Nov 2, 2012

Alternate Sexuality in Mahabharata

Much has been written about the strange marriage of Draupadi to five men in Mahabharata. But actually, this is not the only sexual anomaly in Mahabharata, which is full of stories of strange attachments. For example, let us look at this sorrowful dialogue dripping with love.
“Alas, reft of Govinda, what have I to live for, dragging my life in sorrow? As soon as I heard that Vishnu had left the Earth, my eyes became dim and all things disappeared from my vision. I dare not live, reft of the heroic Janardana.” (Maushal Parva, Section 8) Guess who utters these words of utmost grief at the death of Krishna? His lover Radha? His wife Rukmini? His girlfriends the Gopinis? Actually, none of them. It is his dear cousin and pupil Arjun who feels that his life is over after Krishna is dead.
Why is Arjun ready to die once Krishna is dead? Is there more to the story than meets the eye? Actually, these words are just an example of an immeasurably deep attachment between Krishna and Arjun.  For example, after Krishna’s death, Arjun is asked to go to Krishna’s city and fetch his wives safely. On the way back, he is attacked by robbers. Arjun, who defeated major Kaurava warriors singlehandedly, is unable to combat a few petty robbers. The robbers kidnap many women as Arjun watched helplessly. That was when Arjun realized that without Krishna, he is nothing. All his prowess came from Krishna.

It  is clear from these two scenes that Krishna is the central figure in Arjun’s life, and the relationship went much beyond a normal friendship, or even brotherhood. When we dig deeper, we find even stranger little nuggets about their intense attachment. For example, when Arjun and Krishna help Lord Agni to devour the forest of Khandav, he is pleased and grants them a boon each. Krishna asks that his affection (preeti is the exact word) for Arjun may remain forever (Adi Parva, chapter 225).  It is also notable that when this incident takes place, Arjun and Krishna were on a solo vacation together.
Together, they are called Nara and Narayana, and also Vishnu and Jishnu. They are often called the two Krishnas (Arjun, being very dark, was also called Krishna), especially when they are on a chariot. The tendency to give names to couples together is usually found for heterosexual couples. In fact, most of the times that Krishna is mentioned, Arjun is mentioned alongside as his “complementary” or something like that. Actually, their relationship is so hyped in Mahabharata that I was surprised that one of them never rose from a demigod status, while the other went on to become a central deity. But that is a different discussion altogether. To get back to Arjun and Krishna’s relationship, it is often idealized as teacher and pupil’s (based on Bhagawat Geeta), but teacher-student relationship does not cover these statements: “Vasudev and Dhananjaya were highly pleased after they won the war, and they deported themselves with great satisfaction, like Indra and his consort (wife)” (Ashwamedha Parva, section 15). Why are Krishna and Arjun being compared to a married couple? Elsewhere, Krishna is found commenting that Arjun is dearer to him than his life, and that everything he owns, including his wealth, kingdom, and wives, are for Arjun. It is certainly not normal for a man to offer to share his wives with another. And actually, their closeness is not hidden from the world, as Yudhishthira, who never lies, is found commenting time and again that Krishna and Arjun cannot live without each other.
Taken individually, none of these incidents are enough to prove homosexuality. But all the incidents together, combined with Arjun and Krishna’s extremely loving endearments to each other, put this relationship firmly within the bounds of homo-erotica. We will never know the complete picture, because Ved-vyas Mahabharata speaks no more about the nature of their relationship. But folklore is rife with stories of Arjun’s transformation to a woman so that he can enjoy Krishna’s love as a woman for a day. (And it is not wise to dismiss folktales, because folktales have often provided key details not found in original scriptures. For example, Lakshman Rekha is not found in Valmiki Ramayan, but developed later from folktales.)
(Disclaimer: I want to make it clear that I am not reducing Krishna and Arjuna's relationship to homo-erotica. This relationship is a vast and complicated one with many aspects. I just want to highlight that homo-erotica is also one of the aspects, and an oft-neglected one. I do believe it is very important to their overall relationship and closeness.)
In Mahabharata, there are plenty of other incidents which suggest homosexuality. There are many eminent offspring born of a couple of males: rishi Agastya is the child of Mitra and Varuna (now forgotten deities). Urvashi is born from the thighs of Nara and Narayana. Whether they were born from test tubes, or some other alternate methods, is not known. But what is known is that two men are the parents of a child, possibly suggesting a romantic relationship therein.
Alternate sexuality does not stop at homosexuality. In the story of Pandu who shoots a deer, the common perception of this story is that a Rishi and his wife have transformed into deer. The original text, however, is different. “I was engaged in sexual intercourse with this deer, because my feelings of modesty did not permit me to indulge in such an act in human society. In the form of a deer I rove in the deep woods in the company of other deer” (Adi Parva, Chapter 118) says the muni Kindama clearly to Pandu. This act of bestiality was probably not accepted in society, as the muni himself laments. But then, it suggests that such phenomena has existed in our culture since time immemorial, and is not a byproduct of western culture.
                It is also notable that in Mahabharata, while there is this abundance of subtle references to alternate male sexuality, there is little expression of female sexuality. This may have various interpretations (alternate female sexuality did not exist), but it is more likely that this happened because Mahabharata was not written by females. The male writers were probably just ignorant of entirely female phenomena.
                Many of us assume that any kind of sexual perversity is the result of western influence, but our literature says otherwise. Sexual diversity has always existed, and the question is only of how well it is integrated into mainstream society (or not!) And Mahabharata is just a sample of our vast mythological corpus, I have heard of other, more graphic references in other texts. Anyone who thinks that western influence is corrupting our youths and leading them to perversity, needs to pay more attention to our myths! 


Shyam said...

... or watch the wood carvings in temples for different expressions of sexual desires and orientations...
Again, a very interesting entry. Fun reading.

I have a few more complicated thoughts about the myths and what they represent about “eastern” societies and culture. Let me share one here: human nature (and therefore the myths, even history, that they create) is at one level universal so the east-west distinction is a recent construct based on the reading of similar human behaviors through different cultural lenses. Thus, the idea that the West was and is fundamentally different (in this case corrupted) culture is a very new bogus created by the purets when Hinduism got increasingly politicized (esp. in the past two centuries or so). Before that, myths of the east and west both drew on each other to the extent there was contact between them. If you take away the superficial aspect of culture—which many people don’t realize are the only distinctions between the east and west—then the homosexually inclined gods of the Greek myth and those of the Hindu myths will be seen as natural representations of how humans feel about other humans regardless of gender. So, the fact that (say) American men don’t hold each other's hands while walking, or that many of them will kiss their five year daughters but not sons, is not so "western" as a recent construct of bigotry in the name of Christianity in the US (and less so in Europe). There are many myths in the east and west in which you can see diverse, and often similar, types of sexual relationships; the underlying universality of human behavior and imagination is what the myths best demonstrate—while current cultures and politics continue to show how different human communities are.

The coder said...

I think that It's not approprite to think that the relationship between lord krishna and his friend and disciple Arjuna was of any sexuality , it was of devotion and divine love A guru disciple relationship.

and the other thing is i think - how many of us, this generation ppl, hav read mahabaharat and other scriptures to grasp the knowledge of sexuality and copy from them ? but we hav watched western movies ,songs,... and r impressed hugely by them because they hav name,fame and money and this is the cause to coopy them and their behaviors and thus their culture of sexuality.

curly locks said...

Thank you for the intelligent comment Shyam. And coder, I would like to tell you that my writing comes from my personal reading of the entire Mahabharata, and not from western songs or music or whatever

Anonymous said...

In the west , when they don't comprehend how ancient indians built such magnificient temple structures...aliens was the obvious explanation ! Krishna and Arjun closeness can only refer to - homesexuality ? doesn't make a whole lot of say so is simplifying the bhakta and bhagavan relationship..which cannot be parsed with a lens coored by sexuality alone..

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