The Honorable Supreme Court’s recent admission that it may have erred in 2013 when it reversed a Delhi High Court order from 2009 decriminalizing homosexuality is a shot in the arm for all LGBTQ activists. It is also an honest confession by India’s top court that archaic laws, dating back to 1861, which are not only primitive in thought, but also liable to be abused against these minorities, are still being used in the country. Sec 377, based on the Buggery Act of 1533, is a rather prudish law and smacks of Victorian morality when it seeks to criminalize sexual activities ‘against the order of nature’. Of course, the law conveniently fails to define the ‘order of nature’. In the Indian ethos, the LGBTQ community, though always, sadly, a butt of jokes, criticisms and sarcasm, has never been treated as ‘criminals’. In fact some of our greatest stories revolve around these ‘queer’ characters. Two names, which instantly come to my mind, are ‘Shikhandi’ and ‘Brihannala’.
Shikhandi was the first-born child of King Drupad of Panchala and the elder sibling of Drishtadyumn and Draupadi. Shikhandi was probably born a transgender and hence his gender is a matter of great confusion in the different renderings of the ‘Mahabharata’. What the scriptures, however, unanimously agree upon is that Shikhandi was a reincarnation of Amba, the eldest daughter of the King of Kashi whom Bhishma, patriarch of the Kuru Kingdon, abducted from a ‘Swayamvar’ (a royal ceremony for selection of the groom) for his stepbrother, the weakling monarch, Vichitravirya.
Amba, along with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika were abducted from the assembly of the King of Kashi after Bhisma challenged and defeated all the suitors present in the court, including Shalva whom Amba used to love. When this latter fact was brought to the notice of Bhishma, he freed Amba and sent her respectfully back to Shalva. The latter, however, refused to accept Amba as his wife, as she reminded him of his defeat at the hands of Bhishma. Amba, thus, went back to Bhishma, hurt, humiliated and confused, and demanded that Bhisma marry her, as he was the cause of her present predicament. Bhisma refused, citing his eternal vow of celibacy as the reason for not being able to accept her as his wife. Following this, the enraged Amba petitioned several Kings to help her in teaching a lesson to Bhisma and avenging her, but found no takers for this, as all were afraid of Bhishma’s military prowess. She later went as a supplicant to Parashuram, the great warrior sage who, taking pity on her, agreed to confront Bhisma to avenge her humiliation. In time, Parashuram was also defeated by Bhisma, Parashuram’s protégé, and an enraged Amba later ended her life after securing a boon for herself from Lord Shiva that she will be the cause of Bhisma’s death in her next life. As was ordained, she was reborn as Shikhandi, who later confronted Bhisma in the great battle of Mahabharata on the fields of Kurukshetra. Bhishma, fighting for the Kauravas, refused to fight with a ‘woman’ and put down his weapons, rather than confront Shikhandi in battle. At this opportune moment he was conveniently martyred by his own protégé Arjun, thus fulfilling Amba’s/Shikhandi’s purpose.
Another character, again from the Mahabharata, is ‘Brihannala’. According to the Mahabharata, Arjun goes to his father Indra’s abode to seek divine weapons during the time of the Pandava’s exile. While he is there, Urvashi, the celestial nymph, seeks to seduce Arjuna who refuses her advances, thus angering her. Urvashi curses Arjuna to lose his manhood for a year, but relents at the request of Indra, Arjuna’s father, and grants that he may choose the time when he will bear this curse. Arjuna uses this curse as a boon during the last year of the Pandavas’ exile, the ‘Agyatvaas’ or the period of hiding, when they have to stay in disguise to avoid discovery. They present themselves as ordinary servants to the court of King Virat of Matsyadesh, where Arjuna becomes Brihannala, the court eunuch who teaches dance and music to the Princess Uttara. The Pandavas are thus able to spend one year in disguise at Virat’s court, doing different menial jobs, and reveal their true form only when the Kaurav army attacks Matsyadesh. Draupadi who is disguised as the Queen’s handmaiden Sairandhri, convinces Uttar Kumar, the Prince, to ride out in his chariot, with Brihannala as the charioteer, to confront the Kaurav warriors. Once out in the field, Brihannala takes a detour to retrieve her celestial weapons from their hiding place and, thunderously twanging the string of the ‘Gandiva’, the divine bow, reveals her true form as Arjuna to the Kaurav army and challenges them to war. Arjuna, subsequently, defeats the Kaurav battalion single-handedly and returns safely to Matsya with the Prince Uttar Kumar. The King Virat offers his daugher to Arjuna as a token of gratitude for having saved his kingdom from plunder and his son from certain death, but Arjuna refuses, as Uttara was the pupil of Brihannala and thus was like a daughter to Arjuna. Uttara later gets married to Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s son, and bears him a son Parikshit, who inherits the Puru Kingdom after the fratricidal war is over and the Pandavas retire to the mountains for ‘Sanyaas’ or solitude. Brihannala/Arjuna is thus shown as an upright and courageous character, unlike several ‘straight’ characters like Dusshasana who publicly disrobe and assault Draupadi, thus displaying little integrity.
Shikhandi and Brihannala are important characters in the epic and are portrayed as individuals of great integrity and character. Shikhandi has also been portrayed, at several places, as having a ‘partner’ who is slayed by the Kauravas in the great battle of Mahabharata. This portrayal of Shikhandi and his partner has none of the Victorian prudishness so characteristic of some sections of the IPC that were thrust down the Indian throat in the 19thcentury. And these are not the only examples in Indian religious history that attest to the presence and acceptability of this community in ancient India.
Lord Vishnu, to recount another example, takes the form of Mohini, the ‘Enchantress’, on several occasions in different ‘Puranas’, for different purposes. The most memorable incidence is at the time of the ‘Saagar Manthan’ or the great churning of the oceans for its treasures, which was undertaken as a joint effort by a team of Devas and Asuras. As the oceans were churned, they threw up various treasures, which were all appropriated by the Devas, with the Asuras patiently waiting for their turn. At the very end appeared the pot of ‘Amrit’ or the nectar of immortality. Immediately a great fight broke out amongst the two groups, to capture the pot and partake of the celestial potion of life. The Devas ran in supplication to Lord Vishnu, who then took the form of Mohini and, luring both the Asuras and the Devas into her trap, served all the nectar to the Devas leaving the Asuras bereft of the reward of their labor. In modern times, Mohini would be a cross-dresser or a transvestite and would, at the very least, be looked down upon, if not shunned all together. However, the ancient scriptures find nothing ‘queer’ in this and Lord Vishnu is as fervently worshipped as other deities of the Hindu pantheon, his antics as Mohini notwithstanding.
To continue the argument, Lord Shiva is often worshipped as ‘Ardhnaareshwar’ or half man-half woman and no devotee has ever found anything wrong with this. The other form that ‘Shiva’ is worshipped as is the ‘Natraj’ or ‘Nateshwar’, the Lord of the Dancers or the Celestial Dancer. All forms of dance, yoga and medicine are supposed to have originated from Shiva. A culture that does not mind worshipping the ‘Ardhnaareshwar’ or ‘Nateshwar’ has for several centuries now, been held hostage by alien social norms and cultural values. The culture that we have inherited is broad minded and practical. We must work hard to rid it of the peevishness and false sense of morality that has accumulated upon it through the ages. Sec 377 must be suitably modified and properly implemented for India to be able to show herself as a modern nation, strongly rooted in her broad cultural values and not chained down by imaginary moral concepts, which are foreign in letter and spirit to India’s inheritance!!