The Indian government on Thursday announced that it will induct members of the transgender community in the country’s elite paramilitary forces ending discrimination against the marginalised section.
Although it took 73 years for Indian authorities and society to acknowledge the third gender, the Indian mythology and scriptures mention several characters who defied this gender binary.
These mythological and folk tales in India have many – what you can call as – LGBTQ characters.
If we talk about the first transgender in combat, we have a mythological example of Shikhandi in Mahabharata’s legend. Shikhandi was the eldest girl child of King of Panchala – Drupad and elder sibling to Dhrishtadhyumna and Draupadi.
According to mythology, Shikhandi was born as Shikhandini, the daughter of Panchla King Drupada and was raised as a son. She was believed to be the reincarnation of Amba who wanted to avenge on Bhishma.
On the tenth day of the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas at Kurukshetra, Bhishma was the biggest challenge for Pandavas. To stop Bhishma, Lord Krishna advised Arjuna to use Shikhandi as a shield. After facing the Shikhandi in the battlefield, Bhishma, who knew that she was Amba, lowered his weapons. Seizing the opportunity, then Arjuna killed Bhishma.
In one of the Mahabharata versions, you can read about Arjuna’s gender variance story. When Arjuna refused Urvashi, she cursed Arjuna, followed by which he became a member of the third gender. The opportunity was used by Arjuna as the perfect disguise during his last year of exile. Arjuna took the name Brihannala and dressed in women’s clothes and went to the city ruled by king Virata, where he taught the arts of music, singing and dancing to the princess Uttara and her female attendees.
In another story as per the Padma Purana, one can see Arjuna physically transformed into a woman to take part in Krishna’s mystical dance, which only women may attend.
These references to the LGBTQ characters in Indian scriptures go beyond instances of curses leading to the change in gender and one can see the Gods deliberately switching between genders on many occassions.
One such tale which is famous in Indian mythology is of Mohini who was the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Bhagavata Purana has a reference to the story of the enchantress, Mohini. According to many epics, Mohini and Shiva later gave birth to their son Ayyappa.
In one of the reincarnations, Vishnu who was born as Krishna becomes Mohini to marry Aravan. He was the son of Arjun and the Naga princess Uloopi. Aravan was chosen to be sacrificed for the Pandavas’ victory in the Kurukshetra war. However, he had one last wish of not dying unmarried. As per the legend, no woman came forward to marry him. The story then unfolds with Krishna taking the form of Mohini to marry Aravan. The tale is widely believed in India and Aravan is still considered a patron god of some transgender communities in the country even today.
The famous Ardhanarishvara, androgynous form of Shiva in Indian legends represents the masculinity of Shiva blended with the femininity of Parvati. This androgynous version of Shiva is equally famous as ‘Lakshmi-Narayan’ which was formed after a union between Lakshmi and her husband Vishnu.
Among the many deities which are considered as patrons of the transgender community, the story of Devi Bahuchara who was the daughter of Bapaldaan Detha is quite well known. Her primary temple is located in Becharaji town in Mehsana district of Gujarat, India.
According to a prevalent story, once when Devi Bahuchara was travelling in a caravan along with her sisters, a bandit named Bapiya attempted to molest her. In an attempt to deter the bandit, she cut off her breast. The goddess did not resort to violence to defeat the bandit. She even asked him to expiate for his sin by dressing and behaving like a woman.
In addition to these references, Indian astrological tales also talk about several LGBTQ characters. One such tale which is famous is of Budh Graha. He was raised as the child of Sage Brihaspati and Tara. However, he was actually the illegitimate child of Tara and the Moon-god – Chandra. After this revelation during Tara’s pregnancy, enraged Sage Brihaspati cursed that the child would be born neither male nor female