Clearly many keepers of culture have not heard the stories of Shikhandi, or Bhangashvana or of Yuvanashva, the king who accidentally became pregnant and delivered the great Mandhata, or of the two queens who made love to each other to produce a child without bones (bones being the contribution of sperm, according to mythology), or of Mohini, the female form of Vishnu, who enchanted even Shiva, the great hermit. Clearly they have chosen to ignore that every year, in Brahmotsavam festival, the image of the Lord Venkateshwara Balaji, who is Vishnu on earth, is dressed in female garments reminding us all of Mohini. Clearly they are oblivious of how Shrinathji in Nathdwara is lovingly bedecked with a sari, the stri-vesha or women’s attire, in memory of the time he wore Radha’s clothes to appease her. Clearly they are not aware of Gopeshwarji of Vrindavan, Shiva who took the form of a milkmaid so that he could dance the raas-leela with Krishna. And they certainly have turned a blind eye to the rooster-riding Bahucharji, of Gujarat, patron goddess of many Hijras.
Now, while I'm all for reading the Mahabharata in a million different ways, and while Amba/Shikhandi have always been absorbing characters, I'm not sure I agree with Pattnaik's extrapolation that 'our cultural inheritance' (to quote Pattnaik), is therefore inclusive and tolerant.
I mean, just visit Rediff on a slow day or after judgments such as the one we're talking about, and you'll see 'our cultural inheritance' on full display.
But these are the people Pattnaik calls the 'keepers of culture', you might say, who do not know all of the things he mentions in the paragraph quoted.
Again, I'm not sure. It seems likely to me that there are people who know all the stories about why Venkateshwara Balaji might be dressed in women's clothes, why Vishnu as Mohini slept with Shiva (see on Kafila, B.P.Singhal) and yet be unable to apply that understanding and tolerance to people they see around them in their daily lives.
This is because, as I see it, of the other great strand in our cultural heritage: our supposedly high spiritual quotient. What this means is that while it's okay for gods to do it and people in different yugas who had truck with gods to do it, it's not okay for us to do it because those stories were about a different kind of union that we - stuck as we are in our lower chakras - would never understand.
The average Hindu will most likely have a clear understanding that what is permissible for the gods is not permissible for us humans in kaliyuga because what they knew and what we fail to understand, is that it's not about sex, it's about spirituality.
This watered down quality that can now be found in everything from soul food found at the nearest health store to the set of beads some gooroo gave you, is one reason why there is so much outrage about 377.
Of course it's more complicated than that; it's just that I am deeply suspicious about people who put forward the theory that Indian society was nearly-perfect when it was all Hindu and that we were always some kind of ideal that other societies were not and so no one need question our capacity for tolerance or inclusiveness.
Because it's not that way now, is it? And to bring these stories out as examples of what our culture also is, is useful only in a limited way because someone somewhere will point out that these stories are not about 'real' sex but about 'spiritual union' and in that case of course it's okay for gods to dress up as women but when those weird people wearing saris come to your car window the best thing you can do is quickly roll it up and look elsewhere.