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While granting legal and social recognition to the transgender community, an apex court bench made the following observation: “Historically, Hijras/ transgender persons had played a prominent role, with the onset of colonial rule... the situation had changed drastically.” Several reports in the media have cited Hindu texts to establish the symbiotic relationship between transgenders and Indian society. One such literary source is the Mahabharata. In “Viratparva” the Pandava hero, Arjun — cursed by a celestial courtesan — turns into the effeminate Brihannala for a year.

Leafing through Rajsekhar Basu’s translation of Vyasa’s epic, I came across some anecdotes that seem to challenge the idea that transgender people enjoyed a relative degree of prominence and visibility in ancient India. When Arjun disguised as Brihannala seeks shelter from Virat, the warrior appears before the monarch wearing earrings and bangles and has his long hair loose. Seeing him, a suspicious Virat declares that such a handsome being is unlikely to be a “kleeb” (a gender- neutered entity). He promptly asks Brihannala to train his daughter in the arts, confining Arjun to the inner chambers. Later, after Arjun vanquishes the Kauravas single-handedly with Virat’s son, Uttar, as his charioteer, Virat heaps praise on his son because he refuses to believe that a eunuch could have accomplished such a feat.

Virat’s suspicion of Brihannala’s striking looks corroborates societal unease with the allure of the androgynous form. His repudiation of Brihannala’s skills at war also reveals the association of courage and valour with masculinity. Significantly, Brihannala’s accommodation within the royal household may not necessarily be a sign of inclusion. It could also be interpreted as a wily attempt to relegate a person of indeterminate sex to private spaces that remain screened.

What is discernible though is the attempt to associate the trans identity with comicality and menial roles. The disguised Arjun, so as not to reveal his true identity, intentionally fumbles with battle-gear much to the delight of the princess. In a society structured on an inflexible division of labour, Brihannala is accorded the role of a mere instructor. These instances serve to reinforce the association of people with fluid gender identity with such ideas as unproductive labour, cowardice and clumsiness. Even Shikhandi is venerated on utilitarian grounds: Bhishma’s demise was hastened because he, typically, scoffed at the idea of battling Arjun who remained shielded behind the half-man. The fact that Hindu texts refer to transgenders does not necessarily guarantee a dignified exposition on the community. Did the brutal colonial response towards transgenders stem from such deeply entrenched prejudice?

Hindu textual sources are often cited to legitimize questionable claims. Such an endeavour runs the risk of consolidating the neo-nationalist enterprise that aims at reconstructing Indian myth and history in the light of a glorious, inclusive and predominantly Hindu past. Such an insidious project is unambiguously deleterious in a pluralistic culture. For it strives to either obliterate or distort the epochs of Indian history that are associated with Islamic rule. This is not to suggest that India under Islam demonstrated a far more equitable response towards sexual minorities. After all, eunuchs served as reliable guards of the imperial harem. Nonetheless, the fact that the media — and other institutions that imagine themselves to be the vanguard of democratic pluralism — have relied overwhelmingly on Hindu texts to posit a hypothesis is discomfiting.

To strengthen such a claim, a more prudent choice would have been to explore subaltern literary sources as well as folk traditions. But then, elitism and majoritarianism are vices that afflict not just India’s political class.