The presence of alternative sexualities can be found in many mythologies around the world. From ancient Greek Mythology and the Roman Empire to the Age of Renaissance and the subsequent Modern world, there have been a lot of stories, tales, poems and fables about Gods, Goddesses, kings and queens who didn’t have a ‘strong heterosexual leaning’.
Where are the Lesbian love stories in Indian myths?
The modern retelling and understanding of the Indian mythology has seen a gradual eradication of alternative sexualities, which were so prominent in the ancient texts and scriptures, in order to align itself with the views of the modern society. Although most people have a vague knowledge about Sappho, the Greek poet who was reputed to love women and is considered a symbol of female homosexuality, majority of them have no idea about such lesbian love stories or tales closer to home. The general public is much more familiar with the Greek island of Lesbos (from which the very name lesbian is derived) located in the northeastern Aegean Sea than our own myths.
This complete “absence” of any kind of reference in popular mythology makes it difficult for the people here to accept and understand female homosexuality. In this country, one can easily find stories of gender bending in our Epics and religious texts such as the tale of Vishnu becoming Mohini and the story Arjuna living as Brihannala. The only thing which is completely absent in our myths, religious texts and epics is the presence of inspirational lesbian love stories. So, are there no such tales? Is there no evidence in ancient scriptures and mythology which can prove the existence of some sort of lesbian identity in this ancient country? The truth is that there are such tales, and there is strong evidence in the scriptures and the texts, but they have been systematically ignored and kept hidden from the general public.
The child of two mothers
One of the major characters of Indian Mythology, Bhagiratha – the man who brought the holy river Ganga or Ganges to Earth and in whose honor, the head stream of the river is called Bhagirathi - has a very interesting birth story. In most recent texts, he is simply stated to be the son of the King of Ayodhya, Maharaja Dilip of the Surya Dynasty (an antecedent of Lord Rama himself). However, the Krittivas Ramayana, for example, tells a very different story.
In this version, the Gods become very worried when King Dilip dies without an heir. Ayodhya cannot be without a ruler and the succession line cannot be broken as Lord Vishnu himself is going to be incarnated as Rama later in this royal lineage. After a consultation, the Gods send Maharaja Dilip’s two widows to Lord Shiva, where they come to know that one of them will be able to conceive a son by having sex with each other. The child that is born to them is a boneless lump of flesh (ancient Indian beliefs being that the sperm provides the skeleton). The shamed, grief stricken mothers decide to throw the child into the Sarayu River but they are stopped on their way by the Sage Vasishtha who asks them to leave this devilish child by the roadside instead of throwing him in the river. After they leave, the sage Ashtavakra sees the deformed child and cures him and then delivers him to their mothers who, after seeing the transformation in their son, happily take him back. Ashtavakra names the child Bhagiratha, since he is born of two vulvas (bhage bhage janam hetu bhagirath nam). (a simple google search will give ample articles on this)
When Shiva became a woman to please Parvati
There is a popular tale in Indian Mythology, well fleshed out in the Tamil Matsya Purana, and the Ramayana, where Lord Shiva, in order to please his wife Goddess Parvati, transforms himself into a woman during their intimate moments. All the creatures in that forest also get magically converted into their female forms. (One such person is king Ila, and his story is another fantastic tale of gender bending in our myths)
Valmiki Ramayan has them too!
There is a well known description in the Valmiki Ramayan of Hanuman during his time in Lanka. There, he sees the women “laying scantily clothed in each others’ arms”.
In Jayadratha's Haracaritacintamani, a 13th century Kashmiri text, Ganesha's birth is the result of the physical intimacy between two women. Parvati's elephant-headed handmaiden Malini gets aroused while massaging the goddess with unguents before her bath and as a result she “swallows a mixture of the unguents, dirt from Parvati’s body, and Parvati's menstrual blood” and becomes pregnant. In time she gives birth to Ganesha, making his existence the result of an all-female union.
Ancient lesbian poetry
There’s a Kashmiri poem written in the original Sharda script by a Kashmiri Hindu poetess in which she graphically describes her experience of ‘soixante neuf’ (cunnilingus) with a woman. The poem was penned in the 11th century and references to the poem can be found in the works of Professor Arthur Llewellyn Basham, the reputed Indologist.
Scriptures and other references
The Manusmriti discourages and criticizes lesbian sex and relationships, (thus proving that lesbian love in India is not a new phenomenon). It has strict instructions for the regulation of love/sex between women. It states, “If a girl has sex with another girl, she should be fined two hundred mudras, be made to pay double the girl’s bride-price, and should receive ten lashes. But if a mature woman does the same with a girl, the woman’s head should be shaved or two of her fingers should be cut off, and she should be paraded on a donkey.” However, the text does not consider lesbianism a sin or as something which leads to damnation’. After all, nothing is permanent in the Hindu ethos and the path to atonement is always open.
The Kama Sutra states that homosexual sex “is to be enjoyed for its own sake as one of the arts.” In the Kama Sutra, Chapter VI, lesbianism in the harems is described, and in Chapter IX, male and female homosexuality is mentioned.( “…in all things connected with love, everybody should act according to the customs of their country and their own inclinations.”) The Kama Sutra refers to the women who refuse marriage with men, have no sexual bars and are independent as svairini. The various practices of lesbian sex are described in detail in the Second Part, Eighth Chapter of the Kama Sutra (The Kama Sutra Of Vatsayana – Part 2, Chapter 8 Translation by Richard Burton (1883).
The Sushruta Samhita, a highly respected medical text dating back to around 600 B.C., mentions the possibility of two women uniting and becoming pregnant as a result of the mingling of their vaginal fluids. It states that the child born of such a union will be “boneless.”
Lesbians and women who are either masculine or impotent for a variety of reasons are mentioned in various other Hindu scriptures under terms such as nastriya, stripumsa, shandhi, etc. (See Kama Sutra 2.8, in the chapter entitled “Virile Behavior in Women.” For the complete list of the 48 terms used for the various types of third-gender men and women, along with their sources in Sanskrit texts, refer to Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex by Amara Das Wilhelm, pp. 39-58)
Although inspirational lesbian stories may be few and far between in popular media or in common perception and the coming out stories of lesbians may be a rare and a modern phenomenon, the presence of lesbians themselves or of lesbian love stories in Indian mythology and scriptures are not. There are many such references, across texts, across languages, and across time.