Srimad Bhagavatam Canto 9 describes the life of King Sudyumna, son of Manu, who changed into a woman after entering the forest of Lord Shiva. Why did this great soul with transcendental consciousness appear to have forgotten his former position, and behave like a woman attracted to a man? Did he forget everything, due to Maya – or did he remember, yet accepted his karma and engaged in the responsibility of woman?
How should I understand this story?
Answer by Romapada Swami: The soul is spiritual in nature but through the agency of false ego the soul misidentifies itself with matter, namely the body. False ego is the most subtle feature of the inferior, material energy.
Through the agency of false ego one identifies with the covering (the body) and forgets his real position of being the servant of Lord Krishna. Just like at night when we have a dream, we forget all our daytime activities and sense of self. And when we wake up in the morning we forget the night dream identity. Similarly because of the covering of false ego, one identifies oneself with the body and therefore is subjected to repeated births and deaths taking various forms of life in different species (Please refer to BG 13.21 and 13.22)
In BG 13.21, Srila Prabhupada very nicely explains how when the soul is placed in a particular type of body, it comes under the control of nature because the body being matter, acts according to the laws of nature and at that time the living entity does not have the power to change that law. For example, a soul placed in a body of a dog is subjected to act like a dog under the forces of material nature.
In the case of King Sudyumna, he was made to change his body from male to female as Lord Shiva wanted that to happen for anyone who entered that forest. Thus the King upon getting the female body acquired the nature of a female.
Srila Prabhupada also explains this in the purport to SB 9.1.33 in terms of our changing our dress. Just as we may change our dress few times in a day or once a day but we remain the same person although the dress is different. Similarly the soul of the King Sudyumna remained the same but his dress (body) change from male to female. And depending on the dress (namely, the body acquired), one is made to act such by the laws of nature.
Purport to SB 9.1.33 “The body is just like a dress, and here this is proved. Sudyumna and his associates were all male, which means that their souls were covered by male dress, but now they became female, which means that their dress was changed. The soul, however, remains the same.”