Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. 2005. "Born of Two Vaginas: Love and Reproduction between Co-Wives in Some Medieval Indian Texts" in GLQ 11:4 547-577.

Contents summary: 

Ruth Vanita does an in-depth comparative study of several texts concerning the birth and life of the legendary hero Bhagiratha. The specific focus is a set of three 14th century Bengali texts (also reproduced in later 16-17th c collections) in which the hero is the result of the sexual union of two co-wives, queens of the late King Dilipa whose had died without fathering the son who was foretold to bring the sacred river Ganga to earth from heaven.

These texts are examined in two contexts: other versions of the hero’s birth and life that do not include the same-sex motif, and ancient and medieval Hindu ideas around co-wives, same-sex sexual relations, same-sex co-parenting, and miraculous or monstrous conceptions. She continues to discuss essential differences in law and society between the Christian concept of sodomy and the Hindu concept of ayoni (non-vaginal) sex.

Vanita’s previous studies on same-sex themes in Indian history points out that looking for evidence specifically of genital intercourse may overlook other types of evidence that are taken seriously within cross-sex relationships. In the context of modern debates over same-sex relations in India, it is important to identify canonical Hindu texts that accommodate (if not necessarily promote) genital same-sex relations within a neutral treatment of lovemaking in general. Here we find a contrast between prescriptive texts, such as legal and medical works, and narratives that are more concerned with emotional and inter-personal contexts.

The story that is the focus of this article can be read as celebrating sexual love between co-wives as being divinely sanctioned, as part of kinship structures, and as contributing to family and community. In addition to these factors, the relationship may be presented as providing physical and emotional fulfillment for the women.

The idea that sexual intercourse between two women can result in pregnancy and childbirth occurs independently of Bhagiratha’s story, at least as early as a 1st century medical text, the Sushruta Samhita. This union is said to produce a “boneless” child, as the father’s seed was thought to contribute bones to the fetus. This motif, and an explanation for how it was overcome, is present in two of the focal stories.

The “born of two mothers” motif is not the only version of the Bhagiatha story, and Vanita connects this motif specifically with medieval Shakta or goddess worship traditions current in 14th century Bengal, although the texts are more overtly part of the Vaishnava tradition, glorifying Vishnu. Another potentially relevant feature of this subgroup of texts is in presenting them as a conversation between the primal serpent, Sheshanaga, and the sage Vatsyayana (who is the assigned author of the Kamasutra, an erotic treatise that discusses same-sex relations in a fairly non-judgmental manner).

The core story of these three texts goes like this: after King Dilipa dies childless, his two widows have sexual relations and produce a child, Bhagiratha, who carries on Dilipa’s lineage and heritage. There is no question about his lineage because any child born to Dilipa’s wives (even after his death) is assigned as his child.

The reproductive context varies between the three stories. In one, the two widows go to a priest for help to continue the family line, who instructs them to eat a special type of rice and then to have sex, after which the elder becomes pregnant. The child is born “boneless” but an encounter later with the deformed sage Ashtavakra results in his body being transformed.

In the second version, the gods are the driving force due to their concern for the disruption to divine plans for the line of Dilipa. Shiva is sent to the widows and tells them to have sex with each other to produce the required heir. With the gods’ blessing, “the two women lived together in extreme love ... they enjoyed love play, and one of them conceived.” Again, the child is boneless and the women are advised to leave him on the roadside, where the sage Ashtavakra encounters him and is again the means of transforming his body to a heroic state.

In the third version, a more detailed context is provided for the women. They are provided with names (!), Chandra and Mala, and after Dilipa’s death they make love spontaneously, inspired by Madan the god of love, with the child being an unanticipated byproduct rather than the purpose of the activity. “Burning with desire induced by Madan, Chandra and Mala took each other in embrace, and each kissed the other. Chandravati played the man and Mala the woman. The two women dallied and made love. The god’s blessing had enabled the two women to play the game of love, and the energy of Madan entered the womb of Malavati. This is how Malavati became pregnant.” Mala is distraught and plans to drown herself, thinking people will assume she had been with a man, but the gods intervene and tell her that the pregnancy was by divine will to fulfill the prophecy. In this version, Bhagiratha is born perfect and beautiful.

A common factor among these versions is the intervention of the gods to sanctify the women’s relationship and the resulting birth. The women not only express devotion to the gods and their divine plans, but are concerned for their late husband’s lineage and the fate of the kingdom. But in addition to these more traditional concerns, they are shown feeling and expressing love and desire for each other.

The audience is primed to accept this as the divine plan, although there are occasional bows to expected conventional reactions: to a widow’s pregnancy, to the possibility that their actions result in pollution, to the motif that a child born of two women will be “monstrous” in some way. These anxieties are acknowledged, then resolved by how the events are reframed. In the most detailed version (the third described above), the women’s sexual encounter is placed in a traditional context for acceptable romantic and sexual pleasure: occurring during the monsoon season, characterized by kisses and burning desire, and inspired by the presence of Madan/Kama, the god of love.

The intervention of the god Kama provides license for the women’s desire for each other. When one is targeted by Kama, one is helpless. Same-sex targets may be rare, but an example is given of an 11th century statue with two women, embracing, as Kama shoots love-arrows at them.

Indian medieval legal discussions of sex between women point out that there it doesn’t represent a simple, unified concept. Rather, attitudes and penalties revolve around the desire to protect women’s premarital virginity. Digital penetrative sex between women, when one is a virgin, is proscribed and punished similarly to the same act involving a man, but there is no penalty indicated if both women are non-virgins.

The article discusses the contradictory attitude toward ayoni (non-vaginal) sex, with some stories presenting it as the origin of heroic offspring, while others treat it as an impure condition. Vanita suggests that these are two faces to the concept of “taboo” -- that what is sacred in one context is forbidden in others. But when ayoni sex is discussed in law books, the punishments are usually trivial and equivalent to those provided for heterosexual sex in impure, but not forbidden, contexts. The types of acts covered by the term are pretty much anything not involving a woman’s vagina, so the discussion is not limited to homosexual contexts.

The article then moves into a discussion of how British colonial attitudes and laws replaced earlier attitudes. There is a consideration of how different cultures treat the relationship of (and expected attitudes between) co-wives in polygamous societies. Within Indian traditions, women might use the co-wife relationship to bring a beloved friend (or lover?) into the marriage. Other medieval Indian narratives include the motif of loving bonds between co-wives, though not necessarily overtly sexual. The motif of pairs or groups of women co-mothering a child, either in legend or history is also touched on.

[Note: I’ve only briefly skimmed over these last several topics, which take up a substantial portion of the article.]

historical