Originally published in the Pioneer on 4th June 2012
The poorly understood story of Shikhandin
Knowing when to leave – a story from Bala Kaanda
The political discourse in Delhi these days, it would seem, has run out of modern-day metaphors and parallels. It began with the so called ‘anti-corruption’ brigade labelling the Prime Minister after a personality from the Mahabharata.Next to come was the oft-repeated Roman label thrown back at the Prime Minister, a label that he himself had used to describe his office. It is a different matter that in all this back and forth, the debate has raged on unmindful of the underlying gender conflicts or the historical veracity of the labels themselves.
The office of the Prime Minister can by no means be likened to Caesar’s household, let alone the role of the Prime Minister being akin to that of Caesar’s better half. An imaginative mind might stretch that parallel to justify it on the basis of where power may actually lie within the current dispensation in New Delhi, never mind the gender reversal. But it is both historically inaccurate and logically flawed to draw the ‘Shikhandi’ parallel as has been attempted by the so- called ‘anti-corruption’ brigade.
If the reference was to Shikhandi’s effeminate masculinity, that would be historically inaccurate. If the reference was to waging a righteous battle with Shikhandi as a shield, that would be the wrong parallel. A verse by verse reading of the Mahabharata becomes imperative to understand the true story of Shikhandi. The popular narrative and by extension popular perception, is much distorted.
The real story is that Shikhandi was born a female. She was raised as a male with her femininity concealed, kept an absolute secret from everyone in the kingdom. As fate would have it she (mistaken to be a he) is married off to the daughter of another king.
When the marriage was to be consummated a few years on, the bride to her utter dismay discovers the truth. Rumours filter back to her enraged father who then threatens war against Drupada. A distraught Shikhandi then seeks refuge with a Yaksha kin of Vaishravana (Kubera) by the name of Sthuna pleading for a swap.
Here is where the narrative in the Mahabharata gets tricky. The translated text suggests the swap was temporary — his masculinity for her femininity. In reality we must infer they perhaps swapped places for the bride’s father Hiranyavarman dispatches women to personally verify Shikhandi’s masculinity.
The story goes thereafter of Kubera discovering the gender swap and uttering a curse on Sthuna, making the swap permanent. Nevertheless, the now masculine Shikhandi goes back and continues to live in the palace with his happy bride.
In reality, perhaps, we may extrapolate that the female Shikhandi went on to live a life of obscurity in the Yaksha’s abode, while the Yaksha Sthuna went on to live as the male Shikhandi, Drupada’s son. As for Kubera’s curse making the swap permanent, it stands to reason after all; the male Shikhandi (Sthuna) had consummated the marriage with Hiranyavarman’s daughter. It would have been highly improper to abandon her thereafter.
The popular perception of Shikhandi being a ‘eunuch’ is thus factually false. In fact, Bhishma’s objection to fighting Shikhandi was because he had sworn to not fight anyone who was either born female or who bore a name that once belonged to a female, as he himself clarifies within the narrative in the Mahabharata.
In all the fury and fire that goes for the political discourse in Delhi, there was one historical parallel that was notable for its absence given the curiosity raised by a certain blog post from a political veteran hailing the television comeback of a 97-year old veteran actor. With no prejudice, one can’t help but recount this ancient parallel in this season of juxtaposing modern-day politics with ancient and mythological personalities.
While the story of Yayati in the Mahabharata comes to mind of rulers who won’t let go of their power, a more apt parallel is the story from the Bal Kaand in Ramayana of the confrontation between Parashurama and Rama. The story goes that, hearing of the breaking of Shiva’s bow by Rama in Mithila, Parashurama arrives to challenge Rama to wield Vishnu’s bow. Taking on the challenge Rama not only wields the bow but mounts an arrow stretching that bowstring to throw the gauntlet back at Parashurama.
While being fully in control of his emotions, Rama then stares down Parashurama, sparing his life to remind him that his actions were without any moral purpose. Acknowledging his moral limitations and realising the folly of succumbing to his ego, Parashurama then accords Rama his due and makes his way into oblivion.
It was not without reason that our ancients wove so many morals into the many legends and few myths that have been handed down to us over the generations. It is our folly that we at times poorly understand the original context and misapply ancient metaphors to contemporary politics.
But it is a greater folly when the tallest among our leaders who fought valiant battles in the name of the highest of these ancient ideals, forget mortal limits as Parashurama once did, not realising that his avatar was past its moral purpose till a dharma-bound Rama was compelled to remind him.
Filed under: Advani Yatra against Corruption, historical, Narendra Modi, UPA-II Critical Appraisal