Sunday, September 13, 2009

Women, Gender & Power in Bheel Mahabharata 1

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.

An epic of one culture incarnated in another is at once the same as the original and yet very different from it. It is not that its soul is the same and body is different. No, it becomes a different entity altogether, with a different identity, a different flavour, a different feel, perhaps even a different heart and a different soul, and yet it retains its original being. That is why such an incarnation is a kind of miracle.

The Bheel Bharath, the incarnation of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in the tribal world of the Bheels, is a miracle for its marvellous beauty, its unbelievable simplicity and elemental quality, and the ineffable charm of its rusticity. It is a miracle for the way it so perfectly reflects the world in which the Bheel lives: a world that is still shrouded in primordial mystery, where things are possible because you can imagine them, where everything appears clothed in a dream-like quality, where men and women walk on the earth without masks on their faces, where each hunger of the body and thirst of the heart appears naked, where the dark fears in our depths stalk us in the open.

The many transmutations the story and characters of the Mahabharata undergo in their Bheel incarnation and what these transmutations reveal to us about the world of the tribal Bheel are fascinating. It is intriguing, and entrancing, to see how the Mahabharata looks when it leaves its traditional world and incarnates in an entirely different world – in the world down under, as it were; in the world of those who live on the fringes of Indian society, in the world of those whom our society has always kept either at its lowest rung, or perhaps even outside its boundaries.

This paper, however, focuses only on two aspects of the endlessly fascinating different facets of the Bheel Bharath. The dynamics of male-female relationship in terms of equality, dominance and submissiveness in the epic [in this part]; and attitudes towards sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular in the Bheel Bharath [in the second part of the paper].

This study is based on the text of the Bheel Bharath by Dr Bhagavandas Patel, who spent four years among the Doongri Bheels studying the epic that is an oral tradition among them and recording the narrations of the epic on four hundred and fifty audio cassettes, thus making an invaluable contribution to literature in general and folk literature and Mahabharata study in particular. The book has been published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi with an excellent Hindi translation of its prose by Dr Mridula Parik.

Created in the Image of the Goddess

The dynamics of the male-female relationship in the Bheel Bharath differs from that in mainstream India and in the Sanskrit Mahabharata. We see that gender, the socially constructed differences between the male and the female, is portrayed here in tones that are very distinct. The women we encounter in the Bheel epic are not exactly creations of a lesser God, lacking in wisdom and created with great imperfections, incapable of acting without male assistance, whose every decision has to be taken for them by their men. They are not women abjectly dependent for their protection on their fathers in their childhood and adolescence, on their husbands in their youth and middle age, and on their sons in their old age. In the Bheel Bharath, the traditional gender construct of men being dominant and women being submissive or passive in relation to them is frequently absent.

In the mainstream Indian culture, power, prestige and an unyielding personality are usually associated with men and in the Bheel Bharath, we often find female characters possessing these qualities. If, as Gerda Lerner puts it, “gender is a costume, a mask, a straitjacket in which men and women dance their unequal dance,” these costumes, masks and straitjackets are different in the Bheel Bharath. And, at least in part for these reasons, we find the leading women in the Bheel Bharath, unlike the leading women in Vyasa’s epic, do not have shades of neurosis to them. They are, unlike in the Mahabharata, quite comfortable with themselves, at peace with their social and psychological selves.

Anais Nin refers to Lawrence Van der Post, the Jungian psychologist and poet, in her A Woman Speaks and says “there is a beautiful part in one of his books where he says the Africans never suffered from loneliness as we have; they never suffered from the feeling of the meaninglessness of their life, as we occasionally have.” Reading the Mahabharata, we have the perpetual feeling that the women there are very lonely – be it the young fishermaid Kali wedded to the old emperor Shantanu and later the widowed Empress Satyavati, or the bright and bold Gandhari wedded to the blind, cowardly Dhritarashtra, or Kunti and Madri wedded to their impotent husband, or Draupadi wedded to her five husbands. Kunti on one occasion specifically speaks of her loneliness when she refers to her life at Kuntibhoja’s place after her father gave her away to him. Draupadi is nathavati anathavat – like an orphan, though she ‘belongs’ – all through her life, and she ends her life in utter, unspeakable loneliness on the Himalayas where she falls down towards the end of the pilgrimage and her five husbands walk away without a word to her, without a backward glance at her, without slowing down their steps. We do not find such loneliness in the lives of the women of the Bheel Bharath, nor do we find any of the women here suffering from meaninglessness in their lives, which too is the lot of practically all the women in the Mahabharata.

Let us begin with the first major female character we encounter in the Bheel Bharath, Ganga, who is perhaps closest to her self in the Sanskrit epic. When we first meet her in the tribal epic, she is taking a bath in the river Ganga, for which she has come up from the thirteenth Patala, the thirteenth netherworld. Subsequently, she marries Shantanu after rejecting his attempts to woo her in two lifetimes. The Bheel Bharath builds on the unequal relationship the two have in the Mahabharata and while Ganga is a river goddess with supernatural powers in Vyasa’s epic too, in the Bheel epic she is awesome.

As per her conditions Shantanu had agreed to prior to their marriage, Ganga asks Shantanu to drown one by one the children born to them. Three children are born to them, Gagivar [Gangeya, Bheeshma], Setar [Chittar, Chitra, Chitrangada] and Vihag [Vichitra, Vichitravirya], and Shantanu, against the desires of his heart, kills them all by dashing them against rocks in the Ganga. His heart does not allow him to kill the fourth child, a girl, though, and he saves her by giving her away to his guru. Interestingly, it is a girl he tries to save, not a boy, and part of the reason for this is given as the hope that the girl would look after him in his old age.

We find Ganga walking to the sea to find out if Shantanu has followed her wishes about killing the girl even as Shantanu returns from his secret trip to give away his daughter. In a breathtakingly beautiful scene filled with thrilling folk magic we are shown Ganga going to the sea and bowing down before it. She plants two rows of barley and standing on one foot , prays to God to reveal the truth to her, calling upon him by the power of her truth. As she looks at the barley again, she finds some of them have dried up. Ganga now knows the truth: Shantanu has broken his word to her. She returns to the palace.

Back at her cloud palace she dresses up in all the sixteen shringaras. She prepares an elaborate dinner for Shantanu and serves it to him by herself. During the dinner, she asks him: “Raja, tell me the truth. How many children have you killed?” Shantanu says four. A shiver passes through Ganga at Shantanu’s lie. She asks him again and again, giving him chances to come out with the truth, her words and voice telling him their relation has come to an end but Shantanu still persists with his lie. In the end Ganga claps her hands and at each clap a child appears before her – Gangeya, Chitra and Vichitra, the three children whom Shantanu had killed. The girl child, whom Shantanu had saved, fails to appear. Ganga now calls him a liar and informs him their relation has ended. She disappears giving Shantanu a gold bangle through which she would be able to recognize him in her next birth and leaving in his hands five strands of her hair that break off as he tries to hold her back by her tresses.

One interesting aspect of the relation between Ganga and Shantanu is that it is Ganga, the woman, who is dominant throughout. It is she that takes initiative in the sex act between them and not Shantanu, the man. At each step of the elaborate ritual of their mating, lovingly described by the tribal narrator, Ganga has the upper hand[for details see Female Sexuality in Bheel Mahabharata by the author]. Shantanu, almost puppet-like, follows her suggestions, which are really her orders to him. Her pregnancies are results of her deliberate decisions to conceive, and not accidents, nor results of her submitting herself to her man. Shantanu is in awe of her, dreads her, though he loves her dearly; and her upper hand in their relation remains till the end, though in spite of this she is never unkind to him, even when she leaves him. It is with a promise to be his wife again in her next life that she abandons him finally.

The Ganga we find in the Bheel Bharath is comfortable with herself, comfortable with her body and her sexuality, with her social and psychological selves. Within the dynamics of their male-female relationship, she wields the power. Though she is dominant, she is never domineering. She is assertive, she is unwilling to demean herself by compromising where she should not compromise. Every single time she speaks, her words have finality, without ever being rude.

Tryambakayajvan, beginning his classic Sanskrit treatise on the duties of women, Stridharmapaddhati, says: the most important duty of a woman as enjoined by the scriptures is service to her husband. Subsequently concluding the book he says again: since a woman should serve her husband even ignoring her life, since she should accept even her husband’s selling her, since she should fulfil his wishes even when they are in conflict with her other prescribed duties, it is clear that the ultimate dharma of a woman is obedient service to her husband. The central thrust in all scriptures dealing with women’s duties is that women should find their fulfilment in serving their husbands and that on its own their existence has no meaning to them. To underscore the view that the focus of their life should be the obedient, humble service of their husbands and nothing else matters, women are told again and again that there is no need for them to perform any religious ritual – since service to their husbands alone will take them to heaven.

Through Ganga, the Bheel Bharath gives us a different dynamics of power between the male and the female. And this different dynamics of power continues in the case of other leading women as well.

Kunti, for instance, is another awe-inspiring woman in the Bheel Bharath. She is born of Shakti, of the blood and flesh of Shakti in the form of a bird that dies on a sage’s trident. In a powerful scene that happens at midnight, her awesome power and her true nature are revealed to Bhima, her son.

Bhima once requests Draupadi to reveal the secret of her immense power to him, and she asks him to go and hide on an ancient banyan tree in the open ground outside the city at night and observe whatever happens underneath the tree. He does so and sees Indra, the lord of the gods, arriving there at midnight and cleaning the grounds. Thrones descend from the heavens and arrange themselves on the cleaned ground. Soon a great commotion is heard and all the nine hundred thousand gods come down to the earth and occupy their seats according to their status. God himself comes down from Vaikuntha and occupies a silver throne. It is only after God has taken his seat that Kunti arrives.

Her arrival is preceded by the sound of deep bellows. Soon Kunti is seen approaching riding a young buffalo. She alights sprightly from the buffalo and, in contrast to God who occupies a silver throne, occupies a golden throne.

Later, in the morning, after the meeting of the gods is over and they have departed, after Kunti has gone back to the palace, Bhima rushes to her and falls at her feet in obeisance and addresses her as jagajjanani, the mother of the universe.

If Kunti is thus awesome, still greater is the glory of Draupadi in the Bheel Bharath. Like Kunti, she too is a dain, a witch, but unlike Kunti who is brought into existence by yogic powers from the flesh and blood of Shakti as a bird, she is unborn. The Pandavas find her in a banana plantation and she is a full-grown woman then.

Since all of them found her together, she couldn’t be any one brother’s wife, so all five of them marry her and install her in her seven-storeyed ‘cloud palace’. Except Yudhishthira, the other four brothers are soon trapped in Draupadi’s magic [maya]. Yudhishthira is more cautious; he fears her nature and instead of sleeping with his wife, offers her ritual worship. Hearing the sound of the conch and bells ringing from her room one morning Bhima peeps in through the window and sees Yudhishthira lying in prostration at Draupadi’s feet. He sees him getting up after the prostrations and offering her an arati accompanied by all the rites of ritual worship to a goddess. Subsequently, questioned by Bhima, Draupadi asks him to watch her from the banyan tree at night if he wants to learn the truth about her. That is how Bhima hides on the banyan tree and witnesses his mother’s immense power that awes even the gods.

The occasion is the festival of Draupadi. If it is on a bellowing buffalo that Kunti arrives at the assembly of the gods, it is on a roaring lion that Draupadi comes sometime after Kunti has arrived. She holds a lit lamp in one hand and has a drawn sword in the other. Seeing her approaching, God gets up from his silver throne and receives her. Her own throne is of pure gold, like that of Kunti.

Numerous other occasions prove the great status of Kunti and Draupadi in the tribal epic. No important decision, be it of a wedding or of war, is ever taken in the Bheel Bharath without their involvement.


Continued.... Part 2

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