Patriarchy asserts men are superior to women.
Feminism clarifies women and men are equal.
Queerness questions what constitutes male and female.
Queerness isnt only modern, Western or sexual, says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. Take a close look at the vast written and oral traditions in Hinduism, some over two thousand years old, and you will find many overlooked tales, such as those of Shikhandi, who became a man to satisfy her wife; Mahadeva, who became a woman to deliver his devotees child; Chudala, who became a man to enlighten her husband; Samavan, who became the wife of his male friend; and many more. . .
Playful and touching - and sometimes disturbing - these stories when compared with their Mesopotamian, Greek, Chinese and Biblical counterparts, reveal the unique Indian way of making sense of queerness.
Exclusive Piece written by Devdutt Pattanaik for Flipkart Customers
March of Celibate Men
Vishnu takes the form of a king, a cowherd, a priest, a fish even an enchantress called Mohini. In this female form, he seduces gods and demons and hermits, all in order to preserve social order. Thus a God who is visualised as male becomes a nymph, bears a child for the sake of social order.
This story is remarkable at so many levels.
Here, Gods gender is not restricted to the male form. Fertility is not restricted to women. Divinity is associated with enchantment and sensory pleasures. And though woman, Mohini is not a demure wife; she is a dancer who is restricted to no man.
Could this possible be a Hindu story?
When the Europeans came to India, they saw stories such as these as yet another indicator of Indian effeminacy and Oriental debauchery. Back home, they were themselves exposed to a world where God was avowedly masculine, he sent down a son, not a daughter, to save the world, and that son was conceived without sexual intercourse and had no wife of his own. The priests of this God were all male and celibate. An alternate worldview where the feminine and the queer was appreciated, even venerated, made no sense to them. They naturally mocked Indians. This mockery became intense when the Europeans became rulers of India.
So Hindus became defensive and apologetic. Not knowing how to explain their stories in the language of the foreign rulers, they started to reform the stories. They focused on stories that met with European approval: stories where celibacy and self-control was valorised and women were reduced to objects of temptation. The stern celibate monk became the representative of Hinduism, not the dancing mischievous affectionate nymph.
The Europeans left. The Americans came. In the 60s, America went through a radical change sexual revolution, hippie revolution, anti-war protests. They wrote books rediscovering Indias sensual heritage. They spoke of how Hindus had bisexual gods and goddesses. Hindus were horrified.
Was not Hinduism was all about celibacy and self-control? Was that not what the story books told them? Was that not what their parents and teacher told them? They protested passionately but were gagged with typical Western academic disdain, You are in denial. You dont have the facts; we do. Let us tell you what your culture is!
Battle lines were thus drawn. They continue to be drawn.
Time for empathy, and expansion of the mind. Appreciate the stories of sensuous men and women, celibate men and women. More importantly, appreciate the different context in which celibacy was celebrated and the different context in which the dance of the enchantress was celebrated. Even more importantly, appreciate the vast volume and diversity of India, where things have never been static, where things are never static, where the past and the present coexist simultaneously, the liberal coexists with the conservative, the wise next to the most unfair.
Time to read Shikhandi and other tales they dont tell you.
And remember, they who dont tell you these 30 stories are not villains. They probably are unware of their vast heritage themselves.