Gender and identity in the Mahābhārata

King Virata with Yudhisthira, who is disguised as the Brahmin Kanka – Victoria and Albert Museum

We may perhaps wonder whether individuals in ancient India thought about their own identities in terms that are recognizable today.  It may be assumed that any sense of self that ancient Indian people might have had would have been conceptualized so differently that the identity terminologies of the 21st century would not apply.

Yet, the concepts of gender roles and gender identity do seem to be played on in various different ways in ancient texts.  In the Mahābhārata, different characters are conscious of the significance of their gender in different ways at different stages in the overall course of events.  This article will review a few characters in the Mahābhārata, viz. Draupadī, Śikhaṇḍī and Arjuna, in turn, to see how they express their awareness of the significance of their gender role and gender identity in the differing social contexts in which they find themselves.



It is perhaps Draupadī’s vulnerability as a woman in male-dominated environments that make her one of the most articulate and expressive characters in the Mahābhārata, able to put into words not only her own predicament, but also the injustice and humiliation which she and the five Pāṇḍava brothers experience time and again.  Her passionate speeches give eloquent expression to the situation that she and the Pāṇḍavas find themselves in, and she appears to be most conscious of the gravity of the situation, in fact, in marked contrast to Yudhiṣṭhira, who appears highly quiescent in many situations.

The Virāṭa Parvan is one part of the narrative where they are most acutely conscious of their total humiliation, and Draupadī in particular is eloquent in expressing their awful predicament.  This is the episode where they must live incognito for a year, disguised in subservient roles.  Draupadī is disguised as a maid, and  Yudhiṣṭhira, as depicted above, disguises himself as a Brahmin courtier to entertain the king with dice games. 

We may perhaps compare this to the contemporary lockdown situation, where many people are suffering mentally due to a sense of spending too much time together in a confined space, of being isolated from their normal rhythms of life and society, and of being in a situation which they cannot control.

Draupadī makes a vivid and moving lament as follows –

Here is that attendant of the king who has achieved total unhappiness,
In his assembly playing dice, Yudhiṣṭhira, calling himself Kanka.

He to whom, when he lived at Indraprastha, kings
Carried tribute, now carries things around for others.

You, Bhīma, are in the unfitting job of a cook,
Calling yourself Ballava; Who wouldn’t feel grief?

When the king delightedly makes you fight with elephants,
While the women of the palace laugh, I am terrified.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 17, verses 22–23; my own translation; Chapter 18, extracts from opening; my own translation]

In considering her own plight, she manages at this point to be slightly more philosophical –

See the awful state of me, conquering prince!
I am just biding my time, suffering every sorrow.
Impermanent are the achievements, victories and defeats of mortals
Knowing this, I am eagerly waiting for my husbands to rise again

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 19, verses 2-3; my own translation]

Here Draupadī looks back to their time as rulers in Indraprastha, when their wealth and power was at its height, in order to highlight the despair of their present situation by contrast.  Further, we can see that it is not merely the activities that they are involved in that causes Draupadī such pain, but also the fact that they must act in accordance with the will of another, with no independent ability to choose their own course of action in any situation.  In this way, there is a removal of their personal autonomy that is closely connected with the lack of acknowledgement of their true identities.

This is one of many powerful and rhetorically effective speeches that Draupadī makes, which include her speech when she is assaulted in the assembly and when in the forest she reflects on the desperate nature of their predicament. 

Indeed, her eloquence also seems to be motivated by the fact that she is conscious of the additional level of vulnerability she is exposed to as a woman moving in male-dominated environments, or even, we might say in regard to cultures that allow such figures as Duṣyanta and Kīcaka to flourish, spaces of toxic masculinity.  At the same time as criticizing this state of affairs, however, she continues to look to her own husbands to protect her in the last line, perhaps acknowledging that she is living in a largely patriarchal society.



During this period of disguise, Arjuna is disguised as a eunuch or non-masculine person.  Although Arjuna is certainly suffering during this time, he like his brothers is rather too reticent to really express his feelings.  It is Draupadī again who articulates his suffering in an emotionally charged and rhetorically effective speech.

That Dhananjaya is looked down on by the world due to his disguised appearance,
Who, most excellent among men, enemies constantly feared,

Women sit round and enjoy the sound of his singing,
The sound of whose bowstring made enemies tremble

That Dhananjaya has now braided his hair,
Whose crowned head was like the sun

He wear ear-rings who is the support of all knowledge,
The great soul who has all divine weapons

Who thousands of kings could not match in splendour
Like the great ocean, whose limit could not be found in conflict

This is he, a dancing boy for the daughters of King Virāṭa
Concealed in disguise as an assistant of the daughters

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 18, verses 11-16; my own translation]

We could perhaps conjecture that the speech is contemptuous or discriminatory towards people who are not gender-conforming, or elevates hyper-masculine personality traits.  On the other hand, this is not necessarily the case, as we could rather understand that what is terrible about Arjuna’s condition is that he is forced to present himself as something that he is not in fact.

Indeed, by living in disguise, their right to be recognized as the individuals who they really are is removed from them at multiple levels, including the fact that, as servants, their personal autonomy, or ability to choose their own course of action in any situation, is removed, and all aspects of their own identity, including in Arjuna’s case his authentic expression of gender identity, are suppressed.


Śikhaṇḍī and Sthūṇākarṇa

The gender identity of Śikhaṇḍī is rather more uncertain than that of any other character in the Mahābhārata.  When he is born, his mother disguises him as a boy and brings him up in that gender.  Śikhandī’s mother confesses this to Bhīṣma as follows –

“King, due to fear of my fellow wives, because I had no son, I told my husband that this daughter Śikhaṇḍinī, who had been born to me, was actually a son, Śikhaṇḍī.  You also went along with it, out of affection for me, and did all the rites of a son for this girl, and [when he grew up] you had him married to the daughter of king of the Daśārṇas.”

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan, Chapter 192, verses 1-3; my own translation]

The problem with passing off Śikhaṇḍī as a son only seemed to arise when this marriage was arranged, and it seemed there would be no way to continue to keep the secret about Śikhaṇḍī’s true gender.  Feeling utter desparation at the situation, Śikhaṇḍī wanders into a deserted forest resolved to commit suicide.  However, as luck would have it, she meets a yakṣa called Sthūṇākarṇa, who offers her any boon she wants.  Śikhaṇḍī asks to be truly a man.  Sthūṇākarṇa replies as follows –

Good lady, I will make an agreement with you, but know this:
For a period of time, I will give this, my own male gender, to you.
You will have it for a time; I tell you this truly
I am powerful, achieving anything I want, taking any form I want, moving through the sky.
With my blessing, defend [your] city and [your] relations.
I will take on this female form of yours, daughter of a king!
Agree to this truly [and] I will do what you want.

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan, Chapter 193, verses 2-4; my own translation]

Śikhaṇḍī agrees that she will return later on to swap back their genders, and then Sthūṇākarṇa exchanges his gender with hers.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, it is only after Śikhaṇḍī’s death that Sthūṇākarṇa receives back his male gender.

The terms ‘female-to-male’ and ‘male-to-female’ are no longer the preferred term to refer to people whose gender has been reassigned to the opposite gender that they were assigned at birth, as we now acknowledge that their original gender reassignment was erroneous and we recognize them by their reassigned gender alone, male and female respectively.  However, in light of the above, in the case of Śikhaṇḍī and Sthūṇākarṇa, ‘female-to-male’ and ‘male-to-female’ might seem to be the correct terminologies.


In the three discussions above, we see how the normal expression of gender by the various characters became difficult or problematic for them in some way or other due to the situation they were in and their interactions with the people around them.  However, how much of a difficulty they felt this to be or how their own struggles with gender expression relate to the modern world is not entirely clear.

Indeed, the stories of the Mahābhārata offer no simple or straightforward guidance on how to live and understand one’s own place in the world.  However, by reflecting on the predicament of the characters above and others, we may find some relevance to our own lives and identities.  It is perhaps this motivation that led Janamejaya as a statesman to turn to the past of his own political ancestors for understanding at the start of the Mahābhārata –

“Why also did those tigers among men, innocent and capable of avenging themselves upon their enemies, calmly suffer the persecution of the wicked Kurus? Why also … did Bhima of mighty arms and of the strength of ten thousand elephants, control his anger, though wronged? Why also did the chaste Krishna, the daughter of Drupada, wronged by those wretches and able to burn them, not burn the sons of Dhritarashtra with her wrathful eyes? Why also did the two other sons of Pritha (Bhima and Arjuna) and the two sons of Madri (Nakula and Sahadeva), themselves injured by the wretched Kurus, follow Yudhishthira who was greatly addicted to the evil habit of gambling? Why also did Yudhishthira, that foremost of all virtuous men, the son of Dharma himself, fully acquainted with all duties, suffer that excess of affliction?”

[Mahābhārata Ᾱdi Parvan, Chapter 62, part; trans. K.M. Ganguly]

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