Sunday, August 16, 2009

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…