Dr Devdutt Pattanaik has talked about mythology in a manner that has both drawn more people to read and at the same time provided interpretations that has been thought provoking. In his book ‘Shikhandi – and other tales they don’t tell you’ he dwells upon a contentious issue present widely in mythology, that of queerness. Such topics of sexuality needs to be viewed with ‘cultural filters’ to understand, which the author has provided in his interpretations at the end of each story.
Dr Pattanaik begins with describing an important fact of how ideas and interpretations of Indian mythology changed after monastic orders of Buddhism and Jainism established in 500 BC. Monasticism is a religious way in which one renounces worldly pursuits to achieve god. And such an order pleasure was frowned upon; the Hindu matha traditions favored yoga (restraint) over bhoga (indulgence). Thus queerness which is replete in mythology began being portrayed as abnormal.
The book begins with instances of queerness not just in Hindu mythology but in Persian, Chinese, Egyptian, Viking and other mythologies. In part II, which is the body of the book the author tells the stories of Shikhandi, Mahadev, Vishnu, Mandhata, Skanda and 30 such found in Indian mythology. A byline for all the titles has been provided like ‘who became a man to satisfy her wife’ for Shikhandi, which drives home the underlying idea of the story.
The story of Shikhandi, by virtue of it being part of Mahabharat is well known. How Bhishma was pinned to the ground by Shikhandi, a girl born to Drupada but trained as a son, on 10th day of the battle was a landmark moment. There are plenty of references to Krishna and Shiva, who have cross dressed, turned into women, turned other men into women on curse or request. Krishna perhaps in turning into Mohini to marry Aravan (Tamil folklore), in dressing as a female for the Gopis or with Arjuna or in dancing with Gopeshwara (Shiva himself), exhibit widest range of queer behavior. The idea perhaps as the author suggests is to portray that ‘purna-purusha’ has various other facets as well.
The diversity of the book is good with stories from Tamil Ramayana, folklores of Bengal, and various other areas of the country present. Oral traditions of hijras, Puranas, Valmiki Ramayana, Bengali Rampachali, Bhagavata Purana, Skanda Purana Tamil Purananuru are few of the sources of the stories. It serves to drive home the point that examples of queerness and not-so-watertight gender classifications are found in all mythologies. Even though the bulleted point pattern of description might make reading easier or difficult for some, the book finds great relevance in modern times where queerness is looked down upon and is uncomfortable to be discussed about.