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The Mothers of Bhagirtha

Thursday, December 28, 2017 - 05:00

It isn't entirely uncommon in myth and legend for a woman to become pregnant without the participation of a (human) man. It's rather less common to find stories in which pregnancy is attributed to sexual activity between women--whether, as in this case, with divine assistance, or as in the case in an early Irish text, where the sperm is leftover from one of the women's prior heterosexual activity. With all the fertility technology we have today, the idea of two women being co-genetic parents of a child is still mostly theoretical. And we're only just getting past the notion that a genetic connection (such as the one that drives this legend) is of paramount importance. There are several other stories in which the imperative for family lineage is a factor in women's same-sex relationships. One reason that the tale of Yde and Olive is "required" to have a heterosexual resolution is that it's part of a saga revolving around family lineage--the production of a genetic heir is the reason for the story's existence. But this type of narrative motivation can't simply be removed willy-nilly from the tales to leave an unadorned story of same-sex marriage-equivalent, for the lineage imperative is sometimes what drives (temporary) acceptance of the women's relationship within the story context.

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Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. 2011. “Naming Love: The God Kama, the Goddess Ganga, and the Child of Two Women” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

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A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Vanita, Ruth. 2011. “Naming Love: The God Kama, the Goddess Ganga, and the Child of Two Women”

This article takes up the theme of women conceiving under difficult and or impossible conditions, e.g., virgins giving birth, and how the children of these conceptions are marked out as special. This theme appears in the context of multiple cultural traditions, e.g., Ruth and Naomi in the bible, and the mothers of Bhagirtha, who was explicitly engendered by sexual activity between two women with the help of the God of Love.

Vanita looks at three Indian devotional texts concerning how the god Vishnu and two co-wives of a king ensure his lineage continues, as prophecy requires. Most variants of the tale involve ordinary heterosexual procreation but in several 14th century versions, the king dies without children and his wives ask divine help to give him a son. The stories attribute various other motivations to the women’s actions, including same-sex desire, in which they engage in sex and one becomes pregnant.

Many types of miraculous births occur in Indian texts. The inclusion of female same-sex love is possibly motivated by a 14th century interest in goddess worship and the worship of Kama, a god of love, who blessed female same-sex eroticism. The goddess texts often featured her ability to produce children autonomously.

The figure of Bhagiratha is closely associated with one of the oldest goddesses, the river Ganga. The Rig Veda includes various references to rivers as pairs of co-mothers. The god Kama is depicted as a force of desire and the urge to create. His “energy” allows the sexual activity between the two women to result in pregnancy.

Vanita continues with a discussion of other symbolic themes present in the stories and a discussion of medical texts that show the early Hindu understanding of female sexual anatomy and behavior.

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