Between the goddess and the world : religion and ethics among Thirunangai transwomen in Chennai, India




Aniruddhan Vasudevan

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This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the place of goddess Angalamman in the Thirunangai transfeminine lifeworld in the city of Chennai in southern India. It offers a detailed account of two interrelated aspects of the Thirunangai-Goddess attachment: the role Angalamman plays in anchoring transfeminine identity and the ethical entailments this intimate connection to a deity has for thirunangais. The intertwined poetics of identity and ethical relationality is the focus of this dissertation. It argues that thirunangais’ attachment to goddess Angalamman goes far beyond offering “sacred legitimization” to transfeminine identity; their connection to the goddess is a significant locus of ethical life for thirunangais. My research focuses on the lives of those thirunangais who express an intense connection to goddess Angalamman, and it demonstrates that this connection comes to have a bearing on ethical questions: how to show up for others, how to care, what are desirable ways to act, how to respond to injustice, and more. Through an analysis of thirunangai accounts of their first encounters with the goddess, I show how this connection to Angalamman is not a matter of private spirituality for thirunangais, but one firmly grounded in the recognition, validation, and wellbeing of the immediate world around them. Thirunangais claim a specialness to their connection to Angalamman; they do so both by reading thirunangai identity as shaped by the goddess and by reading the goddess as a transgender deity. They also address questions of sex, sex work, and sexual morality in reltation to a life devoted to the goddess. In addition to offering detailed accounts of such complex articulations of selfhood and morality, this dissertation also presents an ethnographic account of anger as an embodied ethical emotion in thirunangai life. Thirunangais do not highlight the sacred-spiritual aspects of their lives in their activism for rights. They have articulated thirunangai identity as a broadly secular social and political identity. But in the context of everyday lives for many thirunangais, devotional practices are important sites of collective ethical life, purpose, and belonging. By taking the Thirunangai-Angalamman attachment as its focus, this dissertation brings into view considerations other than identity, community, and juridicality that also matter to thirunangais-- relationships other than the ones premised on identity; forms of sociality that overflow the bounds of identity-based community; and ideas of morality that derive not only from transgender identity but also from other conceptions of self



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