Review: Shikhandi And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You By Devdutt Pattanaik

“Beware of a land where celibate men decide what is good sex.”

Queerness has existed in this world for eons, yet somehow, despite all the progress we have made, we as a society have failed to accept people for who they are. Section 377 is a constant reminder of the fact that our society is becoming regressive everyday. It is interesting to note that queerness has been part of Hindu tradition rather openly, something that has been depicted boldly on the walls of various Hindu temples across the country. If you take a minute to admire these structures, you will find carvings and paintings of gods, goddesses, demons, nymphs, sages, warriors, lovers, priests, monsters, dragons, plants and animals. You will also find many images of erotic content ranging from simple romantic glances to wild orgies, and a few occasional depictions of bestiality. In Khajuraho, you will find images of women erotically embracing other women or men displaying their genitals to each other. There are many theories that surround these depictions, with a few renouncing these images as the perverted fantasies of an artist or his patron. However, according to ancient discourse on architecture, a religious structure is incomplete unless its walls depicts something erotic, since sensual pleasures (kama) are as much an expression of life as righteous conduct (dharma), economic endeavours (artha) and spiritual pursuits (moksha). Regardless of what they might mean, these depictions alone are proof that same-sex relations did exist in ancient India.

In the Rigveda, while talking about the Samsara, it says ‘Vikruti Evam Prakriti’, which means what seems un-natural is also natural. According to many scholars, this refers to queerness. The Manu Smriti and Sushruta Samhita, acknowledge that some people are born with either mixed male and female natures, or sexually neuter. In the Kamasutra, V?tsy?yana makes reference to homosexuality. Devdutt Pattanaik once wrote about how the references to such activities were made in disdain, but considering that these Hindu law books tell us what behaviour is considered to be acceptable it can be concluded that these activities existed in ancient India as well.

Even in Valmiki Ramayana, Hanuman is said to have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing those women who have been kissed and embraced by Ravana. There are stories of women turning into men and men turning into women, such as Shikhandini in The Mahabharatha, who was born a woman and raised as a son. Later, when she is married off, the wife discovers the truth and a Yaksha saves Shikhandini by letting him use his manhood for a night and perform his husbandly duties. Mohini, the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu is another example of this gender change. As per the Puranas, Vishnu becomes a woman to trick demons and tempt sages. Arjuna is deprived of his manhood after he rejects the advances of the nymph, Urvashi and he takes up his role as Brihannala, an eunuch dance teacher in the court of King Virata. All these further points out that the people who claim homosexuality to be a western concept, couldn’t be more wrong.

Devdutt Pattanaik has been one of the few authors in the country who have been bold enough to reinterpret the Hindu epics and mythology and present them as he understands it. He has spoken about sex, gender, homosexuality and gender fluidity in almost all his works. He once again. tactfully uses such occurrences in these Hindu texts to show that homosexuality is not unnatural in the book, Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You.

The first part of the book is a critical discussion on queer behaviour across the world. “The celebration of queer ideas in Hindu stories, symbols and rituals is in stark contrast to the ignorance and rigidity that we see in Indian society,” he states. He talks about how much of the discomfort that surrounds sexual activity and homosexuality came up as a result of “valorisation of celibacy and the rise of monastic orders in all cultures.” He also places the credit of sparking the debate for equality on Marx who spoke in favour of a classless society.

An important point that he makes is that the soul has no gender, and he uses this point to explain that feminism has its roots in Hinduism. He explains that gender comes from the flesh and it is the unenlightened who value flesh (a.k.a gender) over the soul. It is only an unenlightened who is capable of valuing “male flesh over the female flesh, the young flesh over the old flesh, flesh encased in fair skin rather than dark skin, the property owned by that flesh, the family to which that flesh belongs, the stature of that flesh in society.” The enlightened, on the other hand, see the body merely as a vessel for the soul and give equal importance to both.

He discusses these ideas in the next half of his book, which is a collection of thirty stories drawn from Hindu mythology that explicitly discusses gender fluidity, sexual identity and queerness. He has taken tales from the Mahabharata, the Yoga Vasishtha, various Puranas, Tamil literature and oral traditions, the Navanatha Charita and even the oral traditions of the Hijras. Pattanaik skillfully frees himself from accusations of having romanticising Hindu mythology to suit his sensibilities, by making Pattanaik makes a statement at the end of the first part of the book, which one can easily assume is a disclaimer. “Those who read this book can accuse me of deliberating queering, hence polluting, the stories I have retold in this book. That is not my intention. This is not an academic book seeking to prove, or disprove, anything. This is a celebration of stories narrated by our ancestors that are rarely retold publicly as they seem to challenge popular notions of normality. I have no control over political propaganda. I have no control over a reader’s perception. Dirt is ultimately an invention of culture,” he writes. Right before this declaration, he even explains how different people could interpret the same story differently, because of their varied understanding of the world and their experiences. He says, “Commentaries on the Gita, for example, by brahmin teachers (Shankara, Ramanujan, Madhava) who wrote in Sanskrit are very different from works of Dnyaneshwara and Tukuram, who were rejected by the Brahmin community because they dared communicate in the vernacular Marathi. The Gita is very different when seen through the eyes of Kosambi (of Marxist leanings), Tilak (of radical leanings) and Gandhi (of pacifist leanings). Seen through a woman’s eyes the Gita would certainly be even more different, more affectionate perhaps than valorous? And the Gita seen through queer eyes? Dare we even consider?” He then goes on to tell us the stories of queerness that exist in Indian mythology that we often forget exists.

The first story discusses the idea of gender ambiguity through the story of Princess Amba, who is reincarnated as Shikhandi. He also narrates the stories of Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Aruna, the gender-changing deities; Narada and Yuvanashva, the men who gave birth; the compassionate friendship between Ratnavali and Brahmini, who preferred death to being separated from each other after marriage, and that of Kopperuncholan and Pisiranthaiyar who never met each other, but yet loved each other. He even discusses the concept of cross-dressing through the lives of Bhima, Vijaya, and Samba.

Each story is accompanied by a set of bullet-point observations, where Pattanaik raises pertinent questions and provides clarity on ambiguous concepts. An interesting thought that popped into my head as I picked up this book was, “Who are the “THEY” that Pattanaik is talking about?” Is he talking about the Supreme Court who criminalised Section 377 saying that, only “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders and in last more than 150 years less than 200 persons have been prosecuted (as per the reported orders) for committing offence under Section 377 IPC and this cannot be made sound basis for declaring that section ultra vires the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution?” Or, maybe he is talking about the various political bodies that claim homosexuality is a foreign concept that will not be tolerated in India or the influential people such as Baba Ramdev who claims that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured with yoga. Maybe he is talking about the society as a whole, the society that claims to achieve milestones in all fronts everyday, but yet can’t seem to grasp the concept of ‘live and let live’.

However, I personally found this book a bit of a disappointment. Given Pattanaik’s knowledge on this subject, along with this mesmerising story telling skills, I had bigger expectations. The brevity of the stories stripped them of it’s depth and essence, making them quite forgettable. It is, of course, quite pleasant to read an alternative view to the otherwise heteronormative narrative. The stories are interesting, no doubt, but he does not give us the chance to understand or embrace the characters. While it could be a great read for someone who is trying to dip their feet into Hindu mythology, it can be misleading because it leaves out several important aspects. On the other hand, those who are well-versed, or even aware of these stories, might find themselves frustrated, because of how superficial the retellings sound.

For example, Pattanaik tells us the story of Bhagirath, the son of two women, taken from the Bengali Krittibas Ramayana. In the chapter, Pattanaik simply talks about King Dilip who begged two rishis to prepare a potion his wives could consume and become pregnant(sounds familiar?). The king dies before the potion was ready, and so one of the queens drink the concoction and the two lay with each other, resulting in a child named Bhagirath. As per the Sushruta Samhita, from where this script was originally taken explains that since the father contributes the bones and the mother the flesh and blood, a child born from two women will be a lump of flesh. Much later when the deformed sage Ashtavakra passes by the palace and sees the misshapen Bhagirath, he feels sorry for the child and blesses him with bones. Pattanaik, however, leaves out an important detail—king Dilip’s death without leaving an heir, disrupts the god’s plan to reincarnation Vishnu as king Rama. In an effort to keep the plan intact, Shiva visits the two queens and instructs them to make love, which means that the union of the two women had been endorsed by the gods.

The “land of women” is a common trope in Indian mythology, something which has been discussed in several stories that Pattanaik recalls, including that of princess Pramila who is exiled to “ forever live in a land of women where no man could enter” for making lewd comments about a Gandharva’s genitalia. The Str?r?jya is depicted as located in the middle of a banana-grove or kadali-vana, which Pattanaik explains is a metaphor, “as in Sanskrit literature the stem of the banana plant is often equated to a woman’s thigh.” In some tales, the women who inhabit these kingdoms are portrayed as r?ka??s (demonesses) or Yogin?s who seduce men, occasionally turning them into animals. Alliyarasanimalai, which is a collection of Tamil folk tales, portray Str?r?jya as a land of self-sufficient women who do not require men for progeny or pleasure. He narrates the story of Alli, a great warrior and the queen of the Pandyan empire, who did not wish to get married. Arjuna, however, sees her during his pilgrimage is smitten by her. He tries to woo her, but fails. And finally changes his form to that of a snake with the help of Krishna, enters her bedchamber “while she was asleep and made love”. To be more precise, he rapes her, and impregnates her. Pattanaik brushes past this point and concludes the story saying, “At first she was angry and resisted, but then she fell in love and submitted, and became one of Arjuna’s many wives”. But, the truth is that he took some liberties with the story. Alli doesn’t fall in love. She goes into battle with Arjuna and Krishna, but is they defeat her by trapping her in a magical cage. When Draupadi informs her that the only way she would be allowed to go back to her kingdom is by marrying Arjuna, Alli obliges. Soon after the marriage, Alli returns to her own kingdom, where she brings up her son to take revenge on Arjuna. The picture that Pattanaik paints is obviously much more cheerier than the original darker version.

That being said, we must acknowledge the fact that Devdutt Pattanaik has never claimed his works to be the absolute truth, and in fact he has always maintained his works to be based on his understanding of the Hindu mythology. This text acts as a great resource material for anyone looking to find queer themes in Hindu myths, provided the person makes an effort to read up more on the matter. However, what this book manages to achieve is, point out the hypocrisy of the society that accepts these stories, and worships the Gods that embraced gender fluidity and homosexuality, but torments people for being queer. Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You is an interesting read for those who hope to know more about the queer culture present in Hindu mythology and would also be a great gift for those who claim homosexuality to be against Indian culture.

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Armed with a B.A in English Literature from St. Xavier's college, Mumbai she set out to become a writer about a year ago. When not binge eating and watching reruns of any show she can get her hands on you will find her talking animatedly/ day dreaming/ glued to a book.
Krupa Joseph

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