In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira asks Bhishma to tell him who gains greater pleasure from sex, man or woman? In response to this rather unusual question from his nephew, Bhishma told him the following story.

Long ago, there lived a king, who was good to all his subjects and his wives. His name was Bhangaswana. He was a good man, known for his kindness and rightful conduct. But the king was childless and that was a burden he bore with a heavy heart.

Bhangaswana decided to appeal to Agni and to propitiate him, perform the agnistuta yagna that is meant to bestow children upon heirless kings. However, Indra who had his eye on the king was not particularly pleased with the proposed turn of events. He looked for ways to thwart the king’s sacrifice to Agni and that failing, sought to place hurdles in his way and get him into trouble.

But the king, unaware of Indra’s efforts, went along with his plans. And he performed the yagna and then in due course, had a hundred sons. Happy and content he went about his life in the palace thereafter.

But Indra was seething. And one day when the king set out on a hunt in the forest, the god of thunder found the opportunity that he had been waiting for. Managing to isolate the king from his attendants and fellow hunters, Indra stupefied him. He made the king lose his bearings and soon Bhangaswana found himself alone on his horse, hungry and thirsty, stumbling along inside the forest.

The two came upon a lake. The king, by now blinded by thirst and fear, collapsed by the lake. Having put his horse to the water and safely tying him to the tree thereafter he then decided to clear his mind and body with a dip in the calm waters. But it was a strange fate that awaited the good king; when he stepped out of the water, he was no longer a man. Bhangaswana had become a woman.

Shocked the king laments his fate. But she does not let her shock get the better of her senses. And mounting the horse, which at first seemed like an impossible task but turned out to be quite simple, she sped back to her kingdom. She went to her sons and her wives and told them everything.

She set down the rules of governance that had helped build a prosperous kingdom and asked her sons to abide by them. The royal life was no longer hers, she said and headed back for the forest.

Inside the jungle, she found shelter in an ashram where she began life anew. An ascetic became a friend and partner, and she bore him another 100 sons. These sons, the king-woman took back to her first 100. The kingdom belongs to you all, she said and left them behind to go back to her home in the forest.

The two hundred princes ruled well and lived in harmony. But this was not what Indra had wanted. It made him furious that despite all his efforts, the king was still a happy woman.

He began sowing strife between the brothers. They fell for his tactics and finally the brothers killed each other and the king was left with nothing. At this the woman finally broke down. She lamented her fate and called upon the gods for justice.

Indra found his chance and appeared before her as a Brahmin. Pretending to be unaware of the fate that had befallen her, he asked for the cause of her despair. And when the woman told him her sad story, he revealed his true identity.

Why, he asked her, did she not worship him first? That way she could have kept misfortune away from her door.

But it was not the intention to disrespect, only to seek the blessing of an heir that led to the yagna for Agni, she told him. Still, she begged for forgiveness and Indra relented. He would revive one set of her children, he said. She chose the ones she had borne as a mother because a mother’s love is always stronger than a father’s. And then Indra offered to restore her identity as a male. But to Indra’s surprise, she refused, choosing to stay a woman for the rest of her life. Because she said, “In acts of congress, the pleasure that women enjoy is always much greater than what is enjoyed by men…” And thus did Bhishma answer Yudhishthira’s question.

Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta

Source: The Mahabharata, Book 13, Anushasana Parva, translated by K. M. Ganguli

Location: Pan India

Image Details: Yudhishthira with Bhishma, from the Razm-namah, by Fattu, 1598.

Image Source: Wikipedia