Although I haven’t yet read Lelyveld’s book on the Mahatma, I don’t know why a big deal is being made out of it. Bisexuality is a universal phenomenon, it is only the degree of access to consciousness that cultures determine.
In the West, the boundaries between the sexes have been kept very strong and rigid, unlike India. In India, the difference between a man and a woman is not as rigid, the boundaries not as strong as they are in the West. It is reflected in popular culture in all forms. For instance, we are okay with a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing women’s songs (thumris) in a woman’s voice. If this were done in the west, they would view it with suspicion.
The difference between male and female in India is much more complex than in the West. This becomes clearer if one thinks of Greek or Roman sculpture, which, I believe, has greatly influenced Western gender representations. Here male gods were represented by muscled bodies and chests without any fat. One only needs to compare Greek and Roman statues with the sculpted representations of Hindu Gods or the Buddha, where the bodies are softer, suppler and in their hint of breasts, nearer to the female form.
This minimising of differences between male and female figures finds its culmination in the Ardhnarishwara (half man, half woman) form of the great god Shiva who is portrayed with the secondary sexual characteristics of both sexes. The Ardhnarishwara is the cultural ideal which makes a Hindu invoke a deity not on its own but as a couple: Sitarama and not Sita and Rama, Radhakrishna and not Radha and Krishna.
Ours is a culture where the voice of the Tamil saint-poet Nammalvar — also a man — who wrote 370 poems on the theme of love, was always that of a woman. It is a culture where in superior human beings, feminine traits are joined to masculine ones. So a cultural hero like Mahatma Gandhi can publicly proclaim in Karachi in 1937 that he had mentally become a woman, and that (well before the psychoanalyst Karen Horney) there is as much reason for a man to wish that he was born a woman as for women to do otherwise, and take it for granted that he will strike a responsive chord in his audience.
The visually lesser differentiation between male and female representation in Indian culture is further reinforced by the important form of religiosity, which not only provides a sanction for man’s feminine strivings but raises those strivings to the level of religious-spiritual quest.
Many Buddhist images of Avalokkiteswara (‘the Lord who listens to the cries of the world’) are of a slender boyish figure in the traditional feminine posture — weight resting on the left hip, right knee forward; they are the Indian precursor of the sexually ambiguous Chinese goddess, Kuan Yin.
In devotional Vaishnavism, Lord Krishna alone is male and all devotees, irrespective of their sex (being men or women), are female. It is a culture where one of the greatest Sanskrit poets of love, Amaru, a man, was believed to be the 101st incarnation of a soul that had previously occupied the bodies of a hundred women.
(As told to Aasheesh Sharma) Leading psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar is the author of Mira & the Mahatma.