Hindu Mythology and the Forgotten Queer Characters

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The queer movement in India has sparked nationwide debates all over the country. The battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has been won, however the war against the heteronormative structure of the society still continues. The Hindu mythology is a proof that alternative sexual orientation did find a place in the society. This article discusses the portrayal of queer characters in Hindu mythology which is often sidelined in popular culture and religious discourse.

The stories of gender-bending and venturing into alternative sexual orientations are a part of Hindu mythology. However, the modern retelling of the ancient texts glorifies masculinity, hence it’s very easy to hear the triumphant tales of Shiva and how his rage is cataclysmic. But it’s very rare to hear tales of Ardhanarishvara i.e. a form of coming together of Shiva and Parvati, which represents both masculine and feminine features. The form of Ardhanarishava signifies ‘totality that lies beyond duality’ which means that God is beyond all the classification between male and female.[1]

Mohini, an unusual avatar of Lord Vishnu, was considered to possess unnatural beauty and was successful in luring the gods, who were enchanted and stupefied by her beauty. Mohini had first appeared during the Samudra Manthan, she played a pivotal role in acquiring amrita, a nectar for immortality, from the asuras by luring them by her enchanting beauty. Shiva had been told about Mohini through Narada Muni and was intrigued by her stories. He visited Vishnu himself and pleaded him to appear as Mohini. When Vishnu appeared as Mohini, Shiva was completely bowled over by her beauty and subsequently they engaged in an intercourse, which even gave birth to Ayyapa (famous god in the Malayalee folklore). Ayappa has been said to have born out of Vishnu’s thigh as Mohini didn’t have a real womb. Ayappa is still a revered god in South India and is worshipped by masses. Why is it so common to hear stories of Shiva-Parvati and their wonderful union but not Mohini and Shiva? There are certain scholars who advocate that Shiva and Vishnu didn’t directly engage in sexual intercourse, because he had reincarnated himself as Mohini[2]. But some scholars are of the opinion that Vishnu could have appointed a nymph or any goddess to do what Mohini intended to.[3] One has to admit that the story of Mohini and Shiva negates the binary of gender identities creating a grey area of gender fluidity.

However, this not to say that the ancient Hindu society was completely inclusive, queer characters in Hindu mythology also faced prejudice and discrimination. In Mahabharata, there is an instance of a queer embodiment in the character of Shikhandi. Shikhandi was born as a girl but raised as a boy by her father, King Drupada. King Drupada even arranged a marriage for Shikhandi but that union ended when the truth about him came out in the open. Distraught by this Shikhandi ran into the forest in an attempt to kill himself as his father-in-law had threatened to destroy his kingdom. However, seeing his condition Yaksha, a nature-spirit, gifted him manhood for one-night, following which Shikhandi made love to a seductress. However, this had upset Kuber, the God of nature spirits, and he cursed Yaksha that Shikhandi will retain his manhood until he dies and Yaksha would have to live all his life without the gift of his “manliness”. This particular instance is an example of the non-acceptance; Kuber’s dismay over Yaksha shows that supporting a queer person can result in sanctions.

Further during the battle of Kurukshetra in Mahabharata, Bhishma, a celebrated warrior not only ridicules Shikhandi for his appearance but also refused to fight a “woman” in the battlefield. This incident in Mahabharata shows the prejudice against gender non-conforming individuals. Gender is constrained by rigid and impermeable sects from which there is no escaping. Shikhandi eventually defeated Bhisma[4]. But the stories of Shikhandi are lost in the valiant tales of the Pandavas; Shikhandi doesn’t find a place in the modern storytelling because he is seen as an embarrassment to the society dominated by the heteronormative constructs that does not let the heroism of Shikhandi come in light.

Popular culture never tells the story of Bhangashvana, who had been turned into woman as a result of his enmity with Indra, a Vedic deity. Bhangashvana had fathered a hundred sons when he was a man, and he had then mothered another hundred sons when he became an ascetic. [5]

As we can see, there are ample number of queer characters in Hindu mythology. An attempt should be made to prevent the continuing marginalization of these characters and make them a part of popular discourse. The visibility and positive depiction of queer community will lead to increased acceptance and support for LGBT individuals. Further, such depiction will also challenge a heteronormative imagination of the past.

 

This article has been contributed by Isha Choudhury, Amity Law School, Noida.

 

 

References:

[1] Anup Muraleedharan, The Concept, and Significance of Ardhanarishvara, THE SPEAKING TREE (Dec 19, 2014. 04:58 PM)  https://www.speakingtree.in/blog/the-concept-significance-of-ardhanarishvara

[2] Pariksha Khatania, Lord Shiva’s Union with Mohini, Lord Vishnu’s only female avatar, DETECHTER  https://detechter.com/god-shivas-union-with-mohini/

[3] Devdutt Pattanaik, Did Homosexuality exist in ancient India?, DEVDUTT BLOG, http://devdutt.com/articles/applied-mythology/queer/did-homosexuality-exist-in-ancient-india.html

[4] DEVDUTT PATTANAIK, SHIKHANDI (29-35) PENGUIN BOOKS (2014)

[5] Dailybite, Do men enjoy sex more, or women? The Mahabharata answers, DAILYO (21 Sept 2017) https://www.dailyo.in/arts/mahabharatasexual-intercoursegendereroticalord-indra/story/1/19628.html

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