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

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.

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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

Yayati: A Poetic Masterpiece!

For a long time I have been wanting to explore some Marathi literature. But how does one select from a vast ocean of amazing literary pieces. Its difficult to pick one ,and I was very much tempted to read all of them at once.

This land of Maratha has experienced countless stories; right from Shivaji to the very contemporary ones, and they have been beautifully illustrated in countless written forms. Eventually I started asking around a couple of friends who are really into Marathi literature and drew up a list of quite some interesting books which have been recommended in the past.

From this list, I short listed close to about thirty books to choose from and finally set my heart on Yayati by Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar.

This I did for particularly two reasons. Firstly I knew that Yayati was a character in the Mahabharata. I read about him first when I came across a chapter bearing his name in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya, and hence was intrigued to read more about him. Secondly for the love of mythology I simply went for this novel. As much as I would want to read the original edition of Yayati my insufficiency in reading and comprehending the language compelled me to stick to the English translation.

I have always loved how complex Mahabharata is. That is why they call it an epic. Every characters perspective is different on the tale. What may be good for one might not be good for the other.I guess in true sense nothing is good or evil but our thinking makes it so, and hence Mahabharata never fails to fascinate me with its different aspects.

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Yayati is often regarded as selfish, self-centered and a very materialistic person. So much so that he started neglecting his own Kingdom and daily affairs and indulged in wine and women. But this was so contradictory to what Sage Kanva once had to say about him. Sage Kanva blessed his daughter Shakuntala, mother of King Bharata on her marriage that: ‘May you be as dear to your husband as Sharmishtha was to Yayati’.

This was indeed puzzling.These scattered pieces of the puzzle were put together by VS Khandekar beautifully in his novel Yayati.

Yayati existed approximately thirty five generations before the actual war of Mahabharata took place. Son of the great Puru king Nahusha and his wife Viraja, Yayati was the crown prince of Hastinapur,being from the Puru Dynasty. Nahusha was himself carrying a curse, that his children will never be happy, and that pretty much shaped Yayati’s life.

Yayati was tricked into marrying Devayani, daughter of Guru Shukracharya, in spite of Devayani being a Brahman. As he was smitten by her beauty Yayati didn’t protest much, but as it turned out the marriage was a unsuccessful one.

But eventually Yayati set his heart on Devyani’s maid, Sharmishtha, or dearly called as Shama by Yayati. They married behind Devyani’s back and even had a son called Puru.

The interesting part is later after many years; Yayati was still so immersed in himself that he asked to exchange his old age with his youngest son Puru. This is quite fascinating by many aspects. Puru’s love and affection for his father knew no bounds and he readily accepted this fate upon himself.

They say sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free. Yayati realised this very late in life. Its not the material possession or the beauty which you are going to carry with you in your grave, but the number of lives you touch.

I love the concluding lines of the book which actually sets the theme for the entire novel:

Oh man, desire is never satisfied by indulgence. Like the sacrificial fire, it ever grows with every offering.

A truly beautiful and an immersive story. Yayati was  originally written in Marathi, which went on to win the Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi Awards and hence subsequently got translated to English. This novel is a masterpiece by VS Khandekar.

A highly recommended read to everyone, especially those who are interested in mythology. The translation by YP Kulkarni does justice to the original version but the original version in Marathi is supposed to be more vivid, and one can enjoy the mythical past vicariously.

The Palace of Illusions :An artistic marvel

palace-of-illusions

“Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story.  And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one that I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.”

And thus begins the story of Princess Panchaali, born out of fire , as it was prophesied, she would be responsible to change the course of history, and oh man how excited was she to hear all about it over and over again. This beautiful dark skinned princess was none other than Draupadi. As we all know her as the wife of the legendary Pandava brothers, the only women to have five husbands all at the same time.

I have read the Mahabharata a couple of times, and a couple of versions of the epic have surfaced before my eyes and through these very hands. Each time I have added something new to my existing knowledge , and each time I have read a new version by a different author, it keeps on getting better. From my early childhood days I have wondered that how ever all the Pandava characters have been given much importance in the epic, but not much has been talked about Draupadi, apart from the very fact being that she was responsible for the downfall of the Kauravas.

A story becomes powerful with every retelling, and so has been the case with The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. An enchanting retelling of an epic that is truly powerful. This book while painting a vivid picture of events leading up to the war at Kurukshetra also sinks in the realization of the imperfections of human nature.

The palace of illusions is a very different approach to the Mahabharata. It is narrated by Panchaali. It is Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi. From the time she was born until the end, its her take on the entire situation, and on the journey she mentions about her thoughts, her insecurities , her desires, her anger, lust, love, responsibility and her portrayal of courage.

Courage of-course. Courage to have five husbands. Courage to face shame in an assembly full of her husbands and their brothers. Courage to have Krishna as her best friend and comrade and courage to let go of her love, the person she admired the most, with whom she always wanted to be. As the author rightly mentions –

“Love comes like lightning, and disappears the same way. If you are lucky, it strikes you right. If not, you’ll spend your life yearning for a man you can’t have.”

The highlight for me has been the conversations between Draupadi and Krishna. How subtly Krishna explains Panchaali about things beyond her understanding. The way Krishna always talks in riddles, and how behind every conversation there is a deep meaning to the entire context.

One of my favourite quotes from the book, again a conversation between the duo, wherein Krishna says –

“Just as we cast off worn clothes and wear new ones, when the time arrives, the soul cast of the body and finds a new one to work out its karma. Therefore the wise never grieve for the living or the dead”

Draupadi’s character has been discussed in depth.To what lengths she can go to have her way, how she often dreams of living in huge palaces, and get adorned with the finest jewelry and be pampered at all times. Her character is buoyant, expansive and uncontainable, a side of hers which lot of people are not aware of.

The book is written in a very gripping way. Its simple yet beautiful. Its vivid and colourful. The details are very picturesque and the whole saga has been depicted in a very quaint style. I loved the book, and was hooked to it completely. It definitely features in my ‘Top 5 picks of all time’.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has done complete justice to the concept of this half mythical half fictional tale, which has turned out to be completely magical.

 

 

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.

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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