Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Wailing Womb, A Weeping Heart

It was another beautiful morning in the village. The sun had come up in the eastern sky and the village was now bright with a gentle glow. The cold hadn’t cleared fully, though Holi was over and people had stopped taking bath in warmed water. The bakul trees swayed gently in the soft breeze, as though in some light trance born of an intoxication of which only they knew the secret. Or maybe they were in some sweet dream of a near future when the sacred feet of a dark child would take steps under them, sending unspeakable ecstasies into their grateful hearts. Small herds of cows stood idly here and there, soaking the warmth of the early morning sun. Goats nibbled at tufts of grass growing here and there. Something told you that deep within, far beneath the serenity and beauty of it all, the morning hid some deep sorrow. Maybe, it was the distant hills that told you of it with their stoic silence: they seemed to be so still.

There were already a group of men under the banyan tree, some sitting and others standing in various poses. Their talk was whispered, as though they were afraid someone might overhear. And they were talking of what they always talked about these days – Kamsa and his wickedness. “The time for the incarnation has come,” one of them said. “True, it is impossible to tolerate Kamsa anymore,” added another. The others nodded their heads vigorously, fear making them look left and right with frightened eyes even as they did so.

It was time for me to go to fetch water from the Yamuna. This was the part of the day’s chores that we women enjoyed best. It was our own time, with no men around. The walk to the Yamuna took no more than fifteen minutes, and fifteen minutes to walk back. But we were never back before an hour – and it was certainly not filling water in the pots that we spent the remaining half hour. That was time when we shared among ourselves everything that women always shared. This part of the day made the rest of the day meaningful – just as sleep made the day meaningful. It put everything in its place. It cleansed us – of the worries, the pains, anger, disappointments of the day gone by. It was as though when we came back from this daily chore all that was sad and mournful that had been in us earlier was washed clean of us. Giving place to hope, to longings, to desires and yearnings, to all that made life beautiful. Making us feel as though we were born fresh. No woman in the village missed this part of the day if she could.

I called out to Sita, Durga, Uma and others of my neighborhood and we all took our pots in hand and started walking. From a few houses away we could hear Gauri calling the women of her neighborhood. Usually there were some twenty women in the group as we went to the Yamuna. I looked forward to this part of the day. I enjoyed the walk as much as I enjoyed the company and the talk, especially in weather as pleasant as this. It was a pleasure to lose myself to the music of anklets and bangles and the sounds of happy chatting as twenty of us walked together.

A cloud of disappointment floated into my mind when I thought that I would miss the walk soon – my pregnancy was fast advancing. But then, that disappointment was nothing compared to the joy of what was coming – this would be our first child. A thrill passed through me at the very thought – nothing, nothing in the world, is as thrilling to a woman as the birth of her first child. Marriage makes a girl a woman, true, but it is her first child that makes her truly appreciate what it means to be a woman.

Nanda wanted a girl. But I told him it was going to be a boy, for that is what I wanted. “A mother’s wish is always more important than a father’s,” I told him and he laughed.

Nanda always laughed. And I imagined him laughing with our child soon. He was a very cute child, our son – seemed to be made of butter. As I suckled him, a joy that I had never experienced seemed to fill me. An image floated into my mind: that of Nanda playing with him in our courtyard. He was chasing Nanda all over the courtyard, his laughter sounding like a hundred temple bells ringing all together. Then I was chasing him with a tiny stick in my hand, and he turned around and looked at me, smiling, and then continued to run. I threw the stick down and called him into my hands. He turned around and ran back, and jumped into my hands, laughing.

Peels of laughter.

Women’s laughter.

It was my friends. They were teasing me. They were looking at me with eyes full of mirth, trying hard to control their laughter and failing miserably. There was no need for words – they knew where I was lost and I knew they knew it.


Yamuna was still flowing in her sleep and I felt bad about waking her up. There was such calm about the way she flowed. That was another reason why I loved the Yamuna. She was always so serene, as though nothing could upset her. As though she had surrendered to existence and accepted whatever life brought to her. The eternal journey had its ups and downs, but nothing affected her rhythm. She flowed on in a tranquility that was amazing. Oftentimes I have just come here, either alone or with just a single friend, to sit quietly on her banks and allow her serenity to flow into me. I loved it.

We had already washed our hands and feet and then entering the Yamuna filled our pots when I suddenly heard a wail from across the river.

Looking up, I saw a woman standing alone on the other bank. It was she who was wailing.

I had never heard a woman wailing like that, so deep, so tortured, was her sorrow. It did not seem to be coming from her heart, but from some part of her far deeper than her heart, maybe her soul itself. The cry of a woman’s unutterable anguish. Anguish so terrible it was as though not one, but a hundred, a thousand, maybe a million women were wailing. As though every female soul on earth was wailing at once.

The sorrow in every woman’s heart, past and present, came out in that woman’s wail.

And then I heard the trees around her wailing with her. I heard the kadambas, the mangoes, banyans, peepals, jamuns, all wailing with her. The bamboos in every thicket began to wail with her. Then I heard the ashokas, the mandaras, jabas, kaminis, champas on the banks of the Yamuna wailing with her. Now the distant hills joined her tortured soul’s wail. And from nearby I suddenly heard the Yamuna herself wailing. The wind was wailing. All earth and the sky were wailing.

When I looked into the eyes of my friends, there were tears in them. They stood motionless in the weeping Yamuna, tears running down their cheeks.

It was the lament of life I heard coming out from that woman across the river. All existence wailing.

Perhaps this was how Sita wailed when Rama abandoned her in the jungle, I thought.

I left my pot on the ground and walked towards the woman, wading across the Yamuna. As the waters of the Yamuna touched me, I felt shaken as I had never been shaken.

Across the river I held the woman to my breasts for a long, long time, until her wails became silent sobs that shook me with their agony. Then I led her to a large stone under a kadamba tree.

I asked her of her sorrow.

It took her a long time to be able to speak.

And then she told me of Kamsa. She told me of the first child of hers whom Kamsa held by its feet and dashed against a rock, scattering its brains all over. And of her second child. And of her third child. And of her fourth child. And of her fifth child. And of her sixth child… Each of whom Kamsa had held by its feet and dashed against a rock, their white brains mixed with red infant blood scattering all over the empty courtyard where he had done it.

Then she told her about her seventh child whom she had lost before he was born.
And then she was unable to continue. She just sat there, the woman who had given birth again and again and had witnessed the heads of her infants being dashed against rocks by her brother.

Her hands lay over her swollen stomach, protectively. They shook in terror, in unspeakable sorrow.

My body trembled as my heart’s weeping became unbearable.

I made her stand up. I stood before her. I took her hands from her stomach and placed them against my own swollen stomach.

And I told her: Your child shall live. Mine shall die for his sake.

Devaki looked at me with disbelieving eyes. With horror-filled eyes. With eyes that held more sorrow than before. A thousand times more sorrow. And bottomless horror.

I took her by her hand and led her into the waters of Mother Yamuna. There, standing knee deep in Yamuna’s dark, sacred waters, I pledged solemnly: Devaki, your eighth child shall live. My child shall die for his sake.

Walking back across the river with unwavering steps, I no more felt the pressure of water against my legs. Looking down I saw the waters of the Yamuna had parted and given me way.

I walked on wet sand over which the Yamuna had flowed until a moment ago. Flowed ceaselessly for a hundred thousand years.

Now she had parted to give me way.

Surging waters waited on both sides as I walked along the path she had made for me.

From the riverbanks, I heard the music of numberless birds that had suddenly begun to sing in a sweet chorus.

Heaven showered a slight drizzle on me.

The child in my womb moved.

I heard a voice calling me Mother.

The voice had come from the middle of the river.

Looking up, I saw the Mother of the Universe looking at me.

The smile in her eyes was beautiful beyond words.

Note: The story retold here comes from a traditional Bhojpuri song.

Understanding Mahabharata: The Riddle of Pandu 4

In the Mahabharata, and in fewer details in the Ramayana, we have the story of Kalmashapada. Kalmashapada was an ancestor of Rama who had received a curse from his guru Vasishtha which transformed him into a Rakshasa. While living his accursed life as a Rakshasa, Kalmashapada meets a Brahman youth and his young wife in a forest. The couple were in the jungle making love and they had not yet completed their act when they saw the Rakshasa and ran away. Kalmashapada caught the brahmana, and the brahmani begged him not to eat him up. She told him of how she was in her ritu, how desperate they were for a child, how they hadn’t finished their mating act and therefore he should spare her husband. Kalmashapada did not heed her and went ahead and ate up the Brahmin youth. Angirasi, the brahmani, wept bitter tears – and so deep was her pain that as each drop of her tears fell on the ground, it became a blazing fire and burnt up the place.

The brahmani then cursed Kalmashapada. He had interrupted her and her husband making love and killed her husband. He would not be able to make love to his wife any more – if he ever made love to his wife during her ritu, the period sanctioned for lovemaking, he would die. Almost the identical curse as Pandu received and for almost identical reasons. It is this curse that made it impossible for Kalmashapada to have sex with his wife Madayanti and forced him to offer her to the sage Vasishtha for niyoga.

Like Kalmashapada, Pandu too carried a curse on him. His impotence was the result of that curse – but that curse was not given by Kimdama. Pandu was cursed long before he killed the deer. His curse was a result of his very restrictive upbringing concerning sex, his negative attitudes toward sex, the traumatic sexual experience of his mother the trauma of which he had internalized, unconscious feelings of sexual hostility, fear, guilt.

Do insights from psychology or psychopathology explain why Pandu killed the deer engaged in coitus? They do. Annals of criminology are full of crimes committed by men who have negative attitudes towards sex, have deep unconscious feelings of sexual hostility and guilt, have been forced to suppress or repress sex for one reason or other, have an unsatisfactory sexual life, whose natural sexual longings have remained unfulfilled. Lust killings, sex murder – these are terms used for acts like what Pandu did, though crime literature mostly talks about acts committed against humans.

Perhaps these insights would also explain his fury in the battlefields that made Pandu ‘reduce his enemies to ashes”, though this could be a very natural thing to do for a kshatriya and a prince in those days. But it is a fact that Pandu derived pleasure from killing – he devoted in entire life after the world conquest to hunting, which is something few other kings have done, if any.


Why did Pandu choose Arjuna’s birthday to take Madri into the quietude of the jungle and to make love to her there, meeting his death in the process? Why did he choose the precise moment when priests were chanting sacred incantations invoking divine blessings on Arjuna, the precise moment when brahmanas were being served a feast? Was Arjuna’s birthday no occasion for celebration for Pandu? Was he registering his protest against the celebration, and against Arjuna and Kunti, by walking away from the feast of which he was the host and hence shouldn’t have left? If so, what was he protesting against? The questions we had asked earlier.

For those who are not fully conversant with the Mahabharata, the epic says it was the uttara phalguna day on which Arjuna had completed fourteen years when the Brahmins were chanting mantras and a feast was being offered celebrating the birthday when Pandu took the beautiful Madri away into the jungle. When he should have been with his family, when he as the host had an important role to play and should have been receiving the Brahmins and joining them in the rituals and the feast, Pandu quietly slipped out of the place taking his younger wife with him. Kunti failed to notice this because she was busy serving the meals to the brahmanas.

Ancient Indian tradition forbade sex during the daytime.

The epic tells us he did so because he was overpowered by sex – kamamohita. He certainly could have been. But there is also another side to it – the day and time he chose speaks of other possibilities. He must have been frustrated. It is possible that in spite of his urging Kunti and later Madri to give him sons through niyoga, he really hated the niyogas and felt little affection for them. The niyogas must definitely have been humiliating for him, as being forced to offer his wife to other men for begetting children would be to any man. Yet he did it for the sake of his afterworlds, so that his ancestors did not blame him of not paying back the debt to the manes, pitr-rna, and maybe perhaps because the eldest of them could inherit the throne. But it is also possible that more than his desire for children it was his wives’ desire for them that impelled him, though the Mahabharata does not say so. Women’s longing for children is usually stronger than men’s – for while for man children are a need, for women it is the fulfillment of their being women. It is possible that in spite of what the epic tells us and contrary to what we are told by it, it was Kunti who was desperate for children rather than Pandu and it was she who persuaded him to allow her to have children by other men. Pandu could have resented this deeply, though he could not say no to the strong-willed Kunti, and later to Madri when she sought permission to walk on the path shown by Kunti.

That his children are not his children is not something that many men would be able to tolerate. So Pandu rejects the birthday celebrations, rejects the birthday child, rejects the mother of the birthday child, and goes to the jungle taking his ‘softer’ other wife to the jungle with him exactly when Brahmins are being served at home. And on that day, for the first time in his life, in the passion given by his bitterness and loneliness, his frustration and fury, he succeeds in making love to her there, surrounded by nature in estrus. His success must have surprised even him, filled him with unspeakable thrill, uncontrollable rapture. One moment he is deep in the abysses of bitterness and fury, and the next he is in the heavenly heights of the thrill of his first successful lovemaking. From those heights to which he had soared for the first time in his life, he plunges straight into his death.

There was years of bitterness in him. Suppressed day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until Arjuna has completed fourteen years. And then, as the birthday celebration is going on, violence possesses him, and the explosion takes place.
Pandu is one of the most tragic figures in Indian literature. His is the tale of innocence punished for the crimes of others. He carries a curse with him – the burden of the knowledge of the story of his birth, of his lineage, which makes his life hell. Pandu’s life eloquently portrays how our life is not all in our hands, how so many factors beyond our control give it direction, something we are loath to admit today. Our past has a strong say in making us what we are, in making our life what it is – and that past includes our parents’ past too. We carry on our shoulders the burden, and the honor, of their actions.

Just as our children will do those of ours.

In the spiritual interpretation of the Mahabharata, Vyasa’s four sons are embodiments of the four purusharthas – goals of human life. Shuka is the embodiment of the paramapurushartha, of moksha, liberation; Vidura of dharma, righteousness; and Dhritarashtra of artha, wealth and possessiveness. Pandu, this interpretation tells us, is the embodiment of kama, desire. He is lust embodied.

Impotent kama, perhaps.

Or maybe perhaps Vyasa wants to tell us that kama is always impotent in the ultimate analysis, in spite of the fact all creation springs from it.

Impotent kama, insatiable kama. Kama that can never give us ultimate contentment.

Na jAtu kAmah kAmAnAm upabhogena shAmyate,
havishA krishnavartmeva bhooya evAbhivardhate.

Never indeed is kama satiated by the enjoyment of desired objects; instead, like fire when offerings are made into it, it keeps flaring up.

Until impotent desire consumes the desirer himself.


Understanding Mahabharata: The Riddle of Pandu 3

A possible answer is: for the same reasons as turned him impotent.

There is every reason to believe that Pandu’s impotence was psychological. Pandu was physically fit. He was a mighty warrior who was a terror to his enemies. Except for the paleness of his skin, there is no mention of any physical deficiency in him. And his death comes while engaged in an act of sex with his wife. All these point at his impotence having been psychological and not physical.

Are there then psychological reasons that could have caused impotence in Pandu?
Literature on the psychopathology of impotence tells us that while impotence may have physical causes in males over forty, it is almost always of psychological origin in males under forty; that psychopathological impotence may be associated with a very restrictive upbringing concerning sex, negative attitudes toward sex, negative or traumatic sexual experiences and other deep-seated causal factors such as unconscious feelings of hostility, fear, inadequacy, or guilt.

Could Pandu’s impotence have risen from any of these sources? To answer that question we will have to look into Pandu’s past – particularly into his early years as a child when he was most impressionable and into the years when he was an adolescent and his sexuality was blossoming. Unfortunately the Mahabharata gives us no details of these years and for that reason all that we can do is conjuncture about them.

As we all know, Pandu was the son born to Vyasa and Ambalika through the custom of niyoga. His mother had become a widow at the death of Prince Vichitraveerya. When he met with his early death due, according to the epic, to overindulgence in sex with his two wives, Ambika and Ambalika, he had produced no offspring. The illustrious line of the Kuru-Bharatas was now without a man qualified to sit on the throne on which such legendary kings as Manu, Puroorava, Nahusha, Yayati, Dushyanta, Bharata, Hastin, Ajameedha, Kuru, and Shantanu had sat, without a head to wear their proud crown.
Devavrata Bheeshma was there, of course, but he had taken the vow not to sit on the throne though he would stand by it. The Kurus were desperately in need of a prince.
It was Bheeshma whom Satyavati approached first – she must have felt that now that her father’s greed had come to naught and Bheeshma’s vows had been rendered meaningless by mighty time, he should take the reigns of the kingdom into his own hands to which they had originally belonged. Bheeshma refused – vows were vows and he would not break them, come what may. Perhaps it was the bitterness in him speaking, perhaps this is what had become of him because of that bitterness or maybe he had become really Bheeshma – the aura around his vows had imprisoned him in its awesome glare. Whatever the reason, Bheeshma decided his vow and himself were greater than the desperate need of the Kuru-Bharata empire and refused both to marry and beget children and to perform niyoga in Vichitraveerya’s ‘fields’ and produce offspring. Eventually Vyasa had to be called in and this other half-brother of Vichitra had to do the niyoga in spite of his reluctance.

The niyoga was not a happy incident for Pandu’s mother Ambalika just as it was not for her sister Ambika, Dhritarashtra’s mother, either. While in the case of Ambika she did not know it was the sage who would be performing the niyoga, in the case of Ambalika, she in all probability knew it would be the sage who would be coming to her. But in spite of that knowledge, when the sage entered her room and approached her bed, she was horrified and turned pale.

The act of conceiving Pandu was an act of indescribable horror and repugnance to his mother. So great was the repugnance and horror the sisters felt that they refused to undergo the torture a second time and when forced, sent a maid in their place. And after conceiving and giving birth to Pandu, Ambalika, like her sister after conceiving and giving birth to Dhritarashtra, withdrew into a shell from which she never came out.

It is unlikely that Pandu grew up without hearing palace rumors about his birth. In a place packed with maids and slaves as the palace of Hastinapura was, it is impossible that this did not happen to a child who had no father and was totally neglected by his mother. It should not surprise us if he had heard, or at least overheard, what happened in some graphic details. The incident involves niyoga, it involves sex between a young widowed princess and a sage and such stuff is ideal for gossip.

How a young sensitive mind would react to such talk he hears is impossible to predict and Pandu was definitely a very sensitive child and later a very sensitive man. In Pandu’s case it appears that the result was an unconscious horror of sex, for what he heard about his own mother. The images that the gossip he heard generated must have been played repeatedly over and over again in his mind, rendering him eventually psychologically impotent. It is not impossible that every time he approached one of his wives, the image of his mother, of the horrible experience she was subjected to, images of his mother’s horror and aversion at the moment of his conception, all rushed into his mind.

From the picture of him that the Mahabharata presents to us, Pandu appears to have been a man capable of great love, at least to begin with. As a child he must have loved his mother deeply, as is shown by his act of offering at her feet part of the wealth he had brought from the conquest. Listening to all those stories from palace gossip, stories that could have been very confusing to a child, he must have felt like countless other children that sex was something horrid that men did to women. It wouldn’t be surprising if he had felt he too had a share in subjecting his mother to that horrid act – partly because he was a male and partook of the crime of all males towards women and partly because his mother had to undergo it all for his sake, so that he could be born. The result would have been guilt – powerful guilt.

I wonder what Bheeshma’s effect on the child and adolescent Pandu could have been with regard to his sexual development. The Mahabharata tells us that it was Bheeshma who mostly brought him up. Here was a man who had become a legend in his own lifetime – more for denying sex to himself than for other things, though there certainly were other great achievements to his credit. The whole world looked up at him with awe. He had said no to women once and then, even when begged to break his vow, stuck to his vow. The Mahabharata does not tell us what his relations with Satyavati were – when Shantanu saw her and fell hopelessly in love with her, Devavrata had already been officially appointed the crown prince and what she had done was to snatch away from his head that crown of yuvaraja.

The Mahabharata does not tell us if he hated her for this, if he hated all women because of this. It is possible that he did, considering how adamantly he stuck to his vow of having nothing to do with women, though he was always perfectly gentlemanly and chivalrous in his behavior towards them. Perhaps his forcing Gandhari to marry his blind nephew Dhritarashtra and his capturing by force and bringing to Hastinapura the three Kashi princesses from their swayamvara hall speak of his contempt for women, though these actions were not very rare in his days. The vow that he would never fight a woman too speaks of his dislike and contempt for women.

Also relevant to our discussion is Bheeshma’s attitude towards women in general as expressed in a chapter in the Anushasana Parva [Ch 38], though it is possible that this discussion does not really represent Bheeshma’s views on women at all and is a philosophical discussion added later to the epic in his name. At the opening of this chapter, Yudhishthira tells Bheeshma that women are the root of all evil and it has been said that they are mean-minded. He then asks Bheeshma to tell him about the nature of women. In answer, Bheeshma quotes the answer the Apsara Panchachooda had given Narada who had asked her the same question. What follows is a downright condemnation of women. We are told that even pretty women with husbands, born in noble families, do not remain within bounds. Once they get an opportunity to meet outsiders, they do not bother even for husbands who are famous, rich and endowed with unparalleled handsomeness, even when these husbands do everything to please them. Women can give themselves to the greatest sinners, without feeling any shame about it. There is no man woman wouldn’t give themselves to – his age, his other conditions, nothing matters to them; all that is needed is that he be a male. He may be a deformed dwarf, it does not matter; he may be nauseatingly repulsive, that does not matter. All that matters to women is that he is male. And if men are not available to satisfy their lust, women will have no hesitation to seek sexual pleasure from other women. For, women are just never satiated sexually; with them it is as fire is never satiated with wood, the ocean is never satiated with rivers, death by consuming mortals.

Panchachooda has words to say about the nature of women which I am reluctant to quote here – so blunt and crude is she in her description of the evil that women are. Death, fierce storms, the evil world underground, massive all consuming conflagrations, the sharp edges of weapons, poison, fierce snakes – weigh all these against just woman on the other side and woman would be no less than all these terrors put together, says Panchachooda in words that Bheeshma approves of and quotes to Yudhishthira answering his question.

Years of almost single-handed upbringing by Bheeshma who held such views on women, upbringing by the man from whom a fishermaid had snatched away the throne of the crown prince of an empire that was already his because his father in his old age had contemptuously fallen in love with her, by the man who for the sake of his father’s lust for her had to take the terrible vow of life-long continence, by the man who had the very vicious and distasteful experience with Amba that eventually forced him to engage his own guru in a fierce battle, couldn’t have but left its marks on the tender soul of the growing child Pandu.

And if all this is not enough, consider the two references to his lineage Pandu makes immediately after killing the deer in coitus and feeling guilty about it: He says he is the son of the kamatma Vichitraveerya, the prince whose soul itself was lust, born to him in his kshetra, ‘field’, begotten by Vyasa.

What is the legacy of Vichitraveerya that Pandu considers himself an heir to? Lust. Lust that brought death. Lust in which Eros and Thanatos met. The adolescent Vichitra was so enamored by the two beautiful princesses whom his half-brother had brought for him that he spent his days and nights in a single passion – making love to them, which eventually lead to his death. Vichitra also brought with him the legacy of an old emperor’s lust for a young maid – Shantanu’s lust for the fishermaid Satyavati. And Satyavati herself is a product of lust. King Uparichara had gone to the jungle on a hunting trip rejecting his wife’s invitation to him to go to bed with her. She had made her desire known to him through a message she had sent him informing him she had just had her ritual bath after her monthly periods and was eagerly waiting for him in their bedchamber. In the jungle the king was unable to control his lust – all around him nature stood bathed in all her estrous glory, the mating calls of birds filled the air around him thick with the scent of passion. Satyavati was the child born to that king who had lost control over himself, born to an apsara living as a fish in the Yamuna according to the Mahabharata – in all probability a fishergirl who satisfied the king’s lust of the moment.

This is a legacy of lust – straight and unmixed with anything else. The other lineage he speaks of is perhaps more confusing. Vichitra’s biological father is Vyasa – born of sage Parashara’s lust for the fish-smelling Kali-Satyavati, lust that was unwilling to wait even so long as it takes for Kali and the sage to cross the river. Their union took place in the boat itself, right in the middle of the river. Vyasa brings in his blood the irrepressible lust of Parashara and of Uparichara Vasu. But at the same time, Vyasa is an ascetic too – a man who had his sexuality under control, though he too had slipped once, thus begetting his son Shuka. Pandu’s Vyasa lineage is thus both of lust and asceticism.

A very restrictive upbringing concerning sex, negative attitudes toward sex, negative or traumatic sexual experiences, though at second-hand, other deep-seated factors such as unconscious feelings of hostility, fear, and guilt… Pandu seems to have had his share of all these elements that cause psychopathological impotence – and a rich share of them at that.

To be continued…

Understanding Mahabharata: The Riddle of Pandu 2

The second marriage should have been after some time and there should have been an important reason behind it. It was not a love marriage but an arranged one, a political alliance does not seem to have been a necessity, which leaves us one other strong possibility. The marriage had failed to produce what the Kuru-Bharata family needed more urgently than anything else: an heir to Pandu, in case anything happened to the young king. The Kunti-Pandu marriage had failed to produce offspring, which would be the case if Pandu had been impotent from the beginning. Bheeshma, who had no idea that Kunti was already a mother before her marriage, must have assumed this could be because of some fault with her – the woman is the first suspect in such cases and getting a second wife is the easiest solution for the man, particularly for a king. He might not even have considered the possibility that Pandu was impotent. And Pandu might not have revealed it himself, nor Kunti. So Bheeshma goes ahead and gets Madri as a second wife for Pandu.

It also explains why Pandu left on a world conquest thirty nights after his wedding with Madri. The Mahabharata tells us it is exactly after thirty nights that he left on the conquest – and the words used are not thirty days, but thirty nights: the nights of a whole month. It must have been a terrible whole month for an impotent Pandu. He had now two gorgeous wives, each as beautiful as a goddess, and yet there was nothing he could do in their beds since he was impotent. A bitter, frustrated, furious Pandu gathers up his army and leaves on a world conquest. He had failed to prove his manhood in his bed, but he had to prove it somewhere, and now he could prove it in the battlefield. Pandu was savage in the battlefield, as we should expect him to be, the Mahabharata tells us. He does not just win battles, but ‘burns his rivals to ashes.’ He then comes back victorious bringing with him enormous wealth.

We all have a need to compensate for our failures. I remember an incident from my own life – I was young then, twenty-one. One day two of my friends swam across the Ganga in Rishikesh at a spot where the river is at its most dangerous, the current swiftest. They were not professional swimmers but young monks. And they swam across the Ganga without any kind of protection whatsoever. On a whim, they just decided to do it. And when I wanted to do what they had done, they told me not to, they had just narrowly escaped with their lives. And not only that, they warned me they would break off their friendship with me if I attempted it – they were afraid for my life. Eventually I decided to do something on my own – as an act of compensation. One night I walked into a lonely cremation ground, and spent an entire night all alone there. I hadn’t informed any one of this, not even my two friends. There was no human being in sight as I walked into the cremation ground. My only company was the silent mountains and the eternal song of the Ganga nearby, which made the eerie silence of the night even deeper, and the cold Himalayan wind whistling in my ears. The cremation ground had no keeper, no attendant. Remains of small fires burnt in one or two places. I had to prove me to myself and that is what I did.

Coming back to the Mahabharata, the epic uses a very unusual expression to describe the triumphant Pandu on his return to Hastinapura: punar-mudita-vāhanah. On this return journey to Hastinapura, ‘his vehicles were happy – once again’. That is to say Pandu was once again happy and even his vehicles, his horses, his elephants, all, reflected his happiness. The words ‘once again’ are significant: they speak of previous unhappiness. It was not a happy Pandu that had left on the conquest, but an unhappy one. Unhappy because he had failed to prove himself a man in his royal bed chamber. Happy because he had now proved himself a man in the battlefield. The bitterness, the frustration, the fury in him has been exhausted – at least for the time being.
Incidentally, I love the expression punar-mudita-vāhanah – what a beautiful way to describe the situation!

What happened next is also explained by the fact that he was impotent from the beginning. Pandu does not add the conquered wealth to the treasury of the Kuru-Bharatas, as we would expect him to have done. Instead he distributes it all among Bheeshma, Satyavati, Ambika, Ambalika, Vidura, his friends and so on. It is as though he wanted them all to see the amount of wealth he had won, the glory he had attained – and certify how much of a man he was. The wealth is so much that we are told Dhritarashtra later performed a hundred ashwamedha sacrifices with it.
Now he does one of the strangest things ever. Following the urging of his wives, he decides to leave the kingdom and go to the jungle with them, to live his life there engaged in hunting! Pandu is the ruler of Hastinapura, the long-awaited ruler, he has just taken over the reigns of the kingdom in his hands, he has proved himself to be competent as a king by successfully waging battles in a conquest of the directions, and immediately after that he decides to leave the kingdom behind and go and live in the jungle with his wives. And he has no motivation like what Ashoka later would feel post the Kalinga war.

His mother, among others, who, to bring him into this world so that the Kuru line would not come to an end and will have a legitimate ruler, had to submit herself to the abomination of a niyoga which she found repulsive and shrank away from with all her being, must have been shocked by Pandu’s decision.

Why did Pandu do something like that? A strong possibility that comes to mind is that he did not want Bheeshma to bring him yet another wife. He had no answer to the accusing glances of his mother and grandmother, and the man who had brought him up like a son – his uncle Bheeshma. Maybe others too questioned him, some in words and some by other means, enquiring when the baby princes were coming. As it happens in every family. He had no answer to them. He must have discussed this with his wives, from whom he could not have hidden the facts of the matter. They in their wisdom and understanding advised him to leave everything and go to the jungle and live with them there. No one would torment him there.


If Pandu had been impotent all along, then it is not because of the curse of the sage that he was forced to have his children begotten by other men. Is the story of the curse by the sage then not real? Did nothing like that ever take place? Is the story an attempt to cover up Pandu’s impotence from the beginning, to find an ‘acceptable’ reason for it?
Well, the entire story need not be a lie. But it looks like part of it is definitely a lie: the part that says that it is the curse of the sage who had changed himself into a deer that made it impossible for Pandu to have sexual relations with his wives. That part may be a later addition to the story of what Pandu actually did to the deer couple. What could have happened is that Pandu saw a male and a female deer in coitus in the jungle and shot them dead. Just that much.

But then why would, as we asked earlier, a cultured man like Pandu, a scion of the noble Bharata dynasty, do such a thing as that?

To be continued…

Understanding Mahabharata: The Riddle of Pandu

I once saw a male and a female deer united in coitus. I can still vividly recall the scene from decades ago because the details are indelibly etched in my mind – so radiant was the sight. There was the deer park, with a tall fence of wire mesh around it, surrounded by large trees in verdant green. In the distance was a hillock and nearby, a large lake with branches of ancient trees bending into it under which I often sat with a book in my hand as the sun serenely journeyed towards the ocean in the western sky. The mating deer couple stood there, the front legs of the male over the doe, their bodies united. The female was absolutely still, not a muscle moved in her body, her eyes did not blink; and in those eyes, in her entire body you could see total surrender, surrender to the act that was going on, surrender to life, surrender to existence. She was no more she then, she had lost her individuality, her identity as an individual animal, and had become one with her Mother, with Mother Nature; she had ceased to exist as separate from her. It looked as though she was in some deep trance, a trance that had filled her being with the bliss of surrender to the total. The movement of life all around the united couple, the quiet, unhurried movement of the other deer in the park as they nibbled small grass here and there, the gentle swinging of the trees in the soft breeze, all seemed to add to the stillness in which the doe stood.

The Mahabharata tells us Pandu saw exactly this same sight when he was out hunting one day. The next moment he took out five sharp arrows, golden and shining, with beautiful feathers attached to them, and shot the male and the female. The male, who was a sage who had changed himself into a deer, the epic tells us, cursed Pandu in his moments of death that Pandu would meet with his death when he made love to his wife because he had killed him while he was engaged in coitus.

Pandu had seen the deer couple was engaged in sex – the Mahabharata makes it very clear. He killed them seeing with his eyes that they were making love. Kimdama, the sage who had transformed himself into the deer, tells Pandu what he had done was unthinkable – not even men totally devoid of all intelligence, men who were constantly engaged in sin, men who had no control over their lusts and anger, would do what he had done. Killing a male and a female while they were engaged in coitus is truly unheard of. How could a king of the Bharatas, a royal family so rooted in righteousness, do such a thing?

The question Kimdama asked Pandu puzzled me for a long, long time. In my attempt to understand Pandu and the nature of his action, I read repeatedly all that the Mahabharata tells us about Pandu. And the deeper I delved into his life and his personality, the more puzzled I became. Everything about Pandu seemed to be a riddle.
For instance, why would a young prince after spending thirty nights with his new wife and with an earlier wife, leave them and go on a world conquest in which he ruthlessly, to use the words of the Mahabharata, reduces ‘his rival kings to ashes’? Why would that young prince, the long awaited occupant of the throne of the Kuru-Bharatas, adored by all, immediately after completing a world conquest, at the height of his glory, leave everything behind and go to the forest taking his two wives with him to make hunting his full time occupation? The Mahabharata tells us that his wives advised him to do so. Why would two young wives of a lustrous young king ask him to leave behind his kingdom and all its comforts as well as the challenge and responsibility of ruling it and go and live in the forest, spending his time hunting?

And there were other riddles.

Pandu had to ask his wives to beget children for him with the help of other men through the ancient custom of niyoga. Why exactly did he have to do that? Was it because of the curse of Kimdama? Or had Pandu been impotent all along? How exactly did he die? And the day he chose to die: the fourteenth birthday of his son Arjuna. And the time: It is while mantras were being chanted by a group of brahmanas and Kunti was serving a feast to other brahmanas that Pandu leads Madri away into the quietude of the jungle where he later makes love to her and meets with his death.

Why did he do that? Was Arjuna’s birthday no occasion for celebration for Pandu? Was he registering his protest against the celebration, and against Arjuna and Kunti, by walking away from the feast of which he was the host and hence shouldn’t have left? If so, what was he protesting against?

My first clue came from a verse in the epic. As Pandu lay dead after engaging in sex with his younger wife Madri, Kunti who comes rushing to the scene blames her for their husband’s death. And then she says: “Blessed are you, Madri, and more fortunate than I am. For, you were able to see the face of the king in raptures.” (DhanyA tvam asi bAhleeki matto bhAgyatarA tathA, drshtavatyasi yad vaktram prahrshtasya maheepateh – Adi 124.21). Kunti was referring to the ecstasy of a sexual climax that still lingered on the dead Pandu’s face – an expression Kunti was familiar with on other men’s faces, on the faces of the four different men who had fathered her children, but was never lucky to see on the face of Pandu, her husband.

The Mahabharata takes care to tell us that a smile lingered on Pandu’s face even in his death.

Kunti had never once in her life seen Pandu’s face lost in the throes of sexual ecstasy. She had never once seen on his face that post-coital smile of contentment that was there in his death.

And yet nothing in the Mahabharata tells us that Pandu had rejected her sexually. From all we know, he was deeply in love with her from the day she chose him for a husband to the last day of his life. So if this first wife of his, this beautiful woman he had obtained for himself in a swayamvara and had brought home proudly, the woman he had lived with in regal comforts in Hastinapura and in the loneliness of jungles and mountains, the woman who was his constant companion all through his lonely, tortured life, hadn’t once seen his face in that condition in all their life together, and that in spite of Pandu being desperate for children, then the conclusion is clear and inevitable: Pandu was impotent all through his married life.

That explains a lot of things about Pandu. For instance, it explains why Bheeshma was in a hurry to get a second wife for him. The Mahabharata does not tell us how long it was before Bheeshma went and got Madri for Pandu as a second wife, paying a bride price to her brother Shalya as the Madra-Bahleeka custom demanded. It just tells us a word that means ‘then’ or ‘afterwards’ in the beginning verse of a new chapter – this ‘then’ could be immediately after the Kunti-Pandu marriage, it could be sometime later too. Getting young Pandu a second wife as soon as he had obtained for himself one wife does not make sense, unless it was meant to be an urgent political alliance, which it does not look like. Besides, Bheeshma would have been very, very reluctant to offer his nephew two young beautiful wives at the same time – he had done it with Pandu’s father Vichitraveerya and the consequences were disastrous.

Vichitra had become so obsessed with his two pretty queens that he spent his entire time in sex with them and eventually died of the dreaded royal disease of the day, rajayakshma, all the royal physicians from the kingdom and abroad failing to save his life. It is this death that had made necessary the hated niyogas which produced Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. It is extremely unlikely that a once scalded Bheeshma would want to repeat his experience so soon again.

To be continued…

Friday, August 14, 2009

Five Angry Women: 5

Five Angry Women is an attempt to look at certain events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas – Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry – angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.


I am least known by my own name. People call me Yajnaseni, Draupadi, Panchali, Parshati…but I am Krishnaa, the dark princess born to my father through the blessings of the sacrificial fire, along with my twin, Dhrishtadyumna. Born-of-fire, they called me and I had lived with fire inside me till the day I chose a youth for my man.

Fate forced me to garland and accept for a husband the man whose hands had dealt the greatest blow of disgrace to my father: Prince Arjuna.

But of course, I did not know who he was then. I had lost my heart to that adorable brahmin youth whose archery seemed pure magic as he shot down the target set up to put the greatest masters to test and stood defending my father as scores of kshatriya princes thirsted for his blood for humiliating them by giving his daughter away to a Brahmin and advanced on him.

I had irrevocably fallen in love with the proud bearing of that body, the perfect handsomeness of those sinewy limbs, the fearless look of a conqueror in those eyes. Did I pose to wonder how a Brahmin could ever possess what is rare even among the best of kshatriyas? I do not remember so.

Seeing him standing with the bow raised in his hand, with an arrow set on it, I had remembered my sworn enemy, Prince Arjuna of the Bharatas. It was he who had tied my father with ropes and thrown him at the feet of his master, Acharya Drona. And from the day I was old enough to know what humiliation was, every breath I had taken had only one purpose: avenge my father’s ignominy.

I was declared veeryashulka, a bride to be won by courage, on my own insistence. Cursed to be born as I was a woman, I wanted a man who would have my revenge on my behalf.

Crushed by the blow when I realized who that archer brahmin youth to whom I had given myself really was, I bowed before the inevitable. I mercilessly snubbed out the fire I was born with, the fire I grew up with, the fire my days and nights were filled with, and vowed to be an ideal wife to my husband.

But before the flowers of the garland I had put round his neck had faded, I was shocked to learn that fate had not finished with me – a monstrosity the like of which had fallen on no other Aryan princess awaited me in the humble hut of a pot-maker to which my master and his brothers took me.

Ah Fate, sweet Fate! You made me one of the great satis of this land. And how did you do that? By making me the wife of five brothers!

I was to be the common wife of the five Pandava princes.

Of course they had a beautiful arrangement. So that the brothers did not quarrel over me among themselves, I was to be wife to them by turns!

The Pandava princes were willing to go to any extent in such matters, but they would not go against a sentence spoken by their mother, albeit inadvertently! After all, they belong to the family of Prince Bheeshma who vowed to protect the throne of the Bharatas to his last breath and yet would not break his other vow not to marry even when the very line of the Bharatas faced extinction.

Protecting the letter of the vow gives you great honor – and the spirit of it can go where it pleased. The common people, and the common-minded among the so-called nobles, appreciate adamancy highly. Adamancy, not understanding. Of course, adamancy should wear the mask of adherence to truth.

Have you ever heard of five princes sharing a wife? Maybe, such things are practiced among the uncivilized. But among the Aryans? Among princes? Among the members of the most respected royal family in Aryavarta? The Pandavas would do that but they would not fall so low as to go against a word spoken inadvertently by their mother.

It is perhaps all right with them – after all, they were men. But what about me, a woman, who has to make her own body available to different men so that they may have their pleasure with it, so that they may use her body for begetting children for themselves? Don’t her feelings at being subjected to this gruesome ordeal matter at all? Is she not a person, not a human being? Doesn’t a woman have any right over her own body? Is she just a thing to be used?

But of course, strange, unbelievable things have always happened in the Bharata family. It was one of the ancestors of the Bharatas, Emperor Yayati, who had exchanged his old age with the youth of one of his sons so that the father may continue to satiate his unappeased lust. It was this same emperor who gave away his daughter – Madhavi was her name – to be sold to the highest bidding king for sexual use in exchange for a few hundred horses. Eventually one after the other she had to be sold to three kings and then, when even with that the required number of horses could not be obtained, to a rishi. It was also in the same line that King Dushyanta refused to recognize the wife he had wedded according to the customs of Gandharva and called her foul names as she stood before him claiming to be accepted by him. Didn’t King Nahusha lust for Shachi, wife of Indra, not being content with Indra’s throne and the pleasure of all the apsaras of his court? Didn’t Emperor Shantanu who in his old age lusted for a fisher girl in her early bloom of youth belong to the same family? And wasn’t it in the same family that princes Dhritarashtra and Pandu were produced by niyoga? And was a single one of my five husbands the son of his father?

So because of a mother’s words that they must share the alms they had got among themselves, I became a woman to be shared among five brothers. And this despite that the great sage Vyasa himself could not find any argument in support of it except that the gods had decreed it so in my case, that my karma demanded it.

Perhaps there is some truth in what they say: that the daughter of Drupada was born to cause the massacre of the kshatriyas in their multitudes.

Even if this were so, I must say that I must disown any responsibility for it. For I had snubbed off the fire in my heart the day I garlanded the brahmin youth in my swayamvara hall.

If the destiny of millions of men – millions of men who died in the greatest war this land saw – rekindled it, if destiny forced the hands of a star-crossed woman to urge her men to take weapons in self-defence as any human being should do, if it forced her to urge her men to claim what was theirs by right as any kshatriya should do, and to avenge the mortifying ignominies heaped upon their wedded wife as any man should do, she is not to blame for the disastrous outcomes.

At the end of a game of dice that cousins played against cousins, the eldest of my husbands lost his wealth, his kingdom, himself, his brothers and me, his wife. The wicked Duryodhana had played the game with loaded dice.

The beauty of Princess Krishnaa of the Panchalas was fire that set the hearts of countless princes aflame. And among the princes who had thirsted her most lustily were the princes Duryodhana and Dushshasana. Time had come for them to have their revenge. My husbands had lost me to them and they claimed I was their servant, their maid, their slave, their property and they could do with me what they pleased.

I was in that monthly state when women do not meet men but stay in the inner apartments reserved for them and I was wearing but a single piece of cloth. In my utter agony I even spoke of this and begged to be left along but I was dragged mercilessly to the court, to the middle of the assembly hall, Dushshasana pulling me by my lose hair, clothes half slipping out of my body, my naked flesh revealed to the ogling eyes of the assembled princes and elders. Those princes were my husband’s cousins, and those elders were my elders. When I fell on my knees and turned to each and every one of those in power in that assembly, Dushshasana kicked me by his foot, pulled me up and not content with what was revealed, tried to pull every thread that offered cover to my body. He would have his own sister in-law stark naked in the assembly. Not a voice was raised against this most brute act by a single man in that august assembly of the Bharatas.

That fire in my heart, that fire in my soul that I had smothered, was rekindled and it demanded blood. I took a vow. That my loose hair shall be tied again only after it had been bathed in the blood of the man who had dared to do this sinister deed.

Blood flowed like rivers in the fields of Kurukshetra. Blood has to flow when for long strength has refused to stand up against wickedness.

My men had been crushed. They had been crushed by a kind of wickedness they couldn’t deal with because their values had become a load on their shoulders. Reverence for the people who imposed that wickedness on them had rendered them impotent.

Their weakness was the weakness of truth, of honesty, of consideration for others, and truth, honesty and consideration for others should not become weaknesses to anyone. They should become strengths, instead. The weakness of goodness before the vileness of unashamed evil had to be wiped out. And I, as their wife, their sahadharmini, endeavored to do that.

Death danced its naked tandava as never before. Hundreds of thousands perished every day in the eighteen-day war. Brothers killed brothers, fathers killed sons, uncles butchered nephews and nephews slew uncles, masters and disciples did away with each other. And strangers massacred strangers. The wails of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and children rent the skies.

Are you satisfied now, Krishnaa – they ask me.

It was not I who wanted a war. It was not I who caused the war. Whenever righteousness suffers and unrighteousness arrogantly raises its all-devouring ugly head, the lord incarnates himself on this earth to protect the righteous and destroy the wicked – so said Krishna to my Arjuna in the battlefield.

Blood shall flow whenever evil tramples upon goodness. Blood shall flow whenever evil usurps the throne of goodness. And blood shall flow whenever insolent might brazenly profanes the inviolable sanctity of womanhood.

Blood had to flow in Kurukshetra.


Five Angry Women: 4

Five Angry Women is an attempt to look at certain events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas – Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry – angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.


The woman who fought against Fate, the courageous widow who stood alone and faced the might of an empire which wanted to crush her and her children, a woman who commanded the gods themselves to do her bidding…so they speak of me. But am I all these? Am I any of these? How much of this is true, and how much false?

I, Pritha, the daughter of Devameedha Shoorasena of the Vrishnis, the woman known by the name of Kunti because she was adopted by King Kuntibhoja, have a unique position among the women of the Bharatas.

For all the might of the Bharatas, generations had passed since a princess had chosen a Bharata prince happily in a proper swayamvara and come to live in the Hastinapura palace with the tremulous excitement of a new bride. Emperor Shantanu had two wives – no one knows exactly who his first wife really was. They say she was the river goddess Ganga, that she had one day walked up from the river and years later, after the birth of her eighth child, walked back into the river. Strange is the story of the love and life of this woman and the emperor.

And then, in his old age, Grandmother Satyavati had come to live as his empress in Hastinapuira. But it was as the most hated woman in all of Hastinapura that she had stepped into the palace. She was of low birth and her arrival had a precondition – that her would-be firstborn son by the emperor shall inherit the throne of Hastinapura. And Hastinapura, which I have seen only divided into myriad groups of warring interests, rose up for once in unison, bound by a common hatred for her. That it was the emperor who wanted her and not otherwise did not bother the men who hated her. That poor woman of lowly birth had not come to the Bharatas as a happy bride.

Nor had the two princesses of Kashi, mothers of my husband Pandu and his brother. They were seized, along with their sister Amba, from their swayamvara hall, by prince Bheeshma while the whole assembly stood terror-struck before his might. And it was not to be his wives that he had captured them but to be the wives of his half-brother, still a boy, and incapable of winning a wife for himself. No kshatriya princess loves to marry a man who cannot win a wife for himself – that the two princesses later came to adore the young prince they married is another matter.

How Gandhari came to Hastinapura is well-known. Had she not come, it would have been death and destruction to her father and her people. The adored daughter of an indulgent father, a young woman who loved to spend all her time in music and dance that were unique to her people, does not marry a blind man happily – and Dhritarashtra had even been denied the right to the throne.

It was as though the Bharatas had a perverse fascination for the idea of getting unwilling mothers for their future princes. For, when Madri was brought here later, it was not again according to her wishes.

So I was the first princess in a long time to happily choose a Bharata prince for her man and come to Hastinapura with joy in her heart, dreams in her eyes, and her prince’s hand in her hand.

But the joy was short lived. I soon discovered that Uncle Bheeshma was not too happy to have me for a bride for his younger nephew. For, not long after I arrived in Hastinapura I had a sapatni. Uncle Bheeshma had got another wife for Pandu the reason for which, to this day, eludes me. Sometimes I believe it is just that Prince Bheeshma believed it was for him to choose a bride for his nephew and ward and the prince had no right to acquire one for himself by himself. For certainly it was not a common custom among the Bharatas to wed more than one wife – in the previous twenty-odd generations there had been only two or three kings who had married more than once princess. Besides, the family of the Bharatas had just recovered with the greatest difficulty and with recourse to an antiquated custom from the disastrous results of a young prince marrying more than one princess at a time – prince Vichitraveerya had to pay the price of that error with his life and that had threatened to end the Bharata dynasty. There was no reason for Uncle Bheeshma to be eager to get a second bride for Pandu.

So that was it – uncle Bheeshma did not like the idea of Pandu getting a wife for himself; he believed it was for him to get a bride for young Pandu. He wanted me, the self-chosen wife of Pandu, to be denigrated to where he thought I belonged – a woman of secondary importance to Pandu and to the Palace.

But just as I was lucky in Pandu, I was lucky in Madri. Instead of becoming a competitor for Pandu’s love, a rival, she became a younger sister to me. She was my opposite in most respects. I was worldly-wise, matured, perhaps a bit too matured for my age, with hardly any sentimentality about me. I had the spirit of a much older woman in me: the violent events into the middle of which I was born – Mathura was in great turmoil in those days – and the tragic happening that shook my life even before I was fully out of girlhood – perhaps because of these. Whereas Madri had an ephemeral, ethereal quality about her. She was not concerned with anything in the world, no violent passions stormed about in her heart, calculations and machinations for position and possessions were entirely foreign to her nature. The only time I ever saw her in a state of passionate assertion about anything was in the last moments of her life – after she had decided to enter the funeral pyre of Pandu. No one could dissuade her from that.

How have the Bharatas treated me, come to them to be their king’s queen and the mother of their future king?

When I came to Hastinapura it was as the queen of the reigning king Pandu but when I came back from Shatashringa after the death of my king, I had suddenly become an ordinary woman whom no one wanted to see.

Questions were raised as to the parentage of the five children I had brought with me. By the men who had usurped my husband’s throne in his absence I was told that there was no Bharata blood in my children or in Madri’s children and as such they could not be treated as Bharata princes. Of course it was no surprise that they did so – prince Dhritarashtra’s greed for power was notoriously well-known and he had powerful coterie of people who supported him as it often happens when an unrightfull man claims to be the rightful heir to a throne. When I said that in that case neither my deceased husband nor Prince Dhritarashtra had any Bharata blood in them, I was abused in the meanest possible language – I, their queen, the queen of their dead king, was abused like a woman of the street. And all I was demanding was my children’s right to their father’s throne and all I said about Pandu and Dhritarashtra was the bare truth – they were sons born to the princesses of Kashi and their father was the sage Vyasa who was certainly not a Bharata. Where was Bharata blood in the veins of Pandu and Prince Dhritarashtra then? Surprisingly, even the man who was reputedly justice embodied turned against my children. He who had vowed to stand by the throne of Hastinapura until his last breath deserted its rightful heirs and stood watching as it passed into unlawful hands. Uncle Bheeshma protected Prince Dhritarashtra and his children.

Silence is abetment where speech is called for. Inaction is abetment where action is called for.

As to my children, they were not even given the most fundamental right of ordinary citizens: the right to exist, the right to live. My Bheema was poisoned and the hands that did this murderous deed went scot-free. Later our home was set fire to and a hundred other felonies befell us and the offenders were never castigated.

A woman of iron will, they call me. I tell you, you would be that, too, if you had five darling children to look after, children born to be rulers of men and states and yet condemned by fate to beg for alms to fill their stomach, children whose very life was in danger every moment as their existence was a threat to those who were clinging desperately to a usurped throne against popular wish and will.

A woman who took her fate in her hands, they call me. I wish I hadn’t, I wish no one would, if by that all you get is what I got – endless years of grief and agony as fate in a fury tossed my children from one wicked situation to another, forcing me and them to hide from all civilization for our physical survival and to wander through forests infested with deadly animals and inhabited by deadlier brutes and savages, looking for subsistence in fruits and roots and the animals of the wild.

A woman who commands the gods themselves with the power of her mantras, they call me. And yet those mantras did not come to my aid when I wanted to save my king from his curse. The poor, poor man longed for a touch, a mere touch of mine, all those grief-filled years in Shatashringa and I, his wedded wife, could not appease that simplest of desires of an accursed man. Pritha, the woman who commanded the gods, had to stand a forced witness to the cruel agony of her husband when he longed for what was every man’s by birth by the very laws of nature, longed for what is not denied even to base animals, and had to see him finally perishing a victim to his longing. The power of my mantras did not fetch the gods to my aid when my children were denied their right to the throne, when they were banished to Varanavata, when their house was set fire to, when they, after their escape, were forced to wander like fugitives from law amid lurking dangers. Nor did it come to her aid when she wanted to protect her firstborn from battle with his own brothers and faced death through it. That is Pritha’s power over the gods for you.

Oh, yes, it came to her aid on other occasions. When she was but an ignorant girl and wanted to try out the power of a mantra given her by a rishi, it came to her in the form of a pregnancy to make her an unwed mother of a child whose father she couldn’t produce before the world. She was forced to do that most accursed act of her life – float down a river her firstborn, so that King Kuntibhoja, who had adopted her as a child, who loved her more dearly than he loved his own soul, would not have to hang his head in shame.

It did not come to her aid when her firstborn son, who was to the world Karna, the son of Radha – he was an equal to the noblest of princes in birth and superior to every one of them in nobility and velour – was treated like a common cur, for his crime of wanting to match his skill in weapons with his brothers and cousins. Lowborn, they called him. Son of a driver, fit only to drive their vehicles, they ridiculed. They – statesmen and teachers who had grown old with age, who should have recognized worth wherever they found it.
It did not come to her aid when that son of hers was forced to bend in the only direction from where support came, to Duryodhana and to evil, and finally met his sad end fighting on the side of evil.

But it came to her aid when her husband asked her to offer herself to other men so that she may bear him progeny which would open the gates of heaven for him. Remove all the euphemisms, and this is what Pritha’s power over the gods gave her: children out of wedlock.

True, I sound bitter. Hasn’t there been anything in Pritha’s life to be happy about? Yes, there has been, without doubt. The love of a man who knew how to love with his heart, even if he could not with his body. And six children – my four and Madri’s two – the like of whom the world will have to wait for a long time to see again. The love of someone who entered my life as my rival and became my greatest companion, my great solace, my sister – Madri. And the love of a nephew whom the world worships as the very lord of the universe.

But suffering leaves its mark on the soul, I suppose, in spite of everything. And endless suffering certainly does – suffering that seemed to have no end as it lasted through decades and decades. And to think that it was all because of the greed of one man for power and the inaction of another who refused to stand in the way of that greed, though he was duty bound to. That hurts.


Five Angry Women: 3

Five Angry Women is an attempt to look at certain events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas – Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry – angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.


Our family has given many princesses to the Bharatas. King Bharata, that illustrious son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta the story of whose love has become one of the greatest romances of this land, the one that gave this dynasty its present name and who in ancient days conquered all of Aryavarta and gave it the name Bharata, himself had married a Kashi princess, the beautiful Sunanda.

But history does not record how the princesses who came to the antahpura of the Bharatas were treated. Their stories are lost among the glorious acts of the kings who fought in many lands and won all the wars. Amidst all that victory and glory who will bother about a few queens in the inner apartments of the palace?

But one thing strikes. The Bharatas seem to be overly fond of bringing women into their palaces against their wishes. I am told that Queen Satyavati was not very happy to come here as the empress of Shantanu, our father in-law. I mean mine and my sister Ambalika’s.

Gandhari and Madri, two of our daughters in-law, certainly did not come here according to their wishes. A distraught Gandhari gave in when she found the alternative was death and destruction to her father and all that belonged to him. When Madri’s brother Shalya refused to oblige Bheeshma, he was offered profuse wealth in exchange; and of course, coercion through the not very subtly veiled threat of Prince Bheeshma was there to force Shalya’s hands.

We were brought to Hastinapura by Prince Bheeshma – the same Bheeshma who had brought Mother Satyavati as a wife for his father, the same Bheeshma who would get Gandhari for Dhritarashtra, the same Bheeshma who would bring Madri for Pandu. He can take credit for bringing women for three generations of the Bharatas – for his father, for his half-brother, and for his nephews. So what, if he did not get a wife for himself?

I loved the prince I married very much, I loved him to distraction, and perhaps I loved him to his death – and so did my sister. Young Vichitraveerya – he was younger than both me and Ambalika; he married very young because his elder brother Prince Chitrangada had died before attaining the age of marriage and Vichitra himself was sick – perhaps Prince Bheeshma suspected that something might happen to him before he provided an heir to the throne of the Bharatas. Eventually that is what happened, anyway.

Young Vichitra knew what love and care was for the first time in his life after we came to the palace. A woman recognizes easily a man hungry for love and we found effortlessly such a one in him. The poor prince had grown up an unwanted child, a neglected child. His father was deep in grief and guilt over his second marriage, which took away the right to the throne from Prince Bheeshma, his very life-breath. His mother, incessantly humiliated by the nobility in the court, for ever neglected by the emperor, effusively respected by Prince Bheeshma – given the empty, formal respect due to a woman who was his mother only because she had married his father – had grown silent and withdrawn. She spent all her time in her chamber, which she had rendered dark by means of curtains. She hadn’t wanted to be a queen or an empress, nor had she wanted to be a queen mother. An emperor’s longing for her had brought her to the palace and once in the palace she had ceased to get even his formal love. Love had dried up in her heart, as a river dries up reaching a desert. The noblemen and ladies who crowded the palace shunned the prince of mixed blood. And, anyway, it was his elder brother who was going to succeed the emperor to the throne.

Now, his young heart thirsty for love filled for the first time, Vichitra learned not only to take love but also to give it. I have known very few people who could love the way he did; there was such depth in his love, such intensity, such transparent passion, and such total generosity. Probably he was so filled with gratefulness at someone coming to love him – and two beautiful, desirable, young princesses at that – that his entire being melted and overflowed. But his emaciated being that had existed on a scanty diet all these years could not withstand this torrential, deluge-like onslaught of passionate love. As for us, we were too young to understand the need to restrain. In his very overflowing of passion, our prince lost his life.

We had seven years of Vichitra’s love, seven years during which he left us not for a moment, day or night, not even for the affairs of the state. And yet neither Ambalika nor I conceived once. The palace whispered that it was because we sisters were both barren – but Vichitra assured us: our love was enough for him. More than enough. He felt fulfilled by that.

Uncle Bheeshma arranged dasis for him – the palace was full of slave girls. Several of them were of kshatriya birth. But Vichitra refused to touch them. No, he couldn’t be unfaithful to his Ambika and Ambalika, he said.

Then we heard other whispers – they said there was some curse on the Bharatas. Which is why neither of us was conceiving. They said the vow of celibacy that Uncle Bheeshma had taken was that curse finding its fulfillment. Just as our inability to conceive was. The line of the Bharatas would come to an end with Uncle Bheeshma and Vichitraveerya.

And then suddenly one day Vichitra died, and when that happened, life came to an end for us. Ambalika and I became breathing carcasses. Nothing mattered to us after that. To think that we had lost so completely in a young boy whom we had married so reluctantly, married because we had no alternative but to, snatched away and brought to Hastinapura as we were by the terrible prince Bheeshma from our Swayamvara hall.
Can dead bodied be hurt again – not easily, but yes, because we were to know an experience worse than the very death of Prince Vichitraveerya: an ancient custom the monstrosity of which grows in size the more you ponder over it.

Mother Satyavati was unwilling to accept defeat. She did not want it said that because of her the great line of the Bharatas came to an end.

Mother Satyavati came to my chamber one day. She was agitated beyond words and I knew whatever she had to tell me was extremely unpleasant both to her and to me. She told me we owed it to the people of the Bharata lands, to the throne of Hastinapura, to ancestors of the Bharatas, to posterity, and to Prince Vichitra himself that I produced an offspring. But how? Through the custom of niyoga. A brother produces offspring in the wife of his dead brother.

My entire being revolted against the very idea and yet I submitted – not for the lands of the Bharatas, not for the sake of the throne of Hastinapura, not for the sake of the Bharata ancestors, not for the sake of posterity – for I cared a hoot for these – but for the sake of my dead prince. I did not want it said that the Bharata line came to an end with Prince Vichitraveerya.

And yet I was shocked beyond belief when I saw the sage entering my room. Who did I expect? Prince Devavrata Bheeshma, who never broke his vows even if the very heavens threatened all of earth with hellfire? But if he had taken the vow to remain a celibate all his life he had also taken a vow to stand by the throne of Hastinapura till his last breath. The two vows were in conflict now. And Mother Satyavati had asked me to expect my brother in-law in my chamber that night.

Yes, perhaps him.

Or maybe, one of the other Bharata princes – Prince Bahleeka, Emperor Shantanu’s brother had sons not too old and they lived in the royal palaces.

What was it that shocked me so when I saw sage Vyasa entering my chamber that night? The fact that it was he who had entered my chamber? Or was it his appearance? I would perhaps never know. I was in no state to analyze my thoughts and feelings then nor am I in a state to objectively look at them now. Perhaps both, I suppose.

Anyway, if it is any consolation, I was later to learn that the sage was not so horrible and revolting in his normal state and was a very lovable person in his own way, though by no means a handsome man. His appearance at that time was because he was engaged in some form of terrible austerity.

As those wiry, dark arms smeared with ashes and I know not what else took me in them, I closed my eyes in unspeakable horror.

I was doing my duty to my prince and I had tried to do it as cheerfully as was possible, but I am born a princess, grew up among the finest things in the world, and my dreams were centered on a handsome prince all the years I had dreamed of being a mother. The sage and the idea of what he was doing with me, to me, were beyond my limits of endurance. In any case, it was not I who closed my eyes – they closed themselves. It was not a voluntary, thought-out decision, but something that happened to me.
My son Dhritarashtra was born blind.

A blind prince has no rights of succession. Dhritarashtra could not succeed to the throne of the Bharatas. They needed another prince.

Now it was Ambalika’s turn to submit herself. Again, she too turned pale at the sight of the sage and this despite knowing who she was to expect. But I have only pity or her.
Her child, to whom the name Pandu, the pale one, stuck, was born sickly pale.

No woman should have submitted even once to what I had had to go through. That is the most degrading thing in life I can think of. It is animals you to take to each other for breeding, not human beings. For men and women, it should be a coming together and merger of the spirit, mind and body – in that order. A fusion brought about by love. With men and women creation of new life should not be an animal function. If performed as an animal act, subjection to it once will destroy in one stroke all that is noble in a woman.
Yet I was asked to undergo that process a second time, so that the Bharatas could have a healthy prince without defects as the heir to their throne.

It was my maid that I sent to the sage this time. Even a mere human body such as I had by then been reduced to, not a human being but a human body, revolts from certain acts.

I was not altogether disappointed when I was seized by force by Prince Devavrata from my swayamvara hall. For, to be a Bharata queen is the greatest dream of all Aryan Princesses. The outside world had no idea what women who became Bharata brides had to endure. I was shocked to learn that we were not to be his wives, but of his half-brother. And yet that half-brother loved me beyond words and made me feel fulfilled. But life had ceased to have any meaning to me the day my prince died. And I ceased to live after I had given the Bharatas a prince, whom they named Dhritarashtra. Yet I acted once more – to perform that one act, the first act of revolt in my whole life: sending my maid in my place to the sage.

Perhaps I was a weakling; both of us, Ambalika and I, were weaklings. For I know one woman who had the courage to go through that experience more than once, and at the behest of her own husband.

I am talking of Pritha, Pandu’s wife.


Five Angry Women: 2

Five Angry Women is an attempt to look at certain events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas – Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry – angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.


A lotus is beautiful, you consider it divine, you call it the miracle of nature, you see the glory of the Creator in it—such beauty and it has bloomed in mire, in dirt! But no woman wears the lotus on her head—that honor goes to the flowers that bloom in the well-tended gardens. A lotus is wonderful, but just wonderful enough to offer at the feet of kings, of the gods, of great men, but not wonderful enough to wear on one’s head. Fit for the feet, not for the head.

The footwear on your feet are soft, are beautiful, are convenient. They protect your feet from heat, from the pebbles on the path, from the thorns in the jungles, from dirt. But they are made of leather, the skin of animals and they forever remain accursed by their birth. You can wear them everywhere but before a place of worship you have to remove them; they are inauspicious, tainted. Why, you do not take them even inside your homes. Their limit is your doorsteps.

My father knew this as well as anyone else, if not more. For he was himself a king of sorts, a chieftain, but of the lowborn. Dasharaja was the chief of the fisher folk. He knew that just as he would not be allowed to sit in the assembly of other chiefs of noble birth, his daughter shall never be welcome as their bride.

And yet a king, an emperor, fell in love with me – perhaps through the power of the blessing of the rishi whom I bore a child – and when that happened my father insisted that I shall be given him only on condition that the eldest son born to me by the emperor shall be his heir. The emperor was taken aback, naturally. And he wouldn’t submit himself to this atrocity, for he loved his son, already a fine young man, prince Devavrata, more than anything else in the world. So the emperor went bake to Hastinapura without me.

My father insisted on this condition because his knowledge of the ways of palaces told him that only as the mother of the future king would I be able to gain some respect in Hastinapura. Without that I would have been reduced, he feared, to the level of a palace sweeper once the emperor’s fancy for me came to an end or he himself left this world. Emperors must after all die as everyone else and Emperor Shantanu was already quite old.

But the emperor’s desire for me was so great that he lost all interest in life and the affairs of the state. From palace whisperings the young son learned what ailed his father and came for me. He vowed with the gods as his witnesses that he shall never claim the right to the throne and shall remain a celibate all his life.

I was welcomed into the palace of Hastinapura as the most hated woman. Even the king’s longing for me turned into loathing the moment he learned that it was the terrible vows of his son that had fetched me for him. It was as though a drum of water had suddenly been emptied over the fire in his heart.

I never wanted to be a queen or an empress—I would have been quite happy as the wedded wife of one of the fishermen along the bank of Yamuna. I would have risen with the risen sun to see him off to his day’s work with his nets and stood waiting for his return, praying to Mother Yamuna for his safety. I would have been perfectly contented to bear his children to accompany him in his work as they grew up and later to support him when he was too old to go fishing. Or I would have been happy living alone in the hope that one day my son, the son of the rishi, would come back after finishing his studies under his father and then I would see men falling at his feet in reverence. Even I would go and touch his feet for he would be a rishi himself—I had imagined it all again and again in my idle hours sitting on rock-protected strips of marble on the banks of Mother Yamuna. How happy I would be as he stopped me from bending and instead himself fell at my feet, his mother’s feet! A rishi touching my feet, a rishi who is the very flesh of my flesh, the life of my life!

I was quite content.

The emperor never forgave me my father’s sin—for what was caution to my father was sin to him. Years passed without the emperor, now my wedded husband, ever entering my chamber. What was so tempting before was sheer venom now, a venom so powerful that his very contact with it would blow off all that he held dear in life.

And then it was after the Rajaguru and his nobles reminded him of his duty to the empire, the duty to give it an heir, that he finally yielded and came to me.

It was a man coming to a woman to fulfill his duty! Two bodies joined momentarily to use, yes, to use, one of their abilities. A male and a female body meeting to bring new life into this world.

I am an empress and crude words do not befit my speech but if I could put it bluntly this is what I would say: we mated that night. Yes, mated, like animals.

Human bodies are capable of bringing new life into this world but the act of producing new life has to be one of infinite love and tenderness, a result of life’s longing for life. If it is not, the result shall be disastrous. Life produced because it is your duty to produce it cannot be noble life, cannot be healthy, would not lead to fulfillment.

Nor were the two products of my womb – one was too impetuous and it cost my little child his life itself before he came to know what life was, what youth was. And the other, a mental wreck, too died not long after paying the price of his parent’s sins with his own life. He was created holding all passions back, in a disinterested, mechanical act. And his heart was like a desert land that thirsted for the rains of love. Came the two princesses of Kashi, Ambika and Ambalika, my Vichitraveerya jumped into the bottomless ocean of passionate love and sensuality. The whirlpools caught him and ere long he had also left this world. The Emperor had died years ago.

The Bharatas’ dream of a glorious, everlasting dynasty flickered in the storms of these tragic events; the empire seemed to flounder before their very eyes. Accusing fingers of every subject of Hastinapura rose and pointed at me – they demanded an heir to the throne. But for me, the noble Devavrata would have become their king and they would have been happy under him. I, the low-born fisher maid, had mixed my blood with the noble Bharata blood and produced weaklings who could not even survive long enough to produce further offspring to themselves.

I approached Devavrata. Even my father begged him. But he was not willing to swerve from his vows which had by now become absurd. Bheeshma was proud of his vows and he would not break his vows even to save one of the two vows he had taken. He wasn’t going to be helpful in producing an offspring who would sit on the throne of Hastinapura, nor would he sit there himself. He cared not if his refusal meant the end of the Bharata dynasty.

Then I remembered my son, by now a great rishi before whose feet crowned heads bowed, a man less of this world than of another. My Krishna, whom his father called Dwaipayana because he was conceived on an island, was now the great sage Vyasa to the people.

He came and I asked him the meanest thing I could ask of a rishi: the services of his body for a few moments it would take to sow seeds in the field of Vichitraveerya. I wanted him to go to Ambika. After all, Vichitra was his half-brother and Ambika was Vichitra’s widow. He knew of the custom of Niyoga. I reminded him of his duty to his mother and explained to him his mother’s helplessness. He yielded.

He asked for time to finish his austerities first but it was time that I did not have. He yielded again.

Accepted custom or no custom, sacred practice or no practice, to ask a young woman to offer herself to a man other than her husband – not in marriage, not to live with him as he wife and beloved, but for a few moments for a physical act, to offer her body to another man so that he may deposit his seeds in it to germinate and grow – that is the most loathsome act I have had to do in my whole life. And I did it. I was duty-bound – again duty-bound – to do it. The Rajaguru, the nobles, the common men and women in the streets and fields across the vast lands of the Bharatas, all demanded it of me, and I did it.

Asking Ambika humiliated me more intensely than asking my son Krishna. Maybe, because the physical act remains with the woman for nine long months but with a man it is a fact of a few moments. As for mental tortures, who among the living can escape guilt and self-loathing for the acts we commit in life.

Later I had to repeat it all with Ambalika. And once more I was forced to do it – that was the third time.

I offered the Bharatas Dhritarashtra and Pandu, and fate brought Vidura into this world as the son of a maid. But all three were begotten by my son and hence belonged to the Bharatas.

I had done my duty.


Five Angry Women: 1

Five Angry Women is an attempt to look at certain events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas – Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry – angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.


I was but a field for the Bharatas. To Prince Dhritarashtra, to be precise. And that is how they referred to me often: Dhartarashtra-kshetra, the field of Dhritarashtra. Kshetra means a field, a spot of ground, a bit of soil, a patch of land, where you sow seeds and let time run its course for you to reap the crop.

I was never given any more right than a field has in the matter of its produce. How I had to stand and watch as a helpless bystander as my pretty children all grew up to be evil, masters in the wicked ways of the world, encouraged by a father whose greed for power was the very essence of his being!

Poor man! That is, if a field has the right to feel so about its owner, its cultivator, who tills it and farms it. Prince Dhritarashtra was brought into this world to be a king and the moment he was born it was proved he should never become one because he was blind. He grew up with the one cruel reality never fading from before his sightless eyes: that he shall never have power in his hands though he was born to wield all the power of the Bharatas. No wonder he became the embodiment of greed for power.

I came to Hastinapura precisely as that – a fertile field for the seeds of Dhritarashtra. The previous generation of the Bharatas had been very unlucky in the matter of offspring. The eldest, Prince Devavrata Bheeshma would not marry because of a vow he had taken; the second, Prince Chitrangada died before he was old enough to marry; and the youngest, Prince Vichitraveerya, died without issues though he was wedded to two princesses. The next generation was brought to the world by that strange abominable custom of niyoga whereby a brother of her deceased husband produces offspring in the woman. Well, not so abominable perhaps, if you consider women as mere fields – should it matter to the fields what seeds are sown in them, whose seeds are sown in them? Their only function is to germinate the seed, and nurture it so long as it needs its nourishment.

The assiduity of the Bharatas is renowned. They were particular that this time they needed a field that would give them plenty of yield and fast enough. And they came for me – it was widely whispered round that I had received a boon that I shall become the mother of a hundred sons. The most fertile piece of land! The Bharatas wanted it.
Men consider their wives as mere fields but strangely when it comes to their own daughters they are touchy! The daughters are not mere fields for someone! Would they realize that their wives are also someone’s daughters!

Matrimonial relations between the Gandharas and the Bharatas were nothing new. Even Emperor Hastin, the founder of Hastinapura, had desired connections with us and got a Gandhari princess for his son Ajameedha. Yet my father would not have given me over to the Bharatas on any account, except that if he had not done so it would have meant certain death to himself and all the male members of our family and to countless number of our men in a brutal war. Fangs of blood and violence would have ripped open all of Gandhara and all there would have been razed to the ground. Our land, and all in it, would have been destroyed mercilessly, as pitilessly as a wild elephant in a lotus pond destroys all its flowers. The name of the warrior who headed the Bharata family meant dread—both literally and figuratively. Bheeshma meant dread.

Yet father was reluctant. For one thing, the prince for whom I was being sought had no Bharata blood in him though they claimed he was a Bharata. His mother was the Kashi princess Ambika and father, the sage Vyasa. For another, he was born blind. And, besides, it was whispered that he was a slave to uncontrollable passions, his personality having got twisted by the violent winds of opposing forces amidst which he grew up thirsting for power and respect but winning only protection and pity.

When I stepped into the portals of Hastinapura, I made a shock. I was blindfolded, and had to be lead by a maid to make obeisance to my elders. I could feel the awesome stillness that engulfed the palace, after the sound of the quick hot breaths the lungs sucked into dozens of bosoms stricken by an agonizing confusion.

With that single act I had done what my father wanted to do with his weapons but could not. I had struck a blow to the mighty Bharatas from which they were never going to get up. They wanted a field, a fertile field, for the seeds of Dhritarashtra and they were going to have that fertile field. But nothing more. Love cannot be commanded by a threat of weapons and Gandhari was not going to be ordered to be a loving guide to the blind prince of the Bharatas.

Women do not necessarily grow to love the man they marry against their wishes. Often it is only to tolerate them, to submit to them that they learn. They learn to resign to their fate.

My act of blindfolding myself was not an act of self-denial in the sense of denying the pleasures of the world that come to us through our eyes because they were denied to my husband. It was not a noble act at all. It was an act of vengeance. Gandhari too was a kshatriyaa, a warrior-woman. If prince Bheeshma was mighty, so was she. He had his weapons and she had hers.

How I wished I could see the faces of those shocked men and women assembled in the reception hall of Hastinapura on that day as I stepped into it, alighting from my chariot helped by my maids and Brother Shakuni! But no, I can’t both give the shock and enjoy seeing it.

Vengeance is wicked, you might say. Yet, it is. I have suffered more than enough through my long life for it. And yet I say, no one has the right to force another human being to do what he does not want to do. And certainly no woman should be forced to wed a man not of her liking. A woman should be able to go to him with the most holy of attitudes, with love filling her heart to the brim. For she is to receive a part of him into her and hold it there, nurture and nourish it into a human being. For, through that act she is becoming a part of the timeless act of creation, she is becoming the creator of new life.
But if that man is hateful to her, there can be nothing more detestable, nothing more nauseating than having to submit to that act of receiving his seeds and ten having to hold his seeds in her. No doubt this is something only a woman can understand, only a woman who had had to submit to that unmentionably horrendous act…for instance, a woman who has been raped by a monster.

With love the act, the process of creation, is wonderful, but without love it is the most horrid thing in the world. The tragedy of it is that the child born is not only his but also hers. As much hers as his – in fact, much more hers than his. And every time she loves him because he is hers, she will be forced to love what is his. The most unenviable position of women! Having to take care of, with no alternative but to take care of, what belongs to a man she hates with all her heart.

I was given no option in the matter, I had no choice. I was forced to offer myself as a field to a man for whom I had no tender feelings in my heart; forced through a threat to my father’s life and to all else that he held dear in the world.

How conceited a man can grow in his own glory – Prince Bheeshma thought I would be happy once Dhritarashtra was forced on me.

A woman has a right for vengeance. Every woman has a right to her revenge if she is forced to become a field, an object, an abject thing and nothing more.

Where women are forced to submit their bodies against their will to men’s purposes, where women are significant only as female human bodies and not as human beings, evil shall flourish. The Bharatas had forced themselves on me. They had forced themselves on the princesses of Kashi, Ambika and Ambalika, and they had forced themselves on the princess of Madri, Pandu’s wife.

Perhaps I should have stopped my children from going the evil way. But I had no power to do so. They gave me none.

Princes are not brought up by their mothers. Men decide what they shall become, not the mother. The king decides what they shall become, not the queen. The queen is given no say in that matter. And that is right in a way, isn’t it? It is right that the field shall have no say in how the produce from her is to be used.

And yet I came to love Dhritarashtra – nature’s anaesthesia, perhaps. Or maybe that is what it means to be a woman – to love even those who trample her. But that is another story.