The Raja’s Son

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious children. I adapted this story from story 49b A raja’s daughter turned into a boy in “The B40 Janam-Sakhi: An English translation with introduction and commentary of the India Office Gurmukhi Manuscript Panj. B40, a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733 by Daya Ram Abrol,” ed. W. H. McLeod (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev Univeristy, n.d. [1979]), pp. 206-208. In the translation of the original story, the raja comes across as deluding himself that his child is, in fact, a girl, not a boy. But since nowhere does the raja’s child express any discomfort with identifying as male, though he is biologically female, I chose to interpret the raja’s child as transgendered. In the story, I avoid the term “transgendered” as anachronistic, but assumed that the raja’s child did in fact identify as a man; this is consistent with an assumption that there have been what we Westerners would call transgendered eprsons across cultures and throughout time. There are also stories from the Western religious traditions that present transgendered persons (e.g., queer theologians who argue that Jesus had non-binary gender, etc.), but I chose to retell this story simply because it tells about a child growing up into an adult. Note that the excerpt from the Guru Granth Sahib combines translations from Bhai Manmohan Singh, Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, and The Sikh Encyclopedia. Now here’s the story:

There once was a raja, a Hindu king, who married a woman who was a Sikh. When she became the rani, or queen, this woman stayed in touch with the Sikhs who lived in the kingdom, and who had their dharamsala, or place of worship, just below the palace where the raja and rani lived. The Sikhs were well known for their beautiful hymns and their beautiful singing, and the raja came to enjoy listening to the hymns that were sung during kirtan, that is, during the Sikh worship service.

One day, the rani said to the raja, “Do you not wish that we had a child?”

“Oh yes,” said the raja. “I would love for us to have a child. I wish we could have a little boy.” For in the raja’s kingdom, it had always been men who had ruled the kingdom, and the raja hoped for a song that would rule his kingdom after him.

The rani said, “Let us go down to the dharamsala, and ask the sangat for a child.” The sangat was the gathered community of Sikhs, and it was thought that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Skih religion, was present in the sangat, even though he had died long ago.

The raja agreed to do this. A large congregation of Sikhs had gathered for Ekadasi, a Hindu lunar celebration. Even though Sikhs did not celebrate Hindu holidays, the Guru Arjan had said:
On Ekadasi, see God by your side,
Control your desires, and listen to God’s praise,
Let heart be content, and be kind to all beings.

The raja and rani presented their wish for a son as a hymn was being sung. “Speaking to the congregation, the raja and rani said: “You come together for Guru Nanak, and so whatever wish is asked of you will be granted. We ask that the Guru would give us a son.”

Those who were in the sangat said, “Trust in the Guru, he will grant you a son.”

Not long thereafter, the raja’s wife told the raja that she was pregnant. “Guru Nanak was right,” they said to each other, “and soon we will have a son.” When the baby was born, the baby’s body looked like a girl’s body, but the raja and his wife were confident that Guru Nanak had correctly foreseen that their child would be a son.

The raja and his wife gave the baby a name that was usually given to a boy, and then waited to see what would happen. And when their baby grew enough to begin to walk and talk and run around, it became clear that the child knew he was a boy. So what Guru Nanak had said did indeed come true: the raja and his wife had a son.

The boy grew quickly, and became a fine young man. Although he had a young woman’s body, nobody in the raja’s palace thought much about it, and the young man did everything that all the other young men did. Then one day, his father called him to the throne room.

“My son,” said the raja, “it is time you married. I would like you to marry –” and he named the daughter of a neighboring raja.

The young man thought he liked this daughter of the neighboring raja, and he also thought that she liked him, so he did not disagree with his father’s idea. But he asked, “Why is it that you want me to get married now, father?”

“I have received a marriage proposal from the young woman’s father,” said the raja. “And besides, I would like to see you married, and I would like you to have children, so that my grandchildren will continue to rule this kingdom.”

The young man looked thoughtful. “Of course I would like to have children,” he said, “but as you know, even though I’m a man, remember that I do have a woman’s body….”

His father waved this away. “Do not worry,” said the raja. “I trust in the Guru. He said that your mother and I would have a child, and we did. He said that your mother and I would have a boy, and we did.”

So the marriage proposal was accepted. The raja instructed his Hindu pandit to carry out the ceremonies to prepare for the marriage. But there were those who whispered, “The young man has a woman’s body. If he marries a woman, how can the two of them have children? The old raja will bring disgrace on us all.” But the old raja didn’t listen to these whispers; he trusted in Guru Nanak, and he knew that his son was indeed a man.

Before long the day of the wedding arrived. The young man got on his horse and, accompanied by a large party of well-wishers, rode to the neighboring raja where the wedding would take place. Suddenly a golden deer appeared in front of the party, and the raja’s son boldly spurred his horse and gave chase to this magnificent animal.

The golden deer ran from the raja’s son, leading him away from the others, until at last the deer jumped into a garden. The raja’s son followed, but when was inside the garden he found, not the golden deer that he had expected, but the Exalted One, Guru Nanak himself.

The raja’s son bowed down before the Exalted One. The Guru said to him, “My child, the Guru will fulfill your wish.”

The rest of the party had been following the raja’s son, and just then they arrived in the garden. Upon seeing Guru Nanak, the raja walked around him, then prostrated himself and laid at the feet of the Guru. “I am truly blessed, to see you, Baba Nanak!” said the raja. “You granted my wish to have a son. No human mouth can praise you enough, for you are beyond all praise!”

“Go in peace,” said Guru Nanak. “I will be with you wherever you go. Wherever you sing my hymns or offer praise to me, there you shall find me.”

The raja and all those in the wedding party became Sikhs from this moment. They continued on their journey, all chanting, “Guru, Guru!” The raja’s son was duly married to the daughter of the neighboring raja, and all was well.

Deities of non-binary gender

As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.

The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)

Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:

“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)

While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.

The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.

Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:

“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China, E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)

There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.

Diné bahané, part four

5. The Flood, and Journey to the Fourth World

The people moved to different parts of the land. Some time passed; then First Woman became troubled by the monotony of life. She made a plan. She went to Atse’hashke, the Coyote called First Angry, and giving him the rainbow she said: “I have suffered greatly in the past. I have suffered from want of meat and corn and clothing. Many of my maidens have died. I have suffered many things. Take the rainbow and go to the place where the rivers cross. Bring me the two pretty children of Tqo holt sodi, the Water Buffalo, a boy and a girl.

The Coyote agreed to do this. He walked over the rainbow. He entered the home of the Water Buffalo and stole the two children; and these he hid in his big skin coat with the white fur lining. And when he returned he refused to take off his coat, but pulled it around himself and looked very wise.

After this happened the people saw white light in the East and in the South and West and North. One of the deer people ran to the East, and returning, said that the white light was a great sheet of water. The sparrow hawk flew to the South, the great hawk to the West, and the kingfisher to the North. They returned and said that a flood was coming. The kingfisher said that the water was greater in the North, and that it was near.

The flood was coming and the Earth was sinking. And all this happened because the Coyote had stolen the two children of the Water Buffalo, and only First Woman and the Coyote knew the truth.

When First Man learned of the coming of the water he sent word to all the people, and he told them to come to the mountain called Sis na’jin. He told them to bring with them all of the seeds of the plants used for food. All living beings were to gather on the top of Sis na’jin. First Man traveled to the six sacred mountains, and, gathering earth from them, he put it in his medicine bag.

The water rose steadily. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part four”

Diné bahané, part three

4. The Men and Women Live Apart

Now at that time there were four chiefs: Big Snake, Mountain Lion, Otter, and Bear. And it was the custom when the black cloud rose in the morning — as there was no sun, and no true division of night and day, time was counted by the black cloud rising and the white cloud rising — for First Man to come out of his dwelling and speak to the people. After First Man had spoken, the four chiefs told them what they should do that day. They also spoke of the past and of the future.

But after the harvest, the Turquoise Boy from the East had come and visited First Woman. When First Man had returned to his home, he found his wife with this boy. First Woman told her husband that Turquoise Boy was of her flesh and not of his flesh. She said that she had used her own fire, the turquoise, and had ground her own yellow corn into meal. This was corn that she had planted and cared for herself.

When First Man found his wife with Turquoise Boy, he would not come out to speak to the people. The black cloud rose higher, but First Man would not leave his dwelling; neither would he eat or drink. No one spoke to the people for four days. All during this time First Man remained silent, and would not touch food or water. Four times the white cloud rose, and still he would not come out.

Then the four chiefs went to First Man and demanded to know why he would not speak to the people. The chiefs asked this question three times, and a fourth, before First Man would answer them.

He told them to bring him an herb which was an emetic. He made a hot brew from the herb, and drank it, and it caused him to vomit, and in this way he purified himself. First Man then asked them to send Turquoise Boy to him. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part three”

Diné bahané, part two

2. The Second World

Because of the strife in the First World, First Man, First Woman, the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water, and the Coyote called First Angry, followed by all the others, climbed up from the First World, the World of Darkness and Dampness, to the Second World, Ni’hodotl’ish, or the Blue World.

When they came to the Second World, they found a number of people already living there: Bluebirds, Blue Hawks, Blue Jays, Blue Herons, and all the blue-feathered beings.

The powerful Swallow People lived there also, and these people made the Second World unpleasant for those who had come from the First World. There was fighting and killing.

The First Four found an opening in the World of Blue Haze; and they climbed through this and led the people up into the Third or Yellow World.

Dine Bahane: First Angry Coyote

Above: Illustration of First Angry Coyote, drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school after seeing images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

3. Arriving in the Third World

The Bluebird was the first to reach the Third or Yellow World. After him came the First Four and all the others.

A great river crossed this land from north to south. It was the Female River.

There was another river crossing it from east to West, it was the Male River. This Male River flowed through the Female River and on; and the name of this place is Tqo alna’osdli, the Crossing of the Waters. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part two”

Diné bahané, part one

Here’s the first installment of an abridged version of the Diné bahané, or Navajo creation story, that I put together for a small class of 5th and 6th graders a couple of years ago. This version of the Diné bahané is adapted from a public domain source edited by Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, (1956), pp. 1-13. (It’s in the public domain because it is a U.S. government document.)

When I presented the Diné bahané to the 5th and 6th graders, they were fascinated. They quickly noticed this story is very different from the two creation stories most familiar to Western culture, the creation story in the Bible where God creates the universe in seven days, or the creation story of ancient Greece in which the universe comes into being from Xaos (Chaos). They also noticed the story has a different understanding of gender roles, particularly in light of the character of Turquoise Boy, who is of ambiguous gender (who will appear in a later installment). They also noticed that this story does not assume such a strong distinction between humans and other animals, as do the Western creation stories. Reading such a different creation story helps us to reflect on the dominant stories in our own culture.

Here, then, is my abridged version of the Diné bahané:

Introduction

The Diné bahané is the traditional Navajo creation story. This long story has never been written down by the Navajos, even though it is as long as a book. Instead, there are people who have memorized the story, and who retell it to others. This version of the Navajo creation story that you’re about to read came to be as follows:

These stories were told to Sandoval, Hastin Tlo’tsi hee, by his grandmother, Esdzan Hosh kige. Her ancestor was Esdzanata’, the medicine woman who had the Calendar Stone in her keeping. Sandoval told these stories to Aileen O’Bryan at Mesa Verde in 1928, and she wrote them down. Here are the stories of the Four Worlds that had no sun, and of the Fifth, the world we live in, which some call the Changeable World.

Dine Bahane: First Man and First Woman

Above: Illustration of First Man and First Woman drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school, after having seen images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

1. The First World

The First World, Ni’hodilqil, — which was also called Red Earth, One Speech, Floating Land, and One Tree — was black as black wool. It had four corners, and over these appeared four clouds. These four clouds contained within themselves the elements of the First World. They were in color, black, white, blue, and yellow.

The Black Cloud represented the Female Being. For as a child sleeps when being nursed, so life slept in the darkness of the Female Being. The White Cloud represented the Male Being or Substance. He was the Dawn, the Light-Which-Awakens, of the First World. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part one”