The Divine Duality


The Indian mythology is full of characters who have broken the gender norm. Not just Shikhandi, even gods have explored duality.
With inputs from Gagan Goel

Illustration by/ Gagan Goel
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The man who upholds his and his kingdom’s honour. A woman so dedicated, that she goes through a trial of fire to let the man remain honourable. These gender roles are more and more definitive in today’s time as the society is showing an uber conservative streak. These gender roles primarily are accepted norms from the Manusmriti – like an ancient legal document that defines societal roles. Manusmriti has been colossally influential in determining the structure and the function of Indian society.

Unfortunately, Manusmriti, approximately written in 5th Century CE, mostly ignored the rich literary references of multiple genders and gender fluidity in the Vedas, and in other mythological stories in India – especially the Mahabharata.

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Discussions around multiple categories within the concept of gender might seem new but they have been a part of the Hindu mythology and religion since the Vedas, dated to about 5th Century BCE. Some traditions talk about Brahman (the Creator) as a genderless entity, the Shakti tradition preaches the Creator to be a female.  The Bhakti tradition however, which follows the Manusmriti code of conduct, the Creator is a male, often accompanied with a female partner who is supposedly subservient to the man. This narrative has become the primary narrative in today’s society and gender roles are defined.

Our gods and the heroes of our ancient mythology however had digressed from the dictates of the said rules many times. The Rig Veda talks about Mitra – Varuna, the two male deities who are often considered as a same sex couple and have even fathered children through non vaginal sex.  

There are various other mythical legends that narrate the stories of not only same sex relationships but also gender fluid gods and goddesses.

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In the Bhagvata Purana, Vishnu, the preserver, takes the form of an enchantress called Mohini, who eventually attracts the attention of lord Shiva. In the Tamil versions of Mahabharata, Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, takes on the form of Mohini (a different form) and marries Nagarjuna, the son of Pandava prince Arjuna, in an attempt to give him the chance to experience love before being sacrificed. After the death of his “husband”, Krishna remained in mourning as Mohini.

Arjuna himself was an example of gender variance. After being cursed by the apsara Urvashi, he became a member of the third gender, and took on the name ‘Brihannala’. Brihannala went on to teach the arts of dance and music in the Virata King’s daughter Uttara in the 13th year of the Pandava exile. His form truly changed to that of a eunuch during this period.

Raw Roshini R