– Aarti Kapur Singh
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Genre: Literature & Fiction, Religion & Spirituality.
Publisher: Zubaan/Penguin Books
Patriarchy asserts men are superior to women
Feminism clarifies women and men are equal
Queerness questions what constitutes male and female
There is so much to Indian Mythology that remains hidden. There is so much which no one speaks of. Of hidden desires (maybe), of stories that somehow do not surface, because we are too civilized for our own good. Queerness isn’t only modern, Western or sexual, says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, who compiles many overlooked tales from the vast written and oral traditions of Hinduism to help us analyse that Indian mythology was never ashamed of its sexual orientation and expression.
Devdutt tries to uncover stories in mythology about men and women, about gender bender, about situations where roles were reversed for good reason and sometimes for no reason at all. The story of Shikhandi which opens the collection is well known. Born as a girl but raised as a son, Shikhandi was Amba in her/his previous life. Amba sought revenge against Bhishma who abducted her and her sisters from their swayamvara for his brother. She was reborn as Dhrupada’s daughter Shikhandi, who was used to defeat Bhishma in the battle of Mahabharata. But what was Shikhandi‘s life like? A man trapped in a woman’s body, Shikhandi was married off to a princess who ran away when she discovered that her husband was a woman. To bring her back and save his father’s kingdom from being attacked by his father-in-law’s army, he took the help of ayaksha named Sthuna who lent Shikhandi his manhood. Shikhandi, the author says, would be called a female to male transsexual whose body is genitally changed. However, tellers of this tale have preferred to portray him as a eunuch or a man who feels like a woman indicating ‘a patriarchal bias even in the queer space’.
Discussing one’s sexuality was never taboo; in fact, in several myths that are part of the great epics, men turn into women and women seek sexual encounters with men who are not their husbands without heartburn or fear of being ostracised – proving that ancient civilizations did not consider sex taboo. Over time, communities found it necessary to protect their identity by setting down rules and marking out acts of taboo, patriarchal systems gained prominence and religious codes came into practice. As a result, gender and caste biases and puritanism crept into the stories. They acquired a didactic tone to gain religious sanction and approval from those in power. Storytellers took on, or maybe they were forced to do so, the burden of preaching and teaching values, behavioural attitudes and morality. Thus we have a story in which a queen prefers the company of women but Arjuna is so enamoured by her that he forces himself into her bed in the form of a serpent. While it may have been entirely acceptable for women to be sexual partners, as patriarchal systems came into place, there was growing discomfort with such an attitude which, perhaps, prompted some enterprising storyteller to embed a man into an all-women world. Several tales in the book illustrate this – from Mahadeva, who became a woman to deliver his devotee’s child; Chudala, who became a man to enlighten her husband; Samavan, who became the wife of his male friend; Narada who forgot that he was a man; Indra who took the form of a Brahmin to make love to his wife when he was away; Krishna who cross-dresses in time of war and peace for various reasons to more Gods and Demons and Kings and Queens who are not rigid about sexuality and gender, “Shikhandi” is a work that transcends orientation and gender and has many more playful, touching, and sometimes stirring stories that reveal the unique Indian way of making sense of queerness.
My favourite is the tale of hermit-warriors Nara and Narayana had grown all powerful. Stories about their valour had spread far and wide. Riding on a single chariot, the duo made for a fearsome couple; they vanquished asuras with ease and conducted the most severe penance that had even the gods shaking with fear. The two were close friends – in some texts, they are guru and shishya and in others, they share a more equal relationship – and had sworn to a lifetime of celibacy. The king of gods, Indra, was worried. He feared their growing strength and their asceticism as much as he abhorred their celibate status. So he sent an army of apsaras to break their penance and seduce them. Nara saw the apsaras approaching and turned to Narayana who drew a beautiful woman on his thigh using the stalk of a mango leaf. Anapsara emerged from the thigh (uru in Sanskrit) and thus Urvashi was born; without a mother and with two fathers. Urvashi went on to become one of Indra’s favourite apsaras, while Arjuna and Krishna were believed to be avatars of Nara and Narayana. This story is part of the Bhagvata Purana, but if we were to place Nara and Narayana within a contemporary narrative, how would we categorise them? As parents of Urvashi, who would be the mother and who the father? Would they be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender(LGBT) community? Or would they be part of an ascetic cult where men can make babies? Depending on how you answer these questions, you define your approach to an issue that has vexed many: how accepting or tolerant was ancient Indian society of the LGBT community?
This book does a great job putting across a collection of stories that capture the essence of ancient Indian society’s approach to sexual behaviour. And apart from all things else, it establishes that Indian society was not coy about sexual attitudes. This book is a must-have.