Shobha Nehru - a eunuch who became a figure in Hisar, India, politics - was born of an upper-class Hindu family, was raised as a girl, but was born a eunuch. Because eunuchs are shut out by Hinduism’s strict caste system, she adopted Islam but took the last name of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharial Nehru. In Jonathan Karp’s front-page account of her story (The Wall Street Journal, 24 September 1998), eunuchs in India are described as being
- a subculture of sexual outcasts who rank lower in India than the untouchables. They are notorious for crashing weddings, singing raunchy songs and dancing until paid to leave. . . . .” I used to entertain people by dancing,” says Ms. Nehru, whose husky voice contrasts with her attire, a delicately draped sari in the colors of the Indian flag - saffron, white and green. “Now I entertain them by doing good, humanitarian deeds.”
As a politician in the southern city of Bangalore and then in the State of Haryana, Nehru performs only when invited and bestows blessings rather than curses. In one squatter colony, she has successfully helped lobby for water supply and better roads, winning a 1995 election and working to improve civic amenities and reduce crime as well as police abuse. She would like to run for Parliament.
Another eunuch ran unsuccessfully in 1996 under the slogan, “You don’t need genitals for politics. You need brains.” According to Karp, born eunuchs are the élite among India’s hijras, an Urdu word for “impotent ones.” Considering themselves neither men nor women, hijras generally adopt feminine names and dress. They may have been born
- with deformed genitalia; a small fraction are hermaphrodites, and others are homosexual cross-dressers. Some males undergo castration to be accepted in the community. Eunuchs deny longstanding allegations that they kidnap and castrate boys to keep their secret society alive, though over the years there have been a number of documented cases of adolescent boys being forcibly mutilated sexually.
Ancient sacred Hindu texts contain references to “the third sex” and descriptions of impotent men who danced and cast spells. The Hindu epic Ramayana tells of the god-king Ram who was banished to the forest where he urged all men and women followers to go home. Being neither, the eunuchs waited fourteen years for his return and were blessed for their devotion. Scholars have said, however, that the episode does not appear in the most widely accepted Ramayana texts. Estimates vary as to how many hijras India has, somewhere between 50,000 and 1.2 million. Karp has stated that they are more commonly ridiculed or reviled than revered today and often are consigned to a life of begging. In Bombay they are known to ask commuters for money or be flashed. “Many Indians believe eunuchs have occult powers,” Karp found, “so they pay.”
God in his mercy, according to the Bible, does not allow eunuchs or those who have had their “stones crushed” (i.e., their testicles smashed) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. A male eunuch is a castrated human male, one who can get an erection but who cannot ejaculate a bodily fluid. Eunuchs were used as harem chamberlains in Asia, and they have been employed as servants in wealthy or royal households, as during the court of Constantinople under the Byzantine emperors, from whom the Ottoman sultans adopted the practice.
However, the 2nd century Bishop of Sardis, Melito, in a letter of Polycrates of Ephesus to Pope Victor I written in about 194, mentioned by Eusebius, (H.E. 5.24) states that "Melito the eunuch" was interred at Sardis. Whether Melito made it to Heaven is not known.
Narses, a Byzantine general, is one of the most famous early eunuchs. Carlo Broschi Farinelli is one of the better known of recent times. Moslems were not noted for using eunuchs, although the sale of young males to be eunuchs was once an important element in African trade.
Shakespeare, who used eunuchs in Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night, knew of the Vatican’s castrati. The Shakespearean acting companies used castrati to play women’s roles and who, as explained by Steven Orgel in Impersonations: a The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (1997), enabled the introduction of overt sexuality, simultaneously heterosexual and homosexual, into the world of ecclesiastical celibacy.
The Papal choir used castrati until the beginning of the 19th century. Inasmuch as the Church did not permit females to sing in the churches, it was necessary to “manufacture” male sopranos. Pope Leo XIII finally issued orders to “get rid of them.” Meanwhile, Leo XIII found the scandal in theatre-life (not churches) in various parts of Italy (not Rome) and indignantly suppressed it. According to Joseph McCabe, “It was one of the most notorious facts in Roman ecclesiastical life and was found in many other Italian churches, until the Pope’s secular authority over Rome was ended in 1870.” The custom of using eunuchs in choirs spread from Constantinople, and in the 18th century the male heroes’ roles were sung by castrati. Bishop Liutprand of the tenth century tells in his Antapodosis that Christians - he means Christians in monasteries - used to collect Christian boys, castrate and rear them, and sell them as harem-eunuchs to the Moslems.
As late as the 17th century, Jews were castrated and the mutilation publicly exhibited in Rome, for intercourse with Christian prostitutes.
In 1996, ninety-four-year-old San Yaoting, allegedly the Chinese emperor’s last eunuch, died in Beijing. As a young boy, he was emasculated in a crude operation arranged by his family, who hoped for money. He then became the emperor’s eunuch, a person trusted to enter the inner courtyards of the palace where the women of the imperial family and harem lived. The operation to remove what was called his “three precious” was performed using only hot chili sauce as a local anesthetic.
In 1997, a bizarre cult known as The Heaven’s Gate and led by Marshall Herff Applewhite, the sixty-six-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister, believed that the Hale-Bopp Comet was, actually, related to Biblical predictions. Its thirty-nine members committed suicide together, believing the “Higher Source” was about to recycle the Earth and the only hope for survival was to pass through death at the right time and be beamed up by an inter-galactic UFO piloted by the late Ms. Bonnie Nettles for a journey back “home.” One-third of the men had been castrated, in keeping with Matthew 19:12 and St. Paul’s invitation for his detractors to “ . . . I would that they go and castrate themselves” (Galatians 5:12). Like traditional Christian monks and nuns, the cult’s members were supposed to be completely celibate.
Dr. Richard Wassersug, when diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998, found that surgery and radiation had not helped and he took hormonal therapy which deprived the cancer cells of androgen - in effect, castrating him. In researching the subject, he found that the eunuchs of antiquity were models for our depiction of angels, that God is thought to surround himself with angels as advisers and emissaries, who re identical in appearance to males castrated before puberty: tall, beardless, nonsexual beings with voices like the legendary castrati. He has come to accept the reality that he still has a beard and sings. "Angels may be omnipotent, but they undertake just one task at a time. According to the Talmud, they are not permitted to attempt more. Biblical angels blessed, cursed, relayed messages, and even killed, but they were never on two missions at one. It seems that thousands of years ago it was already recognized that androgen deprivation makes multitasking difficult - but doesn't prevent one from accomplishing a single task well. This realization has helped me maintain a busy, productive academic life."
Freethinkers find the subject of willful castration by religionists intriguing but inhumanistic.