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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 42. Skanda Purana "Sumedha and Somavan"


Sumedha and Somavan


As comments of their kind can be both enlightening and limiting, I have moved the editor’s explanatory notes for this Indian tale – which is an exact contemporary of Beowulf – to the end. By then we will be familiar with the characters and will have formed our own opinions on the nature of the drama as it unfolded.

I shall, however, offer a crash course in the divinities mentioned in the story, as such information will be useful. First, Brahmanism is the world’s oldest (traceable) monotheism. The priestly class of Brahmans are discriminatory, and created the caste system, placing themselves firmly on the top as scholar-practitioners. As access to the worship and scriptures of the One God was limited, other faiths evolved in the region, chief among them, the honoring the holy pair of Shiva-Parvati. Their folk worship conceives of them as divided into genders and re-unified in a form of holy marriage. Like many religions, their worship allows for wealthy patrons to become lay practitioners of the faith. One such wealthy woman is central to the story below. [The Charioteer’s Tale]

There was an excellent Brahman named Vedamitra in Vidarbha. He was wise, and well versed in the Vedzs and Shastras. He had a friend (sakha), a Brahman named Sarasvat. Both of them lived in the same place and had great love for one another. Vedamitra had a diligent son named Sumedha, while Sarasvat's son was known as Somavan. Both boys were of the same age, they dressed alike, they were of equal status and learning, and they were initiated into Vedic learning together. They studied the Vedas along with the subsidiary texts, logic, grammar, legends and myths, as well as the complete Dharma-shastras. They were skilled in all kinds of arts, and were sage-like even in their childhood. The joy of their fathers was boundless, as they possessed every possible virtue. Then, when they were sixteen years old, and handsome, those happy fathers, the best of the Brahmans, called them [together] and said: “O sons, you have completed your studies and are brilliant. This is the right time to marry. Now you should please the king, the lord of Vidarbha, with your skills, and, obtaining plenty of wealth from him, you should get married.”

Having been advised thus, those two sons of the Brahmans went to the king of Vidarbha and pleased him with their talents. When he was satisfied with their learning, the two Brahman boys told him that they were poor, and had demonstrated their skills in order to obtain wealth and get married.

Hearing what they wanted, and in order to find out the truth about popular belief, the king of Vidarbha laughingly spoke as follows: "Simantini is the virtuous queen of Nishada. She worships Mahadeva [Shiva] along with Ambika [Parvati] on Mondays. On that day, she [blesses] the foremost of the Brahmans, along with their wives, and offer vast [tributes] of wealth, out of great devotion. One of you will go [to Simantini] disguised as a young woman, while the other will go as her husband. Thus you will be a Brahman couple; you will go to Simantini’s house as a bride and groom. Having entered there, and after obtaining plenty of wealth, you will return to me.”

[The boys say it is improper to deceive a devotee, but the king insists.] The king made Somavan, the son of Sarasvat, take the form of a woman, with clothes, ornaments, collyrium and other things. He seemed to be a wife through wonderful artifice. With his earrings, ornaments and the use of fragrant substances, with his eyes glistening with collyrium, with his attractive form, he seemed like a glowing young woman. Having become a couple at the orders of the king, the two sons of the Brahmans went to the land of Nishada, thinking: “What will be will be.”

On a Monday, they went to the palace with the best of the Brahmans and their wives. They were greeted as guests, and their feet were washed. The Brahmans were seated on excellent seats. The queen then offered worship to each one of the distinguished Brahmans with his wife.

Seeing the sons of the Brahmans who had come to her, she realized that they were a [male] couple in disguise, but, smiling to herself, she regarded them as Gauri and Maheshvara [Parvati and Shiva]. She invoked Sadashiva [the eternal Shiva] in those excellent Brahmans, and the goddess, the mother of the universe, in their wives. She worshiped them with unalloyed devotion, with fragrance, garlands, incense, and waved lamps before them. Of those two sons of the Brahmans, she worshiped one after identifying him with Hairnavati [Parvati] while she worshiped the other after contemplating him as Mahadev [Shiva]. After being worshiped, they took leave of her and went away.

She [Somavan] forgot her masculinity [entirely], and overwhelmed with passion by the god of love, was attracted to the best of Brahmans [her friend Sumedha], and said: “Oh, my large-eyed lord, you are so completely handsome. Please wait. Do you not see me, your beloved? Here, before us, is this lovely forest with big trees in bloom. I want to enjoy myself with you to my heart’s content.”

Hearing this, [Sumedha], who was walking ahead, thought it was a joke and continued to walk on.

Once again, the young woman said: “Wait! Where are you going? I am under the unbearable spell of the god of love. Come and enjoy me. Embrace your beloved – let me drink from your lips. Afflicted by the arrows of the god of love, I can go no further.”

On hearing these words, never heard before, he became suspicious. Turning around to see who was following him, he was awestruck.

“Who is this with eyes like lotus petals, with full and raised breasts, with slender waist, with large hips, as tender as a blossom? Has my male friend become a beautiful woman? Let me ask him everything.”

Thinking thus, he said: "O friend, your appearance and behavior are unprecedented. So are your words, like those of a woman overpowered by desire. You know the Vedas and the Puranas, you are in control of your senses. You are the self-controlled son of Sarasvat. Why do you speak like this?"

Addressed thus, she replied: "O lord, I am not a man. I am a woman named Samavati. I am here to give you sexual pleasure. If you doubt this, O beloved, examine my limbs."

On hearing this, he examined her secretly at once. Seeing her, with her naturally luxuriant tresses, with her beautiful hips and breasts, and her lovely form, his passion was somewhat aroused. The wise man controlled his wandering mind with an effort, and though he was astonished for a moment, he said nothing more in reply.

Samavati said: "Now that your doubts are dispelled, come and enjoy me. O my beloved, see this forest which is suited for sexual pleasures with a lovely woman."

Sumedha said: "Do not speak thus. Do not violate the norms as if you were intoxicated. Both of us have understood the meaning of the Shastras. Why do you speak thus? You have studied the Shastras, you have the ability to discriminate, and you are of a good family. How can you behave like a lover? You are not a woman but a man, learned and wise. Realize yourself through introspection. Or is this a disaster which has befallen us because of what we tried to do? We deceived our parents on the advice of the wily king. We have done that which ought not have been done, and now we [suffer] the fruit of our actions.

"All improper acts lead to the destruction of the wellbeing of men. So you, the learned son of a Brahman, have attained the despicable state of womanhood. A man who strays into the forest, leaving the well-trodden path, gets pricked by thorns. Similarly, he who abandons his own is attacked by fierce wild beasts. Clinging to your conscience, follow me quietly to your home. Your womanhood may disappear through the grace of the gods and Brahmans. Or, if you are destined to remain a woman, then, O beautiful woman, once you are given to me by your father, you can take pleasure with me. Alas, this is amazing; alas, this is a great sorrow. The great power of sin. Alas, this is the effect of the power which the queen has acquired by worshiping Shiva."

Although he repeatedly scolded her, [Samavati], overwhelmed with passion, embraced him forcibly and kissed his tender, budlike lips. Although the patient Sumedha was molested by the new[ly minted] woman, he [took] her home and narrated everything.

On hearing this, the two Brahman [fathers] were angry and overcome with grief. Taking the boys with them, they [went] to the king of Vidarbha. Then Sarasvat addressed the king who had engineered the deception: “O king, look at my son who has followed your instructions . . . . My son, who has attained the [unbearable] state of womanhood, now suffers the fruit. “On your account, my lineage has been destroyed, as has the path of Vedic learning. O king, tell me, how can l, the father of only one son, obtain salvation?”

Hearing the words of Sarasvat, the king was filled with great wonder at the powers of Simantini. Then the king called all the great sages of boundless luster, and, having [blessed] them, prayed for [Somavan’s] manhood. They replied: “Who can reverse the will of Parvati and Shiva, and the greatness of their devotees?”

Then the king took the best of the sages, Bharadvaja, and went with him to the two foremost of Brahmans and their sons. Going [then together] to the temple of Ambika [Parvati] on the advice of Bharadvaj, they worshiped the goddess with difficult vows. Then Gauri [Parvati] asked the king: “What is your wish?” He replied: “[That] by your grace, he may get his masculinity [restored].” The great goddess replied: “What has been done by my devotees cannot be undone, even in a myriad [of] years."

The goddess said: “By my grace, [Sarasvat] will have another excellent son endowed with learning, modesty and long life. He will be pure-hearted. Let Samavati, this daughter of the Brahman, be wife. United with [Sumedha], let her enjoy the pleasures of desire."

Having spoken, the goddess disappeared. The king led the way as they went to their respective homes, bound by the order. Shortly thereafter, by the grace of the goddess, Sarasvat, the Brahman, obtained a [grand]son who was even better than the previous one. He [had given] his daughter Samavati to Sumedha, and that couple enjoyed great bliss for a long time.

—Skanda Purana,

circa 750


[Kumkum Roy, translator]




[Editor’s Text Notes]

This story, from the Skanda Purana (compiled ca. 700~1150), is a variation on the familiar theme of the miraculous sex-change. Set in the context of medieval devotion, it highlights the idea of the devotee being in a sense more powerful than the deity. The devotee’s powers of perception are able to transform a man into a woman, and not even a deity can undo the transformation.

What is interesting here is that the transformation is almost volitionally brought about by the low-caste woman devotee, Simantini. She sees through the disguise and knows that Somavan is a man dressed as a woman, but instead of denouncing him, she chooses to see and worship the goddess in him. This suggests that she perceives the “womanhood” in him, and by worshiping it, makes it manifest.

While the narrator is careful to stress that it is only after the sex-change that Somavan/Samavati expresses attraction for Sumedha, the story does suggest that this attraction may have been latent in their relationship. This suggestion is highlighted at the end when Parvati says that Sarasvat’s new son will be “pure-hearted.” By implication, Somavan (whose name derives from soma, the intoxicating drink of the gods) was not pure-hearted. She adds that by marrying Sumedha, Samavati will enjoy the pleasures of fulfilled desire. According to the doctrine of samskaras, one becomes what one desires to become and may be reborn as whatever one mentally dwells upon in one’s dying hours. Fulfillment of all desires may be seen as a necessary step toward ridding oneself of those desires and attaining liberation.

A similar suggestion is built into the framing of the story by same-sex bonding – the boys’ fathers are friends, and the story stresses that the boys grow up together, dress alike and are educated together. The narrative presents them as a perfectly matched couple in every respect, except that the possibility of marriage seems excluded by the sameness of gender. When the fathers think the boys should marry, no prospective brides are named – that the enterprise ends in the two marrying each other fulfills a desire that seems to be latent in the opening phrases. When the boys dress as a [opposite-sex] couple, they may not be just obeying the king, but bringing out denied possibilities in themselves.

In devotional texts, the deity often is represented as containing all possibilities. Shiva and Parvati represent sexuality, among other things, as is clear from the symbolism in their temples of the linga and the yoni, the male and female genitalia, respectively. Shiva and Parvati are even said to be present in every child in the form of the genitals. In Hindu devotional ritual, it is common to worship god in human persons; thus, on their wedding day, bride and groom are worshiped as gods. Simantini follows well-established practice when she worships the couples as Shiva and Parvati. Where she modifies this practice, or brings out its latent possibilities, is in choosing to worship a male couple as a sexual and conjugal unit.

Although the story heterosexualizes the couple, they are not punished but ultimately rewarded with marital bliss. Such stories suggest how traditional notions of the fluidity of gender can work to the benefit of same-sex couples.

—Ruth Vanita,[i]






[i] “Sumedha and Somavan” The Charioteer’s Tale from the Skanda Purana, reprinted in Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History [Ruth Vanita / Saleem Kidwai, Editors] (New York 2000), ps. 72-76



Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Thank you for moving the editors notes to the end. I found the notes informative, but the tale itself was infinitely more interesting. 

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On 1/8/2022 at 7:04 PM, Parker Owens said:

Thank you for moving the editors notes to the end. I found the notes informative, but the tale itself was infinitely more interesting. 

Thanks for your comments, @Parker Owens. I have SO many thoughts about this little tale :) First off, I smile to imagine what Shakespeare could have done with the story! Wow. 

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