Sunday, August 16, 2009

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.



  1. With respect, I would disagree with your analysis that Pandu was impotent. If he was impotent, he could not have made love to his wife Madri before he died. Psychological or physiological - impotence could not have allowed him to die after one more act of coitus.

    Mahabharat is very clear - Pandu is a sickly man and though strong enough to lead an all conquering army, he is still a sickly man. His paleness is possibly due to thelasimia - which makes you anemic and pale. Due to his anemia, he would have appreciated the pure mountain air, cool atmosphere and laid back life of living in a forest with all the luxuries of kingly life. Dhritarastra certainly supplied him with a constant stream of goods - as evidenced by the epic.

    Sage kimdam's curse is one thing - what amazes me is - no one questions why a sage is having sex with a deer ?

    As it maybe - curse, ill health, increasing effects of anemia and thalasimia would have weakened the king and when he figured out he could not have children, he chose the niyog method his own mother had used to get an heir.

    What causes the last act of coitus is seeing Madri bathe. Lust at seeing his young wife makes him loose control and act against his own life. He knew it, but lust is such a powerful emotion, he decided to do it "one more time".

  2. It is always refreshing to read insightful articles on Mahabharata. I have read all your articles, and find that they are told in an interesting way. The problem is that people interpret the epic in various ways which are almost always in conflict with those of others. In one such interpretation, Vichitraveerya is said to be too sick to have sex and that he died on the nuptial bed. His wives undergo niyoga while his body is laid embalmed. This is how it is shown in the new SUN TV mahabharatham which I have translated into English: