LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Arjuna & Brihannalā

by SAHF Team

In the Vana Parva of the Mahābhāratam, the Pāndavas were sentenced to 12 years in exile and one year in incognito living by their cousins, the Kauravas, after their unjust treatment in the game of dice. During this time, Prince Arjuna goes to heaven to visit his father Indra to obtain divine weapons. He is also taught dance and music by the Gandharva (artist) Chitrasena. During this time, the heavenly dancer Urvashi was intensely attracted to Arjuna. Arjuna declined her requests for sexual relations and referred to her as the ‘mother of the Kuru race’, as she the wife of his ancestor Pururavas. Furiously, Urvashi cursed Arjuna to lose his manhood, become a dancer and spend his time among women as a ‘eunuch/non-binary’ for life. Later, upon Arjuna’s request, Indra reduced the curse for one year.

In the Virāta Parva, this became a ‘blessing in disguise’, as Arjuna’s masculinity was hard to conceal. Hence he obtained the form of a ‘non-binary (shandhah)’ during the incognito year.

The Pāndavas entered the Kingdom of Matsya and took upon different disguises to conceal their identity for a year, particularly in the palace of King Virāta. Arjuna became the ‘non-binary Brihannalā’. He is heavily doubted by the King to be ‘non-binary’ due to his great strength and masculine features. In fact, the king desired Arjuna as a ‘son’ or ‘ruler of the Matsyas’! Due to his doubts, Virāta commanded the royal women to examine Brihannalā, who confirmed his ‘non-binary’ nature. He was then employed by King Virāta as the dance and music master of Virāta’s daughter, Uttarā, and to her maids. He applied the skills he was taught by Chitrasena! He lived among the royal women, won their hearts, and was suspected by none.

The Kauravas suspected that the Pāndavas were hiding in Virāta’s kingdom and attacked his kingdom by stealing their cows. Taking advantage of the King and his army’s absence (as he had gone to retrieve the cows), the Kauravas attacked the kingdom in full force, including the warriors Drona, Bhishma and Karna. The King’s youthful son, Uttara, decided to confront the Kauravas alone. Requested by Arjuna, Draupadi told Uttara that Brihannalā was Arjuna’s former charioteer, due to whom he had repeatedly been victorious. Uttara had his apprehensions of having a ‘non-binary’ as his charioteer, yet he finally agreed to make Brihannalā his charioteer. To keep his identity, Arjuna (as Brihannalā) made many mistakes such as the presence of difficulty in wearing armour, laughing and crying at the prospect of war, etc. But the point remains that Brihannalā became Uttara’s charioteer.

Brihannala and Uttara saw the great army of the Kauravas from a distance, and Uttara became frightened and wanted to leave the battlefield. He kept running away, and Brihannalā tried to bring him back, persuading him to ‘man up’ and fight. The Kauravas observed that ‘Brihannalā’, although being a ‘non-binary’, resembled Arjuna. Duryodhana was overjoyed at this possibility, as this would plunge the Pāndavas into 12 more years of exile!

It was then that Brihannalā decided to fight the Kauravas directly. ‘They’ took Uttara to the ‘Shami tree’ where the Pāndavas had hidden their weapons and retrieved their Gāndiva bow. ‘They’ revealed their identity as Arjuna to Uttara. Arjuna took off his bracelets, wore gloves, tied his air and made Prince Uttara as his charioteer. Arjuna’s period of being a ‘non-binary’ had come to an end, and he regained his full male form. Despite the quarrelling over the breach of Arjuna’s identity by Karna and Duryodhana, Bhishma concluded that the incognito year had come to an end. In a lengthy battle, Arjuna single handedly defeated all the Kauravas with his Gāndiva bow. Towards the end of the battle, Arjuna invoked the Sammohana (tranquillising) weapon and made the Kauravas unconscious. Arjuna instructed Uttara to take the garments of Kripa, Drona, Karna and Ashwatthāma for the women of the palace! Upon regaining consciousness, the Kauravas were dumbstruck as to how Arjuna had escaped. Securing the cows and defeating the Kauravas, both Arjuna and Uttara returned to the kingdom.

This story explores the themes of a gender fluid identity with both masculine and feminine features that can be identified as ‘non-binary’ today. As the story displays, Arjuna was initially horrified at the prospect of adopting such an identity. However, realising its use for his own protection as a ‘blessing in disguise’, he adopted it. This can mirror the struggles of those who experience issues with their gender identity and later may accept themselves for who they are. 

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