Published in Sunday Midday, Mumbai, 12 July 2009.
It was the ninth night of the war at Kurukshetra. The exact midpoint of the legendary 18-day bloodbath. Not the start, not the end, but the middle. The war had been inconclusive. Sometimes the Kauravas led by the old sire Bhisma had the upper hand; sometimes the Pandavas led by the young warlord, Dhristadhyumna, Draupadi’s twin brother, had the upper hand. A see-saw that was going nowhere.
“Bhisma loves us too much to defeat us,” said the Pandavas.
“Yet not enough to let us win,” reminded Krishna. “He must die, if dharma has to be established.” But Bhisma had been given a boon by his father that he could choose the time of his death. No one could therefore kill him. “If we cannot kill him, we must at least immobilize him.”
“But no one can defeat him,” said the Pandavas. “Even the great Parashurama could not overpower him in a duel. So long as he holds a weapon in his hand he is invincible.”
“Then we must make him lower his bow,” said Krishna.
“He will never lower his bow before any armed man.”
“What about an armed woman?”
“A woman? On the battlefield?” sneered the Pandavas, forgetting they themselves worshipped Durga, the goddess of war and victory. “But it is against dharma to let women hold weapons and step on the battlefield.”
“Who said so?” asked Krishna.
“Bhisma says so. Dharma says so.”
“Dharma also says that old men should retire and make way for the next generation so that the earth’s resources are not exploited by too many generations. But Bhisma did the very opposite. He renounced his right to marry, so that his old father could resume the householder’s life,” argued Krishna.
“He was being an obedient son.”
“He was indulging his old father at the cost of the earth. That vow spiraled events that has led to this war. It is time to be rid of him, by force or cunning, if necessary. We must find someone before whom the old patriarch will lower his bow. If not a woman, then someone who is not quite a man.”
“What about Shikhandi!” said Dhristadhyumna. “He is my elder brother. He was born a woman. But my father, Draupada, was told by the Rishis that he would one day become a man. Though born with female genital organs, Shikhandi was raised a son, taught warfare and statecraft. He was even given a wife. On his wedding night, the wife, daughter of king Hiranyavarna of Dasharna, was horrified to discover that her husband was actually a woman. My father tried to explain that actually Shikhandi was a man with a female body and that Rishis had told him he would someday acquire a male body. The woman refused to listen. She screamed and ran to her father and her father raised an army and threatened to destroy our city. A distraught Shikhandi went to the forest, holding himself responsible for the crisis, intent on killing himself. There he met a Yaksha called Sthunakarna who took pity on him and gave him his manhood for one night. With the Yaksha’s manhood, Shikhandi made love to a concubine sent by his father-in-law and proved he was no woman. The wife was therefore forced to return. Now, it so happened, that Kubera, king of the Yakshas, was furious with what Sthunakarna had done and so cursed Sthunakarna that he would not get his manhood back so long as Shikhandi was alive. As a result what was supposed to be with him for one night has remained with him till this moment. My elder brother, Shikhandi, born with a female body, has a Yaksha’s manhood right now. What is he, Krishna? Man or woman?”
Krishna knew things were more complex. Shikhandi, may have been raised as a man and may have acquired a manhood later in life, but in his previous life, he was a woman called Amba, whose life Bhisma had ruined. Bhisma had abducted her along with her sisters and forced them to marry, not him, but his weakling of a brother, Vichitravirya (a name that means ‘queer masculinity’ or ‘odd manliness’). When she begged Bhisma to let her marry the man she loved, he let her go. But the lover refused to marry Amba, now soiled by contact with another man (Bhisma). Distraught she returned, only to have Vichitravirya turn her away, and Bhisma shrugging helplessly. “When you have taken the vow of never being with a woman, what gave you the right to abduct me,” she yelled. Bhisma ignored her. Amba begged Parashurama, the great warrior, to kill Bhisma but he failed. Exasperated, irritated, she prayed to Shiva. “Make me the cause of his death,” she begged. Shiva blessed her — it would be so, but only in her next life. Amba immediately leapt into a pyre eager to accelerate the process.
“I think, Shikhandi should ride into the battlefield on my chariot. Let Arjuna stand behind him,” said Krishna. The tenth day dawned. The chariot rolled out. Behind Krishna stood the strange creature, neither man nor woman, or perhaps both, or neither, and behind him, Arjuna.
“You bring a woman into this battlefield, before me,” roared Bhisma seeing Shikhandi. “This is adharma. I refuse to fight.”
Krishna retorted in his calm melodious voice, “You see her as a woman because she was born with a female body. You see her as a woman because in her heart she is Amba. But I see her as a man because that is how her father raised her. I see her as a man because she has a Yaksha’s manhood with which he has consummated his marriage. Whose point of view is right, Bhisma?”
“Mine,” said Bhisma.
“You are always right, are you not, Bhisma? When you allowed your old father to remarry, when you abducted brides for your weak brother, when you clung to future generation after future generation like a leech, trying to set things right. There is always a logic you find to justify your point of view. So now, Shikhandi is a woman – an unworthy opponent. That’s your view, not Shikhandi’s view. He wishes to fight you.”
“I will not fight this woman,” so saying Bhisma lowered his bow without even looking towards Shikhandi.
“Shoot him now, Shikhandi. Shoot him, now, Arjuna,” said Krishna, “Shoot hundreds of arrows so that they puncture every inch of this old man’s flesh. Pin him to the ground, immobilize him so that he can no longer immobilize the war.”
“But he is like a father to me,” argued Arjuna.
“This war is not about fathers or sons. This is not even about men or women, Arjuna. This is about dharma. And dharma is about empathy. Empathy is about inclusion. Even now, he excludes Shikhandi’s feelings — all he cares about is his version of the law. Shoot him now. Rid the world of this old school of thought so that a new world can be reconstructed.”
And so Arjuna released a volley of arrows. Hundreds of arrows punctured every limb of Bhisma’s body, his hands, his legs, his trunk, his thighs, till the grandsire fell like a giant Banyan tree in the middle of a forest. It is said that the earth would not accept him for he had lived too long — over four generations instead of just two. It is said the sky would not accept him because he had not fathered children and repaid his debt to ancestors. So he remained suspended mid-air by Arjuna’s arrows.
With the fall of Bhisma, the war moved in favor of the Pandavas. Nine days later, the Kauravas were defeated and dharma had been established.
Without doubt, Shikhandi changed the course of the war and played a pivotal role in the establishing of dharma. He was without doubt a key tool for Krishna. A cynic would say, Shikhandi was used by Krishna. A devotee will argue, Krishna made even Shikhandi useful. But his story is almost always overlooked in retellings of the great epic Mahabharata, or retold rather hurriedly, avoiding the details. Authors have gone so far as to conveniently call the Sthunakarna episode a later interpolation, hence of no consequence.
Shikhandi embodies all queer people — from gays to lesbians to Hijras to transgendered people to hermaphrodites to bisexuals. Like their stories, his story remains invisible. But the great author, Vyasa, located this story between the ninth night and the tenth day, right in the middle of the war, between the start and the finish. This was surely not accidental. It was a strategic pointer to things that belong neither here nor there. This is how the ancients gave voice to the non-heterosexual discourse.
Shikhandi embarrases us today. Sthunakarna who willingly gave up his manhood frightens us today. But neither Shikhandi nor Shthunkarna embarrassed or frightened Krishna or Vyas. Both included Shikhandi in the great narrative. But modern writers have chosen to exclude him. That is the story of homosexuals in human society. Homosexuals have always existed in God’s world but more often than not manmade society has chosen to ignore, suppress, ridicule, label them aberrants, diseased, to be swept under carpets and gagged by laws such as 377. They have been equated with rapists and molesters, simply because they can only love differently.
Indian society, however, has been a bit different from most others. Like all cultures, Indian culture for sure paid more importance to the dominant heterosexual discourse. But unlike most cultures, Indian culture did not condemn or invalidate the minority non-heterosexual discourse altogether. Hence the tale of Shikhandi, placed so strategically. Hence the tale of Bhangashvana, retold by none other than Bhisma to the Pandavas, after the war before he chose to die.
Yudhishtira asked, “Grandfather, who gets more sexual pleasure — men or women? What is sweeter to the ear — the sound of father or mother?”
Bhisma replied, “No one knows really. Except perhaps Bhangashvana, the only one who was both man and woman. Bhangashvana was a great king, with many wives and many sons. Indra cursed him to be a woman. So he lived as a woman, took a husband and bore him children. He was thus a man to his wife and a woman to his husband. He thus had two sets of children, one who called him ‘father’ and another who called him ‘mother’. He alone is qualified to answer your questions.” Such ideas will never find mention in most scriptures around the world. But they are part of our cultural inheritance.
Clearly many keepers of culture have not heard the stories of Shikhandi, or Bhangashvana or of Yuvanashva, the king who accidentally became pregnant and delivered the great Mandhata, or of the two queens who made love to each other to produce a child without bones (bones being the contribution of sperm, according to mythology), or of Mohini, the female form of Vishnu, who enchanted even Shiva, the great hermit. Clearly they have chosen to ignore that every year, in Brahmotsavam festival, the image of the Lord Venkateshwara Balaji, who is Vishnu on earth, is dressed in female garments reminding us all of Mohini. Clearly they are oblivious of how Shrinathji in Nathdwara is lovingly bedecked with a sari, the stri-vesha or women’s attire, in memory of the time he wore Radha’s clothes to appease her. Clearly they are not aware of Gopeshwarji of Vrindavan, Shiva who took the form of a milkmaid so that he could dance the raas-leela with Krishna. And they certainly have turned a blind eye to the rooster-riding Bahucharji, of Gujarat, patron goddess of many Hijras.
Western religions have, and will, look upon Hinduism’s cross-dressing gods as vulgar and perverted. The British mocked us so much during the Raj that we went into apology and denial. Now an entire generation does not even know about these tales and these deities and these rituals. Westernization did not change bedroom habits; it has led to an embarrassed denial of our sacred scriptures.
One thing we must grant the homosexual — he has united the cantankerous right wing. He has done what the constitution of India could not do — bring the radical Islamic cleric, the saffron robed yogis, the Bible-bashing clergyman to the same side of the table. Together these self-proclaimed guardians of culture would like the homosexuals to be made invisible once more.
Baba Ramdevji would for sure celebrate the celibacy of Bhisma. If he would have his way, he would, perhaps, drag Shikhandi to the mental asylum and teach him breathing exercises until the Yaksha’s appendage drops and he/she chokes and gasps into heterosexuality. But not Krishna. On Krishna’s chariot, Shikhandi — as he/she is — will always be welcomed.