Queer Quotient in Hindu Mythology

‘Vikruti evam Prakruti’

Vikruti evam Prakruti. This term in Sanskrit literally translates to ‘ What seems unnatural is also natural’. This is stated in the Rigveda, one of the four Vedas which form the basis of the Hindu Philosophy.

Some believe this particular term supports the homosexual behavior of human beings and deems it as as natural as anything else in this universe, else it would not have been created and included in these texts in the first place.

Hindu Mythology makes constant references to queerness, the idea that questions notions of maleness and femaleness. A lot of queer stories are related to Hindu Mythology where in Gods and mortals often change genders, indulge in homosexual activities as well as heterosexual activities as different reincarnated genders. Transgenders have also been mentioned in quite a few Hindu Mythological tales. All these various references just points out to the fact that queerness has been there since centuries in our culture, existing for more than about 2000 years now.

imagesShiva is at times referred to as Ardhanarisvara, who has a dual nature of femininity as well as masculinity. The male form represents the mind and the female form represents the nature, and they are interdependent on each other. This story comes from the Shaiva Agamas.

In the karmic worldview,one is queer because of karma, and it may turn out to be a boon or a curse.

Queer stories are not restricted to Hindu Mythology only. Most of the Queer tales are restricted to men, but a few exceptions are there, one of which were the Greek Poems of love and passion of a women for another women , by Sappho , which were written on the island of Lesbos, giving rise to the term ‘Lesbian’

Intrigued by the whole idea of the intersection queerness and mythology I looked up for a few books, and  Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Pattanaik didn’t fail to impress me.

Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you
is short book with a few short tales from the Hindu Mythology which have an element of queerness. Men turning to women, Men loving men or individuals having unique sexual tastes , or stories even about cross dressers.

The book begins with a brief introduction on appreciating queerness and mentions how Hindu mythology has been defining the queer quotient since ages. It also gives an insight to the queer community in various other mythologies including the stories from the  Arctic and the  Vikings,  ranging to Egyptian, Chinese, Greek , Persian and biblical mythologies

The highlight of this book is this very historical acquaintance with the LGBTQ trends occurring in the pre Kali Yuga era. It’s fascinating to know what people condemn today was practiced long ago. And these are not the stories of ordinary people. The tales we are talking about,  largely revolves around Kings and God’s and people with quite some stature in the society. Seems like Indian history has been breaking barriers even before it was a barrier.

Tshikhandihe book has around thirty tales which revolve around various characters from the Hindu Mythology. Stories from Ramayana,  Mahabharata and tales from various Puranas have been roped in. This shows the diversity of the spread of queer culture back then.

The writing has been exemplary. I have now read almost half of Devdutt’s books, and it keeps on getting better every time. More than the stories I have loved his piece on discovery and invention of queerness, in which the historical existence has been discussed at length.

There have been a lot of similar stories in the book apart from, Shikhandi, who became a man to satisfy her wife.These includes the story of Arjuna, who became temporarily castrated for showing restraint, and other tales like that of Aravan , whose wife was the complete man and of course about Vishnu, who became a women to deliver his devotee’s child. So on and so forth, a few other stories have been explained in length and the list essentially is endless.

As always, Devdutt Pattanaik’s books have been filled with interesting illustrations. Apart from being a doctor, writer and a mythologist he is an impeccable illustrator. This book is worth a read if one wants to discover the roots of queer culture in Hindu Mythology and it is definitely a recommended book.

In 2009 , India was going through a social change. There was hope in the air. During that year Delhi High court decriminalised section 377, and everyone had the same freedom as anyone else. It was a renaissance period for people of this country. A change was happening, and people were quite vocal about it as well. In 2013 Delhi High court revoked the order. This back tracking of the judgement has had seen a lot of dialogue between regressive protectors of Indian Culture, pseudo progressive individuals as well as a few obnoxious punks and some open minded intellectuals.

Indian culture is all about being plural and being open to accepting. In the end its about loving another person. I have had the privilege of meeting quite a few notable people from the LGBTQ community at various conferences where they have been addressing the delegates. They have succeeded in impacting an audience confined in that auditorium but we are far from convincing the reality. Times are changing but one thing is certain, had Queerness been against our culture it would not have been expressed in our mythological texts explicitly.

Afterall,
‘What seems unnatural,is also natural’ – Rigveda

 


 

Quotes from Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

Other Sources :

Blog, Times of India : Homosexuality in India – Progressive judiciary, regressive people

Speaking Tree : What do Vedas say about Homosexuality

 

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First 100!

It brings me immense joy to know that my blog A year of reading India is now followed by more than 100 followers across various parts of the world with close to about 1000 readers and  viewers from about 24 countries. As a new blogger, this is really overwhelming! I am happy that the readers love the content and are interested in the books I blog about.

One thing which I really did not want was to convert it into a conventional Book Review Blog. As many of you might have noticed my reviews of the books I read weave around a particular story theme or concept , and I try to provide information, ideas and views not only related to the book but try to paint a picture on a wider canvas.

I have loved writing Mythology, Philosophy, Fiction, Non-Fiction by an array of Indian authors, and I still feel a lot more needs to be written about. Of my earlier posts I have written, my top five personal favourites are Jaya, which is a beautiful modern redering of the Mahabharata. Followed by Shantaram, which gives a vivid description of the Mumbai city, which now I call my home. I have loved Palace of Illusions, surely the fastest read I have undertaken in one sitting. Sita has been a very touching book for me personally and finally Gita which was very enlightening.

There are so many communities, cultures and vivid people all in this one small subcontinent in Asia. I am reading an array of books by Indian Authors and myself am intrigued by the variety of categories. Surely Indian writing is taking over subsequently, be it in a regional language or English.

I do have a few books lined up for upcoming posts, but I urge my readers to suggest books they would want me to write about pertaining to India or written by Indian Authors, and continue inspiring me in this journey of reading India.


Cover Photo by Vicky Roy

Sita : Story of the Daughter of Earth

‘Animals fight to defend their bodies. Humans curse to defend their imagination of themselves. The imagined notion of who we are, and how others are supposed to see us, is called aham. Aham constantly seeks validation from the external world. When that is not forthcoming it becomes insecure. Aham makes humans accumulate things; through things we hope people will look upon us as we imagine ourselves. That is why, Janaka, people display their wealth and their knowledge and their power. Aham yearns to be seen‘, Ashtavakra said to Janaka

I was in my fourth grade when I first saw the Ramayana Series which used to run on Cartoon Network India, which was later made into a movie. It was phenomenal and so breathtaking. Even the animations were so realistic. Two years later in my sixth grade I read the Ramayana for the first time, in Hindi. The more I read about it ,the more I got lost in the enchanted world of Ayodhya.

I purchased Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik shortly after I finished reading Jaya by the same author. I had loved Jaya and was completely bowled over by it, and hence decided to give Sita a shot.

This book is an illustrated retelling of the Ramayana, and the central character is Sita, who was discovered in a furrow by King Janaka while the fields were being ploughed in Mithila. Hence she is also referred to as the daughter of the earth.

The book is written in a compelling manner , it starts with Hanuman and it ends with Hanuman, who is also the guardian of Ayodhya. The novel also concentrates on Sita’s  actions which are mostly associated with being at peace with herself and not wanting to be judged by a society, she has no part in. The story examines Sita’s actions as a spiritual side and her connection to nature than to the society.

Devdutt Pattanaik mentions in the beginning that ‘To all those who believe that the Mahabharata is more realistic and complex than the Ramayana; may they realise that that both epics speak of dharma, which means human potential, not righteous conduct.’

Dharma is about exchange, about giving and receiving . It is about outgrowing animal instincts, outgrowing fear, discovering the ability to feed others, comfort others, enable others to find meaning.’

As Krishna says in Gita,

‘Dharma is more about empathy than ethics, about intent rather than outcome. I follow Dharma when I am concerned about your material, emotional or intellectual hunger. I follow adharma when I focus on my hunger at the cost of yours.’

Ramayana has had numerous retelling’s and it beacons across centuries. Before second century there were the oral retelling’s by travelling bards, and then in second century the first written form of Ramayana emerged in Sanskrit by Valmiki. The poetry, all scholars agree is outstanding, and has been traditionally qualified as Adi Kavya, the first poem.

Ramayana apart from being quite popular across the length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent is also very popular across Indian borders including Tibet, Vietnam, and a lot of South East Asian countries. But most of the scripts in which Ramayana has been written in India emerged from the script we commonly refer to as Brahmi.

A few centuries later even Kalidasa wrote a version of Ramayana. There have been numerous Bengali , Assamese and Odia translations as well. Ramayana is divided into Seven Books, and in Sita the author has divided the the book into seven corresponding chapters. The interesting part of Devdutt Pattanaik’s Sita  are the short notes at the end of every section which divulge a whole lot of information from various sources and are very insightful. Alternate theories by different retelling’s have also been discussed in this section.

Sita-1The story spans across different locations from Mithila to Ayodhya to Lanka, and during the fourteen years of exile of Ram & Sita accompanied by Ram’s younger brother Lakshmana, a lot of geographical areas has been covered by them on foot. These places, where they halted have their own significance and stories related to them.
After leaving Ayodhya, they reached Prayag shortly after. Prayag  also known as Triveni Sangam is the place of confluence of three rivers, Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna, and is considered very Sacred.

Then they travelled to Chitrakoot and finally to Dandkaranya which covers a vast area of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Covering  a vast span across of the Indian Subcontinent makes it an important book with respect to my blog and hence I chose to write about it here. Personally I have loved Jaya more than Sita but the central theme of both the books is same. Dharma. A recommended read and a complete heads up to this book.

As for Sita, she went back the same route she came into this world, back into the furrow in the ground. And whatever remained of her above  the ground, her hair, slowly turned into blades of grass, which were being caressed slowly by Ram. He just sat there thinking of her, as he had always done, because she was always there in his heart no matter what the circumstances were.

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Quotes from Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

 

 

Devdutt’s Gita!

My first tryst with books written by Devdutt Pattanaik started with this particular book called My Gita. A bright yellow coloured cover with an beautiful illustration of Krishna adored with a peacock feather caught my eye at the bookstore. I had not read any version of Bhagwada Gita before, as the mere complexity of it never motivated me to pick it up. But I finally did, and was glad that I picked it up because this book marked my entry to the world of Hindu Philosophy.

Gita means song and Bhagwada means God, and the literal translation comes out to be the Song of God! It was called the song of God as Gita was the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. Song which Krishna sung to his favourite friend, and brother in law, right in the center of the battlefield before the war of Mahabharata started.

krishnamahabharat

There are numerous other Gitas apart from Bhagwad Gita. There are various other Gita’s in Mahabharata itself,  Pingala Gita (prostitute’s song), Sampaka Gita (priest’s song), Manki Gita (Farmer’s song) among others, and outside Mahabharata as well there is Ashtavakra Gita, Vashishtha Gita and many more. But Bhagwad Gita remains to be the most popular as well as most widely read one of all times.

From now on I will be referring to Bhagwad Gita just as Gita for ease and simplicity.
The final form of Gita has has 700 verses split into 18 chapters, divided into three broad themes of which 574 are spoken by Krishna and 84 by Arjuna, 41 by Sanjaya and 1 by Dhritrashtra.

As I mentioned earlier the Gita is divided into three major themes or Yog’s, namely Karma Yog, Bhakti Yog and Gyana Yog, wherein each theme focusing on Work, Worship and Wisdom respectively.A lot of concepts like darshan, atma, deha, dehi , karma , dharma, yagna , yoga deva, bhagwana ,maya , moha and moksha are expained along the way. With each chapter dedicated to one of the concepts as mentioned above.

Mahabharata which tells the story of a war between brothers fought over eighteen days involving eighteen armies, indicates that the core teaching of the Gita has much to do with relationships.Any study of Gita has to take into consideration Vedic, Upanishadic, Buddhist, Puranic, Bhakti and orientalist ideas.Screenshot_2016-07-09-09-24-18

Devdutts style of writing this book is very impressive. Simple and easy to comprehend. This kind of simplistic writing style is necessary for such a complex subject. In fact because of this book only, I eventually picked up his other books and developed a liking for his style which renders to the modern era.He has explained each concept backed by a lesson in history and a story to support it along with a paraphrased quote from the Gita.

Now, My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik is not a translation of the original Gita, but an explanation of it in the authors own words. Its his interpretation to the existing Gita and an addition of his thoughts on every concept. Even the chapters in My Gita are explained at different locations as per the authors whims and fancy. The chapters are staggered and not sequenced according to the original Gita but it definitely does not break the flow of narration.I think the idea behind was to acquaint the reader slowly with the book, one step at a time. This can be an excellent book, if one wants to pursue reading the original Gita further after this.

So basically the Gita is focused on an individual’s psychological expansion, mentally physically as well as emotionally. As mentioned in the book, the Gita does not speak of changing the world. It speaks of appreciating a world that is always changing. It says unless the heart feels secure, the head will never receive new ideas. one of my favourite verse by Krishna in the book is ;

“Arjuna you wear fresh clothes at the time of birth and discard them at the time of death. You are not these clothes” – Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 22 (paraphrased).

An interesting aspect of the book is the various illustrations after every few pages to support the texts , were provided, but this I feel could have been avoided. The diagrams are not so interesting as much the texts are and I usually skimmed through most of it.The illustrations in My Gita were not as captivating as the ones by Devdutt in Jaya or Sita.

Krishna1The book also excellently explains the concept of Gunas commonly known as tri-guna ; Tamas , rajas and sattva. The tendency towards inertia comes from tamas guna, the tendency towards activity comes from rajas guna and the tendency towards balance comes from sattva guna. In humans the sattva guna dominates , which is why only humans are able to trust and care for strangers , empathize and exchange.

Personally this book had a very strong connect with me. I was reading this at a stage where my personal life was going through a lot of troughs and crests. My Gita did help me find deeper meaning within myself and since then I have read the book numerous times. I think this is not a one-time-read-from-cover-to-cover-and-toss-it kind of book. I have referred to it now and then during turbulent situations and it has not failed me to find a bit of solace in it, thus helping me in my transition from the tamas guna to the sattva guna.

“Arjuna, one who gives up conceit and ownership and craving, in other words the sense of ‘I’, ‘Mine’ and ‘me’, will always find peace.” – Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 71(paraphrased).

Gita forms the  epicenter of Hindu Philosophy. Of course the Vedas and Upanishads are there and they contain more deeper philosophical knowledge, but Gita connects more easily to the people. Hence I was compelled to write about it here, as reading across India would seem incomplete if the roots of Indian philosophy were left untapped.


Quotes from My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustrations by Devdutt Pattanaik from devdutt.com
You can read more about the author on devdutt.com

krishna

Indian Mythology : Chronicles from the Indian Subcontinent

13.-Mythological-Drawings-By-Abhishek-Singh-Vishnu

In Indian mythology, the timeline of existence has been divided into four Yugas namely Krita, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. For Devas one year equals to 365 human years. Krita Yuga lasts for 4800 years, Treta for 3600 years, Dwapara for 2400 years and Kali for 1200 years for the Devas and Pitrs , the Gods and Ancestors. For humans each Yuga gets multiplied by 365. At the end of Kali Yuga, the cycle repeats itself and starts of again with the Krita or the most pious Yuga commonly referred to as the Satya Yuga.

And within the unending cycle of these yugas  lay the epic tales, chronicles and the rich history of Indian Mythology, and hence begins my quest to discover more about it.

It is quite difficult to not think about Devdutt Pattanaik if you are looking for authors writing about mythology, and even more difficult is not to love his work. But as I stumbled upon his earlier books I did not find that to be true. His writing has definitely improved over the years and so has the clarity in conveying things right way.

In one of my previous posts I had given a brief about the common sources of sacred narratives in Hinduism, which dates back to 2000 B.C.E. The scriptures included the Mantra Samhita, Brahmana, Upanishads, Puranas, and later various temple texts such as Agama. Derived from these texts come the 99 chronicles mentioned in this book titled ‘Indian Mythology: Tales, Symbols, and rituals from the heart of the Indian subcontinent’. The title  did grab my attention at first sight, and I was ready to delve deeper into the colourful mythical tales from the past. The book also has but limited history and comparison to Greek and Roman mythologies.

The Persians and later the Arabs had used the word Hind or Hindustan to describe the land around the river that was known to Greeks as the Indus and to the local population as Sindhu and hence came the name India.Customs , Rituals and beliefs maybe profound to a set of people, but to the  rational minded these sacred stories and customs remain fantastic, even absurd, and hence branded as myth.

The book talks a lot about the function of myth, essentially the book has been divided into spectrum of four major branches which include Mythology:Studying Myth,  Mythosphere: Comparing Myths, Mythopoesis : Transforming Myth and Mythography : Interpreeting Myth.

A dry read in the middle, the writing style is a drag, and not so gripping, unlike his other books. Devdutt in this book tries to merge Mythology with philosophy to some extent but fails to express clearly. For me it took a long time to read the book because apart from the illustrated chronicles other sections of the book seemed stark, undemonstrative and impassive.

What I hoped for was a rich history of the Hindu mythology but found a list of tales and information scattered around it. I love Devdutt’s work but this book simply fails to impress.

Jaya: Modern Rendering Done Right

Untitled design (13)Shakuntala was the love child of Kaushika and an Apsara called Meneka. She was abandoned on the forest floor later to be found out by Rishi Kanva,  who raised her like his own daughter. Dushyanta, a descendent of the Pururava, later married Shakuntala and their child was named Bharata. Bharata was a unique King. Unique, not only because he was a descendant from solar line of Kings through his mother but also because he was a descendant from the lunar line of Kings through his father, and the land he ruled was named Bharata-Varsha or simply Bharata after him.

That’s how the land beyond the Indus, India came to have got its identity. India in the post modernism era has been an outcome of a series of continuous changes, for that matter any civilization in the world has been though. That is how over generations and years together the Indian culture has been carved out, resulting from various ideologies.

Although complex, supporting all these narratives and philosophies are a series of texts. Texts as old as 2000 B.C.E. Broadly, there are the Bhramanical texts which were assigned in two groups, The Vedas (Revelation) and the Smritis (Tradition)

If we look at the chronological order of these texts from the beginning, the story dates back to about 2000 B.C.E, where the first scriptures were the Vedic Chants known as Mantra Samhita. These were the antecedents to a narrative. Then there were the Brahmana’s in around 1000-800 B.C.E.  These were the ritual manuals that offer narrative explanation.

These were followed by the Upanishads which traces its origin in 800-500 B.C.E.
There’s a difference between Vedas and Upanishads at times is confusing. Upanishads are a part of the Vedas; in essence the concluding chapters. Over time these texts have evolved and taken the shape of what we know as the Hindu Philosophy. A very insightful but a little heavy book on our Hindu philosophy is Vedanta by Swami Vivekananda.

Itihas literally translates to the course of events in the past as it is. These include epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Mahabharata has been my all-time favourite. It often reminds me of the Amar Chitra Katha days. I still reminisce those times. It was something about mythology back then too which intrigued me, and a lot of credit goes to Mr Anant Pai, for making it all seem so magical.

Time and again each retelling of the Mahabharata has added to my existing knowledge base of the facts which I was unaware of, -or the stories I hadn’t heard before. But each retelling was by and large the same.  Until I put my hands on Devdutt Pattanaik’s – Jaya. Jaya which literally translates into victory has by far the best retelling of the epic.

IMG_20160413_195648

The Mahabharata lasted for 18 days, battled between a total of 18 armies and had a total of 18 chapters. The Mahabharata also focuses a lot on individual relationships and Jaya has done justice in conveying its intricacies. A lot of stories are subtle and one might have to read between the lines for deeper learning.  But Jaya itself is quite comprehensible and easy to understand. One might get confused with the number of characters involved but that should not deter him/her from appreciating the book.

Stories in Indian mythology have always been a conversation between a narrator and a listener, -and Jaya has been narrated in the same manner, by Vaisampayana, to Janmejaya, who is the son of Parkishit and grandson of the great archer Arjuna.  This has been illustrated effortlessly.

This modern rendering is accompanied by a lot of illustrations. Devdutt’s style of writing is accompanied by intricate artwork which makes one want to read the book and the facts/small notes at the end of each chapter are a plus to the writing style.

Another modern retelling of the Mabahabharata has been written by Ramesh Menon and has been highly appreciated as well. For readers who want to delve deeper may consider reading it as well. As for me, it’s next on my list.

The epic is complex and interesting. But its ultimate goal is to revolve around dharma, which is human potential and not righteous conduct. The rework of this Indian epic, which caused the dawn of Kali Yuga, the fourth and final of all the Yugas is highly recommended.




Sources:

Indian Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik
Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik
My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik
Header Image Source: Devdutt.com