Book Review : Shikhandi by Devdutt Pattanaik

Book Review: Shikhandi, and Other Tales they Don’t Tell You, looks for instances of Queerness or Homosexuality in Ancient India. The Book is Interesting.

Dina Nath Batra is in news these days. He is from RSS. His eight books on “the ideal way to Live Life” have been made a recommended read in Gujarat Government schools. For some years now, Mr. Batra is running a book auditing society named Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti . A book auditor is a person who audits books, by reading them , and issues a certificate whether the book is up to the mark or not. You will not find a specific profession as Book Auditor, but since the work of Dina Nath Batra and his staff (after all he can’t read all books himself) is very similar to an auditor, one who appraises the accounts, hence the name.

The book looks into Hindu mythology for the instances of Queerness or Homosexuality in Ancient IndiaThat said, Dina Nath Batra’s organisation mostly audits those books which it suspects may have portrayed Hindu religion and its way of life in a bad light. If Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti finds a book offending Hindu sensibilities (as its usually transgresses its motto of auditing just School and College books), first it sends a letter to the publisher to shelf the book. If the publisher doesn’t abide by the orders, then Mr. Batra’s organisation goes to the Court. Mr. Batra has been responsible for getting many books banned in India, including the very recent Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History [This is the version which seems to be the censored one. The controversial version is this one.]

In an interview recently, Mr. Batra told the journalist that Doniger’s book talks about nothing but sex in Hinduism. He finds Doniger’s research idiotic, as she tells her readers that the Shiva Linga in Indian temples, is the phallus of Shiva (Phallus means the male sex organ). When asked what exactly ‘Shiva Linga’ means? Mr. Batra says it doesn’t mean phallus. Boasting to the interviewer , Mr. Batra informs him that he has read the 800 pages of Doniger’s book ; and the book cover has a drawing of Krishna sitting on naked bodies of Gopis (milk maids). Mr. Batra even offers to lend the book to the journalist.

Ms Doniger is a Western writer. She may not be writing something without adequate research. But still, if Mr. Batra wants us to believe so, we can’t do much. In 1996, I listened to a public Bhagvat Katha (the Story of Krishna) through the mouth of a Katha vachak (religious story teller). At one point he narrates an incident similar to the one Doniger is claimed to have told in her book. The katha vachak was praising Gopis for their platonic love for Krishna (a love or friendship which is intimate, but not sexual), pleading to Krishna to put his lotus feet on the front of their naked torso.  In whatever terms the Katha vachak was interpreting the story, he was indeed describing the events in real graphic terms. Similar to what Mr. Batra accuses Doniger of. Hence, either the Katha Vachak was putting his feet in his mouth then, or Doniger is taking creative liberty now. Or Mr. Batra is condemning Doniger , just for the sake of justifying the ban.

Courtesy Mr. Batra, the Indian publisher of the book, Penguin India, arrived at an out of court settlement with Mr. Batra and all the copies of the book were removed and pulped. You can still import, Doniger’s 800 page book, but the book can’t be sold in a bookstore.

Shikhandi by devdutt pattanaik book review

You may be thinking as to why we are discussing Mr. Dina Nath Batra and Doniger’s book here. As I found it necessary to put into perspective how books are banned in India. And if the author of the book, which we are reviewing today had been a foreign author or a woman, his book may also come under the book auditor’s scanner. The book Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik , is about the presence of homosexuals,  lesbians, queers, transexuals, eunuchs, kinnars, middle genders in Indian History — the majority of instances for which are taken from Indian mythology or Hindu mythology. According to the author, the book looks for instances in Ancient Indian culture (which is again mythology), appreciating queerness or appearing to be in harmony with queerness.

The 30 chapter book informs the reader in the very beginning that the instances of homosexual conduct or the presence of middle gender in ancient Indian culture has to be searched for. As various ancient texts , depending on the author (Brahmin or non-brahmin writer), portray them with different degrees of clarity. That’s the same incident or instance, can be seen as purely platonic by one author, and incestuous, sexual and quiver by another. Hence, there can’t be one single source for studying Indian mythology. And certain mythological texts do depict sexuality in more vivid terms. Every incident the book shares as indicative of the presence of a middle gender or a non-heterosexual conduct comes from various ancient sources such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, present folklores, texts of South Indian authors & sages, Sangam Literature, Jain Texts, Buddhist Texts etc. The book thus shares the stories of crossdressing Bhima, temporarily castrated Indra, Chudala (who temporarily became man), hermaphrodites such as Makar, Har Hari Suta (the son of Vishnu and Shiva), Ram who included all his kingdom including those of middle gender and obviously Shikhandi. The book is quite readable and interesting. The book also proves one thing, the mythological books of North India are quite different from the South India. The ancient South indian mythology , most of which is non-brahminic , is more transparent, respectful and harmonious in appreciating the third gender and  queerness. It is more appreciative of India’s eternal diversity as well.

My Rating : 4.5 out of 5 Stars

[In an enthusiasm to prove the presence of homosexuality in Anciant India, the book derails a bit in a couple of chapters. That’s why only 4.5 .]

Who is Devdutt Pattanaik?

Devdutt Patnaik is a Doctor by Training (an MBBS). He worked in the Pharma Industry for 15 years. After that he became an author. With more than 50 books and 500 articles under his belt, Devdutt Patnaik also worked as Chief Belief Officer (CBO) of Kishore Biyani led Future Group (known for Big Bazaar Stores). Mr. Pattanaik writes about Mythology in the light of Today’s India and World. He is a well read and multi talented individual. He himself illustrates (sketches) his books. He’s popular for seeing mythology from the discipline of Management. His Mythology cum Management  lectures are big hit with young people, Corporates and Business Channels.

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  • Neha Sharma Sep 24, 2014, 9:58 pm

    I have been a fan of devdutt pattnaik for over a year now.In this book also he is at his best while analyzing Hindu mythology and its acceptance of queerness.The rich and diverse knowledge base and wisdom that is embedded in our ancient text is brilliantly explained by the author.