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The Man Who Was a Woman and other Queer Tales of Hindu Lore

Devdutt Pattanaik, 2002, The Haworth Press, 166pp, p/bk, 15 colour plates, ISBN 1-56023-180-7


Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of a number of popular books on Hindu deities and mythology. The Man Who Was a Woman and other Queer Tales of Hindu Lore is a gentle, yet enthralling critical exploration of themes of gender transgression and queer readings of Hindu narratives, ranging from episodes from well-known epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata to Puranic tales and little-known regional folklore. Thus in The Man Who Was a Woman we encounter women who become men, men who become women, pregnant kings, gender-liminal tricksters, tales of self-castration and strange creatures who are neither "this nor that."

The Man Who Was a Woman is much more than a collection of queered retellings though. For the English reader, Dr. Pattanaik provides some valuable insights into the fluidity and sometimes dizzying range of perspectives encompassed within the Hindu worldviews:

Unlike most biblical narratives, every Hindu tale has several versions, innumerable interpretations, and no specific place in the religious canon. Symbols and metaphors mingle and merge with characters and plots. Idea and imagination thrive on the roller coaster of transmigration and the fluidity of identities. Locked within the tales of gods, kings, and sages are the blazing philosophies of ancient spiritual masters ... the tales have, over the centuries, become integral parts of the Hindu spiritual landscape. ... As one internalises the tales, one comes to accept a universe that is boundlessly various, where everything occurs simultaneously, where all possibilities exist without excluding one another.

But Dr. Pattanaik is quick to point out that there is a disjunction between the lore that seems to accept queer liminality and the reality of a social culture which is, to a large extent, deeply uncomfortable with "queer" identities. He notes that whilst many Hindus enjoy hearing the gender-liminal exploits of a particular god or hero, that highlighting the "queer" aspects of the tale often draws reactions such as the tale is merely entertainment, comedy; or that it is an allegory not meant to be taken literally - or that the ways of gods are not those of humans - or, that such interpretations are down to "perverted" Western influences (See my review of the outcry prompted by Paul Courtright's psychoanalytic appraisal of Ganesa as an example of the latter). He recounts an infamous incident where an orthodox Hindu narrated the tale of Mohini & Shiva to a French audience, who immediately siezed upon its "gay" subtext, much to the disquiet of the narrator. He also discusses (briefly) the influence of British Colonialism in shaping contemporary Indian attitudes to sexuality.

During my reading of The Man Who Was a Woman I was particularly struck by Dr. Pattanaik's ability to present a complex and sophisticated perspective on gender & sexuality in Hindu lore in any easy, engaging and above all, accessible manner - without descending into academic jargon or painting an overly 'pink-tinted' view of an entirely queer-friendly ancient romanticised past, as some western authors have tended to do. Dr. Pattanaik is critical of authors who all too quickly make interpretions of convenience that do not take into account the complexities of the Hindu worldview. And - sensitive to the awareness of queer interpretations, Dr. Pattanaik emphasises that he is not presenting reproductions or translations of literal texts - these are his retellings of narratives - some from Classical Hindu sources, and others from popular Indian folklore. What he also does, very ably, is provide a commentary both on the tales themselves and the wider cultural contexts within which they are embedded.

Not only is this book unique as an exploration of queer subtexts in Hindu lore, it provides some useful insights into the roles that myths may serve in cultures. Dr. Pattanaik writes in his introduction:

Myths, legends and lore capture the collective unconscious of a people. They are revered inheritances, a complex weave of ancient attitudes and ambitions. Deemed sacred, they generate a worldview for a people, explain the inexplicable, and give life meaning, direction, and certainty. To understand the unexpressed worlds of a people, to decipher coping skills of a culture, an unravelling of myth, a decoding of lore is essential.

A problem I find with much occult writing regarding myth is that there is a tendency to seek 'sameness' rather than embrace, acknowledge, and yes, celebrate, difference. I become increasingly irritated, the older I get, with superficial attempts to draw parallels between, for example, deities from different cultures, purely on the basis that they share some similar function or feature. As an aside, it's useful to bear in mind that the 'science' of comparative religion grew out of the work of orientalists such as William Jones and Max Müller. Works such as The Man Who Was a Woman highlight the poverty of this rather reductionist approach.

The Man Who Was a Woman is a thoroughly engaging and insightful work which I feel sure that anyone with an abiding interest in the often complex relationship between a culture and its myths will find engrossing and delightful. You don't have to be queer to enjoy this book, but if you are, then then this is definitely not to be missed! - Phil Hine