I have recently finished reading Devdutt Pattanaik’s 2010 Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of The Mahabharata, and let me tell you, it is awesome. Pattanaik is a wonderful writer and storyteller, and India’s great epic is breathtaking. In The Mahabharata, we have gods, demons, and mortals, shattering family dynamics, everlasting hatred, and undying love. We have characters with godlike powers and human flaws, betrayal, redemption and, of course, lots and lots of bloodshed as the Pandavas and Kauravas fight for possession of a kingdom and, even more vital, to determine which will prevail: dharma or chaos.
We also have something I did not expect when I first purchased the book: a whole range of gender-fluid characters.
In The Mahabharata are many characters who take a nonstandard approach to gender, from a person who is cursed by the gods to change their gender according to the phases to the moon to a man who voluntarily chooses a completely celibate lifestyle. Even the sacrificial stallion is turned into a mare when it wanders through a magical grove. Gender transformations, and non-standard gender identities, abound through the epic.
We are introduced to our first gender-fluid character almost immediately: Budh, offspring of the star goddess Tara and the moon god Chandra. Budh is the illegitimate product of an affair between Tara and Chandra, so Tara’s husband, Brihaspati, curses the child to be “‘of neuter gender, neither male nor female,’” (Pattanaik, 2010, p. 12). Though this condition is handed down as a curse, Budh also represents perfect balance between two states of being, and they later marry someone who is also gender-balanced, albeit in a different way. Ila, formerly a male prince named Sudyumna, runs afoul of Shiva and his consort Shakti, accidentally trespassing into their private grove and so turning into a woman. Shakti cannot undo the spell, but she modifies it so that Sudyumna/Ila is a man during the waxing of the moon and a woman during its waning. Budh and Ila, two magical beings who mix genders, become the ancestors of the Chandra-vamsis, the royal dynasty that comprises the main characters of the epic. Thus, gender fluidity and non-standard gender norms are introduced to the family, and the epic, right from the start.
The next family member who takes an unusual approach to his gender and sexual lifestyle is Prince Devavrata, later known as Bhishma, the one who takes a terrible vow. He renounces marriage, sex, and children so that his father, Shantanu, can marry Satyavati. In the Vedic society presented in the epic, this makes Bhishma effectively a non-man: someone living outside society’s gender norms, as much as Budh or Ila. While Bhishma’s vow is portrayed as a great and terrible sacrifice, dooming him to dwell forever in the land of the dead, without children to facilitate his rebirth, Bhishma seems eager to embrace the celibate lifestyle, and never once expresses any regret or unhappiness over his choice. Even though it goes against society and dharma, Bhishma is in charge of his sexual destiny, and he voluntarily chooses a sex-free life.
Bhishma is not the only character who voluntarily takes up a different gender and sexual identity than the one assigned him at birth. Later in the epic, Arjuna, one of the five heroic Pandava brothers, disguises himself as a castrated, female-living eunuch named Brihanalla, working as a dance teacher at King Virata’s court. Though this is presented as a necessity, as the Pandavas must live in disguise for one year, Arjuna seems to be enjoying his feminine role quite a bit, fluttering his eyelashes and acting coy and flirty with Virata’s son, Prince Uttara. One suspects that Arjuna is having a lot of fun expressing his more feminine side. Interestingly, the character is named Brihanalla and identified by feminine pronouns even in the author’s narrative, suggesting that Arjuna has, on some level, truly taken on a female identity. The moment her disguise is pierced, Brihanalla becomes the male Arjuna again. Inner gender identity is determined as much by outward appearance and behavior as it is by body type or personal choice.
Perhaps the most famous gender transformation is that of Krishna, the Pandavas’ spiritual guide, and earthly incarnation of the god. When Arjuna’s son Iravan is chosen as a sacrifice to ensure victory in battle, he requests that he be given a wife who will mourn his death. Krishna takes his female form, Mohini, marries Iravan, and mourns him after his death the next day. Even today, Iravan is worshipped in India as the husband of all Alis, men who live as women, apart from mainstream society. Through Krishna and Iravan, transgender and gender-fluid individuals are acknowledged and validated.
Female-bodied characters also feel gender conflicts, and have gender-fluid identities. The Princess Chitrangada, while she identifies as a woman, has distinctly masculine qualities, being a famous warrior with a “manly gait” (Pattanaik, 2010, p. 117). Having fallen in love with Arjuna (in his male identity), she prays to Shiva to make her more feminine, so she can catch his interest. But when Shiva complies, this strategy, rather amusingly, backfires: Arjuna has seen many feminine women, and is only interested in meeting the famed warrior princess, who he can’t find. Citrangada hurriedly prays to be restored to her original form and identity, whereupon Arjuna falls in love with her, and they are married. The reader is left to assume that Chitrangada learns her lesson and is ever after true to herself and her own soul.
The Princess Shikhandi is another female-bodied character with gender conflicts. A prophecy at her birth predicts that she will one day be transformed into a man. She is thus raised as a male, and even marries a woman. Her wife, however, is so horrified at marrying a female-bodied individual that her father, Hiranyavarna, lays siege to Shikhandi’s kingdom. Shikhandi borrows manhood from a forest demon, becoming a man and remaining that way for the rest of his life, thus averting war. It’s also worth noting that Shikhandi represents a certain cosmic balance to her twin siblings: the entirely masculine Dhrishtadyumna and the entirely feminine Draupadi, who is Goddess-on-Earth.
Later, however, Shikhandi’s gender identity brings an element of confusion to the great Pandava-Kaurava war: women are prohibited from the battlefield, but is Shikhandi a man or a woman? Or, as Pattanaik puts it:
“All those who knew this tale wondered if Shikhandi was man or woman. Is gender defined by the truth of birth or by the truth of this moment?” (Pattanaik, 2010, p. 250).
This is a question that is asked over and over throughout the epic: what is gender? What defines it? Is it dictated by society, personal conviction, or both? The Mahabharata takes an astonishingly nuanced view of this issue, examining the question from many angles, and expressing sympathy for gender-fluid characters, even as they go against society’s dictates and against dharma.
So are we to conclude that the Vedic people were more accepting of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity than we are today? Not necessarily: The Mahabharata is three thousand years old, and has undoubtedly had many edits, additions, subtractions and alterations. Besides, any notion of an ancient Utopian society where all gender identities were welcome is nonsense: human societies across the world have always regulated gender, and always used it as a form of social control. Vedic society, as portrayed in the epic, is heteronormative and patriarchal. The gender-fluid individuals in The Mahabharata are portrayed as special and magical, but also as weird, abnormal, and deeply embarrassing to their relatives. Shikhandi’s female body is so unacceptable that it nearly starts a war; the Chandra-vamsis are humiliated and deny that they are descended from the gender-ambiguous Budh and Ila; and even Bhishma, whose renunciation of his gender identity is relatively mild, is repeatedly upbraided for his choice, and deeply pitied. Also, irritatingly, while transformations from male to female are handed down as curses and terrible punishments, Shikhandi is delighted to become male, and happy to remain that way for the rest of his life. In The Mahabharata, being male is definitely superior to being female, and while gender fluidity is omnipresent, society’s rules regarding gender roles are still deeply important. Non cisgender characters go against those rules, and they are never fully accepted by society.
Perhaps the hidden message is that it is not gender that is important: it is transformation. It is metamorphosis. In the universe of The Mahabharata, transformation is key, and it abounds everywhere: gods become mortals, mortals become gods, the living become dead and the dead become living. Characters morph through all variations and degrees of gender. What makes the Pandava brothers good and the Kauravas unworthy is not that the Pandavas are especially virtuous—they aren’t. It’s that, unlike the Kauravas, they are willing to grow, and learn, and change. The Pandavas experience all manner of existences during their journey, moving between palace and forest, assuming different gender and social roles, even spending time with the gods. In other words, they change, and so they grow. In order for the universe to be preserved, balance must be struck between preservation and progress, stability and change. Metamorphosis through all states of being is vital for the evolution of the soul; gender is only one facet of that eternal state of change.
Pattanaik, D. (2010). Jaya: An illustrated retelling of The Mahabharata. Penguin Books India: Haryana, India.