She-Khand-He: An Ancient Transgender Warrior
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
They say that our past decides what we believe in today. I believe that ‘filters’ of interpretation, of egomania, of profit and greed, of perception and human frailty existed eons before our modern and trivial ‘Snapchat’ filters. Point being, both take a toll on our understanding of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
As a writer, I agree that suiting and satisfying each reader’s perspective is equivalent to acing any exam. Yet, what happens when a mighty tale is passed down in history? Do we retain its essence? Do we flip its dimensions as per relevance? Do we really take what’s essentially needed?
Mythology is often theoretically defined as the ‘legend of Gods and heroes with a spiritual/ religious agenda.’ However, I would say that interpretation is the key. Both the narrator and the reader play a role in how a story gets distorted and passed down. Sigmund Freud, as per his Theory of Myth Interpretation reveals a personal connection with the myth rather than a social interpretation. Ideas embedded deep in our subconscious affect how we interpret a legend based on childhood memories, repressed sexual behaviour, dreams, etc. So, it’s about what our mindsets have been fed with, for generations.
Indian narratology is inextricably bound with the idea of simpler stories and deeper meanings with profuse moral reflection and educational concerns. The Mahabharata is an Indian Mythological epic poem that outlines many human ideologies of life through one big battle of righteousness and family property amongst the Aryan race. It’s a renowned and acclaimed piece of literature that confirms Hinduism to be a culture and a way of living. It is the birthplace of many a legend as well as the Bhagwad Gita.
Like every other story or film, this legend has its set of underrated characters. One such favourite character of mine is Shikhandi. Shikhandi was a Transgender Warrior Prince from the Kingdom of Southern Panchal in the legend of Mahabharata who became instrumental in the death of Bhishma. I still remember my first book of mythology that I bought with my prize money at the age of ten. The tale of Shikhandi did not exist in there. This isn’t a tale that we all grew up listening to. We failed at learning inclusivity of our own species.
Shikhandi’s tale truly starts from his previous life where he was one of three Princesses from the Kingdom of Kashi named Amba. Amba had two sisters named Ambika and Ambalika and all three were nubile. The famous Kingdom of Hastinapur in Central India, back then had an eligible bachelor and newly crowned ruler named Vichitravirya (Son of King Shantanu) and an elder half-brother named Bhishma/Devavrata (Son of King Shantanu and Goddess Ganga). After his mother abandoned them, his father married and had another child, Bhishma decided to observe the oath of celibacy and never to rule the kingdom. He gave it all up for his younger half-brother to relish. Bhishma was thus, granted the boon of death at choice (iccha mrutyu) by his old father.
Bhishma came to the kingdom of Kashi to ask for the hand of the three princesses: Amba, Ambika, Ambalika for his half-brother’s ‘self-selection of bride’ ceremony (swayamwar/marriage). Amba was in love with the King of Saubhala- Shalva who lost to Bhishma and couldn’t stop him from forcibly taking away Amba. At Hastinapur, Vichitravirya chose to marry Ambika and Ambalika only. He denied Amba since her heart belonged to someone else. On returning to the man she loved, she was rejected by him too for he had been disgraced by Bhishma.
Dejected and heartbroken, Amba went back to Bhishma and asked him to marry her since she had lost both her suitors. He was furious since he had taken the oath of celibacy and blatantly refused to comply. She spent a long time in penance and pleased Lord Subrahmanyam who graciously granted her a garland of lotuses which once worn by someone would be the cause of Bhishma’s death. In fear, no one accepted it and she left everything to go to the forest. There, she came seeking the help of Sage Parashurama who tried but couldn’t succeed in helping her. She no longer wished for marriage, home or happiness, all she wanted was to avenge Bhishma for having ruined her life.
Ultimately, she went to the Himalayas and performed severe penance to please Lord Shiva (Member of the Hindu Trinity) who blessed her with the boon of being the cause of Bhishma’s death in her succeeding life. She could no longer wait. She swore her life to the cause, set up a pyre, and jumped into it.
This is where the tables turn and fate stares at the person in front and justice prevails. Justice doesn’t come easy still. Amba was reborn as the daughter of King Drupada (Yagyasena) of Southern Panchal. He had two daughters (Shikhandini and Draupadi) and one son (Drishtadyumna). However, a divine vision is believed to have told him to raise Shikhandini as a male. Thus, she was treated like a boy and trained in warfare. The day she got married off as a male to another princess, she was shamed by her wife for pretending to be a male. With extreme suicidal thoughts, Shikhandini went into the forest where she met a ‘yaksha’ (nature spirit) who agreed to exchange his sex with her. That is the point where Amba aka Shikandini turned into Shikandi- a transgender warrior.
Skip to the battle of Kurukshetra, Drupad’s army fought from the side of the Pandavas. Lord Krishna (Avatar of Lord Vishnu and Narrator of the Bhagwad Gita) deemed it fit for Shikhandi to be present on Arjun’s Chariot. He was aware of the fact that Shikhandi would be the cause of Bhishma’s death. He rode the Chariot with Shikhandi standing in front of Arjun. The moment Bhishma saw Shikhandi he knew who he was and he also knew that Shikhandi was born a female. Out of chivalry, Bhishma lowered his weapon for he could not attack Shikhandini/Shikhandi. In that minute, Arjun fired an arrow and Bhishma saw his destruction in the eyes of Shikhandi. Bhishma had foreseen his time of vanquish and finally chose to let go of his life as per his boon. Bhishma, with the last blow, lay on a deathbed of arrows. This is how Shikhandi proved instrumental in the death of great Bhishma. Thus, a great warrior fell and this victory was the biggest step for the Pandavas to win the Battle of Kurukshetra. This is the story of Shikhandi.
Let’s slide black into our ancient ages to understand the position of the LGBTQIA+ community. Hinduism as a religion has been divided on the acceptance of ideas like homosexuality, homoeroticism, third gender, etc. Some extremist factions condemn the idea and some openly accept it. However, “Given their inherent spiritual equality, Hindus should not socially ostracize LGBT individuals, but should accept them as fellow sojourners on the path to moksha.” (Human Rights Campaign)
Hindu philosophy accepts/includes the concept of the ‘third gender’ (Tritiya prakriti). This is inclusive of a wide range of people like transgender, transsexual, androgynes, the intersexed, and so on. The third gender is considered to have a ‘semi-divine’ status because many Hindu Gods and deities do exist in such forms like- Ardhanareshwara- a composite androgynous form of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati, Vaikuntha Kamalaja- a composite androgynous form of Lord Vishnu and his consort Goddess Lakshmi. The Hijra Community is a popular third-gender community from India along with others like Jogappa and Aravani. In 2008, Tamil Nadu was the first Indian state to officially accept the third gender by adding ‘T’ as a column in the ration card.
Hindu texts and sacred literature like the Kama Sutra (Kama meaning lust) and the Sushruta Samhita (most important text on ancient medicine and surgery) do refer to the existence and occurrence of homosexuality. The Kama Sutra has chapters on homosexuality where two males can have a sexual relation based on love and trust. The portrayal of a fellatio between two men is seen even in temple carvings. An example of such a relation is Lord Ayyappa who was the son of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The text also mentions lesbian women as ‘svairini’ and describes them as "independent women who frequent their own kind or others". Various Hindu temples across India have heterosexual as well as homosexual sculptures carving out the inclusivity in our Vedic beliefs. The Vedas do not consider third nature or homosexuality as a crime. However, more modern nationalist propaganda tries to brainwash us into believing that Hinduism is rigid in such matters. Nobody narrates the tale of Shikhandi or Lord Ayyappa or the carvings in the Khajuraho Temple.
Some political leader termed homosexual relations as ‘unnatural’ to India’s traditional society. But the matter of the fact from millenniums ago and for millenniums to come is:
“Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. In fact, Lord Ayyappa was born of Hari-Hara (Vishnu & Shiva). It is not a crime in any Smriti. Everyone has male & female elements. According to their dominance, tendencies show up & may change. Nobody should face discrimination because of their sexual preferences. To be branded a criminal for this is absurd.”
– H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
I am here to assert that the story of Shikhandi is not just a tale of revenge or rebirth. It’s about the inclusivity and representation of a respected and accepted community that even our royal lineage and Gods believed in. It’s about the role Shikhandi fulfilled and without which the war would never end. Lord Krishna recapitulated the essentiality of Shikhandi and in turn, their community in our lives. These days, a variety of transsexual slurs are used rampantly by populations that aren’t educated about who they’re referring to. Well, they’re referring to a group of people who chose to be their real selves. If that’s not ‘manly enough’, I don’t know what is? I will also not misrepresent the community as a majority, back then. It was a minority community but the important thing is the acknowledgement of their existence and choice of life. What matters is that the mindset millenniums ago was wider than what gets propagated today. The LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t need anybody’s approval but they do deserve to be traced back to their ancestors that lived proud lives like Shikhandi.
The eternal war of supremacy and righteousness will remain (making the Mahabharata evergreen) but will we learn to accept what we can’t deny?
If a girl prefers Ekta (unity) and Ekta (another girl), why does her personal choice hurt so many people? It is essential to remind people that homosexuality/third gender is not an illness or a foreign concept. The idea is deeply embedded in the shastras that we count on for all our mundane arguments. And the idea embedded in our mindset is to refute rather than accept and co-exist. I would call that our fourth nature! And now you’ve got to deal with it. False myths and stereotypes need to be broken by the real lessons from our Vedic Literature.
We fight for equality in all spheres of society but only love treats us equally. Our resources are dying but love will be abundant at our disposal. So, let’s spread love. Let’s be proud. Let’s be kind. Let’s respect. Let’s be equal. Why? Because love is our Bi-rth Right.
Disclaimer: The legend reproduced in this article is purely taken from a digital version of Mr. K.M. Ganguly’s unabridged translation of the Mahabharata. There is no intention of misleading the reader or stating false facts. No harm is intended towards any community or faction. I solely stand for peaceful co- existence.
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