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Book review: Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You

Devdutt Pattanaik’s 2002 book, The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore (Harrington Park Press) was one of the first non-academic works to provide an in-depth exploration of potential queer themes in Hindu mythology, so I was interested to see what his latest offering – Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You (Zubaan and Penguin Books India, 2014) – would be like. Shikhandi is retellings of tales from a variety of sources, ranging from the Mahabharata, the Yoga Vasishtha, various Puranas, Tamil literature and oral traditions, to the Navanatha Charita and oral traditions of the Hijras. The stories deal with themes such as gender ambiguity (Shikhandi); gender-changing deities (Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, and Aruna 1); women who become men and vice versa; companiate same-sex friendships (Ratnavali, Kopperumcholan); men who give birth (Narada, Yuvanashra) and a child born of two mothers; men who experience both genders (Ila); the uses of cross-dressing (Bhima, Vijaya, Samba & Goraknath), and the blessings of Ram given to Hijras.

Prefaced by some general observations, and a quick romp through queer tropes in other world mythologies, each story is appended with a set of bullet-pointed notes with observations intended to provoke further thought and questions.

ShikhandiAt the end of the first part of the book, Pattanaik makes the following statements:

“Those who read this book can accuse me of deliberating queering, hence polluting, the stories I have retold in this book. That is not my intention. This is not an academic book seeking to prove, or disprove, anything. This is a celebration of stories narrated by our ancestors that are rarely retold publically as they seem to challenge popular notions of normality. I have no control over political propoganda. I have no control over a reader’s perception. Dirt is ultimately an invention of culture.”

This disclaimer is interesting in itself. Is Pattanaik – by averring that he has not produced an “academic book” – distancing himself from those Euro-American scholars who are frequently castigated for their overtly sexualised (and psyochoanalytic) interpretations of Hindu myth? Equally, this disclaimer could be read as a counter to accusations that he is romanticising and essentialising India’s past as a period of glorious gender fluidity and acceptance of non-normative gender identities. It could be read as an assertion that he is just “telling stories” – albeit stories which deserve more of an airing that they tend – for various reasons – not to get, and interpretation is up to the individual reader.

This is tricky territory, as, giving offence can, in India easily lead to books being banned or withdrawn from circulation 2 and Pattanaik does state – just prior to making his disclaimer:

“Commentaries on the Gita, for example, by brahmin teachers (Shankara, Ramanujan, Madhava) who wrote in Sanskrit are very different from works of Dnyaneshwara and Tukuram, who were rejected by the brahmin community because they dared communicate in the vernacular Marathi. The Gita is very different when seen through the eyes of Kosambi (of Marxist leanings), Tilak (of radical leanings) and Gandhi (of pacifist leanings). Seen through a woman’s eyes the Gita would certainly be even more different, more affectionate perhaps than valorous? And the Gita seen through queer eyes? Dare we even consider?”

Telling stories is always political. For example, the story of the Hijras’ devotion to Lord Ram and the story of Aravan (as well as the presence of the “third gender identity” in Hindu myth and sacred literature) were both cited in the argument for the Indian Supreme Court’s landmark granting of transgender person’s citizenship 3 – it seems that whilst persons of the so-called “third gender” are recognised as having a place and even respected status in ‘traditional’ Indian history and culture 4 the same affordances cannot be given to gays, lesbians, or bisexuals in India. 5

Who, I wonder, are the “They” of the subtitle? Pattanaik does not name names but perhaps he has in mind the various political groups who assert that homosexuality is ‘foreign’ to India (and hence irreligious and anti-national); it’s presence put down to Islam or the Colonial British, or general contemporary Western decadence – “cultural pollution” being the current phrase of choice. Perhaps he has in mind the entrepeneurial godmen (such as Baba Ramdev) who insist that homosexuality is a disease or habit which can be cured with Yoga, or indeed the Indian Supreme Court, who very recently 6 stated that homosexuality was for some, “akin to a social evil”, or, in its 98-page judgement delivered on December 12th, 2013 7 upholding the constitutionality of Section 377, averred that: only “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders and in last more than 150 years less than 200 persons have been prosecuted (as per the reported orders) for committing offence under Section 377 IPC and this cannot be made sound basis for declaring that section ultra vires the provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.”

But back to Shikhandi. Whilst Pattanaik’s retellings of these stories form a useful introduction to the rich diversity of Indian myths and tales which – seemingly – present alternatives to, or subvert heteronormative narratives – they are extremely condensed, at times, I feel, to the point where, in the service of brevity, he has omitted pertinent details which readers would find of interest. In approaching these tales, it would be all too easy to come away with the impression that non-normative sexualities and genders were tolerated or respected in premodern India. Whilst it is true that India had no absolute prohibition on non-procreational sex in the same way that Europe had its category of “sodomy” 8 this does not mean that all kinds of sexual liaisons and acts were permissable – as the śāstra and kāvya literature indicates.

Take for example the tale of Bhagirath, who was “born of two women” – which Pattanaik takes from the Bengali Krittivasa Ramayana. What’s important here – that Bhagirath was born of two women making love – hence the tale’s queerness – is mentioned but hardly foregrounded. What is missed out – at least from this retelling – is the wider narrative; that king Dilip’s death without children confounds the gods’ plans for the incarnation of Vishnu into the royal lineage as king Rama – and so Shiva visits the two queens and instructs them to make love together. Ruth Vanita, in her study of this tale 9 points out that the two women’s union is sanctioned by the gods. In another version of the tale which Vanita examines, it is the gods who approach a sage at court, Vasishtha, and charge him to help the two queen-widows (named Chandra and Mala) to bear a son. Vasishtha is horrified by this suggestion, and refuses to help, so the gods dispatch Kama to add his power to the queen’s lovemaking. When Mala discovers she is pregnant, she is ashamed, and announces that she will drown herself – at which point Brahma appears to her and explains the situation. In this version of the tale, Brahma says that he will take on any demerit which Mala may have accrued from the act of love between herself and Chandra.

Similarly, Pattanaik gives a very brief treatment of Pramila – a princess who is cursed by a Gandharva (she made some rude comments about his genitalia) to live in “a land of women where no man could enter”. In answer to her prayers, the Nath yogi Matsyendranath enters the land of women (Strīrājya) and Pramila enchants him, so that he is prevented from leaving the kingdom until he gives her – and all the other women, children. Eventually, Matysendra’s student, Goraknath turns up – disguises himself as a female musician, enters the kingdom, and reminds Matsyendranath of his “true purpose”. All well and good, but where is the “queer” element here? Is it the legendary homosocial space of the fabled land of women? Seemingly not, as in this retelling, the whole point of Matsyendranath’s being there is to beget children on the women of the kingdom. Is it then Goraknath’s cross-dressing disguise? Pattanaik observes: it is “ironic that Goraknath takes a female form to deprive the women of male companionship”. What we have here – in an extremely condensed form – is the famous story of Goraknath’s “rescue” of Matsyendranath from the clutches of the land of women. Some versions of this tale have Matsyendra voluntarily entering the land of women and becoming the lover of Queen Mainākinī – and sixteen hundred courtesans. 10 It is implied that orders come from the Queen and Matsyendra that no man – and particularly no yogis be allowed into the kingdom – and twelve years go by (presumably quite happily). Eventually Goraknath turns up – and in some versions of the tale – he fights Hanuman – who, due to Queen Mainākinī’s devotions, is ensuring that the order that no man may enter the kingdom – and argues his way past Rama. Disguised as a female musician, Goraknath performs before the court. Making his drum speak to Matsyendranath, he exhorts Matsyendra to wake up and remember that women are an obstacle to yoga. Matsyendra recognises Goraknath but is still reluctant to leave. In some versions, Queen Mainākinī gives birth to Matsyendra’s son – whom Goraknath kills, and then subsequently brings back to life as an extreme wake-up call to Matsyendra. Some scholars interpret this story as indicating an ideological tension between the Kaula-Yoginī tradition attributed to Matsyendranath, and the ascetic yoga traditions of the Naths.

Moreover, the theme of the “land of women” is a common trope in Indian mythology. Whilst sometimes, the women who inhabit these kingdoms are characterised as rākaṣīs (“demonesses”) or Yoginīs who seduce men, occasionally turning them into animals, there also also Tamil folk tales – such as the Alliyarasanimalai – which portray Strīrājya as inhabited by women who are completely self-sufficient and do not require men for progeny or pleasure. 11

Pattanaik summarises the Alliyarasanimalai in his tale “Alli, the queen who did not want a man in her bed”. He describes how the hero Arjuna, “smitten by her beauty” and so determined to marry her, tricks his way into Alli’s bedchamber “while she was asleep and made love” -in other words, he rapes and impregnates her – although Pattanaik skirts around this point. Prior to this act, Arjuna disguises himself as a “non-man” in order to eulogise his deeds to Alli, but she sees through this disguise and Arjuna disappears. Pattanaik concludes the retelling: “At first she was angry and resisted, but then she fell in love and submitted, and became one of Arjuna’s many wives”. Again, there are some curious omissions in this retelling – significantly, that it is made pretty clear in some versions of Alliyarasanimalai that Alli has no time whatsoever for Arjuna; that she only agrees to marry him after Draupadi tells her that only if she agrees to marry Arjuna will she be allowed to go back to her own kingdom, and that Alli has by this time defeated Arjuna and Krishna in battle, and was only defeated by being trapped in a magical cage. As soon as her marriage has taken place, Alli returns to her own kingdom, where she brings up her son to take revenge on Arjuna. Hardly the “happy ending” implied by Pattanaik.

If all this seems overly critical, I can of course echo Devdutt Pattanaik and say “this is not my intention”. As I said earlier, Shikhandi is a useful introduction for anyone interested in finding, or discussing “queer” themes in Hindu tales and myths. But it is best thought of as a starting point. It lacks attention attention to the wider historical and cultural contexts in which these stories take place – but perhaps that is another book.

If anything, it draws attention to one of the problems of mining the past for queer tropes – that the mere presence of, for example cross-dressing, in a tale does not necessarily equate to a queer sensibility – at least not when the final outcome is rape and forced marriage. If nothing else, it is thought-provoking, and perhaps there is something to said for Pattanaik’s point that “The stories in this book are like the hijra’s clap, a call to do darshan, look at all things discovered and invented, question all that makes us uncomfortable, question who decides what a symbol should or should not be, and hopefully make the journey to joy.”

Devdutt Pattanaik’s website
Ministry of Social Justice report on transgender persons in India
Aniruddha Dutta: Thoughts on the Supreme Court Judgment on Transgender Recognition and Rights
My review of The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore on my old website.


  1. see this post for some discussion
  2. I have in mind here the controversy over A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “300 Ramayanas” – see 300 Ramayanas for an overview.
  3. National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India, 2014 pdf
  4. the NALSA v UoI report notes the role of both the Criminal Tribes Act and Section 377 in regard to the growth of prejudice against “third genders”
  5. The Indian government has since sought clarification from the Supreme Court that none of its rulings can apply to LGB persons – see Govt of India asks Supreme Court to clarify/modify NALSA judgement September 2014
  6. The Indian Express 19 Sept 2015
  7. see Koushal vs Naz Foundation pdf
  8. at least until the British turned up
  9. see “Born of Two Vaginas: Love and Reproduction between Co-Wives in Some Medieval Indian Texts” in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (Vol.11, No.4, pp547-577, 2005)
  10. There are also versions where Matsyendra is cursed to go there as he has offended the goddess Pārvatī
  11. For further discussion of Alliyarasanimalai, see Kanchana Natarajan: “Desire and Deviance in Classical Indian Philosophy: A Study of Female Masculinity and Male Femininity in the Tamil Folk Legend Alliyarasanimalai in Bhaiya, Blackwood, and Wieringa (eds) Women’s Sexualities and Masculinities in a Globalizing Asia Palgrave Macmillan, 2007