Transgression of Gender in a Kannada Classical Epic ‘Pampa Bharata’
Conceptualising ‘women’ and ‘ men’ as essentialising categories can be questioned .We can focus on different interacting models of ‘ female’ and ‘ male’ behavior. We can explore the methods of expression of such different models. The concept of masculinity ,femininity and trans-gender can be revisited. The reasons and contexts of feminisation by males and masculisation by females can also be discussed. I call this process as ‘ transgression of genders ‘. I wish to expand the connotation of the concept of ‘trans-gender’ with the inclusiveness of ’ transgression of genders ‘.This trans-genderism can be temporal and spatial , with a definite purpose ,expectation and result.
The first classical epic in Kannada Literature is ’Vikramaarjuna Vijaya ‘ by poet Pampa. ( 10th CAD ). This epic is popularly known as ‘ PampaBhaarata ‘ , by the name of the poet Pampa. Though this Kannada epic is based on Samskrit Mahabhaarata of Vyasa, this has many deviations and variations. It has the overtones of a contemporary historical narrative of the state of Karnataka of 10th CAD. Poet Pampa terms his epic as ‘Laukika ‘ ( worldly ) and equates the character Arjuna with Arikesari , a King of Chalukya dynasty , who was the patron of the poet.
Pampa pronounces three important values in his epic ‘Bhaarata’ ,ie.,’ biira’ ( heroism/ virility ) , ‘chaaga’ ( charity ) and ‘showcha’ ( sexual discipline ).He attributes these values to some male characters of his epic. These values are tested again and again , by creating transitional space for their transgression.I intend to address the question of ‘ masculinity ‘ and ‘femininity ‘ , taking into consideration of some models based on particular characters of the epic.
Bhishma opted ‘ Purusha vrata ‘ ( vow of man /vow of celibacy) in order to facilitate his father Shantanu to marry Satyavati ,the daughter of Daasharaaja.The father of Satyavati puts a condition to Shantanu that the children born to Satyavati should get the position in the throne of Hastinavati.In the normal circumstances it was not possible since Bhishma was the first son of Shantanu and the rightful successor.Understanding the dilemma of his father ,Bhishma decides not to have kingship and marriage.So the ‘vow of celibacy ’ not to marry .Bhishma promises Daasharaaja : ” I will not have any relationship with ‘Lakshmi of Kingdom’ and I will not have sex with women ’ in any form’ “.
Bhishma after winning Ambe in the contest of conquering ,refuses to marry her, saying that he is practicing ‘vow of celibacy’, which is equivalent to ‘Brahmacharya’ . Brahmacharya ,at its most basic level,means ‘abstinence from sexual intercourses , or other types of sexual contact ‘ .At more subtle levels, Brahmacharya includes greater physical and mental discipline .Bhishma’s vow was lifelong celibacy.So ,from the sexual point of view ,Bhishma was not a man or male. He chose the life of a ‘ beyond man’.Bhishma says to Ambe:” If I succumb to the pleasure of sex ,my vow of celibacy will come to an end.”
When Bhishma refuses to marry Ambe, she goes to Saalavala, her former lover and requests him to marry her.Saalvala was defeated by Bhishma ,in the contest of winning Ambe.When Ambe approaches Saalvala after rejected by Bhishma, Saalvala says to Ambe : ” How can a ‘woman’ have sex with another ‘woman, O Ambe ? ” Here Saalvala refers himself as ‘woman’ .In the epic ‘Pampabhaarata’ which is the product of the age of virility in Karnataka in the 10th century , a man defeated in a battle is considered as a ’ woman’.Saalvala gives expression to the dominant ideology of that period.In this perspective ,Saalvala was ‘ beyond the gender of male’ .
When Ambe could not succeed in all her efforts to transform the mind of Bhishma , she also makes an vow. ” Ambe ,the manly woman ,said to Bhishma -’ I will take birth in order to kill you ‘ .Saying thus ,by the fire of her anger she immolated herself ,born as the ‘son of Drupada ‘ , and then became ‘Shikhandi’.” ‘ Shikhandi ‘ was the form of ‘transgender’ or ‘third sex’.
Ambe transgressed her gender ,from ‘female ‘ to ‘ male ‘ then to ‘transgender’ ,in order to take revenge on Bhishma , which she could not fulfill as a ‘ woman’.Finally in the battle of Kurukshetra , Bhishma and Shikhandi face each other and Bhishma refuses to fight with Shikhandi and that was the crucial moment of the end of Bhishma.This interface is symbolic and interesting when two transgendered characters were juxtaposed. As discussed earlier ,Bhishma was ’ beyond male’ and Ambe was ‘ beyond female’ , in a way both were two models of transgenders.
‘Showcha’ ( sexual discipline of men ) was a value celebrated in the epic Pampabhaarata.The meaning of the word ‘showcha’ denotes both physical and mental cleanliness. It is in a way synonym with ‘brahmacharya’. In the epic the context was Bhishma facing Shikhandi in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The narration in the text flows like this :” Bhishma fell with the weight of the arrows pierced on his body .But his body did not touch the earth ,because the ‘earth ‘ is a ‘woman’. He says ,’ The vow of Showcha which I took since my young age will not be violated by just touching the earth.Why? It is a woman ! ‘ Bhishma showed the supremacy of the value of Showcha.”
In the epic of Pampa, the two values ‘virility ‘ ( biira) and ‘ sexual discipline of man’ ( showcha) are celebrated through male characters.’Virility’ is equated with ‘masculinity’. This was projected by the participation of men in battles.’Showcha’ is abstinence from sex by a male in relation with females .So this is ‘ beyond masculinity’. Thus a complex and contradicting combination of two opposing qualities , virility and abstinence from sex were tested in this epic with unique character like Bhishma. This is an interesting model of ‘transgressing gender’.
This idea can be extended to contemporary situations , if we try to strip ourselves from the conventional categories of ‘ male’ and ‘female’.
This is a draft of the portion of a paper presented in an International Workshop ,’ Gender and Beyond -New Perspectives on Gender and Transgender in South Asia’ ,4th-5th February 2011.
Chair of Indology and Wurzburg Centre for Modern India
University of Wurzburg,Germany.