‘The Story of Śikhidhvaja and Cudala’ by Valmiki, translated by Swami Venkatesananda

My father is a Catholic and I attended a C of E school; my mother was an Indiophile and so I grew up reading The Vedas, which I took to more than the Bible. Vasisthya’s Yoga, written around the 6th century, is a spiritual epic which explores the nature of reality and the path to enlightenment. It is also a treasure trove of gloriously imaginative cosmic stories that can be enjoyed for their literary value, regardless of the reader’s interest in the spiritual. ‘The Story of Śikhidhvaja and Cudala’ is a feminist one, and the oldest story I know that explores gender fluidity. Śikhidhvaja and Cudala are a King and Queen who rule a kingdom; Cudala becomes enlightened before her husband, who wanders off into the forest seeking liberation, only to find himself lost and confused. Cudala turns herself into a brahman who offers to educate him (though, conveniently, s/he informs him that due to a curse s/he turns into a nymph by night, allowing them to make love once their daily instruction is over). What follows is a tale structured like a matryoshka, stories nestled within stories, as Cudala coaxes him towards enlightenment. It is playful, witty and full of twists and turns, but interspersed with profound reflections on the nature of life.

Included in Vasistha’s Yoga, University of New York Press 1993, p.422

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