LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Ilā – Sudyumna

by SAHF Team

The following story, covering an interesting take on gender fluidity, the non-binary and bisexuality, is an important precursor to the lineage of the central characters in the political epic, the Mahābhāratam.

The progenitor of mankind for this current time period was Vaivasvata Manu (the word ‘man’ is literally derived from him). He was the son of the Sun (known as Vivasvāna). He also had a wife named ‘Shraddhā’, and so he was also known as ‘Shraddhādeva Manu’. He desired to have a ‘son’ to pass the kingdom onto, and hence performed a sacrifice to appease the Gods ‘Mitra-Varuna’ for a son. However, his wife, Shraddhā desires for a daughter and confides in the priest (‘Rishi Agastya’) performing the sacrifice. The priest modifies the chants, and as a result, a daughter is born.

(In the Valmiki Rāmāyana, Prince Sudyumna is the son of King Kardama, ruler of the Bahlikas, and son of Lord Brahmā)

On the news of a daughter, Manu is perplexed and requests ‘Rishi Vashishtha’ for an investigation. Vasishtha discovers Shraddhā’s intentions, and at the insistence of Manu, he invokes Vishnu to change the biological gender of the daughter to a male, which is against his wife’s wishes. This can be likened to performing ‘sex-reassignment surgery’ on the baby, and the child is recognised as a ‘male prince’ named ‘Sudyumna’.

In his youth, Prince Sudyumna, goes hunting with his friends. He loses his way on his own and enters ‘Shravana’ – the forests that were occupied by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. They enchanted these forests with the condition that: any male being – including trees and animals – who enters it would become a female. Even Shiva had become a female to please Parvati!

Through this spell, Sudyumna turns into a woman named ‘Ilā’ and is horrified. He prays to Shiva and Parvati to reverse this spell and return his female form. Shiva laughed at Ilā, as he explained that the soul is beyond gender, but Parvati compassionately granted her a boon that she will alternate her genders every month. i.e. one month she will be Ilā, and one month Sudyumna. Although this arrangement is rather annoying, Sudyumna-Ilā accepts it.

While Ilā roamed the forest in her new form, the son of the moon-deity Chandra and planet Mercury personified – Budha – fell in love with her. Ilā married Budha and spent an entire month with him and consummated the marriage. During each month she spent as a woman, Ilā enjoyed her married life with Budha. During each month as a man, Sudyumna learnt spiritual practices from Budha.

Ilā-Sudyumna can be interpreted as the satisfaction of homoerotic and heteroerotic love in a bisexual a non-binary person, who assimilates the qualities of both genders.

In the ninth month, Ilā gave birth to a boy named ‘Pururavas’, and returned to her kingdom. Still afflicted with the oscillation of genders, Sudyumna tried to balance the kingly duties as a man, and life as a woman. Ilā-Sudyumna is this the ‘father’ and the ‘mother’ of Pururavas and ‘their’ other children. In the Valmiki Rāmāyana, the masculinity of Ilā-Sudyumna is permanently restored when ‘they’ perform the ‘Ashwamedha Yajña’ (conquering lands via a horse).

However, the Bhāgavata Purāna indicates that Ilā-Sudyumna gets fed up of these oscillating genders, and so ‘they’ renounce ‘their’ kingdom and go to the forests for spiritual practices. ‘They’, as a result, attain heaven in the ‘non-binary’ form – both as a female and a male.

The kingdom was without a ruler, and so ‘Rishi Vasishtha’ insisted, against the latter-day patriarchy, that the children of the ‘female form’ of Ilā are to inherit her kingdom. Sudyumna (in his male form) had other children too. Hence, Pururavas – the child of Ilā and Budh – inherited the majority of the throne, whilst Sudyumna’s other children inherited other smaller states.

The dynasty created by ‘Pururavas’ was referred to as the ‘Aila’ dynasty – with the female ‘Ilā’ as the matriarch. The creation of the ‘Chandravansha’ (Lunar Dynasty) begins here. Originally, Sudyumna is the descendant of the ‘Suryavansha’ (Solar Dynasty), as his father – Manu – is the son of the Sun. However, upon marriage with ‘Budha’ (the son of the Moon), Sudyumna/Ilā’s child – Pururavas – is the direct descendant of the ‘Chandravansha’ as ‘Sudyumna’ had become ‘Ilā’.

This story is extremely pivotal to the genesis of the characters of the Mahābhārata. The non-binary nature and ‘bisexuality’ of Ilā-Sudyumna, ensured the divergence of the ‘Chandravansha’ from the ‘Suryavansha’. Pururavas is the direct ancestor of the Pandavas and the Kauravas (the warring cousins in the epic). Without Ilā, perhaps great warriors such as Arjun would not have existed.

This story highlights the non-binary and bisexual themes in the life of a prince who manages to create a prosperous lineage. The metaphor of the ‘oscillating genders’ can either be interpreted as bisexuality in the king, or as a non-binary identity encompassing the spectrum of gender.

Sources: Valmiki Rāmāyanam, Bhāgavata Purāna, Mahābhāratam

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