted and performed among religious practitioners.

Carola E. Lorea is currently a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden. She was conferred a PhD in Asian languages and cultures at the University of Rome Sapienza in 2015 with a dissertation on the songs of the heterodox Bengali saint-composer Bhaba Pagla and their performative context. She has recently published her first research monograph Folklore, Religion and the Songs of a Bengali Madman: a Journey Between Performance and the Politics of Cultural Representation (Brill 2016), and she has authored several articles on Bengali oral traditions, literary translations of Bengali poets and novelists, as well as a manual for Italian learners of Bengali language.

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