Queer are the ways of Gods and Goddesses, and historical heroes. Weirder are the ways of mere mortals – men, women, and those who are both, or possibly none. Unknown to most of us, or probably because of our aversion to absorb it, the third gender, and the fluidity in the differences between genders, find several crucial references in Indian mythologies and history. More importantly, the ancient texts highlighted the relevant issues related to the relationships between, and within, the three sexes.
If males could become females, and vice versa, the consummation between Goddess Mohini, the woman avatar of Lord Vishnu, and Lord Shiva could be seen as the one between same sexes. If Arjuna of Mahabharata was scared of the curse that he would become a eunuch, his fears and the solution by Lord Indra could remind us of the present-day apprehensions and nervousness about the third gender. Aravan, son of Arjuna, was unsure and uncomfortable when he slept with Lord Krishna’s incarnation as a woman, Mohini.
Despite the social, spiritual, and sexual debates, there are no doubts that the early philosophers, spiritual gurus, writers, and religious peers accepted the inherent inclusion of the LGBTQs in the society. The latter were a part of an all-encompassing culture, which is why they played crucial roles at critical times in ancient history. Even in the modern versions, they emerged as influencers, King-makers, war generals, intelligence-gatherers, mentors, and important elements in palace intrigues in several kingdoms.
In Mahabharata, the story of Aravan is among the least known. In at least a Tamil version, he, whose mother, Ulupi, was a naga princess (half princess, half snake), offers himself as a human sacrifice that’s required before the epic battle begins between the Pandavas and Kauravas. But he places a wish before Krishna – he wants to be married for a night. Obviously, no woman would deliberately agree, when she knows that she will become a widow within a day. Krishna becomes Mohini, and ties the knots with Aravan.
A few folktale accounts contend that during his one-night married life, Aravan harboured doubts about his wife – was she a woman or man? But he didn’t linger around to over-think about the matter, as he sacrificed his life, ironically, to Goddess Kali, who had to be appeased to win a war. His worries are akin to modern humans – is the third gender a male or female? Sardonically, the trans-genders have no such qualms. They know perfectly who they are, what they want, and how they wish to be perceived.
Such an emotional tussle between men and women on one side, and a distinct certainty among the third gender, is also witnessed in the life of Shikandi, another Mahabharata character, who was responsible for the exit of the great warrior, Bheeshma of the Kauravas, from the battle that paved the way for Pandavas’ victory. Although Shikandi was born with woman’s organs, he was treated like a man, and was married to a woman. This was because his father was told that his son, or daughter, would indeed become a man.
Obviously, on the wedding night, the wife ran away to her father’s place. That’s when Shikandi went to the forests to kill himself. A Yaksha took pity, and gave him his manhood for one night. The wife’s father sent a concubine to Shikandi so that the latter could prove his manhood. He did, and his wife was sent back. Happily, or sadly, the Yaksha was cursed by his angry Lord, Kubera, who said that the former couldn’t get his manhood back until Shikandi was alive. At the time of the battle, the matter stood there – Shikandi was a woman, yet with his manhood intact.
Now, we turn to the matter of Bheeshma, the warrior who could not be defeated, and had the boon that he could decide the time of his death. Hence, no one could kill him; but, as Krishna, said, he could be immobilized, i.e. kept out of the war. There was another twist. Bheeshma would never lower his bow in front of an armed man, but what about an armed woman or someone who was both and neither. Krishna convinced the doubtful Pandavas that it was indeed dharma to pitch Shikandi against Bheeshma.
On the battlefield, Bheeshma faced Krishna’s chariot. Behind Krishna was Shikandi, who had learnt warfare as a child, and, behind him, was a lurking Arjuna, ready to take on Bheeshma when the opportunity came. As Bheeshma and Krishna debated about the dharma and adharma of a woman, or woman-man, present in the battlefield, the former lowered his bow. Krishna immediately urged Shikandi and Arjuna to release a volley of arrows “so that they puncture every inch of the old man’s flesh. Pin him down to the ground, immobilize him so that he can no longer immobilize the war”.
As Bheeshma fell, the earth refused to accept him as he had over-lived, for four generations, and the sky refused too because he had not fathered a child and repaid his debt to ancestors. The old warrior lay on the bed of hundreds of arrows. This incident highlights how the ancient epics dealt with non-heterosexual discourses. Shikandi enters the war on the night of the ninth day, and participates in it on the tenth, exactly at its half-way mark, “right in the middle of the (18-day) war, between the start and finish”.
Insightfully, one of the questions that Yudhistra, the eldest Pandava, asked the lying Bheeshma after the war was, “Grandfather, who gets more sexual pleasure – men or women?” The answer is another indicator to the inclusive society of the past. “No one really knows. Except perhaps Bangashvana, the only one who was both man and woman?” He was a king with many wives and sons, but he was cursed by Indra to be a woman. So, she also married a man, and bore children to him. Thus, Bangashvana lived as a man and woman, husband and wife, and father and mother.
Another curse was in operation when Arjuna was forced to spend 12 months as a eunuch. After Yudhistra loses the game of dice, the five Pandava brothers are forced to live in exile for 12 years. In the thirteenth, they had to remain incognito. If they were spotted and recognized by the Kaurava spies, they had to repeat the 12-year exile. Thus, Arjuna decided to enter the capital city of King Virata as Brihannala, a eunuch, to work as the queen’s attendant. Even in Indian history, eunuchs have largely guarded the palace harems.
Arjuna’s decision was logical. He was cursed by courtesan Urvashi, whose love he refused. “Since you have turned away a woman who had come to you of her own accord, one who, dead to all shame, has openly avowed her desire for you, may you lose your manliness and have to spend time among women, un-regarded and scorned as a eunuch,” she retaliated. When a stupefied Arjuna told this to Lord Indra, the latter granted him a boon that he could be a eunuch only for a year and that too in a period that he chose.
The one year of incognito exile was the right time. There are two twists to the story. The first is that the King wasn’t sure if Arjuna was only a eunuch or trans-gender, which was physically examinable. He is “tested by beautiful young women to ensure that he is actually a third-sex and thus free from any lust for females”.
The second wriggle in the tale is that Brihannala (Arjuna) helps Virata, when he is attacked by an enemy. It is the former’s prowess that leads to victory. Of course, his disguise is exposed. But, as is often the case in Mahabharata and other Indian epics, this happens at the right time, when the 12-month incognito period had ended.
However, as the various Mohini’s stories epitomize, the Indian scriptures went beyond curses in the transformation of genders. The Gods regularly switched between men and women, and deliberately so. They hinted that every human has two sides – emotionally, intellectually, even physically. In fact, Mohini, the eternal beautiful avatar, who could seduce anyone, including Shiva, appears several times in mythology, folk tales, and other stories. Indeed, Shiva and Mohini had a son, Lord Manikantha (Ayyappa).
Since Ayyappa was a son of Shiva and Vishnu (whose avatar Mohini is), it implied that the “concept of homosexual exists... in divine personalities”. The spiritual gurus addressed this conundrum in unique manner. One of them made the distinction between souls and physical bodies. While the former remains the same, it can be a part of different bodies. Hence, even if the souls remained the same, as was the case with Vishnu and Mohini, who represented the same “unimaginable” God as Shiva, they could reside in different male and female bodies.
Well, isn’t this what is required to be accepted today. The souls of all humans, be it heterosexual or homosexual, are the same.
Eunuchs As King-Makers
In India’s history, eunuchs played critical roles in palace intrigues. This was especially true of the Mughal period. For example, Akbar-nama, Emperor Akbar’s official story, mentions a eunuch, Niamat, who stood as an important guard at the imperial harem. Other records refer to Itimad Khan, who was eunuch-officer. According to historians, he administered the state’s finances, was among the highest officers to guard the harems, advised the King on state matters, and became his sovereign confidant.
In her fictionalized book on Muhammad bin Tughlak, Anuja Chandramouli writes about a conversation between the young Tughlak and his friend. They discuss the “unholy alliance” between Alaudin Khalji, and an upstart eunuch, Malik Kufur, and how the former chose to give his love to the slave, instead of his sons. Blinded by power and glory, Kufur fed slow-acting poison to Khalji, and later imprisoned and blinded the heir apparent, Khizar Khan and Shadi Khan. Another scion, Mubarak, would have faced a similar fate, but he managed to convince his father’s loyal soldiers to spare him. The soldiers, instead, killed Kufur, whose reign of terror lasted only thirty-five days. Alas, Mubarak inherited his father eunuch vice, and not his virtues. “Mubarak’s fondness for Khusrau Khan made him every bit as foolhardy as his father. His lover got him addicted to every available intoxicant, leaving him with addled brains, a taste for sybaritic excess and little else. History will remember Alaudin’s achievements and the strengths he displayed as a ruler. Mubarak will be remembered for allowing the palace to be overrun with prostitutes of both sexes....”