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Book review: Shikhandi by Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt Pattanaik's new book establishes that Indians didn't shy away from engaging with the conflicts arising out of differing sexual behaviour

Arundhuti Dasgupta 

Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Zubaan/Penguin Books

Pages: 178
Price: Rs 299

Hermit-warriors Nara and Narayana had grown all powerful. Stories about their valour had spread far and wide. Riding on a single chariot, the duo made for a fearsome couple; they vanquished asuras with ease and conducted the most severe penance that had even the gods shaking with fear. The two were close friends - in some texts they are guru and shishya and in others, they share a more equal relationship - and had sworn to a lifetime of celibacy. The king of gods, Indra, was worried. He feared their growing strength and their asceticism as much as he abhorred their celibate status. So he sent an army of apsaras to break their penance and seduce them. Nara saw the apsaras approaching and turned to Narayana who drew a beautiful woman on his thigh using the stalk of a mango leaf. An apsara emerged from the thigh (uru in Sanskrit) and thus Urvashi was born; without a mother and with two fathers. Urvashi went on to become one of Indra's favourite apsaras, while Arjuna and Krishna were believed to be avataras of Nara and Narayana.

This story is part of the Bhagvata Purana, but if we were to place Nara and Narayana within a contemporary narrative, how would we categorise them? As parents of Urvashi, who would be the mother and who the father? Would they be members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community? Or would they be part of an ascetic cult where men can make babies? Depending on how you answer these questions, you define your approach to an issue that has vexed many: how accepting or tolerant was ancient Indian society of the LGBT community?

Importantly, the story does not judge, classify or label the relationship. This was usually the case - we see it across the board with respect to the epics, myths and legends that have been told and retold several times over. It was the reader, the preacher or the commentator who ascribed a moral to the tale. It is the same today; in the debate against and for recognition to the LGBT community, stories from the past are being used to present a position that suits the popular sentiment or helps avoid conflict. And as prominent men and women voice their opinion on LGBT rights and what comprises sexual activities 'against the order of nature' as implied under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the morals being applied to the stories are those of the people telling them.

What the stories from ancient Indian literature show is that queer behaviour did not invite stricture from the community. This is the premise on which author Devdutt Pattanaik bases his book. He says Indian society was comfortable with the idea of queerness. It was experimental and non-judgmental about sexual attitudes and society didn't shy away from engaging with the conflicts arising out of queer behaviour.

There are several examples that fit the bill: the story of Shikhandi which opens the collection is well known. Born as a girl but raised as a son, Shikhandi was Amba in her/his previous life. Amba sought revenge against Bhishma who abducted her and her sisters from their swayamvara for his brother. She was reborn as Dhrupada's daughter Shikhandi, who was used to defeat Bhishma in the battle of Mahabharata. But what was Shikhandi's life like? A man trapped in a woman's body, Shikhandi was married off to a princess who ran away when she discovered that her husband was a woman. To bring her back and save his father's kingdom from being attacked by his father-in-law's army, he took the help of a yaksha named Sthuna who lent Shikhandi his manhood. Shikhandi, the author says, would be called a female to male transsexual whose body is genitally changed. However tellers of this tale have preferred to portray him as a eunuch or a man who feels like a woman indicating 'a patriarchal bias even in the queer space'.

The truth is that ancient civilisations have rarely been moralistic about sex. Discussing one's sexuality was never taboo; in fact, in several myths that are part of the great epics, men turn into women and women seek sexual encounters with men who are not their husbands without heartburn or fear of being ostracised. Over time, things changed. Communities found it necessary to protect their identity by setting down rules and marking out acts of taboo, patriarchal systems gained prominence and religious codes came into practice. As a result, gender and caste biases and puritanism crept into the stories. They acquired a didactic tone to gain religious sanction and approval from those in power. Storytellers took on, or maybe they were forced to do so, the burden of preaching and teaching values, behavioural attitudes and morality. Thus we have a story in which a queen prefers the company of women but Arjuna is so enamoured by her that he forces himself into her bed in the form of a serpent. While it may have been entirely acceptable for women to be sexual partners, as patriarchal systems came into place, there was growing discomfort with such an attitude which, perhaps, prompted some enterprising storyteller to embed a man into an all-women world.

This book does a great job putting across a collection of stories that capture the essence of ancient Indian society's approach to sexual behaviour. And apart from all things else, it establishes that Indian society was not coy about sexual attitudes.

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First Published: Sat, August 16 2014. 00:28 IST