Maharaja Virata’s Example
by Amara dasa
Posted November 26, 2002

An ancient Vedic king demonstrates how to respect everyone, regardless of gender.

Over five thousand years ago, during the time of Lord Krsna, there was a great king named Maharaja Virata who ruled over the Matsya province in India. This king played an important role in the epic tale of the “Mahabharata” and also happened to be the maternal grandfather of Maharaja Pariksit. While the five Pandavas were hiding incognito during their last year of exile, Maharaja Virata unknowingly but graciously offered them shelter within his kingdom. Later on, during the great battle of Kuruksetra, he would side with both Lord Krishna and the Pandavas in their fight against the Kauravas.

Arjuna’s disguise

The five Pandava brothers were exiled from their rightful kingdom for twelve years. A further year had to be spent incognito without detection. Of all the disguises that the five Pandavas assumed during that last year, none can be considered more curious or surprising than that of Arjuna’s. His was not actually a disguise, but rather a transformation due to a curse. Earlier on, while visiting his father Indra in heaven, Arjuna had refused the amorous advances of the celestial prostitute Urvasi. Angered by this, she cursed him to become a “kliba,” a member of the third sex. These men sometimes dressed and behaved as females in Vedic India and had no sexual attraction for women. The fact that they are mentioned in the “Mahabharata” and other Vedic texts indicates that such persons were present within that society many thousands of years ago.

Arjuna was despondent over the impending curse, but Krsna assured him that this so-called curse would actually become a useful benediction. It would serve as the perfect disguise for Arjuna during his last year of exile! When the time approached, the Pandavas decided that they would spend this last year in the capitol city ruled by Maharaja Virata. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the brothers, praised the king as a good man, well known for his noble and generous qualities. The brothers then entered the city separately, after adopting their respective disguises, and each presented his own petition before the king requesting shelter and employment under his dominion.

Arjuna was the third brother to enter the king’s palace. Dressing up like a woman, he was transformed by Urvasi’s power into a person of the third sex. This third classification of gender, known as “tritiya-prakriti” in the Sanskrit language, is described as being a combination of both the male and female natures, yet at the same time neither one. Arjuna presented himself donned in a woman’s blouse and draped in red silk. He wore numerous ivory bangles, golden earrings and necklaces made of coral and pearls. His hair was long and braided, and he entered the royal palace with the gait of a broad-hipped woman. At the same time his body still remained incredibly stout and muscular. According to the “Mahabharata,” his feminine attire hid his masculine glory but at the same time it did not. He appeared just like the full moon when eclipsed by the planet Ketu.

The Third Sex

The portrayal of Arjuna’s dress and behavior is very interesting because it clearly reveals his “cross-gender” status. While most English translations of the “Mahabharata” simply use the archaic and evasive term “eunuch” to describe Arjuna, this definition is clearly inaccurate for several reasons. First of all, Arjuna’s cross-gender behavior reveals something much different from that of a mere castrated man or eunuch. The castration of ordinary heterosexual men, it should be noted, does not cause them to adopt the psychological nature, dress and behavior of women. Secondly, castration is not found to be an accepted practice of ancient India, and mutilation of the body was considered by Vedic texts to be in the mode of darkness. Its current illegal practice in Northern India among the modern-day “hijra” or eunuch class is attributed to former centuries of Muslim rule that once encouraged it. Islamic overlords commonly castrated homosexual servants and slaves during the 11th-17th centuries AD, but this system of castration is never mentioned in Vedic texts. In South India, largely spared from Muslim influence, there is a cross-gender class similar to the hijra known as the “jogappa,” but they do not practice castration. In his book “Homosexuality and Hinduism” Arvind Sharma writes, “…the limited practice of castration in India raises another point significant for the rest of the discussion, namely, whether rendering a word such as “kliba” as eunuch regularly is correct…”

The Sanskrit word “kliba” is used throughout Vedic texts to describe many different types of people who belonged to a “gender-ambiguous” and neutral third sex. These people were not considered to be ordinary males and females, and they did not experience attraction for the opposite sex or engage in sexual reproduction. They were taken to be a combination of both the male and female natures, yet at the same time neither one. We are familiar with this third sex today as gay men, lesbians, transgenders, the intersexed, and other types of persons who do not neatly fit into traditional male and female roles. In Vedic times, the third sex category served as an important tool for the recognition and peaceful accommodation of such persons within society.

Arjuna as Brihannala

While it is debatable as to exactly which type of “kliba” Arjuna actually became, his nature and behavior is clearly portrayed as a transgender male. Such men identify as female by nature and live their lives as women. Introducing himself as Brihannala, a professional dancer and musician trained by “gandharvas” or celestial beings, Arjuna explained that he was expert in singing, hair decoration and “all the fine arts that a woman should know.” After exhibiting his skills before the court, he was tested by beautiful young women to ensure that he was actually third-sexed and thus free from any lust for females. This is another important clue to note. Had Arjuna been merely a eunuch or neuter, the men of the palace could easily have examined him themselves for testicles or hermaphroditism (intersexuality). Instead, they made certain that beautiful women would not be able to arouse him.

Maharaja Virata was surprised yet pleased with his manner of speaking, and he agreed that Arjuna should live among the palace women and instruct them in singing and dancing. Brihannala (Arjuna) soon became a great favorite within their chambers. The king instructed his daughter Uttara, “Brihannala seems to be a high-born person. She does not seem to be an ordinary dancer. Treat her with the respect due to a queen. Take her to your apartments.”

Maharaja Virata’s Kindness

It is important to note that Maharaja Virata addressed Brihannala as a female, accepting her transgender status, and that he was familiar with people of the third sex within his Vedic kingdom. He did not ridicule or belittle her, and he most certainly did not have her sent away or arrested. He also did not suggest that Brihannala change her dress and behave as an ordinary male. Rather, he accepted her nature as it was and offered her shelter and employment within his royal palace. This kindness and respect offered by Maharaja Virata to Arjuna in his transgender form of Brihannala is exemplary and should be followed by all government officials and leaders of society.

In modern days there has been much controversy concerning the proper treatment of gay, lesbian, transgender and other types of “gender ambiguous” people within society. Such persons, described in Vedic literatures as “tritiya-prakriti” or people of the third sex, do not fit neatly within our ordinary definitions of male or female. Nevertheless, how are we to treat them as human beings and spirit-souls within a civilized and spiritual society? This example set by Maharaja Virata many thousands of years ago in India demonstrates a proper attitude we can all adopt.

My own spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, narrated a similar story concerning the pastimes of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. When the Lord first appeared within this world as a newborn child, He received blessings from the transgender dancers who were performing and singing “Hare Krishna” before Him. The Lord’s father, Jagannatha Misra, invited these dancers into the courtyard as part of a long-standing custom in India that continues even today. Srila Prabhupada explains, “…such people have their own society, and their means of livelihood is that whenever there is some good occasion like marriage or childbirth, they go there and pray to God that this child may be very long-living.” (San Francisco, 4/5/67) Afterwards, Jagannatha Misra rewarded these people of the third sex with costly silk garments and jewels.

God Loves Everyone

By these examples we can see that spiritually and culturally advanced people such as Maharaja Virata and Jagannatha Misra naturally treat everyone very kindly. Srila Prabhupada, as the perfect gentleman, also set this example for his disciples and followers. Whether a person is male, female, or of questionable gender, every human being should be received nicely, accommodated as far as possible, and treated respectfully within society as parts and parcels of the Supreme Lord.

It is not the intention of this article to needlessly debate homosexuality, gender identity or other types of third sex behavior and identification. Such people will continue to exist by nature whether or not we happen to agree with, like, or mistreat them. Neither is it helpful to label and stigmatize any particular class, race or gender as especially inferior, sinful or fallen. People should be seen equally as spirit-souls (“sama-darshana”) and viewed individually on their own personal merits, not with prejudice as part of any collective group or class. Most importantly, everyone should be genuinely welcomed and encouraged to participate in Krsna consciousness and make spiritual advancement based upon their individual ability.

Having mercy upon each fallen soul, Sri Krsna has descended to awaken our dormant spiritual lives. He has especially come in this age as Lord Caitanya to distribute the all-purifying holy names of God. “Not considering who asked for it and who did not, nor who was fit and who unfit to receive it, Caitanya Mahaprabhu distributed the fruit of devotional service.” (Caitanya-caritamrta, 1.9.29) This is the sum and substance of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement. The holy names of “Hare Krsna” are priceless and must be lovingly distributed to everyone without discrimination or restriction. It does not matter whether a person is male or female, black or white, gay or straight, high-class or low-class, fully renounced or completely fallen. Whatever position we may be in, we should all immediately begin chanting the holy names of God to start our spiritual lives. Those who fully understand the urgency of this message will welcome and encourage all types of people to join without discrimination, in the spirit of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

-Amara das joined the Hare Krsna movement in 1974 and received first and second initiation by Srila Prabhupada, who has mercifully engaged him in worshipping and sewing for the temple Deities over the past twenty-five years. He currently lives in Hawaii where he assists with the harinama party there and runs a support group and website for gay and lesbian Vaishnavas.

-Narrations from the “Mahabharata” were adapted from the texts written by Kamala Subramaniam and Krishna Dharma (Kenneth Anderson). Information on eunuchs, “kliba,” “hijra,” and other manifestations of the third sex were taken from “Neither Man nor Woman: the Hijras of India,” by Serena Nanda; “Same-Sex Love in India,” by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai; “Homosexuality and Hinduism,” by Arvind Sharma; and “The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore,” by Devdutt Pattanaik.
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