The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The truth about Śikhaṇḍi

Śikhaṇḍi is one of the heroes of the ancient Indic epic Mahābhārata. He was the Prince of Pāñcāla, son of King Drupada, and elder sibling of Dhṛṣṭadyumna and Kṛṣṇā Draupadī, conqueror of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and slayer of the Kaurava Patriarch Bhīṣma.

But he is best known for being the poster child of queer characters in Indic mythology. But what kind of a queer character was he? Was he gay? Transgendered? Or something entirely different? Let’s investigate.

In the Critical Edition of the epic, Śikhaṇḍi’s story starts with Ambā, the eldest Princess of Kaśi. This woman was wronged by Bhīṣma, and when all her attempts to avenge herself failed, she undertook great penances to invoke the God Shiva, taking the following oath:
yatkṛte duḥkhavasatim imāṁ prāptāsmi śāśvatīm
patilokād vihīnā ca naiva strī na pumān iha
nāhatvā yudhi gāṅgeyaṁ nivarteyaṁ tapodhanāḥ
eṣa me hṛdi saṁkalpo yadartham idam udyatam
strībhāve parinirviṇṇā puṁstvārthe kṛtaniścayā
bhīṣme praticikīrṣāmi nāsmi vāryeti vai punaḥ
(Udyogaparva, 188, 4-6)
“He for whom mine hath been this state of continuous grief, he for whom I have been deprived of the region that would have been mine if I could obtain a husband, he for whom I have become neither woman nor man, without slaying in battle that son of Ganga I will not desist, ye that are endued with wealth of asceticism. Even this that I have said is the purpose that is in my heart. As a woman, I have no longer any desire. I am, however, resolved to obtain manhood, for I will be revenged upon Bhishma. I should not, therefore, be dissuaded by you.’ Unto them she said these words repeatedly.”
(KMG, Udyogaparva, Section CXC)

The deity was pleased with her penance, and promised her that she would be reborn as Drupada’s daughter, and gain manhood shortly after birth, consequently slaying Bhīṣma. Meanwhile Drupada also had a major grievance against Bhīṣma, and was performing penances to gain a son who would destroy that patriarch. The great deity Shiva appeared in front of Drupada and guaranteed him that he would ‘have a daughter who would become a son’ and kill Bhīṣma in battle.

Therefore when Śikhaṇḍi (aka Śikhaṇḍini) was born, she was assigned female at birth and also knew herself to be female. However her parents chose to hide her true gender and presented her as a boy to the public, pinning their hopes on the divine prophecy. She was raised as a boy, with the masculine name Śikhaṇḍi, and the accompanying masculine gender roles and privileges.

This charade continued until Śikhaṇḍini underwent puberty, at which point her parents reacted by getting her married – to the Princess of Daśārṇa. When the latter found out the true gender of her ‘husband’, she raised a hue and cry about it, which led her father Hiranyavarma to threaten total destruction upon Śikhaṇḍini’s kingdom.

Finding herself at the root of this impending doom, Śikhaṇḍini fled to a deserted forest, contemplating suicide by starvation. Said forest happened to be home of a powerful tutelary spirit (yakṣa in Sanskrit), whom the public avoided at all costs.

Turns out that the public were wrong, and our yakṣa host, named Sthūṇākarṇa, was a very kind person. When he found Śikhaṇḍini fasting unto death he promised to help her, and when she asked for it, he immediately agreed to a temporary gender-exchange – he would take on Śikhaṇḍini’s womanhood, and Śikhaṇḍini would be turned into a man.

Our hero Śikhaṇḍi then returned and presented himself to his irate father-in-law, and the latter sent a number of damsels to verify his gender. Here the text says that they ‘were pleased to report’ that Śikhaṇḍi was indeed a man.

Pleased as punch at this news, Hiranyavarma showered a vast quantity of riches on Śikhaṇḍi. And before returning to his own kingdom, he rebuked his poor daughter for telling tales. The crisis being averted, Śikhaṇḍini happily went back to Sthūṇākarṇa’s forest to give back her borrowed manhood as promised.

Meanwhile the king of the yakṣas, a formidable being called Kubera, came to visit Sthūṇākarṇa with his retinue. But Sthūṇākarṇa was in female form, and too ashamed to show himself. Kubera was apprised of the situation, and he grew very angry at Sthūṇākarṇa for giving away his manhood, calling him all sorts of names. He cursed Sthūṇākarṇa with permanent womanhood, but upon reconsideration he limited the sentence to the duration of Śikhaṇḍi’s remaining natural life.

So when Śikhaṇḍi came in to keep his end of the bargain, he was informed that he was to remain a man for the rest of his life. He was not unhappy with this. He went on to study the various martial arts under Droṇa along with the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas and became a great warrior, ranked as a mahārathī. Śikhaṇḍi had an equally skilled son named Kṣatradeva, and both of them fought in the great civil war on the side of the protagonists. (Droṇaparva, 9, 59)

In fact, Śikhaṇḍi was so highly skilled that he was Bhima’s original choice for the position of General of the Pāṇḍava Army (Udyogaparva, 149, 29-32). He led the division of Matsya soldiers and fielded important attacks against such opponents as Droṇa and Kṛpa.

Of course his greatest feat was the fulfilment of the prophecy to slay the Patriarch Bhīṣma. In that fateful campaign it was Śikhaṇḍi who covered Bhīṣma with arrows, and here it must be clarified that Arjuna’s role was in fact subordinate to Śikhaṇḍi’s.

Bhīṣma’s refusal to fight against Śikhaṇḍi is explained in his own words thusly:
vratam etan mama sadā pṛthivyām api viśrutam
striyāṁ strīpūrvake cāpi strīnāmni strīsvarūpiṇi
na muñceyam ahaṁ bāṇān iti kauravanandana
na hanyām aham etena kāraṇena śikhaṇḍinam
(Udyogaparva, 193, 62-63)
“Even this is my vow, known over all the world, viz., that I will not, O son of Kuru’s race, shoot weapons upon a woman, or one that was a woman before or one bearing a feminine name, or one whose form resembleth a woman’s. I will not, for this reason, slay Sikhandin.”
(KMG, Udyogaparva, Section CXCV)

Clearly, Bhīṣma was undone by his benevolent misogyny.

And finally, as an addendum to Śikhaṇḍi’s story, here is a comprehensive list of terminology used in the text to describe his gender situation:
  1. strīpuṃsa, i.e. one who was both woman and man (several places)
  2. strīpūrvaka, i.e. man who was formerly a woman (several places)
  3. jajñe kanyā putratvam āgatā, i.e. born a daughter but gained son-hood (Adīparva, 57, 104)
  4. yāṁ yakṣaḥ puruṣaṁ cakre, i.e. woman whom the yakṣa created (turned into) a man (Adīparva, 57, 104)
  5. sutā jajñe daivāc ca sa punaḥ pumān, i.e. daughter who was born again as a man by the work of fate (Udyogaparva, 49, 32)
  6. strīpuṁsoḥ puruṣavyāghra yaḥ sa veda guṇāguṇān, i.e. O tiger among men, he knows the good and bad qualities of both womanhood and manhood (Udyogaparva, 49, 32)
  7. kanyā bhūtvā pumāñ jāto, born a woman and reborn a man (Udyogaparva, 169, 20)
  8. strīpumāṁs te bhaviṣyati, i.e you will have a child who will be both woman and man, Shiva’s prophecy to Drupada (Udyogaparva, 189, 5)
  9. kanyā bhūtvā pumān bhāvī i.e. I will have a daughter who will become a man, Drupada describing Shiva’s prophecy to his wife (Udyogaparva, 189, 7)
Compared to all this Sthūṇākarṇa is described as:
  1. strīsvarūpavān i.e. a man with female form (Udyogaparva, 193, 37)
  2. evam eva bhavatvasya strītvaṁ i.e. may he retain this womanhood, Kubera’s curse (Udyogaparva, 193, 41)
  3. strīlakṣaṇaṁ cāgrahīḥ pāpakarman i.e. one who accepted female attributes that were foreign and unbecoming to him (Udyogaparva, 193, 42)
If you have been following the story keenly, you should have noticed a couple of things
  •         Ambā was not dysphoric, she merely sought manhood in order to qualify as a warrior and defeat her enemy in battle
  •          By all indications Śikhaṇḍini identified herself as being female, even though she presented as male due to the actions of her parents.
  •          Her sex/gender transition was to be strictly temporary. During the period of its effectiveness, it may be assumed (but never confirmed) that Hiranyavarma’s agents had sex with Śikhaṇḍi in order to ascertain his gender. Yet, immediately after this event she is described as female in the text.
  •          Śikhaṇḍi can only be said to properly start identifying himself as being male only after his magical transition is confirmed as being permanent. For all this, he does not seem to miss his previous gender. 
  •          My description uses female pronouns for Śikhaṇḍini and male pronouns for Śikhaṇḍi, whereas I refer to Sthūṇākarṇa as male even after his transition. This convention is lifted directly from the Sanskrit original.
  •          Śikhaṇḍi is described as being content with his gender at all times, whereas poor Sthūṇākarṇa is severely ashamed after his transition
Finally, when we compare the actual terminology used to describe Śikhaṇḍi and Sthūṇākarṇa in the text, it becomes clear that Śikhaṇḍi is not transgendered but genderfluid, and it is Sthūṇākarṇa who was condemned to involuntary transsexuality.

Notice that we have only been talking about the gender attributes of Śikhaṇḍi. What about his sexual orientation? Did it change with his gender?

The correct answer is that we do not know. Yes he did father a son later, but performing heterosexual acts is not a guarantee of heterosexuality.

Other examples exist, such as that of King Bhaṅgāśvana, who fathers 100 sons as a man, and then is magically transformed into a woman by Indra. Consequently in this female form she gives birth to 100 other sons, fathered by a forest-dwelling sage. In this case, the former King had not only performed heterosexual sex in both forms, she later expressly claimed that she gained more pleasure as a female heterosexual, preferring to stay female forever. (Anuśāsanaparva, 120)

When we take all such sources in aggregation we conclude that sexual roles were considered part of the gender role and hence gender identity, and that the notion of sexuality i.e. that a person is permanently predisposed to be attracted to persons of one or more particular gender – is not recognised by Indians either in our texts or practices.