The LGBTQIA+ spectrum has always been part of society, but history has marginalised its narrative. This pride month, let’s delve into myth and mythology, and explore the characters and stories hidden by the mainstream. Indian culture and mythology have been perceived as patriarchal, rigid, classist, casteist and heteronormative by most modern thinkers, especially those who are Indian. However, growing up reading stories from mythology, reading comics like Amar Chitra Katha that made Indian mythology accessible to kids, I can think of so many characters and narratives that defied those labels.
At the core of these narratives are the ideas of gender fluidity and defying labels of male/female. Many stories from Indian myth – told and untold – have cross-dressing men, masculine women, people that come under neither and both categories, people that were born a certain way and then changed their gender/sexual identity. These stories were told aplenty by the narrators of the past, because they believed these stories deserved a space in the narrative.
Shikhandi – an embodiment of queer identity, was the pivotal factor in changing the course of the Indian epic Mahabharata. He was born a woman, raised as a man, taught how to fight, to battle, and was married to a woman. A Yaksha (nature-spirits or demigods that appear a lot in Indian mythology) later granted him his own manhood. Shikhandi is a character that would today be called a transgender man. There are many other characters like him. Yuvanashva was a king who drank some water meant for a rishi’s wife. He became pregnant with his son Mandhata, who was blessed by the gods on his birth. Draupadi – the female protagonist of Mahabharata, and Shikhandi’s sister – was the wife of five brothers. One of her husbands, Arjuna, who is seen as the embodiment of the male warrior, sought refuge in a king’s harem dressed as a transgender woman and taught music and dance.
Queer characters in Indian mythology are present in abundance. The queer narrative was part of the mainstream, but was later shunned by an increasingly heteronormative, homophobic society. But what do these stories tell us? They are a testament to the fact that traditionalism does not imply close-mindedness. They tell us that no identity is restricted by boundaries. Everybody has some queer in them, and exclusive all-male/all-female labels cannot be applied to every human being. In fact, the fluidity in personal identity is embraced to such an extent in Indian mythology that some characters are not just a mix of genders, but a mix of species – like the elephant-headed god Ganesha. People are messy and they cannot be compartmentalised into rigid labels.
In a previous blog post, I spoke about how Purush – pure consciousness, and Prakriti – matter, combine to create everything in the world. Every object in this universe – living and non-living – is made of Purush and Prakriti. Purush is traditionally seen as male, and Prakriti as female. But both these elements are what make up each and every human being. Every human being has male and female in them. Indian mythology has seen Lord Shiva as the representation of Purush, and his wife Parvati as that of Prakriti.
There are stories about Shiva merging Parvati into his body such that one half of him is male, and the other half is female. This particular form of Shiva is called ‘Ardhanareshwara’. ‘Ardha’ means half, ‘nari’ means woman, and ‘ishwara’ means god. In this form, Shiva is both male and female at the same time. Shiva is a god, he is the penultimate of the masculine form. He is depicted as what can clearly be perceived as androgynous. This form of Shiva, in some texts, is what inspired the creator, Brahma, to imbibe the universe with both male and female energies. Ardhanareshwara – the supreme being – is non-dual. They are both male and female, not one or the other. And that image itself is beyond these dualities. They are the ultimate fusion of the Purush and the Prakriti – the male and the female combined to create a form that is beyond sex and gender.
Defiance of traditional heterosexual norms are found to be plenty in myth and mythology. The nature of human identity is multi-layered and fluid. While the world loves to categorize and bifurcate the male and the female, mythology and folklore shows that the condition of human existence is a spectrum. It moves between its expressions. That’s what makes it beautiful and worth living.
Storytellers of the past have acknowledged that, and we must too. These narratives are stories of pride, and of tolerance. Yoga speaks of conquering the mind, and that philosophy does not differentiate between gender and sexuality. Yoga is born from this tradition of mythology I just elaborated upon. It is born from a free and tolerant society. With the right intention and effort, anyone can lead a yogic life. And this attitude is what we must embrace this pride month. We must learn from our past stories, and work towards creating a more free and tolerant society. Let’s celebrate the stories of our LGBTQIA+ community. Happy pride month!
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.