First Published in Times of India, 3 July 2009

In his navagraha kirti, the great 19th century Carnatic music composer, Muthuswami Dikshitar describes Budh (the planet Mercury) as Napumsakam or one who is not quite male, or female. He alludes to a story in the Puranas where Brihaspati (the planet Jupiter) discovers that his wife Tara (the goddess of stars) is pregnant with the child of her lover, Chandra (the moon-god). He curses the love-child to be born neuter. Budh later marries Ila, a man who becomes a woman when he accidentally trespasses into an enchanted grove. From that union springs the Chandra-vamsa, or the lunar dynasty of kings. So says the Mahabharata.

As in the story of Ila, Indian lore is full of tales where men turn into women and women turn into men. Narada falls into a pond, becomes a woman, discovers the meaning of worldly delusion or maya. Shiva bathes in the Yamuna, becomes a gopi, a milkmaid, so that he can dance the raas-leela with Krishna – an idea that has inspired the temple of Gopeshwarji in Vrindavan. At a short distance from Ahmedabad, is the temple of Bahucharji, the rooster-riding goddess, where once it is said there was a pond that turned a woman into a man, a mare into a horse and a bitch into a dog. The pond has dried up, but women still visit this shrine seeking a male child. They seek the blessings of bhagats (some call them hijras) who, though men, believe they are women and choose to live their life wearing a sari.

Near Pondicherry, in the village of Koovagam, every year the transgendered alis dance and sing in memory of an event that took place during mythic times. Aravan, the son of Arjuna and his serpent wife, Ulupi, had to be sacrificed to ensure victory of the Pandavas at Kurukshetra. But he refused to die without a taste of marriage. As no woman was willing to marry a man doomed to die the following dawn, Krishna took his female form, Mohini, became Aravan’s wife, spent a night with him and then wailed for him as his widow when he was beheaded.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, there are descriptions of Rakshasa women who kiss women on Ravana’s bed on whose lips lingers the taste of their master. In the Krittivasa Ramayana is the story of two widows who drink a magic potion and, in the absence of their husband, make love to each other and end up bearing a child without bones (traditionally believed to be the contribution of semen).

How does one interpret these stories? Are they gay stories? They certainly shatter the conventional confines of gender and sexuality. Ancient Indian authors and poets without doubt imagined a state where the lines separating masculinity and femininity often blurred and even collapsed. Though awkward, these were not stray references. Such tales were consistent and recurring, narrated matter-of-factly, without guilt or shame. Such outpouring has its roots in Indian metaphysics.

As the wheel of rebirth turns, Indians have always believed, the soul keeps casting off old flesh and wrapping oneself anew. Depending on one’s karma, one can be reborn as a tree, as a rock, as a bird, a beast, a man, a woman, a man with a woman’s heart, a woman with a man’s heart, even as a god or demon….endless possibilities exist in the infinite cosmos. The wise see masculinity and femininity as ephemeral robes that wrap the sexless genderless soul. The point is not to get attached to the flesh, but to celebrate its capabilities, discover its limitations, and finally transcend it.

The question before us is: does the human mind have the empathy to include gender and sexual ambiguity in civil human society? It does. In every Yuga new rules come into being that redefine world order. Mahabharata mentions a Yuga when there was no marriage – women were free to go any man they chose. This changed when Shvetaketu instituted the marriage laws. We have lived through a Yuga where we left unchallenged laws of old imperial masters that dehumanized and invalidated sexual minorities. This has to change – hopefully now.