What is unnatural?

Indian Mythology 27 Comments

First Published in Sunday Midday Mumbai, 5 July 2009

Suddenly this creature appeared before him. A beast that looked like it had been created by fusing nine animals – its head was a rooster’s, its neck a peacock’s. It had a hump of a bull and a serpent for a tail. Its waist was that of a lion. It had an elephant’s leg, an antelope’s leg, a tiger’s leg and a human hand. Arjuna thought it was a monster. He raised his bow ready to shoot this beast. Then he saw that the creature held a lotus in its hands. He stopped. What was this creature? He had never seen such a beast, something that is neither this nor that. A little bit of everything. Such a creature could not exist in nature, or could it? Maybe he had not seen it. Just because he had not seen it, did it mean it could not exist. He remembered what his friend, Krishna, had once told him. “Don’t be so arrogant to assume you know everything. The human mind is finite but the universe is infinite.” Arjuna lowered his bow and bowed his head. He realized this beast was no monster; it was a symbol of the divine. For what humans cannot dream of exists in the reality of God. This creature is called Navgunjara, the nine-part beast, and is described in vivid detail in Sarala Das’ Oriya Mahabharata.

Now compare this tale with that of the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature described in Greek mythology that had a lion’s body, a goat’s head springing from its back and a serpent tail. Sighting the Chimera was an omen of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters particularly volcanoes. Incidentally, it lived in ‘Asia’, was female, and was destroyed by the Greek hero, Bellorophon who rode the flying horse, Pegasus. Such was the impact of this monster that its name ‘chimera’ came to mean foolish fantasy.

Two cultures – both imagined creatures that did not fit into a neat little box. But one culture saw it as divine and miraculous; the other saw it as diabolical and monstrous. One saw it as a symbol of infinity; the other saw it as the harbinger of chaos. For one, the world offered myriad possibilities. For the other, the world was static, finite and anything beyond the known and understood was a threat.

In Indian metaphysics, purusha is the soul while prakriti is matter. Both are infinite and eternal principles but while purusha is still, prakriti is restless. Purusha is unrestrained by time and space while prakriti exists within time and space. Prakiriti is expressed as all inclusive and affirmative. Prarkiti is iti-iti, this too, that too, the very womb of infinity. A traditional Indian temple is an architectural expression of prakriti. All kinds of things embellish the façade therefore – gods, demons, humans, birds, animals, flowers, fruits, plants as well as images of things unknown, even unimaginable. Lotus bearing nymphs stand next to goddesses drinking blood. Men and women engage in all kinds of sexual activities, some that boggle the mind. These coexist with images of domestic harmony and terrifying violence. There are creatures with the head of horses (Kinnara) and bodies of serpents (Nagas). There are deities with the head of elephants (Ganesha), horses (Hayagriva), bull (Nandi) and lion (Narasimha). The lines between animals and humans, men and women are blurred.This clearly is a message from the ancestors to break free from artificial human constructs, to shatter manmade boundaries. Perhaps it is this communication presented so creatively that makes Indians a bit more tolerant than people outside. After thousands of years, as a culture, we have understood that ultimately there is wisdom in accommodating everyone and everything eventually – even that which the British invalidated by calling ‘unnatural’.

Temple imagery and stories such as that Navagunjara are attempts to remind all humans to be receptive to the possibility that there exists in the universe things that we don’t see or know. Rather than judge and invalidate them, one has to appreciate and understand them. Many things may be socially discomforting, but nothing is unnatural and everything is a manifestation of the divine.

In the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna shows his universal form to Arjuna – all that existed could be seen in him, things that Arjuna knew, things that Arjuna did not know, things that Arjuna imagined and things that Arjuna did not imagine. That sight filled Arjuna with awe and wisdom. He realized how foolish man is to limit his vision to the horizon. In humility he bowed and looked beyond the horizon to the limitless possibilities of existence.

  • Hema

    Beautiful and timely message. Thanks.

  • Aniruddha

    Combinations of creatures, real or imaginery, cannot imply mythological sanction for whats banned in 377. Acts having Disastrous implications for society at large have never been approved by our ancient wisdom.Glorification of acts which appeal to basal instincts of humans is a typically western preoccupation,which unfortunately we ape proudly. There are far more serious questions of national importance which need immediate attention of this Government. In stead they’ve started this wholely unnecessory debate.

    • The West has the notion of sin. Hinduism does not. You believe that homosexuals are base sinners. That makes you very Western, doesn’t it. :-) You clearly have not read the stories of same-sex and inter gender states in Hindu scriptures – Bhagashvana who was both father and mother MAHABHARATA, Ila who was man and also woman MAHABHARATA, Budh who was born neuter MAHABHARATA, Yuvanashva who became pregnant BHAGAVATA, Somavat who became Somvati and married his friend Sumedhas SKANDA PURAN, of how Arjuna and Shiva became women to join Krishna in his Raas Leela PADMA PURAN….We were wise….we accepted all kinds of creatures, even homosexuals…then we became Western….so western that we don’t read our scriptures and yet boldly claim to know it….Cheers

      • Sthanu


        I dont know what you mean here. Hindusim clearly has paapa in it. So why do you say there is no sin. Hindusim has both punya and paapa while the West has only sin. And thats because of the christian preoccupation with sin while Hinduism is more balanced and takes human beings as what we really are capable of – both doing good and raising high above mere mortal lives (daivi gunas) or doing vile sin and descending to the depths (asuri gunas)

        Regd the examples you cited, clearly in each one of the stories, the characters involved do change their bodies into that of either a man or a woman. So its not a same-sex relationship at all. Even the popular story of Ayyappa born out of Shiva and Vishnu in Mohini’s form only show that one needs to be in a male and another in female form for a relationship to occur. And you cannot claim that Vishnu is male (or similarly in other examples) because being male or female is related to the body only and not the Atma. So the state of the body is under question. With this perspective its clear that in all scriptures, homosexuality cannot be found.

        This is not to say that homosexuals need to be condemned or killed. But its clearly a way that should not be encouraged or given wide publicity to. The liberal mentality seems to be to somehow celebrate homosexuality and that and this.. I dont see why it needs to be celebrated and given wide publicity for. These kind of aberrations will always be present. We will live with them, not persecute them but not glorify them either. We will strike the middle ground.

        • Devdutt

          There was a time when people said it is dharma of women to stay at home and not be encouraged to work. It was dharma not to give Dalits water. Now, it is seen as punya to shove homosexuals under the carpet. :-)

  • Geetanjali Chhachhia

    All I can say is that I felt at peace after reading this article and yes,it made me rethink about a lot of my own prejudices….what am I, to even entertain the notion of “unnatural”…

    And absolutely enjoyed reading your reply to a certain viewpoint put up here.Alas,people often start battles without being prepared and walk in for a sword fight,armed with a penknife.

  • Anonymous

    Why take Hindu scriptures as “gospel truth”? Don’t they teach “pragmatism” as against “blind superstition”. So what if there are stories of hermaphrodites, “neuter” gender planets, pregnant males, cross-dressers and transexuals in our scriptures? Should we blindly accept that as certification to perpetuate what is treated within these treatises with a sense of “bhibatsam” (aversion/disgust/even curiosity). Homosexuality is ungodly and homosexuals are perverts. Let us pity them for they are also living creatures. Criminalisation of homosexuality is an extreme social reaction. We as a soceity should try to reform them in a more humane way.

  • Harpreet

    Debating about whether homosexuality is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ is something that we have picked up from the West. Moreover, it underlines the fact that it is not what occurs in nature that is brought under question but what occurs in the moral precepts that each individual has within his or her mind. What is natural and unnatural then is being debated on the basis of what is considered moral and immoral. So logically the argument itself is flawed because one cannot be governed or deducted from the other, for one is fact and the other is circumstantial.

    Moreover, Aniruddha says that the western preoccupation of glorifying “basal instincts of humans” is unfortunate; but then the Government should also neglect issues of food – for hunger is ruled by distinctly ‘baser’ instincts. The debate which he terms as ‘unnecessary’ and which he thinks has started now, in fact has been going on for nearly a decade and has been brought to a conclusion now in the Delhi HC.

    At the Anonymous writer who speaks so surely of what is ungodly and what is not, all I can say is this, borrowing from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “We pity in others only those evils which we have ourselves experienced” – so unless and until you experience the plight of what you term as ‘ungodly’, condemn someone else with your pity.

  • Geetanjali Chhachhia

    yes Dear”Anonymous”
    i agree ‘ungodly’.. ‘compassion’..’perverts’..’more humane’..
    the poor “homosexuals” souls are just waiting for your,eh,compassion and forgiveness for their perverted souls…absoluely right !!!

  • Mrittika

    Homosexuality is a way of life. Its as natural to a person as heterosexuality is to some other person. It can not be looked upon as a crime or abnormality. Every human being should have the freedom of self-expression as long as they are not hurting the society.

  • Dear Dr Pattnaik

    This small article is really an eye opener for many people and I loved reading this small but interesting article.

    Natural or unnatural is but a question of debate and in the present context, the very existence of a thing not for days or weeks but for ages is sure a NATURAL thing. Homosexuality has been there from ages and it is not the origin of a few deformed or diseased persons in India or else where.

    If someone is Homosexual does not necessarily mean he is unnatural.

    Thanks anyway Dr Pattnaik, for putting such a nice story.

  • Bladeharry

    We as humans are but one species among thousands. We are here for s short duration before evolution puts some other species as dominant on this planet.
    It is arrogant of us to try and define what is natural and unnatural with our limited knowledge. Natural is what occurs in nature as observed over extended periods of time.

    For all we know the rest of the species on the earth might be thinking we are unnatural, for humans are the only ones to practice Alchemy:transforming natural resources in pursuit of our luxuries. all other species do a transformation for their needs.
    The choice is really between being part of the society (and hence conform to it’s rules for harmonious co-existence) or not being part of it.
    Society, rules,practices,norms,acceptable behavior are all transients defined for limited periods of time in our culture..
    What is unacceptable today was probably acceptable yesterday and might be acceptable tomorrow…

  • I dropped here following the link at the footer of your article at Rediff. Congratulations Dr. Pattnaik for the well articulated articles on Homosexuality. There are plenty of good resources on the web on this topic, but yours stand out due their interpretation in the Indian context.

    In my humble opinion, gay rights are same as human rights. So, being natural or natural is not relevant here. Being humane is.

    Having said that, I’ve a couple of questions for you and the readers:
    1. Is sexual feelings towards a dead human natural? Towards an animal?
    2. If the answer to the above questions is no, how come? Is it just because there’s is no mention of such ‘acts’ in our ancient scriptures?
    3. Why do we still need to quote scriptures to make an argument in such an age?

    • I am not saying that accept a certain behavior because the scriptures say so. We must not forget the scriptures also approve untouchability and polygamy.
      Some people said that homosexuality is not part of Indian culture – I showed otherwise.
      Civil society is based on empathy….our constitution is based on empathy….dharma is in principle based on empathy. So the stand of “homosexuals not allowed” reeks of lack of empathy. And I feel that it is not an appropriate stand.

      • Jyoti Iyer

        I agree with your point of view. Every thought should be logical. Not based on any scripture. Personally, my belief is that with reference to sex, what matters is the entire decision rests with the two people involved. Anything with full consent is acceptable. Within or without matrimony.

  • Anil

    Mr Kalyan’s sympathies are misplaced although the effort is appreciated. The whole discussion was negated and intrinsically flawed by likening homosexuality with sex with corpses, children and animals. We’re talking about sex with CONSENTING ADULTS

  • Veliki Parin

    Ku-tark, or faulty logic is the term for such arguments. I am entirely appalled by the use of such logic. It is twisting the truth by misusuing your intelligence. Whereas from the perspective of Modern Law there may be truth in scrapping laws against homosexuality but the logic you use is absolutely nadir-ish in its portrayal of the scriptures.
    It goes without saying that the primary purpose of sex is procreation or would you consider procreation to be a side effect. Please work on raising your consciousness.

    • .please talk to zoologists and u will learn how animals use sex for a variety of reasons not just procreation……sex is an expression of love, intimacy, friendship….women can and do have sex after menopause and that is not unnatural…..

  • Veliki Parin

    My point is not about sex which has many dimensions each of which deserve to be studied. It is about the logic that you mis-use. The scriptures were written by Maharishi Vyasa to enable us to understand the difference between right and wrong.Also to help us on the path to divinity.
    Consciousness is not only that which keeps us alive but that which enables a person to excell. These scriptures were written by Maharishi with this very high level of consciousness. It is evident from your writings that you have written without that level of consciousness. Most people will not be expected to have that level of consciousness that the Maharishi has, however please understand Dharma and work on your consciousness.
    Your writing lacks in Vision as you have dumped the principle of consciousness, it is logical but twisted. Put your mind to better use.

  • Veliki Parin

    Are we to understand that the primary purpose of sex is not procreation? Also you say that sex is for love, intimacy, friendship so does one have sex with every person who we wish to be friendly with? Is Love, Friendship and Intimacy only due to sex? Is sex the key to a good friendship, to intimacy and for Love? Do they not exist without sex?

  • dd

    Dr. Patnaik,
    Thank you once again for such nice article.

    Veliki Parin,
    Are you suggesting that most people have sex only once or twice in their lifetime (as most people have one or two children). Grow up! People don’t have sex to have a baby every time. Or are they sinners??

  • @ Veliki Parin: Mr. Parin, your recent argument itself is a good example of ‘Ku-tark’ or faulty logic as you have mentioned in your first comment. Dr. Pattanaik had said that ‘sex is an expression of love, intimacy, friendship…’ He never told that ‘sex is the only expression of love, intimacy and friendship.’ Isn’t your argument a ku-tark now?

    The path to Dharma is not a direct one, as you are insisting it to be. We also have to deal with ‘artha’ and ‘kama’ simultaneously. Dharma alone cannot complete a human being.

    Also you are talking about raising consciousness; should one read it as ‘supressing homosexual consciousness and raising heterosexual consciousness’, because the way you have given your sermon you seem to think that ‘the consciousness can be raised only when one becomes heterosexual’. Your argument reeks of prejudice which is a sure indicator that your consciousness is in a dire need of raising above narrow minded thinking. First step towards raising consciousness is being compassionate and the ability to understand other fellow beings.

  • jill

    Why should we be so bold to assume this creature is in someway un-natural in it’s sexual desires? We all have beasts within us that must be seen and noted and worked with. They should be tamed to a level of peace within nature.

    • Go ahead….assume otherwise….it is unnatural from Arjuna’s point of view…I am sure the beast would disagree….its all point of view.

  • Upendra Watwe

    Awesome, you do have a great way top put things, and a novel approach to explain the mythological stories.

  • Amit

    it is with great pleasure that I read ur article as much as I had reading your book “the pregnant king” if not more. you explain the philosophy and symbolism beautifully.ur a beacon of light in the darkness of this age.For me you understand the very subtle basics thus permitting you to see the whole picture so clearly.You succeed in seeing and understand where so many fail or ignore.fairplay to you,receive my salutations.