Sunday, August 16, 2009

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…

1 comment:

  1. Some very frustrating forms of love deny the lover the full satisfaction of total possession that the male dear was experiencing, that Pandu perhaps couldn't with Kunti. Could he have shot the coupling pair out of frustration of his inability to possess the holder of his more complete love?