LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Arjuna to Arjuni

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Arjuna to Arjuni

This tale occurs in the Padma Purāna (5.74.60-198). Here, Arjuna transforms into a ‘Gopi’ named ‘Arjuni’ to enjoy the Rāsa dance with Krishna. The background for such a tale can be seen in the Mahābhāratam, namely in the eternal and divine friendship between Arjuna and Krishna.

Arjuna is an incarnation of ‘Nara’ (man) and Krishna is of ‘Nārāyana’ (God). In the Bhagavad Gitā, Krishna instructs Arjuna to ‘priyā priyārharhasi Deva sodhum’ (to come to him as a lover). This is symbolic of the divine love between the Soul – Arjuna and the Supreme – Krishna.

This divine love is referenced many times in the Mahābhāratam. For instance, in the Vana Parva, Krishna says to Arjuna: ‘You are mine and I am yours, while all that is mine is yours also! He that hates you, hates me as well, and he that follows you, follows me . . .  You are from me, and I am from you!, No one can understand the difference that is between us!’ Moreover, In the Sauptika Parva, Krishna states, ‘I have no dearer friend on earth than Arjuna, and there is nothing that I cannot give to him, including my wives and children.’ In the Drona Parva, Krishna reiterates, ‘I shall not be able to cast my eyes, even for a single moment, on the earth bereft of Arjuna . . . Know that Arjuna is half of my body.’

Going back to the Padma Purāna, Arjuna wishes to know about all of Krishna’s divine experiences with the Gopis in his Rāsa dance. Upon Arjuna’s persistence, Krishna instructs Arjuna to bathe in a sacred lake, which changes one’s gender. Upon bathing, Arjuna becomes a beautiful and youthful maiden named Arjuni, resembling the women of the cowherds (Gopis).

Krishna attracted both men and women due to this divine charisma. Upon seeing Krishna and his attractive male features, Arjuni became overpowered with love, and she became infatuated with Krishna, entered a state of fascination for him, and even fainted at his sight. Seeing her heightened desire for Krishna, Krishna takes Arjuni’s hand and takes her to the forest. He secretly engages in the Rāsa dance with her and behaves with her like a lover (as he previously did with the Gopis of Vrindāvana). After this experience of pure love, Krishna instructs a reluctant Arjuni to depart and bathe in the enchanted lake again. Arjuni transforms back into the male form of Arjuna. However, Arjuna is dejected and restless as he can no longer enjoy divine love with Krishna. Krishna reassures Arjuna, and by touching him, restores his masculinity.

In the Rāsa dance, Krishna is the only ‘Male’, whereas the rest are female (Gopis). The transformation of Arjuna into a female Gopi is a metaphor for the destruction of the ego (represented by ‘masculinity’) and thus the submission (represented by ‘femininity’) of the soul to the Supreme Lord. It represents the highest stage of Vishishthadvaita Vedanta (qualified non-duality), in which the devotee enjoys the company of the Lord.

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Arjuna & Brihannalā

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Arjuna & Brihannalā

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. 

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Shikhandini to Shikhandi

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Shikhandini to Shikhandi

This is the story of Shikhandi – the Female-Male-Transgender Prince (son of King Drupada), who plays a pivotal role in the Mahābhāratam. Shikandi was the cause of Bhishma’s (a relative of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas) death due to Shikandi’s birth as a female and a certain vow that Bhishma had taken.

To defeat Bhishma, King Drupada (of the Pānchala Kingdom) desired a son from Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva promised him that a daughter will be born to him, who will later turn into a man. A daughter – Shikhandini – was born to him, yet Drupada raised her as a male child. She was openly declared to be a boy since birth – only her parents were aware of her true gender as a female. They paid close attention to her and ensured that she received the same privileges and education as a boy. Shikhandini, herself, felt that she was ‘Male’, but experienced a dissonance in her sex. (This can be an allusion to the gender dysphoria that many transgenders face due to a difference between their sex and gender.) Shikhandini was taught the scriptures, the arts, and she received warfare and weaponry training from the sage Drona.

Eventually, as Shikhandini finished puberty, her parents were anticipating her sex-change as predicted by Lord Shiva. She was becoming more aware of her sex and dissonance with her gender. Her anxious parents wanted to reaffirm her ‘maleness’ to fulfil the prophecy of Shiva. In their dilemma, they decided to marry her to another princess – the daughter of King Hiranyavarmana – in a ‘sham’ lesbian wedding. The princess soon discovered, along with consultation with her nurses, that Shikhandini was not a man, but a woman. A wrathful Hiranyavarmana, for this deceptive ‘same-sex marriage’ trick played by Drupada, decided to attack Drupada. He was intent on slaying both Drupada and Shikhandini for this trickery! A fearful Drupada consulted his queen in sorrow with the aim of protecting his daughter. He was also in dilemma of a war that could destroy his kingdom. Both husband and wife were deeply saddened and confused of what to do. Shikhandini reflected and felt that this situation arose due to her. She decided to leave the kingdom to put an end to her life and so entered the forests. (This entire scene is reminiscent of how many parents, in today’s society, marry off their gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender child with the hope of their sexuality disappearing with marriage. Like in many of these cases, the sexuality/gender is discovered, and the family is shamed by the other family. The son/daughter then also feels depressed and suicidal.)

Shikhandini found a mansion in which she decided to give up food and water. A male Yaksha (nature spirit) named ‘Sthunakarna’ appeared with the intention of granting a boon. After Shikhandini recounted her struggles and urged him to save her family from destruction, Sthunakarna decided to exchange his manhood (including genitalia) with Shikhandini’s womanhood. Shikhandini became the strong male warrior Shikhandi, and the Yaksha became a female. There was one condition though: This exchange would only last one day, after which Shikhandini would become a woman again. As this was suffice to prove her ‘masculinity’ to her ‘wife’, Shikhandi returned home, and his father Drupada was overjoyed. Through the use of his female servants, the King Hiranyavarmana, realized that Shikhandi was indeed a male and then rebuked his daughter for suspecting otherwise.
Shikhandi was finally comfortable with both his gender and sex, and he lived happily with his wife. Meanwhile, the King of Yakshas – Kubera – had cursed Sthunakarna to remain as a woman until the death of Shikhandi. Why? Because out of shyness, Sthunakarna did not greet Kubera, which had angered him. So when Shikhandi came to return his male gender, Sthunakarna explained the situation. Shikhandi was overjoyed that he could be a man for as long as he lived! Thereafter, under Drona, Shikhandi learnt all the arts of warfare and became a Mahāratha (warrior capable of fighting 72,000 soldiers!).

So how did Shikhandi lead to Bhisma’s demise? Well Bhishma explained that as Shikhandi is ‘strīpūrvam’ – born as a woman, and later converted to a man – and the rebirth of Princess Ambā, he will not fight him even if he approaches him to fight in war. Bhishma had made a vow that he will never fight one who, ‘is a woman, had been a woman, has a feminine name, or resembles a woman’. This laid the foundations of Bhishma’s future fall due to Shikhandi’s birth as a female.

This story covers the themes of:

  1. Gender dysphoria between sex and gender.
  2. Dilemma of parents in revealing sexual/gender identity and steps taken by the individual to protect themselves and their family.
  3. Concept of sex-change to align one’s sex with one’s gender.


LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Ardhanārishwara

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Ardhanārishwara

The form of Ardhanārishwara is an androgynous form of the deities Shiva and Pārvati. It is depicted as in equal parts, half-male and half-female. This form represents the equality between the genders – Male and Female. When discussing creation, the Manu Smriti (1.32) states that Brahman (Ultimate Reality that is beyond gender) acquires a half Male form and a half Female form to the produce the Virāja (the universe).

God can be seen as both a ‘mother’ (Pārvati) and ‘father’ (Shiva). The devotee is free to choose either or both! The famous poet Kālidasa, in his Kumārasambhavam states: ‘Jagatah Pitarau Vande Pārvati Parameshvarau’ – ‘I bow down to the parents of the world, Pārvati and Shiva’.

The origins of this form can be found in the Upanishads (philosophical texts) that display the union of Matter and Spirit. According to the atheistic Sānkhya school of thought, the universe is the interplay of Purusha (Spirit/Consciousness) and Prakriti (Nature/Matter). This interplay has been personified as the deities ‘Shiva’ and ‘Parvati’.

Shiva represents the ‘order’ that is seen in ‘consciousness’. Parvati represents the ‘chaos’ that unfolds in the creation, preservation and destruction in ‘nature’. Despite being opposites, only the union of matter and spirit, chaos and order, the masculine and the feminine, and consciousness and matter can bring about creation.

Beyond the concept of gender, the ‘masculine’ (Shiva) can also represents qualities such as: independence, aggression, strength, and competitiveness. The ‘feminine’ (Pārvati) can represent nurturing, caring, passivity, and subordination. A mixture of these qualities may be seen in people with either genders.

To attain self-realisation, one is advised to become ‘androgynous’ like Ardhanārishwara. This is to integrate both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities in oneself to attain the Supreme State beyond any forms or genders.

This form can have many implications across the spectrum of gender and sexuality such as:

  1. Gender equality – equal parts of masculine and feminine
  2. Non-binary – androgynous form of combination of both sexes
  3. Transgender
  4. Bisexuality – if we assume heteronormativity to the Male and the Female, then this can mean one person can be attracted to both genders————————————————————-

नैव स्त्री न पुमानेष न चैवायं नपुंसकः ।यद्यच्छरीरमादत्ते तेने तेने स युज्यते ॥
‘Naiva strī na pumānesha, na chaivāyam napumsakah. Yadyachharīramādatte tene tene sa yujyate’
The Soul is neither female, nor male, nor non-binary. Whatever body it inhabits, it becomes identified with that.
– Shwetāshwatara Upanishad (5.10)

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Mohini

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Mohini

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.

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Ilā – Sudyumna

LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Ilā – Sudyumna

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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