Mythology for the Millennial: On Aravan, Arjun and Ulupi's son, who is celebrated by the transgender community in India
Aravan, a young man born of a clever mother and an absent father, who decided to give up everything, just because he wanted to help his family.
Also known as Iravan or in some versions, Kuttantavar, Aravan was the son born of Arjun's five-minute love affair with the Naga princess Ulupi.
He gets a major role in a Tamil version of the Mahabharata, called the Parata Venpa, where there is mention of a human sacrifice required to win the battle the next day.
To this day, a lot of the transgender community in India celebrate his life.
The Pandavas were many things — great brothers, great sons, great warriors — but what they were not were great dads. In two separate instances, one or the other of the Pandavas impregnates a woman and wanders off, leaving the woman to raise a child on her own, only to claim this child several years later and coerce him into fighting a war in which he literally has no skin in the game. There is Bheema's son with the rakshashi, Hidimi, a boy called Ghatotkacha (who I will get to in a future version of this column, because he deserves space all to himself) and the subject of this week's deep dive: Aravan. Also known as Iravan or in some versions, Kuttantavar, he was the son born of Arjun's five-minute love affair with the Naga princess Ulupi, and yes, thereafter abandoned to be raised by his mum and a hostile maternal uncle. Eventually, this uncle's taunts got too much — apparently he hated Arjun, and who can really blame him since the guy did a runner? — and Aravan took off to go to Indralok, heaven, where his paternal grandfather, Arjun's bio dad, the god Indra lived. Arjun hears of this legendary son, such a great warrior, etc, and goes and asks him to fight in the war with him.
Then Aravan's destiny changes, somewhat. He gets a major role in a Tamil version of the Mahabharata, called the Parata Venpa, where there is mention of a human sacrifice required to win the battle the next day. Krishna, canny god that he was, offers himself as the sacrificial lamb, and of course, Aravan (who was one of the other suitable choices) butts in and says, “No no, let me.” Because he was going to die the next day, he asked Krishna if he could arrange his marriage really quickly, since, you know, he didn't want to die a virgin and all that. (This bit is only mentioned in folk tales, but it's a nice legend, so I'm leaving it in.) No woman agreed to marry him, since being a widow was perhaps worse than being a dead warrior, so Krishna tapped into his inner Vishnu and turned into Mohini (mentioned in this column before) so Aravan could have one glorious night.
That's the bit that sort of turns Aravan from regular Pandava prince into a deity for a lot of the transgender community in India. To this day, they celebrate his life with a performed marriage, hundreds of people getting married to him at the same time, so they can mourn him when he dies.
Let's take a break to talk about Ulupi, Aravan's mother. By all accounts, she was a woman who took control of her own sexual destiny — by a river, so shades of Satyavati. Arjun was sent off on exile because he got familiar with Draupadi in his non-Draupadi year, ie, his older brother got pissed because Arjun was behaving like a husband, not a brother when it wasn't his turn to do it. On this exile, he is washing himself in a river and gets pulled under the current. Ulupi, who is basically a mermaid — half princess, half snake, scaly lower body and so on — rescues him and convinces him to have sex with her. Arjun's all, “Oh I said I would be celibate” but Ulupi goes, “That's only celibate towards your first wife” and Arjun says, “Okay!” because twist his arm, why don't you, Ulupi, and they get married and she gets pregnant, and Aravan is born of this union. No mention whether his half-mermaid blood has given him mutant superpowers, but okay. We will just have to imagine him a little scaly, a little like Aquaman, maybe.
Once Aravan's decided to volunteer as tribute, he is pretty scared, poor chap, and Krishna promises him that he will be killed by a great hero — which I suppose is some consolation, you would rather be run over by a Mercedes than a Maruti — and that his severed head would stay alive and conscious long enough to witness the entire war. Which: I have several questions about, including whether someone actually picks up the head and places it in a point of pride, whether you would still be hungry or thirsty if you were just a head and three, whether this head would still be a husband to Mohini.
Finally, there is an epilogue mentioned in some of the other texts. After the war, everyone is sitting around and boasting about who fought the best, and Aravan's head, which is amazingly, still complete, not rotting or anything, says that basically, Krishna won the war. Bheema gets very upset at this, but before he can hurt the head, Krishna drops what is left of Aravan into a river, where he is reborn as a child and kills a demon called Kuttacuran and so is known as Kuttantavar, with a temple dedicated to him in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu. This is the same temple, by the way, where the aforementioned trans festival happens, so they are big into the cult of Aravan. Their annual festival happened only recently, which is when I saw the photos and decided to dig a little deeper into this guy, this young man born of a clever mother and an absent father, who decided to give up everything, just because he wanted to help his family. It's a nice story, even all these millennia later.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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