LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Varuna and Mitra

by SAHF Team

In the Vedas, the forces of nature and its processes are personified as deities. Mitra and Varuna are two deities which are portrayed as icons of intimate friendship between males. ‘Mitra‘ is the personification of the Sun, and ‘Varuna’ refers to the bodies of water. They are paired together as ‘Mitrā-Varuna’ representing the Sun heating up the waters for rainfall.

The narrative portion of the Vedas – the Brahmana texts – associate Mitra and Varuna with the two lunar phases and state a homosexual relationship between the two. Mitra and Varuna are the two half-moons: the waxing portion is Varuna and the waning one is Mitra. During the new-moon night, these two meet and when they are thus together, everyone is pleased.

On that same night, Mitra implants his seed in Varuna and when the moon later wanes, that waning is produced from his seed and vice versa. The versatility in sexual roles of Mitra and Varuna, as they both implant their ‘seeds’ in each other is suggested here.

In the popular South Asian narratives – in the Uttara Kānda (last portion) of the Rāmāyanam, their homosexual union becomes integral. Firstly, the sage Vālmiki (author of the Rāmāyanam) is fathered by Varuna when his semen fell upon a termite mound. Secondly, overcome with sexual desire for each other, Mitra and Varuna discharged their semen into water pots, which were mixed together, and then nurtured by the dancer ‘Urvashi’. Urvashi here appears as a ‘surrogate mother’ for the mixture of the semen. From the mixture of the semen of the two deities resulted in the birth of the Rishi Vasishtha and Rishi Agastya. Rishi Vasishtha is integral to the Rāmāyanam as he is the royal advisor to King Dashratha and the spiritual teacher of Prince Rāma. Hence, two of the greatest Rishis (sages) – Vasishtha and Agastya – of ancient India were born of a homosexual union.

Although currently biologically impossible, the authors of the epics have fantasised the idea of firstly gay couples having children through the mixture of semen, hence the child inherits the genes of both same-sex parents (Mitra and Varuna), and secondly a surrogate mother (Urvashi) to nurture the child. The same story is found in the Bhāgavata Purana and is referenced to in the Rig Veda.

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