Devdutt Pattanaik Reveals The Queer History Hidden In Indian Mythology


Published on 20th July, 2017, on

The word ‘Queer’ came to me in my teens as something I could use to describe myself. In contrast, ‘Indian’ was a word I was born with. I owned both, but growing up, all I saw were various attempts to divorce them: the health minister who termed homosexuality a disease; the classmate who sneered “this isn’t part of our culture”; the teacher who thought it was only something white kids with dyed hair did. Of course, a few opinions hardly amount to the truth. And in seeking a tenable link between ‘being Indian’, I arrived at the work by mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik.

The author of 30 books and 600 columns, Pattanaik is a mythologist, an illustrator, an engaging speaker, and a management guru. But for many , he’s the guy who made a sizeable chunk of India’s queer history accessible to a hungry readership. From the storytelling down to the trademark line art that fills the pages, thumbing through his books on Indian myths is an eye-opening experience. And “Shikhandi: And Other ‘Queer’ Tales They Don’t Tell You” is no exception. The book is a collection of myths from various Indian texts, like the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the oral traditions of various Indian communities. Each of these myths reveal the fluid nature of gender and sexuality in India. First published in 2014, it has been re-released with the word ‘Queer’ added to the title. So we got chatting with Pattanaik about what makes this book so important. Read on!

Shambhavi Saxena (SS): “Shikhandi” utterly undoes what many of us have been taught – that rigid lines of gender and sexual behaviour are intrinsic to Indian society. When it first came out, was there any backlash? How did you react?

Devdutt Pattanaik (DP): No, there was no backlash. Most Indians are quite mature. I fear politicians and activists who are constantly manipulative. Most people are just bewildered as most of us don’t know much about our ancient texts, stories and philosophies. Our reading is very rudimentary.

SS: The new edition of this book very deliberately emphasises on “queerness”. Why did you think it was necessary to do this?

DP: Because we realised many people did not identify Shikhandi with queerness. So we abandoned the subtle approach and made things very explicit.

SS: This book is about “‘Queer’ Tales They Don’t Tell You’. Can you comment on why they don’t tell us? What can we as a society learn from these tales?

DP: I think they don’t tell us for many reasons. Some are embarrassed. Some do not know how to explain it. Some are disgusted. Some fear it will make us question established notions of gender and sexuality. Although Indian philosophy celebrates the fluid, Indian society is increasingly becoming rigid, because the traditional feel threatened by Westernisation and modernisation, also because many educated Indians feel powerful in making fun of all things Indian, especially Hindu.

SS: In the story from the “Yoga Vasishtha”, you wrote “The story demonstrates the essential discomfort of most Indians when it comes to sex. Sex is seen as something that takes one away from dharma.” Does this idea still have place in 21st century Indian society?

DP: Desire will always threaten social order. Queer desire even more so as it is unfamiliar and unpredictable. Buddha saw desire as the cause of suffering. In “Ramayana”, Ahalya’s desire turns her into stone. In 19th century we destroyed the devadasi culture by seeing it as exploitative and degenerate. Somewhere along the line, even today we valorize violence over love. We will kill a boy for kissing a boy. We prefer to see desire through the lens of sexual violence.

SS: You’ve written in detail about myths from around the world where female desire is suppressed. Are lesbian/queer women doubly suppressed in India? Is it because they pose some sort of threat?

DP: I think women are not allowed to talk about their sexual desire and feelings in general. They are expected to submit to marriage and family. A lesbian woman challenges all established norms. She is at a greater disadvantage as fellow women will also not support her. Imagine a lesbian woman born in a Dalit family in a tiny village in Odisha. Who does she talk to? How does she make sense of her longings? How will those who listen to her understand her longings? Is she lesbian first, Dalit first, Odia first, or woman first? The familiar comforts us. The unfamiliar frightens us and we react by rejecting it or violently suppressing it.
Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House.

SS: You actually have a background in medicine. Can you shed some light on where India is going wrong with regard to healthcare for trans people?

DP: We still have doctors and yoga teachers in our country openly advocating ‘cure’ for gay and lesbian desires; this despite global scientific evidence. Transgender people are accepted in some quarters as it is physical and visible; gay and lesbian desires are not visible and so are not that accepted in traditional societies. We don’t understand desire at all, and monastic traditions teach us to view it negatively. We valorise celibacy which is unnatural and see desire which is natural as a disease.

SS: The final section focuses on Ram, in a story about embracing members of the trans community. However, unlike all the other figures mentioned in the book, Ram himself does not represent fluid gender or sexuality. What was your reasoning behind including him?

DP: In Hindu mythology, Shiva is more masculine and Vishnu is more feminine. In Vishnu stories, Ram is very masculine while Krishna is androgynous. So the rigid and fluid balance each other. Contrast this with Islamic and Christian mythology that have no room for the queer or androgynous. One does not have to be queer to include the queer; Ram is not queer but he includes the queer. That is the idea. The idea of queer is very much part of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu philosophy. In Buddhist mythology, “pandakas” or homosexuals were not allowed to be monks. So there was discrimination in Buddhism. But no one talks about this as we prefer to imagine Buddha as secular and inclusive, which is not quite true. He rejected the sexual, especially the feminine and the queer.

SS: In the book, you ask: “If a man uses medical science to bear a child and lactate, how would ‘modern’ society treat him?” At the risk of sounding like a lazy interviewer, I’d like to pose the same question to you.

DP: Modern society is equipped to include him, at least theoretically. But let us not forget such stories are found in traditional Hindu stories and academicians prefer to see Hinduism as ‘patriarchal’. There is a vast gap between theory and practice.

SS: So much of scholarship on queer culture in India has been a ‘retrieval’ or ‘recovery’ process, looking back at history, myth and local traditions. Are there any problems that come with trying to locate queerness in the past, that too from our modern – even westernised – perspective?

DP: We need to retrieve it as the ‘modern westernised’ perspective chooses not to see it and assumes modernity is its own invention. That is not true. Modernity, which is comfortable with diversity and mingling, was very much part of India’s past. Both the Left that thinks the worst of India and the Right that imagines India as heteronormative have a biased view of the past. We choose not to see the many diverse aspects of the past as it does not fit into our convenient, combative, and restrictive Left/Right politics. Past needs to be retrieved only to show that Indian society was fluid and inclusive in the past, and can be so do today. Not to justify the present. Not everything in India’s past is desirable (Sati or Caste for example).

SS: Do you have any advice for students and scholars working on contemporary queer culture in India?

DP: Beware of activists posing as academicians. Understand that there is room for rigidity and fluidity. And a functional society does need rules. So we need to be flexible according to context. And fluidity can be accommodated only with love, not anger (fashionable in many politicians/activists today).

How figures who transcend gender and sexuality would respond to the following common assumptions:

“Performing certain activities is entirely dependent on our biological sex.”
Gopeshwar (who became a woman to dance, in Vraj oral tradition) would say: “You have no clue how diverse the world is, do you?”

“It’s a woman’s nature to only find fulfilment in a relationship with a man.”
Ratnavali (who became a companion to a female friend in the Skanda Purana) would say: “You have no clue how much love can accommodate, do you?”

“A woman should keep her passions in check.”
Kali (who became a man to enchant milkmaids in the oral tradition of Bengal) would say: “You are terrified of the unfamiliar, are you not?”

“A child raised by two men will not have a good family life.”
Samavan (who became a wife to his male friend in the Skanda Purana) would say: “Let go of control, and learn to embrace alternate realities.”