Get Inspired, Be Empowered Forums LGBTQ Issues & Rights LGBT themes in hindu mythology

1 reply, 2 voices Last updated by Adrita Chakraborty 1 year, 1 month ago
  • Anushka Puranik

    The tale of Mitra and Varuna not only provides queer Hindus with divine figures to worship but also exemplifies profound affection. Both revered as Sun gods, their relationship is depicted as one of intense love. They are often portrayed together, riding a shark or side-by-side on a golden chariot drawn by seven swans. Even the ancient text Bhagavata Purana mentions how these two male deities had a child when their semen fell on a termite mound, serving as a mythical representation of surrogacy.

    In certain versions of the Bengali mythological text Krittivasa Ramayana, we encounter the story of two queens who fall in love with each other and, through the blessings of Lord Shiva, miraculously conceive a child following the widowhood of one of them.

    While it may be tempting to assume that such progressive concepts are imported from the West, numerous Indian historians and mythologists challenge this notion. Sundeep Verma, an Indian mythologist, was surprised when he stumbled upon a video of a conservative anchor based in the UK expressing annoyance at the multitude of sexualities present today.

    “He was frustrated by the existence of approximately a hundred sexualities,” Verma stated. “However, in Indian mythology and history, diverse sexualities have always been part of our narratives and scriptures.”

    Verma explained that the Sabda-kalpa-druma, a Sanskrit dictionary, lists 20 types of sexualities, as do the Kamatantra (manual of love) and Smriti-ratnavali (summary of Vedic laws) of Vacaspati. “The Narada Smriti similarly enumerates 14 different sexual orientations, including trans people (sandha), intersex individuals (nisarga), and three distinct types of homosexual men (mukhebhaga, kumbhika, and asekya), based on their orientations. It also asserts that men who exhibit feminine behavior or women who exhibit masculine behavior are determined as such at the time of their conception in the womb,” Verma elaborated.

    However, queerness was not regarded as foreign or unconventional even in Indian history and mythology, according to Madhavi Menon, professor at Ashoka University and director of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

    “In Indian mythology, there is a celebration of the multitude of desires because desires refuse to be confined by any identities,” she explained. “If one observes the sculptures adorning the Khajuraho temple, they will witness various depictions of men with men, women with women, and more. This was a prevalent narrative, and there is no historical evidence to suggest that it was seen as scandalous or sacrilegious.”

    Adrita Chakraborty
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    The essence of Hindu mythology is that every individual is an embodied eternal atman (spirit or soul). Being distinct from the body — including its extended attributes like race, gender, and sexual orientation — every atman originates from the same Divine source and is therefore part of the same spiritual family, deserving the dignity of love, respect, and equal treatment. The Mahabharata states the example of Amba, a princess, who then turned into the transgendered Shikhandi.
    The story of Amba started when Bhishma was searching for a suitable wife for his younger brother and the king Vichitravirya. Bhishma went to the swayamvar of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika and won over their hand for marriage as it was normal for a king to have more than one wife. Amba felt differently, however. Approaching Bhishma, she explained how she and Shalva had already given their hearts to each other, and that the swayamvara was actually pre-arranged for his victory.
    After careful consideration, Bhishma arranged for Amba to be escorted to Shalva’s kingdom so she could marry him instead.
    When Amba arrived at Shalva’s palace, however, she did not get the reception she had anticipated. Shalva wanted nothing to do with her. He felt humiliated by Bhishma, and as a proud warrior, refused to accept “charity” from him. Though she begged and pleaded with him, he wouldn’t budge. Heartbroken, Amba eventually gave up and returned to Hastinapura, where she explained to Bhishma what had happened with Shalva, and that she now had no other choice but to marry Vichitravirya. Bhishma, however — to Amba’s shock — said the option of wedding Vichitravirya was no longer possible because she had already given her heart to another.
    Quickly realizing she was running out of options, she then suggested Bhishma marry her. After all, it was he who caused Amba to be in this predicament by taking her. But Bhishma insisted that he could not and would not break his vow of celibacy. Essentially deemed unmarriable, Amba was advised to return to her family.

    Honest, sincere, and having acted only out of love, Amba had done nothing wrong, yet was cast aside as damaged goods. Reflecting on all that had happened, she was incensed at both men, but concluded that Bhishma was the ultimate cause of her ruined future. If he had never taken her, she would be a happily married queen.
    So instead of returning to her family home, she entered the forest and began performing severe austerities to attain the power she needed for revenge. Eventually gaining the favor of the god Shiva, she asked him to give her the ability to kill Bhishma. Granting Amba her wish, Shiva told her that in her next life she would indeed play a part in Bhishma’s death. Determined to fulfill her goal as soon as possible, Amba immediately killed herself. There are multiple versions of the next part of the story. In some accounts, Amba is born as a daughter to the king Drupada. Told by Shiva that she would eventually be transformed into a man, Drupada names her Shikhandi and raises her as a boy. In this version, a powerful being living in the forest does, in fact, transform her into a man. In other accounts, Shikhandi is born a male, but grows up transgender because Shiva gave her the ability to remember her past life.
    Either way, as Shiva promised, Shikhandi does get the opportunity to be the cause of Bhishma’s death towards the end of the Mahabharata during the war of Kurukshetra, and the issue of his gender plays a significant role.
    So during the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma wanted the Pandavas to win but he knew that he could not be defeated. When the pandavas asked him hoe to defeat him, Bhishma said that he would never fight a woman. Knowing of the revenge of Shikhandi, Pandavas entered the war next day lead by Shikhandi closely follwed by Arjun. Refusing to engage Shikhandi in battle, Bhishma became vulnerable, which allowed Arjuna to take him down with a volley of arrows.
    With Bhishma — the commander of the Kuru army — defeated, the Pandavas went on to win the war. And Shikhandi, whose gender was never an issue societally speaking, became remembered as a significant character who played a major part in overcoming the Kauravas. Today, many discriminate against people like Shikhandi, including Hindus.

    But true Hinduism means promoting love and respect based on equality of the soul, regardless of a person’s gender, race, or sexual orientation. Hinduism thus has a history that is inclusive of all types of people and the pivotal roles they have played in India’s most beloved sacred stories.

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