Saturday, October 10, 2009

Madayanti: The Woman Who Tore Open Her Womb

This story takes place in Ayodhya. Not in the Ayodhya of today though, but in an Ayodhya that was the glorious capital of a mighty empire. And not of the days of Rama or Dasharatha either, but at a time much before that. But it is a tale of the Ikshwakus all the same, into whose line Rama would be born later. When this story takes place, several of the Ikshwakus who would later be celebrated in our epics are yet to be born. But many legendary ones have already ruled the land and so have a few whose names the Ikshwakus would rather like to forget.

This is the tale of King Kalmashapada, whose real name was Mitrasaha Saudasa – Saudasa because he was the son of Sudasa. But it is also the story of a woman – a woman called Madayanti, who was Kalmashapada’s queen. This is the story of how and why she tore open her womb with a stone, though she still gave birth to Ashmaka, the next king of the Ikshwakus. This is also the story of how a king tried to atone for his sins by offering his queen’s body to the man he had wronged. The Mahabharata tells us this story in detail, as do Valmiki’s Ramayana and the puranas briefly, though the versions, as always, differ from each other in some respects and the passage of time – several millennia – has altered the story itself, as each narrator told it the way he felt it should be told.

Kalmashapada, the Mahabharata tells us, was a happy king and a glorious one. He had a prosperous kingdom, a beautiful wife whom he loved dearly and who loved him equally and he enjoyed the kingdom and the wife thoroughly. Then one day he met Shakti, son of the sage Vasishtha, on a mountain path.

Both a kingdom and a beautiful wife could be intoxicating. The old sages say youth, wealth, power and impetuousness, each of these could cause a disaster – then what to speak of when all the four join together? Probably Kalmashapada had all four of them – and that could truly be disastrous.

Kalmashapada’s encounter with Shakti was disastrous. Coming across the sage’s young son on that narrow mountain path, the arrogant king asked Shakti to move out of his way. Shakti refused. He was the eldest son of Vasishtha, the greatest sage of the age. He was a brahmana. And perhaps in his mind he too was proud of his recent achievement – he too had a young, pretty wife who was on the way to becoming a mother. Shakti pointed out that he was a brahmana and a brahmana always had the right of way before a king. He was nice to begin with – though his tone was perhaps that of a brahmana educating an ignorant king.

Kalmashapada would have none of it, though. He was the master of the land and as such everyone within its boundaries was his subject, which included the brahmanas, sages, all. Perhaps he had in his mind that it was he who fed the brahmanas – they lived on what the king gave them and what his subjects gave them.

Eventually the words became rough, the Mahabharata tells us, each shouting at the other “You get out my way” and “You do that”. And then, in a moment of extreme rage and supreme arrogance, Kalmashapada lifted a whip and lashed the sage’s young son with it. Again and again and again. Shakti, now wild with pain and anger, did what angry sages and brahmanas always did. He cursed Kalmashapada. “A brute you are, behaving like a rakshasa. And for this, I curse you. May you become a rakshasa.”
The curse turned Kalmashapada into a rakshasa – a cannibal. “Now that you have cursed me and made me a cannibal, I’ll begin with you,” said the king and with that he killed Shakti and ate him. From then on, his life is that of a cannibal.

The Mahabharata tells us of another power struggle going on at this time – that between Vishwamitra, until recently a king, and Vasishtha, the sage. In their first encounter, Vishwamitra’s royal power had been defeated by the sagely power of Vasishtha. Ever since Vishwamitra had been trying to break Vasishtha – break his spiritual power by wrecking his life and forcing him to react violently. Vishwamitra reaches the spot where the altercation between Shakti and Kalmashapada was going on. He hears them fighting. And when he hears the curse, he senses his opportunity. He invokes the spirit of a rakshasa and asks him to enter the cursed king. His actions from then on are as much a result of the curse as because of the presence of the spirit of the rakshasa in him, who is guided by Vishwamitra and does all that could be done to reduce Vasishtha’s power.

Soon after eating up Shakti, the Mahabharata tells us, Kalmashapada also ate up all his ninety-nine brothers. A story that suggests that the clash between Shakti and Kalmashapada perhaps has a past history. For, it is not likely that Kalmashapada eats up all the brothers of Shakti for a crime committed by Shakti. He can’t hope to spite Shakti with that action since Shakti is already dead. But this becomes possible if his enmity was with the father – with Vasishtha.

Perhaps Kalmashapada’s enmity was really with Vasishtha. The clash with Shakti perhaps was only an outcrop of that enmity. Perhaps it was because Shakti was the hated Vasishtha’s son that Kalmashapada refused to give him way and later whipped him. He was perhaps taking out his anger with the father on the son. Otherwise in the days which we are discussing, it is unthinkable that a king would whip a brahmana, that too a sage’s son.

The ancient texts also tell us that Vasishtha was Kalmashapada’s purohita, his priest and spiritual guide. And also that Vishwamitra had for some while been coveting that position. Perhaps the king and his purohita had parted ways in those days and Kalmashapada was furious with Vasishtha for some reason.

In fact, in one of the versions of the story, it is not Shakti who curses Kalmashapada and turns him into a rakshasa, but Vasishtha himself. Which should explain why Kalmashapada took his vengeance by eating up Shakti and all the other sons of Vasishtha.

According to this version, given in the Uttara Kanda of the Valmiki Ramayana, Kalmashapada’s name was Veerasaha Saudasa. Once, out hunting, he comes across two rakshasas in a forest. The rakshasas have eaten up all the animals of the forest, assuming the form of tigers. Saudasa kills one of the rakshasas and the other vows revenge.

Years later Saudasa becomes the king of Ayodhya and he, under the protection of Vasishtha, conducts an ashwamedha that lasts several years. On the last day of the sacrifice, the rakshasa finds his opportunity. He assumes the form of Vasishtha and coming to Saudasa tells him that since it is the concluding day of the sacrifice he would like meat to be served to him in his meal. The king instructs his cooks to cook meat, but they are confused. Meat for Vasishtha – they are not able to understand that. The rakshasa takes advantage of the confusion of the cooks and entering the kitchen in the guise of one of them, prepares not just meat, but human flesh itself, and brings this along with the rest of the meal to the king. Saudasa with great devotion offers the meal to Vasishtha and the sage, recognising the flesh, curses the king and changes him into a rakshasa for the sin of offering him a meal fit only for rakshasas.

The king, in a fury at the injustice of it, also takes up water in his palm and empowering it with mantras, gets ready to curse Vasishtha too in turn. But queen Madayanti stops him from this sin, telling him that he shouldn’t curse a brahmana. Since the empowered water cannot be wasted, she requests him to sprinkle it on his own feet. He does it – and his feet turn spotted. It is then Saudasa gets the name Kalmashapada, says the Uttarakanda. Kalmashapada means spotted-feet.

Vasishtha does offer release to the king from the curse – at the end of twelve years. But there is no reason why this should have satisfied him. For no fault of his a rash Vasishtha had taken away twelve years of his life and turned the mighty Ikshwaku into such a wretched creature. It is possible that as rakshasa nature took over, as he sank into spiritual darkness, he began seeking revenge and ate up all the sons of Vasishtha.

Vasishtha endures the pain of the death of all his sons – the Mahabharata text tells us. But not for long. Soon he is so pained by it that he decides to commit suicide. His first attempt is to kill himself by throwing himself down from the top of Mount Sumeru. The rocks at the bottom turn soft like cotton, the text tells us, and receive him gently. Next he walks into a roaring fire, again the text tells us, and the fire turns cool and leaves him unscathed. These failures do not ignite the desire to live in the heart of the sage. He next throws himself into the violent sea, with a boulder tied to his neck. The waves pick him up and gently deposit him on the shore and retreat. Admitting his failure, he goes back to his ashram. Death has refused to oblige him.

The rainy season revives his agony again. And when he sees a swollen river in spate, cutting away its banks and carrying mighty trees down with it, the sage decides to make another attempt at suicide. And to make sure he dies, the sad old man ties up his limbs with ropes before he casts himself into the torrent. But once again he is defeated. The river breaks the ropes and frees him, and then carries him back to the shores. The river that did this will from then on be known as the one who freed the sage from his ropes – Vipasha.

His torment does not allow the sage to stay in one place any more. He becomes a wanderer, spending his time in the wild, on the mountains and in the plains, on the banks of lakes and rivers, in jungles and other areas away from human habitation. Once again he sees a river that tempts him – a mighty Himalayan torrent filled with monstrous crocodiles. The river refuses to accept the sin of killing the sage and instead, splits herself into a hundred streams – and becomes the Shatadru. Shata, meaning hundred.
The sage now returns once again to his ashram. He has no desire to live, but he knows his attempts to kill himself are in vain.

On the way something beautiful happens. He meets Shakti’s widow Adrishyanti close to the ashram and learns from her that she is expecting a child – his grandson, someone to continue the family line. But before he has time to relish the news fully, he sees Kalmashapada the rakshasa standing in front of him, with a staff raised in his hand. Adrishyanti screams seeing death before her, and seeks refuge behind a calm Vasishtha.

Vasishtha does not reduce Kalmashapada to ashes with a curse – perhaps he feels this has all gone on far enough. He decides to release the king from his curse. And does so by sprinkling water empowered with mantras on him. Kalmashapada comes out of the curse.

This again suggests the possibility that it was he who had cursed Kalmashapada originally. Though a sage of the stature of Vasishtha can perhaps release a man from another’s curse, it is usually only the one who gave the curse who has the power to withdraw it. Perhaps it was he who had cursed Kalmashapada initially, not Shakti. Perhaps it was him that Kalmashapada had slighted earlier, not Shakti. After all, Vasishtha was his guru, and a clash between an arrogant king and his kulaguru is not an impossibility, especially with someone like Vishwamitra very keen about it.

Kalmashapada too has had enough of all this. He has learnt his lesson. He makes the conciliatory gesture. He wants to atone. He tells the sage – “I want the next man on the throne of Ayodhya to be born of you.” This will be atonement both for his arrogance and for killing all the sage’s sons. Atonement for his arrogance because there is nothing more humiliating for a man – and much more so for a king – than to have to offer his wife’s body to another man. Atonement for killing the sage’s sons, for this is the greatest gift the king can make by way of amendment – the sage’s son shall inherit the throne of Ayodhya.

Incidentally, with this there will no more be any Ikshwaku blood in the Ikshwakus. The future Ikshwakus will be the descendants of this queen, whose relation with the Ikshwakus is not natal, but through marriage, and that of the sage, who is not an Ikshwaku. The future Ikshwakus will not be Ikshwakus really, just as in the Mahabharata neither of the parties fighting for the throne of the Bharatas will be a Bharata by blood, since neither Dhritarashtra nor Gandhari, nor Kunti nor the parents of the Pandava children, had any Bharata blood in them. Rama, known as the greatest of the Ikshwakus, will not be an Ikshwaku by blood descent, not by aurasa descent, as they used to say in those days, but only by what is known as kshetraja descent. He is linked to the Ikshwakus by the fact that he is a descendent of theirs through the child born in the kshetra, ‘field’, of Kalmashapada, though not fathered by him. He will inherit his gene pool not from an Ikshwaku – it will have to be traced back to Vasishtha across generations.

Kalmashapada requests Vasishtha to do niyoga in his queen and takes him with him to his palace. There he asks his wife Madayanti to receive the sage in her bed. This is how the next Ikshwaku is born.

His name is Ashmaka.

The Mahabharata tells us that a pregnant Madayanti picked up a stone and with it hit her swollen womb – again and again and again. Tearing her womb open. And bringing forth the child who was later named Ashmaka – ashma or ashman meaning stone.

The queen perhaps dies in the process.


The Mahabharata tells us that it was because of the inordinate delay in the birth of the child that Madayanti hit her stomach with the stone. That the pregnancy had been going on and on and she grew impatient and did it.

I do not believe it.

I believe that Madayanti hated her swollen stomach. Hated the act that lead to her swollen stomach. Hated the child growing in her womb. And wanted to destroy it – even if in the process she herself would be killed.

The act through which that pregnancy was created – it could create insane hatred, intense loathing and self-repugnance.

Women do not enjoy being reduced to mere female bodies – bodies that can bring forth. The epics tell us so again and again.

Bali, the great emperor, fascinated by the sage Deerghatamas, asked his wife Sudeshna to offer her body to him. Instead, she sent her maid to the blind old sage. Just as Ambika did later, in the Mahabharata. Ambika had to be persuaded with the great difficulty for the first niyoga – impregnation by someone other than her husband – but she did it, partly because of the desperate need, because Hastinapura urgently needed a king and there was none. Partly because of guilt – she had failed to give Vichitraveerya a child, an heir to the throne, and it is overindulgence with her and her sister that had killed him. And partly because she expected either the handsome, mighty Bheeshma, the greatest hero of the times, in her bed, and if not him, then one of his cousins – certainly not the sage. But in spite of all this she had been reluctant. And the second time she was asked to submit herself to the ordeal, she sent a maid in her place. Ambalika did not enjoy the niyoga either. In Kunti’s case, she had to be persuaded again and again by her husband before she submitted herself to it.

Apparently, women do not enjoy being treated on a par with animals.

In none of the other niyogas we know of, there is any proof that the women enjoyed the experience. Sex with a husband is one thing, sex with a lover is one thing, sex with a paramour is one thing – but sex without desire, without the bond of love, is a totally different experience.

The king simply asked her to receive the sage in her bed. He was atoning. But it was she who had to pay the price.

For twelve years she had waited for him to be released from the curse, waited devotedly, while he roamed the jungles feeding on human flesh. Then she heard that the king’s curse had ended and he was returning, and waited for him with breathless eagerness, with deep love. She must have prayed all those twelve years for his release from the curse and for his return. But when he comes, he comes bringing his, their, kulaguru with him and straight away asks her to receive the sage in her bed. In atonement for his sin.

Her shock must have been great. She submits to the king’s will. To his order. And then she hates herself for submitting to such an act, hates the king for ordering that, and hates the kulaguru for performing it. She is enraged at the desecration of her body, of her womb. And is repulsed by what is growing in her womb.

The kulaguru has the same position as that of a father – only superior. Guru was universally considered like a father in those days in India, as we do even today. And having to undergo that experience with him – that must have been unimaginable for her. And yet she did it. She submits to the king’s will. And ends up hating all people responsible for it, ends up hating herself. Ends up hating her pregnancy, the child growing in her womb. A child produced in her womb by someone who was not her lover, who was not her husband, but someone she looked upon as a father. Someone whom she had revered like a father ever since she came to live in Ayodhya as the young queen of Kalmashapada.

And she picks up that stone, and hits her womb again and again, thud, thud, thud, screaming in agony, crushing her insides, tearing her stomach open, tearing her womb open, spilling its contents out. And perhaps dies in the process.

The child lives, though.

The king has atoned. The next Ikshwaku on the throne will be the aurasa son of Vasishtha, Vasishtha’s flesh and blood.

The Mahabharata tells us this part of the story differently, though. According to it, it was not in atonement for his sins that Kalmashapada offers Madayanti to Vasishtha. It is because he was incapable of producing a child in her. He has been rendered incapable by a curse.

The same curse as Pandu receives later in the Mahabharata from the sage Kindama. And almost for the same reasons. Pandu receives the curse from Kindama because he killed the sage while the sage was engaged in sex, while he was in the middle of the sex act. And Kindama curses Pandu that he too will die in the sexual act – that if he ever touched his wife, if he ever had sex with her, he would die immediately. A curse that comes true later because Pandu is not able to resist the temptation when he sees his beautiful wife one spring morning when the whole earth is bathed in glory, when the whole nature is celebrating the festival of life, of creation. Pandu has sex with Madri in spite of her protests, and she perhaps gives in, in spite of the knowledge of the consequences, seeing his pain, his agony, his helplessness, and he dies in the act.
Kalmashapada too is cursed, the Mahabharata tells us, with the same curse. But not by a sage but by a brahmani. By a woman.

According to this story, the brahmani Angirasi was in the jungle, making love to her husband. They were in the middle of their lovemaking when they see Kalmashapada the rakshasa approaching. They separate and flee. But Kalmashapada catches hold of the brahmana. The brahmani too stops. She begs the rakshasa to spare her husband – her reason: she has not yet achieved satisfaction. She tells him that, adding that she was doing it for begetting a child and now that child will never be, so please spare the man. Kaslmashapada refuses to listen to her and tearing him to pieces before her eyes, eats him up. The brahmani prepares a chita, a pyre, and enters it, killing herself. Before dying she curses Kalmashapada – you have caught and killed my husband while we were in the act of love. For this, if you ever touch your wife, you too shall die immediately. It is because of this curse that Kalmashapada is forced to offer his wife’s body to the sage – that is what the Mahabharata tells us.

There are a lot that is discordant in this version.

We are told that immediately on being released from the curse Kalmashapada made the request to Vasishtha to beget a son in his wife. This is rather strange. A man who has been changed into a rakshasa, when he is released from the curse, the first thing he does is request his guru, his kulapurohita, to beget a son in his wife. This seems extremely unlikely. That cannot be his first concern.

But it becomes likely if he was atoning for his sin. If he had insulted Vasishtha for some reason, and Vasishtha had changed him into a rakshasa, and as an act of revenge he had eaten up all of Vasishtha’s children, and yet Vasishtha had released him from the curse – then in gratitude and in atonement, he makes that request and offers his wife to the sage: this seems more likely. It becomes more likely even if it was not Vasishtha he had insulted, even if it was not Vasishtha who had cursed him, but Shakti. For nothing could be done now about what was done to Shakti, he was dead. And by insulting Shakti first and then killing and eating him up, as well as killing and eating up all the other sons of Vasishtha, Kalmashapada had wronged more Vasishtha than Shakti himself and now he wants to atone, he wants to express his gratitude to the sage for releasing him from the abominable curse – that is understandable. If it is not an act of atonement, an expression of his gratefulness, it is not likely that this will the first thing that Kalmashapada does immediately on his release from the curse. And the texts tell us that immediately on his release, Kalmashapada made this request, made this offer, and took Vasishtha to the palace for this express purpose.

Add to this the fact that Kalmashapada had believed he would never be released from rakshasahood. He did believe so and he tells as much – in the story of Uttanka that appears in the Ashwamedhika Parva of the Mahabharata. There Kalmashapada tells him that he does not see an end to his miseries – neither in this world nor in the worlds to come. Kalmashapada’s relief at the release from the curse must have been immense. And in the immensity of his relief, he must have wanted to atone and must have made that offer to the sage. I do not think it was as much a request that Kalmashapada made to Vasishtha as an offer. An offer atoning for his sins. It was not because he was prevented by a curse from touching his wife that he made that offer but because he wanted to atone.

It was also an act of surrender – an act of admission of the superiority of the sage to him, of the sage’s spiritual powers to his royal power. Surrender he had made even before his release from the curse, while he was still a rakshasa, as he admits to Uttanka. He tells him: “No king can be stable in his power in this world nor happy in his future worlds after antagonising brahmanas”. [Mb Ashwa 58/8] Defeat rings throughout Kalmashapada’s words in this chapter of the Mahabharata.

Also, the brahmani story sounds too much like something added later to the main story to justify Kalmashapada’s heinous crime of offering his wife’s body to another for sex and procreation. The brahmani in the story is not really angry with the rakshasa for killing her man – her anger is more at killing him before they have finished the sex act! The story tells us very clearly that she tells him two things – one, that her sexual act has not reached its culmination, that she has not yet reached satisfaction; and second, that she was doing it with him for the purpose of procreation and now that procreation will not be possible. It is as though she does not care for her husband, as though her only interests are in sexual satisfaction and in begetting a child, for both of which the man is a tool and her anger is at the loss of that tool. It reads as though if Kalmashapada had killed the brahmana just a little later, after they had reached their climax and she had reached satisfaction, and after she had been inseminated, then she wouldn’t have minded the killing. The curse itself makes this more clear. The wording of the curse specify that if Kalmashapada touched his wife during her receptive period, then he would die. If he had sex with her when she is in her ritu [patneem rtau anuprapya], then he would die.

It is as though it is begetting a child in his wife that the brahmani’s curse prevents, not sex per se. That sounds very much like a story added to justify Kalmashapada’s offering his wife to Vasishtha. I am inclined to reject the story as a later addition with this specific purpose. Whoever added the story to the text knew the enormity of the act of Kalmashapada – and he wanted to mollify it, to soften it, by justifying it by saying that Kalmashapada had no choice, a niyoga was absolutely necessary.

There is another reason why I suspect the story of Angirasi. The Kalmashapada we see in the Uttanka story in the Ashwamedhika Parva is what we would call a perfect gentleman, in spite of being a cannibal. Uttanka goes in search of him so that he can ask for Madayanti’s kundalas, which he wants to offer his gurupatni as his gurudakshina. Uttanka meets him in the jungle and when he does, it is the sixth-part of the day, which is the time for him to have his meal of human flesh, as he himself tells Uttanka while welcoming him arrival, and he is very hungry. And yet Kalmashapada does not gobble him up immediately. Instead, when he is told about the reason for his arrival, Kalmashapada leaves him off to go to Madayanti. He gives him time to complete his purpose when the brahmana promises that he will come back to him afterwards to be eaten by him. Again, when Madayanti asks for a proof that he is really coming from Kalmashapada, Uttanka goes back to Kalmashapada seeking the proof – the rakshasa does not eat him this time either. Then, after getting the kundalas, the brahmana comes to Kalmashapada a third time – this time seeking answer to a question he has about the meaning of the message Kalmashapada had sent to the queen through him by way of proof. Again the rakshasa does not eat him. Besides, Uttanka now asks Kalmashapada another question – what is good for him, to come back to Kalmashapada or not to come back after he has completed his errand? And the rakshasa tells him plainly – not to come back, for if he came back, he will certainly eat him. A hungry Kalmashapada lets the brahmana go, knowing full well he will not come back. This is not the man who will catch hold that brahmana engaged in sex with his wife and eat him up, while his wife pleaded for his life.

Also, even if a niyoga is necessary, one’s guru, one’s kulapurohita, is not the right person to do that, certainly not the first choice. Perhaps a guru is the last person to approach for this purpose since a guru is like a father both to the king and to the queen.
In the Mahabharata, Satyavati asks Vyasa to do niyoga – initially in Ambika and then later in Ambalika, both wives of Vichitraveerya. Vyasa is a renowned sage at that time – speaking of him proudly his mother tells Bheeshma – the renowned sage who has codified the four Vedas, he is my son. She is embarrassed to make this confession of giving birth to a child while still unmarried, but she is proud of Vyasa, of the fact that he is a great sage.

But Vyasa is asked to perform the niyoga not because he is a sage but because he is a half-brother to Vichitraveerya and therefore the first choice for performing niyoga, exactly as Bheeshma is, whom she first approaches though he refuses, citing his vow to remain an oordhvareta, a celibate, as the reason. Bheeshma is Vichitraveerya’s half brother because they have the same father, and Vyasa because they have the same mother. So it is because Vyasa is Ambika’s and Ambalika’s devar [Sanskrit: dvivara, meaning second husband, husband-alternative, levirate] that Satyavati asks him to do the niyoga.

When Deerghatamas is asked by Bali to do the niyoga in his wife Sudeshna, Deerghatamas is a sage all right, again, but not his guru, not his priest. He had just been brought to the capital rescued from the river.

Vasishtha the kulaguru was certainly not the first choice and yet the first thing that Kalmashapada asks after being released from the curse is to beget a child in his wife – a child who will sit on the throne of Ayodhya and whose descendants will be the future kings of Ayodhya for all time to come. No, the story of the curse of the brahmani does not ring true. An act of atonement definitely does. For Kalmashapada, there is no more humiliating way of punishing himself that that request he makes, that offer he makes.
Whatever the reason, from the standpoint of Madayanti, Kalmashapada’s queen, the story is just one: her husband, her king, offers her body to another man. It is only the body that is offered, not her. For she does not become Vasishtha’s wife, but continues to be Kalmashapada’s wife. Had he offered her as a wife to the sage, to be his forever, perhaps it would have been less humiliating to her. She is just given to the sage for the sexual act, for procreating a child in, and that could be very, very humiliating for any woman. She submits to the king’s will, offers her body to the sage for that demeaning act, hating him for what he is doing, hating her man for what he is making her do, hating herself for what she is permitting to be done to her. She must perhaps have wondered why she did not kill herself before she allowed that act to take place. And then, as she watches her stomach bulge, the child in her womb grow, her determination grows, her fury becomes blinding, and in a moment of supreme will, she decides to end herself and the product of sin in her womb. The child survives, though, and we are told nothing of what happened to her – perhaps there is nothing to tell.

One of the saddest parts of this story is that Kalmashapada does not feel any need to consult her before offering her body to the sage. He feels no need to discuss it with her. He makes that offer the moment he is released from the curse when he is yet to meet her.

Kalmashapada feels no need to consult her, to discuss it with her. As though her part is only to beget children for him and how those children were conceived was no concern of it. She belonged to him, her body belonged to him, her womb was his – she was his kshetra, his field. Her body, her womb was his kshetra, his field. They did not belong to her, but to him. To be used for his purposes. To be used as he pleased. What seeds he wanted to sow there would be decided by him, not by her.

He had the right to inseminate her any way he wished, just as he had the right to inseminate his cows by any bull he wished.

It is not that Kalmashapada does not love her. He does. But that does not mean he does not own her, cannot offer her body whom he pleased.

Perhaps Kalmashapada’s offering her body to the sage is as much an act of a rakshasa as his eating human flesh had been, though he was unaware of the cruelty of what he was doing.

Interestingly, if anyone doubts that there is something foul in all this, we have the Mahabharata itself to tell us that we are not the first to be shocked by this. Others before us have considered this an act of sin. Arjuna, who is told this story by the yaksha Chitraratha, is shocked by it, though his shock is at Vasishtha’s acceptance of the offer than at Kalmashapada’s offer. He perhaps believed, like Kalmashapada, that a wife is a husband’s property – while he had doubted the morality of Yudhishthira’s act of wagering Draupadi in the dice hall, he had never doubted that he had the right to do that. He had also agreed to share Draupadi with his brothers, as though she was a thing to be shared and not a person.

Arjuna is shocked by Vasishtha’s acceptance of the offer. And he asks Chitraratha in dismay, in outrage, how a sage like Vasishtha could accept that offer, do something like that, when Vasishtha knows clearly what should be done and what shouldn’t [Janata vai param dharmam vasishthena mahatmana… Mb. Adi 181/2]. This is agamya-gamana, says Arjuna – proscribed sex, sinful sex, ‘entering a forbidden woman’. Arjuna uses the word adharma to describe the act.


The story of Kalmashapada is a story of worldly power bending its knees before spiritual power. It is a story of braahma, spiritual power, winning a victory over kshaatra, material power. It is a story of a kshatriya being humbled by a brahmana.

Kalmashapada’s defeat is also Vishwamitra’s defeat – Vishwamitra the kshatriya’s defeat before Visishtha the brahmana.

But it is also the story of a woman being used as an object – used as an object in one of the most humiliating acts possible, if not the most humiliating act. An ugly act in which woman becomes a pawn in a power-play between men and is reduced to an object – a sexual object.

The woman strikes back in the only way it is possible for her to strike back – by killing herself, and by trying to kill the child in her womb.

The tragedy is that she fails in that too. She fails in killing that child – the child so begotten on her, the child that will forever establish Vasishtha’s blood on the throne of Ayodhya, the child that will from then on forever will be the sign of the humiliation of the Ikshwakus.

Perhaps she succeeds in one thing – in killing herself.

Good for her, perhaps.


There are a few other interesting sides to the Kalmashapada story. Like the one in which a brahmana comes to him asking for a meal with meat, and to whom Kalmashapada orders his cook to serve human flesh.

It is also interesting that all the people who cause harm to Kalmashapada in this story are brahmanas – Vasishtha, Shakti, the brahmana who asks for meat in his meal, and the brahmani Angirasi and her husband, all. Uttanka, too, is a brahmana. Natural perhaps, considering that this is really a story of the struggle between spiritual or brahmanical power, and royal power.


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Living Gita 43: In Praise of Karma Yoga

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