The story of Arjuna cursed to spend time as a hermaphrodite is well known. That happens when the apsara Urvashi approaches him desiring sex and Arjuna politely refuses, telling her she is like a mother to him because in one of her lifetimes on earth she was the wife of Pururava, his ancestor. He sticks to his stand even when she tells him those are human rules and they are not applicable to apsaras. A furious Urvashi curses him that he will spend time as a eunuch among women. It is using this curse that Arjuna lives one year in the antahpura of Virata during his life incognito following the dice game.
This story however is different. Here it is not a hermaphoridite that Arjuna becomes, but a beautiful woman called Arjunī and Arjuniyā. The fascinating tale, pregnant with profound mystic teachings, is told by the Padma Purana in its Patala Khanda.
I would like to tell the story with a warning at the beginning: it is a mystic tale told at the mystic level and trying to understand it at the human level will lead to all kinds of misinterpretations – particularly the kind that readers with some knowledge of Freudian psychology are prone to make about eastern wisdom clothed in mystical veils.
Before we go into the story, a few words about the Padma Purana that tells us this story. The Padma Purana is an amazing treasure house of traditional Indian lore and spiritual wisdom. It is the third largest book in Sanskrit literature – after the Mahabharata with its one hundred thousand verses and the Skanda Purana with eighty-four thousand verses. The Padma Purana has fifty-five thousand verses. Traditional Indian scholarship has held that this is a work by Veda Vyasa, as are all other Puranas. Modern scholarship, however, sees this as a much later work. This latter view is probably closer to the truth than the traditional view.
The story we are about to hear begins with Arjuna, seated under a tree on the bank of the Yamuna, expressing a desire to his friend Krishna. He wants to know secrets even Shiva and Brahma do not know. How many gopis are there? What categories do they belong to? What are their names? Where do they live? What do they do? What is their age? How do they dress? And where does Krishna revel with them in seclusion? These are some of the things that Arjuna wants to know.
As usual, Krishna responds more to the real problem that Arjuna’s questions reveal than to the questions themselves. Krishna tells him that place, those women dear to him and his sports with them are impossible to be seen by men even if they are dear to him as his very life [api prāṅasamānānām satyam pumsām agocarah [Padma 5.74.13]. And if he tells them to him, he will be restless to see them. It is not possible even for Brahma to see them. “So give up your keenness to know these things,” Krishna tells Arjuna.
These words pain Arjuna and he falls at Krishna’s feet. Krishna smiles and lifts him up lovingly with both hands. “What is the point in my telling you of those things that you shall see directly?” Krishna asks him with great love. He then instructs Partha to worship with great devotion Goddess Tripurasundari, from whom the entire universe has sprung, in whom the universe remains and unto whom it will merge back. He should surrender to her and make his request to her. Krishna tells Arjuna he cannot give him those experiences except through her.
Arjuna then goes to Mother Tripurasundari. The tantric Goddess is seated on her divine seat in a grove where trees bearing the most wonderful fruits and flowers abound. He hears birds constantly singing the sweetest songs in weather that is always wonderful. The incredibly beautiful Goddess is in her eternal early youth and is surrounded by other Goddesses such as Anima and Mahima. Arjuna pays obeisance to her and introduces himself.
The Goddess sends Arjuna along with another Goddess to her lake called Kulakunda and asks him to take a ritual bath there and come back fast.
The name Kulakunda is rich in tantric significance. Goddess Tripurasundari herself is sometimes called Kulasundari. The tantric word kaula [Kaul] comes from kula. Throughout the rest of the story, there are references to tantric yoga. The Yamuna is, for instance, explained by the Purana as the sushumna nadi [kālindīyam suṣumnākhyā paramāmrtavāhinī – Padma 5.75.11]. A bath in the kulakunda could be understood as performing powerful sadhanas in the tradition of tantric yoga.
Partha does what Tripurasundari asks. When he comes back the Goddess gives him detailed instructions about performing the bālā vidyā that gives immediate results. The vidyā involves, among other things, performing certain poojas, homas and chanting a mantra a hundred thousand times. Arjuna does all this and a pleased Mother Goddess appears before him with a smile on her face. She points out a mansion to him and asks him to enter that mansion. Arjuna prostrates before her repeatedly, his whole being filled with great ecstasy. Following her instruction and guided by a sakhi of the Goddess, Arjuna enters the mansion and finds himself in Vrindavana, the world beyond Goloka, where everything is perfect and the eternal rāsa of the gopis and Krishna goes on.
Such is the ecstasy of love that overpowers Arjuna at the sight of the supreme, secret abode of the essence of perfect love [paramam guhyam pūrṅa-prema-rasātmakam] that he falls down in a faint. The sakhi of Goddess Tripurasundari who is still with him raises him up with her hands and speaks to him. With great difficulty, Arjuna manages to regain mastery over himself.
Arjuna now finds it difficult to hold himself back – such is his eagerness to see the vision he is seeking. He asks the sakhi what more tapas he has to do now and she leads him by hand towards the south and asks him to enter the large body of water they find before themselves, it is very auspicious to bathe there. This is the Southern Lake. After bathing there, the sakhi tells him, he should go to the Eastern Lake, where his desire will be fulfilled.
The sakhi of the goddess disappears while Arjuna takes a dip in the Southern Lake. When he comes out of the water, he is no more Arjuna, but very young woman of indescribable beauty. Her slender limbs shine as though they are made of rays of pure gold, her face is like the winter moon, her curly hair is golden and her eyes dark. Each part of hers is breathtaking in its beauty, the perfection of every one of which the purana describes here at length. She is sarva-lakṣaṅa-sampannā and sarva-alankara-bhūṣitā [endowed with every auspicious sign and wearing all ornaments and articles of makeup]. When Arjuna emerges from the lake and looks at himself, it is this amazing young woman he sees. And he has no memories of the past – they have all been wiped clean from his mind.
As the young woman stands there not knowing what to do, a voice speaking softly from the skies asks her to proceed to the Eastern Lake along the path she sees before her and assures her there she will meet her sakhis and her desire will be fulfilled. This is the Eastern Lake Goddess Tripurasundari;s sakhi had spoken of earlier.
As the young woman who was until recently Arjuna stands on the bank of the Eastern Lake, she hears the sound of anklets approaching her.
Before proceeding further with the narration, I want to observe that the poetry here is superb and the inspired poet climbs to great heights of creativity in giving words to his imagination. The sounds we hear as he narrates the story send raptures through us, so amazing are they. Here are two lines describing the sound of the anklets Arjuna, transformed into a young woman, hears, which I will make no attempt to render into English, for that would be impossible.
kiṇkiṇīnām jhaṇatkāram śuśrāvotkarṇasampute
The beauty of language here reminds us of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.
Arjuna now finds himself in a world bathed in boundless beauty.
Also, it is possible that along with becoming a woman, in his new advanced spiritual state, Arjuna’s sensitivity too has become intensified a hundred times and the smallest thing for him now is endowed with indescribable beauty.
This is a common occurrence in the course of spiritual journey. Spirituality awakens the senses and the mind and we see even ordinary things endowed with incredible beauty. It is as though our doors of perception, to use Huxley’s term, have for the first time been opened. A small touch sends ecstasies through us, a small sound makes raptures course within us. In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the boy Siddhartha passes through an experience of awakening and this is how Hesse describes the world he sees around him:
“He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical, and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through the eyes.”
He is looking at the same river and the same forest, the same river and the same mountains that he has seen so many times in the past, but they are no more the same because his doors of perception are clean and fresh now.
Tibetans call this drala, the great beauty of ordinary things. The most ordinary things are endowed with incredible beauty; all we need are eyes to see. When the mind is awakened, when the senses are cleansed, then we see breathtaking beauty in a pebble, in a broken twig, in a drop of water, in everything.
Arjuna is now passing through the stages that great meditators pass through. Meditation fills you with overflowing love, along with awakening sensitivity. As a great master puts it, “If you meditate, sooner or later you will come upon love. If you meditate deeply, sooner or later you will start feeling a tremendous love arising in you that you have never known before – a new quality to your being, a new door opening.” [Osho: The Psychology of the Esoteric]
What the young woman hears is the sound of a bunch of beautiful women approaching and there is only one word to describe them – āścarya, wonderful, amazing. Their youth is āścarya, their makeup and ornaments are āścarya, their shapes are āścarya a, their speech is āścarya... I counted: the poet uses the word āścarya ten times here within a short space, and when he needs a change, he uses adbhuta and citra, which too mean more or less the same.
The awakening of wonder has taken place in Arjuna.
The woman Arjuna has been transformed into is standing coyly, her head bent, scratching the earth at her feet with her toes. The girls approach her, amazed at the sight of her there, and one of them, Priyamudā, asks her who she is and where she has come from.
When Arjunī – the female Arjuna – speaks, her voice is intoxicating. She tells the young women she has no idea who she is, whose daughter she is, whose wife she is, why she has come there – no idea of anything. All she remembers is coming for a bath in the lake to the south of this place and standing there having bathed. And then of an amazing voice from the skies speaking to her and guiding her to this place. “I was told not to worry, my sakhis would be here and they would fulfil my desire. I know nothing more than this,” she tells them.
When Arjuni asks Priyamudā who they are, she introduces them as gopis and the beloveds of Krishna. They are the Śrutis, the great sages and cowherd girls, all born as women, to enjoy the bliss that is Krishna. They have interesting names: Rasālayā, Rasavallarī, Rasavāpikā, Anangasenā, Anangamālinī, Anangakusumā, Madayantī, Lalitā, Lalitayauvanā, Madanamanjarī, Ratikalā, Ratilolā, Ratotsukā, Ratisarvasvā, Kāmakalā, Kāmadāyinī, to mention just a few – names that remind us of the names in works like the Kathasaritsagara. Priyamudā tells Arjunī they will be all friends now and sport together. They give her a ritual bath in the Eastern Lake and initiating her into more rituals and meditations, give her a mantra of Radha along with the bijamantras of Varuna and Vahni and their vidhis [ways of practicing these].
Arjuni performs the rituals and meditations and Goddess Radha appears before him in all her brilliant glory making the whole universe shine with her effulgence. The goddess tells her:
matsakhīnām vacah satyam tena tvam me priyā sakhī
samuttiṣtha samāgaccha kāmam te sādhayāmyaham
The words of my sakhis are true,
You are now a sakhi dear to me.
Get up, come near,
I shall fulfil the desire in your heart.
Goosebumps appear all over Arjunī’s body at these words of Radha. Her entire body grows tender and tears of bliss start coursing down from her eyes. Intoxicated by love, shaken by it, she falls at the feet of the Goddess. Ordered by Radha, Goddess Priyamvadā, one of Radha’s sakhis, herself flushed by the order of the Goddess, picks up Arjunī and leads her by hand to the Goddess.
Arjunī is given another ritual bath in the Northern Lake and Goddess Radha now gives her a Krishna mantra with the vidhis and meditations. Radha also asks Priyamvadā and her friends to look after Arjunī until her rituals and meditations are over. Giving these instructions, Radha goes back to Krishna.
Arjunī now worships Krishna following the detailed instructions given to her, at the end of which Krishna is pleased and asks Radha to quickly bring Arjunī to him. Radha sends one of her sakhis, Śāradā, to fetch Arjunī to Krishna. Arjunī comes before Krishna and such is her ecstasy, perspiration breaks out all over her body, and she is overpowered by powerful waves of bliss.
In the yogic parlance, this breaking out of perspiration and being overpowered by bliss are occurrences immediately preceding the highest spiritual experience.
Arjunī looks around the amazing world she sees herself in now. There are kamadhenus wandering about everywhere, all trees are full of flowers, there is a beautiful breeze blowing all the time, the bumble bees are intoxicated with honey, birds sing on shrubs and trees and everything is perfect beyond the wildest imagination. Under a kalpataru standing in all its glory is the jewelled throne of Krishna.
She looks at Krishna and sees the very embodiment of beauty, love and bliss, his intoxicating smile inflaming hearts, his dark body glowing, a peacock feather in his hair. He is wearing a floral garland around which humming bees hover, the Kaustubha and the Śrīvatsa add to his boundless glory. He wins easily over a hundred million Kamadeva’s in beauty and is surrounded by every object that adds to the headiness of the rāsa. A smiling Radha is on his left, worshipping him.
As the beautiful Arjunī looks at Krishna, she is overcome with powerful longing for him. Krishna, the glorious lord, the great master of yoga, the mahāyogeśwara who indwells every heart and knows everything, the lord of Vaikunṭha, the world where nothing but bliss exists, takes Arjunī by her hand and leads her to the solitude of the forest of revelry. There Arjunī discovers the joy that passeth all understanding, the bliss that is easily available to every gopi of Vrindavan but evades great ascetics, the bliss seeking which they long for birth as cowherd girls, the ecstasy thirsting for which the shrutis themselves take birth on the banks of the Yamuna as daughters of cowherds – the joy of union with Krishna, the self of the universe, whose nature is sat-chid-ananda, existence-consciousness-bliss.
Arjunī understands through her personal experience the bliss that Krishna is, a knowledge that is denied, according to the Padma Purana, to the great Gods themselves.
A smile lingers on Arjunī ’s face as she comes back from the pleasure forest with Krishna’s arm on her shoulder. She is exhausted by the experience. Preparatory to the experience, she had done powerful mystical sadhanas after taking baths in the Southern, Eastern and Northern Lakes. Krishna now calls Sharada and asks the Goddess to take Arjunī for a bath in the Western Lake. Arjuni takes a dip in the mystic waters and emerges from it as Arjuna.
This is clearly no ordinary story of gender transformation, but a mystic tale, told in the highest mystic language. Arjuna’s desire to know the bliss that the cowherd girls experience is the longing of a man who has come to the doors of the highest experience but has been denied entrance into its sacred portals. Arjuna, lifelong friend of Krishna, for whom Krishna says he would tear out his flesh and give it if necessary, is yet not one with Krishna. Nara, born of the blood from Narayana’s right arm, is yet different from Narayana and not one with him. Whereas the gopis of Vrindavan have lost themselves in Krishna, are one with him, do not exist as different from him. They have become Krishna’s atma, Krishna has become their atma.
The Upanishads repeatedly tell us there is only one thing that separates us from God, from the bliss that God is, from the boundless ecstasy that we are – our mind, our ego, our will, all of which are, in the final analysis, the same. So long as we have an ego, we have a will as different from the universal will. So long as we have a will, we have an ego that separates us from the universal being. And so long as we have a will and an ego, we have a mind too, and conversely, so long as we have a mind, we have an ego and a will. When we achieve the state Zen calls the no-mind, then there is no ego and no will. Then the universal self becomes our self and the universal will becomes our will. This is the state of self-transcendence, the goal of all spirituality.
And the easiest way to achieve it is through bhakti, devotion, which Narada discusses as parama-prema-rūpā – of the nature of supreme love – in his Bhakti Sutras and Shandilya explains as parānuraktir-īshware in his Bhakti Sutras.
Arjuna’s ego stands in the way of attaining that bhakti. So long as the ego is there, the long as his individual will is there, so long as surrender is not total and complete, that bhakti is not possible.
And what stands blocking such surrender is Arjuna’s masculinity. The masculine cannot surrender. The masculine has a need to be in control. The masculine has the need to assert its will, its individuality, its ego. To surrender, one needs the qualities that are traditionally described as feminine in spiritual literature.
Several traditions hold that the highest spiritual experience is possible only for the female and not for the male. That is to say, so long as we have the male qualities of territoriality, aggression and power seeking, we cannot have the highest spiritual experience. For that experience to be available to us, we need to have the feminine qualities: surrender, acceptance, emptiness, receptivity.
Arjuna, the great archer, can be a friend of Krishna, but he cannot lose himself in Krishna. He will always be there as a separate individual. But the gopis can effortlessly lose themselves in Krishna, be completely empty of themselves and have the highest bliss that losing makes possible. It is for this reason that Arjuna has to transform himself into a woman to experience the true nature of Krishna, to become one with him.
There is a very significant sentence that Krishna tells Arjuna at the beginning of the story. When Arjuna seeks to know what even Brahma and Shiva have not known, Krishna says:
tat sthānam vallabhās tā me
vihāras tādrśo mama
satyam pumsām agocarah
I would like to translate this statement as: “That dimension of mine, those darlings and those revelries of mine are truly beyond the perceptions of men, even if they are as dear to me as my life’s breath.”
Pumsām agocarah – men cannot see it. Men just cannot see those, even if those men are as dear to Krishna as his life.
To be able to see them, you have to become a woman. To become a woman, in the spiritual sense, is to be receptive, to be empty, to be open, not to resist, not to have an individual will and, instead, surrender to the universal will, float with it. All the sadhanas Arjuna does, beginning with the first ones under the guidance of Goddess Tripurasundari, are for his transformation into the receptive, the empty, the open being – transformation from the male into the female, gender transformation in the truest sense, in the deepest sense, in the spiritual sense. Once we achieve that receptivity, that emptiness, that openness of being, there is nothing standing between that experience and us. Then that is the only experience possible. Then we are that experience.
Arjuna has never had the kind of bhakti the gopis had for Krishna. What we see through this story is Arjuna’s journey into the world of such bhakti. Into Vrindavana, which is the land of such bhakti. Into Vrindavana, where only one male exists during the rāsalīlā – Krishna – and all others are female – the gopis. Into Vrindavana where, as the Padma Purana says at the beginning of this story, the rāsalīlā goes on eternally.
Spiritual bliss is frequently expressed in terms of erotic love, in the language of sexual union. Tantra does it all the time, as does Taoism which speaks of the union of the yin and the yang. Bhakti does it frequently, as in the case of Jayadeva and innumerable other Indian poets. The Sufis do that all the time. Christian mystics have done it. And so have mystics from numerous other traditions. And that is precisely what the Padma Purana is doing here. To read the story as anything else would be a great error and the sign of the sickness much of humanity is suffering from today.
Which does not mean mystic stories should not be told. They should be told, and sometimes the only language open to mystics to tell those stories is the language of erotic love. After all, they are trying to communicate the incommunicable, about which the Upanishads say ‘yato vāco nivartante, aprāpya manasā saha’ – that from which words return, unattained, along with the mind. Even the erotic language fails, but it can at times give us a glimpse of the beyond. It is what Indian culture calls the śākhācandra nyāya – like pointing out the moon as what we see beyond the branch of a tree. It has nothing to do with the tree or its branch, but it helps.
The sakhi sampradaya that existed in India for a long time was an attempt to put what thid story says into practice at a large scale. Sri Ramakrishna, the greatest mystic the world has seen in recent times, practiced it for a while and had powerful experiences from the practice.
Immediately following the tale of Arjuna, the Padma Purana tells another tale of gender transformation leading to the highest spiritual experience, using Narada as the central character. In this story, Muni Narada has a desire to understand the mystery of Vrindavana, the eternal abode of Krishna that cannot be seen by the fleshy eyes, which is beyond the understanding of even the great Gods. He approaches his father Brahma and expresses his desire and Brahma takes him to Vishnu. Vishnu asks Brahma to take Muni Narada to Lake Amrita for a bath in its waters. When Narada comes out of the water, he finds he is an amazingly beautiful young woman, the very embodiment of every female perfection [sarvalakṣaṇa-sampannā].
Looking up, he finds other equally beautiful women in front of him. When they see her, they approach her and ask her who she is and where she has come from. The young woman expresses her ignorance of it all – she has no idea. It all appears like a dream to her. The leader of the group of damsels then introduces the place to her as Vrindavana, the place dear to Krishna. She introduces herself as Goddess Lalita, who is beyond the turīya state [turīyātītā] and is without parts [niṣkalā].
Turīya is the state behind and beyond all other states of consciousness.
Lalita asks the young woman to follow her, along with the other women. Lalita now gives her the fourteen-syllable mantra of Krishna, a mantra that qualifies her entry into Krishna’s presence.
The woman Narada has become is now taken to the presence of Krishna, who is described here as pure existence-conscience-bliss [kevalam saccidānandah]. Narada’s desire is fulfilled now – the woman experiences union with pure existence-conscience-bliss. Later, after she has spent a whole year in Vrindavana, the land that is beyond ordinary perception, Krishna asks Radha to take her to Lake Amrita again for a bath. After a bath there, Narada regains his original gender.
Once again what we find in the story is the need to be spiritually female in order to experience the highest. Narada with all his love and devotion is not able to experience the highest truth, sat-chid-ananda, which is his own true nature, until he is transformed into a woman.
In Krishna’s world, there are no men. In the language of devotional mysticism, men stand for beings with ego and will, and women stand for surrender and openness. It is in that surrender and openness that the highest flowers.
We have to be empty of ourselves for the highest to take over us. The feminine represents that emptiness. When we achieve it, our true self takes over us.
Krishna is described by the Padma Purana as our true self and our eternal beloved.
Note: All translations from Sanskrit are by the author.