Sunday, September 13, 2009

Women, Gender and Power in Bheel Mahabharata 2

Part of a paper presented by the author at the national seminar on Mahabharata organized by National Manuscripts Mission and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Government of India at India International Centre, New Delhi in February 2007.

Continued from Part 1.

Lesser women than Kunti, Draupadi and Ganga too are no less independent and sufficient to themselves in the Bheel Bharath. Take the Naga king Vasuki’s daughter Hirapath for instance. Arjuna goes to her land in search of virgin gold which he requires for use in a sacrifice the Pandavas are conducting so that their father Pandu, reborn as a dog after his sinful death, may get absolution from sin. The snakes guarding the palace grounds bite him and he dies. It is then that Hirapath sees him and falls in love with him. To revive him, Hirapath gets magical substances from her father who initially tries to deceive her by giving her poison in place of ambrosia. Hirapath is no lovelorn helpless lass. She knows her father and suspects he might do exactly this. She tries out the contents of the bottle her father has sent her on a donkey and the donkey dies instantly. A furious Hirapath now threatens her father Vasuki with a curse – unless she is given ambrosia instantly, she would curse and reduce Vasuki’s land to ashes. Her father complies instantly. However, competent woman that she is, she knows that Arjuna might leave her the instant he is brought back to life to complete whatever his mission is without giving a thought to her. So she takes the independent decision to marry him – on her own, with the knowledge that her father does not approve of her decision. He asks her maids to fetch everything needed for the wedding and conducts the marriage on her own with the dead Arjuna, and he is brought back to life by her immediately after the wedding with the help of the ambrosia and other magical substances obtained from her father. On finding out that Arjuna is in search of virgin gold, she procures it for him.

Interestingly, one of the substances the sacrifice requires is a man sold by a woman. Bhima obtains such a man from a prostitute in Kamrup.

The gender switch in the famous story of the Yakshaprashna also speaks of the changed gender perception of the Bheel Bharath. While in Vyasa’s Mahabharata the man testing the Pandava brothers is a male, a yaksha, here it is a female, the jal-jogani, a water sorceress. It is no more a man testing another man, but a woman testing a man. And appropriately, it is not a test of cerebral matters men are so preoccupied with that the test is in, but in matters of the heart – in love, acceptance and commitment.

It is in the context of the senetaro sacrifice that the Pandavas conduct to save their father Pandu who has been reborn as a dog because of his sin that we come across the jal-jogani. One of the samagris, ingredients, required for the sacrifice is virgin water. Nakula volunteers to fetch it. He reaches the tank where virgin water is and gathers it in his pot and then the jal-jogani speaks, demanding that he cannot carry her, a virgin, away just like that, he must first marry her. [She is both a water sorceress and the water in the tank in which she lives. She is a virgin and since the water is she herself, the water too is virgin.] Nakula excuses himself saying he has no time for it right then, he is too busy with the sacrifice and has to take the water immediately to Hastinapur for the sacrifice. The jal-jogani asks him to look at her and pour the water back into the tank. As their eyes meet, Nakula faints and falls down. He dies there.

It is Bhima who comes now with a pot in hand, to look for Nakula and to fetch water. Bhima too gives the excuse of not having time and he too falls down and dies. Sahadeva who comes now sees the dead bodies floating in the water. The jal-jogani appears and tells him the same fate awaits him if he tried to take her, the virgin water, away without marrying her. When Sahadeva gives the excuse of not having time, the jal-jogani asks him to give a promise to marry her afterwards and Sahadeva does so. She brings Bhima and Nakula back to life and allows Sahadeva to carry the virgin water away with him.

The jal-jogani of the Bheel Bharath is another empowered woman. She is proactive and assertive. Instead of passively allowing men to have her, she demands her rights. Before a man can have her, he must marry her, commit himself to her. It is only to such a man she would give herself. And she is not for anybody’s taking – until she gives herself to a man, she is not his. And she is strong enough to turn to stone any man who tries to force himself upon her, to have his way with her against her wishes. The jal-jogani, a minor character in the Bheel epic, behaves as Kali Satyavati, a major character, does in her encounter with Parashara in the Mahabharata.

Indra’s wife Indrani is another empowered woman in the Bheel Bharath who is fiercely independent and sufficient unto herself. Unlike Indrani in mainstream mythology, she would not be dominated by her man. To her, devotion to her husband means something entirely different from blind obedience to his wishes. She is a person in herself, authentic, with full autonomy, and does not find the meaning of her existence in her unquestioning service to Indra. If Indra does not treat her with the dignity she deserves, with the honour Indra owes her as an equal human being, she would walk away from him, as a modern woman would do and choose to live on her own, or with whomsoever she chooses. It is important to her that her man commands her respect because of his dignity, courage and honour.

The Anushasana Parva of Vyasa’s Mahabharata tells us the story of Oghavati and her husband Sudarshana . Oghavati was the daughter of King Oghavan and Sudarshana was the son of Agni, the fire god, and Princess Sudarshanaa. Having taken a vow that he would conquer death while leading the family way of life, one day Sudarshana tells his wife that she should never do anything against the wishes of their guests. “Give our guests whatever makes them happy; even if you have to give yourself to them to make them happy, do so without a second thought,” he tells Oghavati and she agrees to obey his least wish, including this. One day a guest comes to their home, a Brahmin, while Sudarshana is away. Oghavati receives him, offers him ritual offerings and asks him what else she can do for him, what else he desires. And he Brahmin tells her he wants her, it is her body that he desires. Oghavati tries to persuade the Brahmin to ask for something else but he refuses and sticks to his demand. The princess blushes in shame and embarrassment but eventually yields to his demand so that she obeys her husband and her husband does not fall from his vow, from his dharma. The Brahmin takes Oghavati inside the house, to her bed, and it is then that Sudarshana returns after collecting samit, kindling for ritual fire, from the jungle. Not finding Oghavati waiting for him as she always did, he calls out her name repeatedly. She does not answer for she is ashamed of herself; she has been polluted by the Brahmin – she has become his ucchishta, his ‘left-over’, that is how Oghavati puts it to herself.

It is interesting to note the difference in Indrani’s behaviour under similar circumstances in the Bheel Bharath. Indra boasts to a group of sages that his wife is a perfect sati and she would do anything he wishes. He invites them home so that they can have proof for this. The sages come and they start misbehaving with Indrani. One of them winks at her sexually, another rubs against her foot with his foot, and a third pinches her at her waist. Indrani will not have any of this. She shouts at the sages and threatens them with dire consequences unless they behaved. Indra interferes and tries to pacify Indrani – she is proving herself to be short of being a true sati and he is losing his honour. She does not care. His attempts enrage her. “From where the hell did you get such rotten guests,” she asks him. “One winks at me, another caresses my foot with his foot and a third pinches me at my tender waist, making it bleed. These guys are rogues and I won’t put up with their shamelessness. What do they think they are doing? Do they think that a woman’s body is something for them to etch their artwork on?” When Indra does not stand up for her and begs her to put up with the behaviour of the sages, she walks away from their home, leaving Indra forever.

She goes and offers herself to the Kauravas as a wife but they dread Indra and refuse her. She then goes to the Pandavas and offers herself as the wife to one of them, and they too refuse her out of fear for Indra. Eventually the twelve-year old Abhimanyu takes her home and makes her his. An infuriated Indra offers a fight through Vayu, the lord of winds, and Abhimanyu beats him in a fierce encounter. Indra runs away in terror from Abhimanyu. In the last scene of this episode, we find Indrani in the arms of Abhimanyu in a tight embrace of love and the two of them swinging together merrily on a swing.

Let’s take yet another woman now – Uttara, young Abhimanyu’s wife. If Abhimanyu is an unsurpassed young hero in the Mahabharata, his heroism is several times multiplied in the Bheel epic. The Mahabharata war in the Bheel epic is essentially a battle between him on the Pandava side all alone against the Kauravas [who are seventy-eight in number and not a hundred], though on the last day of the war he is assisted by Bhima. [Arjuna is lying dead in Patala where he had gone to fetch rhinoceros skin for making shields for the war, though he would be revived later and reach Hastinapura after the war is over.]

The Uttara of the Mahabharata, however, is no match for Abhimanyu – in fact, we know hardly anything about her as a person in Vyasa’s epic. She is a mere shadow figure there. In the Bheel Bharath, though, she is a magnificent woman, splendorous in her womanliness. Like all other women in the Bheel epic, she is proactive and does not wait for life to come to her but goes out and meets it on the way. Her marriage is a splendid event described in great details. After her marriage, she is left behind with her parents, as per the traditional custom, until her gauna can take place when she would go to her husband’s place for the first time.

In the meantime Abhimanyu, whom the Bheels know as Balo Emmant, Child Courage, accepts the war with the Kauravas all on his own in the distant land of Hastinapura and Uttara in her heart feels the dread that Abhimanyu does not feel. She sees dreams in which she senses the events to come and is restless to go and meet him. Her fear is not that he would die in the war, but that he would die a virgin, which is unacceptable and a great sin. In her dream she sees that people have come from Hastinapura to take her to Abhimanyu and jolted out of her sleep, she realizes this is true.

She breathlessly urges her parents to hurry and complete the rituals so she could go immediately. She realizes the danger her young husband is in and wants to take with her an amarkuppi, containing the magical nectar that brings the dead back to life, and gets it from her mother. Fate though is against her on this night and she forgets to take the amarkuppi with her as she hurriedly leaves for Hastinapura, jumping onto the back of the camel that travels at the speed of the wind so that she could reach there before dawn when the war would begin. En route she remembers her mistake, sends her escort to fetch the amarkuppi, and Krishna, who wants Abhimanyu dead because he is in fact a demon reborn as Subhadra’s son, makes him forget it and instead of the nectar of immortality, it is a bottle of kerosene oil that he fetches. There is no more time to lose, so Uttara hurries to Hastinapur without the amarkuppi and what she sees there is Abhimanyu leaving for the war. She runs after him, calls out to him again and again, begging him to turn around and look at her just once, but the brave Abhimanyu, whose heart longs for her dearly, knows it is not right for him to turn around and look at her then and forces himself to move on ignoring her pleas. His eyes shed tears of blood for her.

On the Kaurava side all the seventy-eight brothers would die in the war. On the Pandava side, the only death would be of her husband Abhimanyu with whom she hasn’t spent a single moment alone. Fate was against the poor girl. As was Krishna, who treacherously kills Abhimanyu while the youth is resting in the middle of the war.

Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, comes to us as another woman of substance in the Bheel Bharath. True her ‘womanly curiosity’ gets her into trouble when she opens a casket Krishna has specifically forbidden her to open and the demon Iko Danav, trapped inside the casket by Krishna, escapes from it, enters her through her mouth and she becomes pregnant. It is Iko Danav that grows up as Abhimanyu in her womb. But apart from this one incident that is so characteristic of female characters in folklore traditions across the world, we find Subhadra as a highly competent woman throughout. When the Pandavas allow Abhimanyu to accept the war with the Kauravas all alone, she has the courage to walk straight into the Pandava assembly and upbraid the Pandava brothers for their shameless cowardice and meanness in allowing her young child to face the war all alone.

Finally, a quick look at two female characters who appear in the Bheel Bharath for just one instant: Ambika and Ambalika, who have no names there, so brief is their appearance. In the Bheel Bharath, they are ‘the widows of Chitrangada and Vichitravirya’. After the death of their husbands, one day they approach their mother-in-law and ask her what they should do to obtain children and she advises them to walk naked before Gangeya in the rising sun. They do so and that is how they beget Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Even these two female figures that appear so briefly show themselves different from their selves in the Mahabharata. Here they are more independent, and their pregnancies are not forced on them by others but are results of their own initiatives and a fulfilment of their own natural desires. It is interesting that while following their heart, they seek the advice of their mother-in-law and in the moments of their encounter with Gangeya, they do not lose their womanly shame. One of them covers her eyes in embarrassment, resulting in the birth of a blind child, Dhritarashtra, and the other hides her private parts with her hand and her child is born impotent.


A letter from a collection of articles and letters from Manushi published under the title In Search of Answers, says: “The ideals, ethics and morality heaped on women since time immemorial are suffocating and killing. The adjectives used to praise us have become oppressive. Calling us loving, they have locked us in the closed room of culture, calling us gentle, they have reflected us in a mirror of helplessness, calling us kind, they have tied us in cowardice, they have handcuffed us with modesty and chained our feet with loyalty, so that far from running, we have not been able even to walk.” Well, the women of the tribal land of Bheel Bharath are certainly not locked in, they are not helpless, they are not cowards, nor are they handcuffed or chained.

In her fascinating work Women who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estes says wildlife and wild woman are both endangered species. “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”

What we see in the Bheel Bharath is perhaps a bit of the spiritual lands of the Wild Woman that have refused to be plundered or burnt, dens that have resisted bulldozing, and natural cycles that have survived against attempts to force them into unnatural rhythms to please others.

Speaking of the Wild Woman archetype, Estes says: “Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack. They are experienced in adapting to constantly changing circumstances; they are fiercely stalwart and very brave.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s words sound like they were written to describe the women of the Bheel Bharath.


Note: All translations from Sanskrit are by the author. ‘Mahabharata’ always refers to Vyasa’s Mahabharata. When the Bheel version is referred to, it is mentioned as Bheel Bharath [the ‘th’ in Bharath pronounced as the ‘th’ in katha, a story].

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