LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Mohini

by SAHF Team

This story is of the ‘female incarnation’ of Lord Vishnu – Mohini (‘she who attracts’), which can be interpreted as a ‘male-to-female transgender’ narrative. Vishnu represents the ‘omnipresent Ultimate Reality’, and his female form as Mohini signifies ‘Māyā’ (the illusory and temporary nature of the world).

Once, there was a dispute amongst the materialists (‘demons’ – Asuras) and spiritualists (‘Gods’ – Devas). They decided to settle the dispute through a Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean – this represents an intellectual debate, the ‘churning of ideas’). They aimed to secure Amrita (immortality/ultimate knowledge). They used the mount Mandara to churn the ocean, the snake Vāsuki as the rope and Kurma (Vishnu as a tortoise – ‘mediator of the debate’) as its base. When churning, the Devas and Asuras obtained many luxuries, but their goal was fixed on Amrita.

Finally, a ‘pot of immortality’ was obtained, but it was snatched away by the Asuras. The Devas were dejected, and sought the refuge of Vishnu who took the form (hence changed his gender) of an extremely beautiful, youthful woman -‘Mohini’. She is described to have symmetrical features, a curvaceous body, large breasts, small waist, emanated fragrance, seductive eyes, long hair adorned with flowers, body adorned with jewels and ornaments and draped in a single cloth.

With the deception of modest smiles and playfulness, she glanced at the Asuras. Suddenly, the Asuras stopped fighting with the Devas and became seduced with lust. Every single Asura desired to possess her by glorifying her beauty. They requested her assistance in settling the dispute between the Devas and Asuras. In exchange of jokes, the seduced Asuras passed the pot of immortality to Mohini.

Mohini stated a condition: you must accept whatever I do, honest or dishonest. The spellbound demons hearing the sweet words of Mohini agreed with her and said, ‘Yes, we’ll do whatever you say’. The Devas and Asuras sat in an arena opposite of each other to receive the nectar. Seeing her beauty, the lusty Asuras fixed their gaze on her, whilst the Devas were aware that she was none other than Vishnu himself.

Mohini first approached the Asuras, satisfied them with sweet words and cheated them of their share of the Amrita. She distributed the Amrita to the Devas. The Asuras did not question her due to her condition, as they all had the desire to enjoy her sexually and sensually – they had forgotten about the goal of immortality.

A demon, Rāhu, seeing this partiality, disguised himself as a Deva and drank the Amrita. Mohini, seeing this trickery severed his head with her Sudarshan Chakra (discus). When the Devas had finished drinking the Amrita, Mohini transformed back into Vishnu. A battle ensued between the Devas and Asuras in which the Devas emerged victorious as they had become ‘immortal’.

This story can be interpreted, in the context of LGBT identities, as a ‘Male-female-transgender’ who utilised ‘her’ beauty and intellect to prevent the uprising of evil. As a strong woman, she punished the wicked with her weapons.

Sources: Vālmiki Rāmāyana, Mahābhārata and Bhāgavata Purāna.

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