Those stories had references about intersexuality and many other identities that do not fall under typical sexual expression and most importantly illustrated a society, which was compassionate and inclusive.
Shapamalla, Papamalla, omane nee, ente jeevithathil vannudhicha bhagyatharam, aadyatharam nee
Not a curse or sin, my sweetheart, you are my lucky star, you are my very first star
LGBTQ poet Vijayarajamallika of Kerala has written these beautiful lines, in which a mother sings comforting words to her baby. The poem talks about a mother who accepts her child despite all social taboos, and gives unconditional and unbiased love to her baby. But what is interesting, and unfortunate at the same time, is that it had to be a transgender poet to write this lullaby. No cisgender person ever thought of creating anything like this. Is this because we presume that the mothers of those children must be under so much pressure to abandon them that the tender words die inside? The fact remains that we as a society, are still clueless about our own orientation towards LGBTQ and all subsequent alphabets.
The only progress that we have made so far, is that they are no longer casually referred to as others, now we have specific names for them, that is Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Queer, amongst others. When we coined the word, “progress”, we forgot that as an ancient culture, we have always had a progressive mindset, regarding the LGBTQ community. It was never a modern revelation for us (references in India date back to 3000 B.C.). In our mythology there are many popular stories about gender fluidity, sexual identity and queerness. Hindu mythology and epics have dealt most explicitly with this subject and taught us to think beyond the binary and accept it as a natural phenomenon.
They believed gender to be more a more fluid concept.
Whether those stories were purely fictional or not is always debatable, but one thing is certain, they represent and reflect certain aspects of a socio-cultural scenario, which is still prevalent. Those stories had references about intersexuality and many other identities that do not fall under typical sexual expression and most importantly illustrated a society, which was compassionate and inclusive.
These epics described a spiritual way of exploring gender within the pantheon of Hindu Gods, who were considered a ‘third gender’ or ‘Tritiya Prakriti’, because of their intangible, metaphysical nature and unclear genders. They were quite literally neither completely male nor female. Neither mentally or physically. They believed gender to be more a more fluid concept. There are stories of male gods transforming into female goddesses to defeat evil and parables of the embodiment of both genders. There are also references of people who were neither male nor female being blessed by kings and welcomed by the people.
This story tells us that this third gender was never ostracized in our great epics.
The brightest example in this regard surely is Shikhandi, who was born as Shikhandini. Whose actual gender was never distinctly mentioned and, in this ambiguity, lies the significance of the character. Shikhandi is one of the most talked-about LGBTQ characters in the Mahabharata. When Bhishma refused to marry princess Amba, she took her life, took a vow to avenge on him in her afterlife, as a man. She was born to Panchala king Dhrupada as a daughter but was raised as a son. If myths are to be believed, she swapped her identity with a Yaksha, before the Kurukshetra War. Eventually on Lord Krishna’s suggestion, Arjuna used her as a shield to defeat Bhishma.
Another popular one from the Mahabharata is the story of Brihannala. Urvashi, rejected by Arjuna, cursed him to turn into a transgender. Arjuna seized this opportunity and turned this curse into a boon to disguise himself as the dance teacher of King Virata’s daughter Uttara while the Pandavas were in exile and became Brihannala. It is interesting to note that not only was Brihannala heartily welcomed into the royal household but also fought for prince Uttar (King Virata’s son) who was petrified and wanted to flee the battlefield, when Virata’s kingdom was attacked by the Kauravas. Nobody knew the real identity of Brihannala. So, in effect the stalwarts of the Kauravas fought with a eunuch. This story tells us that this third gender was never ostracized in our great epics.
If at all it was perceived as criminal activity in Indian culture, how can the sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark, Ajanta, Ellora, replete with gender fluidity, be explained?
It is true that they were not in the mainstream, but they were not looked down upon either. Ostracization came rather late, much later and is unequivocally a fruit of the advent of colonial rule in India. In a typical colonial decision, with total disregard of Indian culture, British authority introduced article 377 criminalizing gay-sex activities.
Their conservative Christian belief-system perhaps influenced this decision. But this conservative outlook stayed with us, becoming even stronger after their departure. We never delved deep into our history, never looked at our rich past, and never thought about how this article must be expunged. If at all it was perceived as criminal activity in Indian culture, how can the sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark, Ajanta, Ellora, replete with gender fluidity, be explained?
We continue to ostracize our relatives in family, classmates in schools and colleges, and colleagues in our workplaces. We can recall the famous interview where justice Leela Seth ruefully admitted that when her son Vikram Seth told her about his sexual orientation, she couldn’t sleep for nights. If an enlightened person like she could react in such a way, what to expect from lesser mortals!
I still remember a friend’s older brother, who never dared to come out about his sexual orientation, and how he was looked down upon at the dinner-table for his body-language, and regularly ridiculed. Increasingly, he started keeping to himself and one day he left home never to return. I was too young to understand his situation and the trauma he must have gone through, and the stigma that have been attached to him. But I realise now how difficult it must have been for him to live on his own in this unfriendly world.
Countless people still struggle to hide their true selves and live in fear. This fear, this sense of not belonging to their own family must be so difficult to deal with. Many precious lives are cut short due to our intolerance.
In Rama’s Ayodhya transgenders were blessed to lead a respectful life and accepted in society but today … the LGBTQ community is yet to reclaim its acceptance among us.
Of course, it is a thing of the past now. On the 6th of September 2018, Article 377 was rescinded and their right to respect and dignity was restored. But has our outlook towards them changed?
This month, as we celebrate the second anniversary of the rescission of Article 377, I recall a recent interview of celebrated chef Ritu Dalmia where she spoke extensively about the kind of trouble she and her partner faced whenever they had tried to buy a property or any such thing because they were not married. Same-sex marriages are still not legalized and homophobia around the LGBTQ community is far from over. Though it has been quite a while since the first same-sex marriage was performed in Netherland in 2001, according to a 2019 survey, fifty percent of Indians still object to same-sex relationships.
When Lord Rama was leaving for his exile the people of Ayodhya followed him. At the outskirts of the city he asked every man and woman to go back. When he returned, he found the people who were neither male nor female waiting where he had left them fourteen years ago. He was deeply moved and took them back into the city with him where they were accorded acceptance and respect in society – they were granted a boon wherein they would have the power to bless auspicious ceremonies.
It is ironical though, in Rama’s Ayodhya transgenders were blessed to lead a respectful life and accepted in society but today when Lord Rama again has become the talk of the town, the LGBTQ community is yet to reclaim its acceptance among us.
May the powerful words, penned by Vijayarajamallika, give many mothers the much-required strength and courage to love their children, regardless of any gender, unconditionally.
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