This is a story of ancient times that appears in Udyoga Parva (sections 119-122) of Mahabharata. It is a story that is uncoiled in four stages. Initially, Narada narrated it to Dhritarastra, which Vyasa recorded; Vaishampayana narrates that to Janamejaya; and finally Suti recites the entire epic.
Narada’s narration comes about as an extension to his own story of fall owing to his conceit and arrogance. It is incidental; and not integrated into the Epic. It is not supported by any other narration in the Epic.
The story raises many uncomfortable questions about the status and treatment of women in a society of a bygone era, which was guided by its own set of values. The fascinating but disturbing episode has been studied, in depth, by scholars, feminists and dramatists from sociological, psychological and various other angles.
Mahabharata (in contrast to Ramayana) is a complex composition spread over several layers , across varied periods; and, its elements are derived from diverse parts of the ancient Indian land. It also is not entirely the work of a single person. It has grown in stages across many traditions. Like the Indian jungle, it spreads out in an endless wilderness of trees entwined with creepers of bewildering sorts, inhabited by an astonishing variety of creatures, birds and beasts. It is a wonder piled upon wonders. There are several contradictions arrayed , one by the side of the other. Mahabharata is not one book; but, it is many books running into each other.
With that , let’s, first, look at the story in its brief and summarized form; and then discuss some of the issues it throws up.
1.1. It is said that Galava was a very devoted pupil of the sage – King- teacher Visvamitra. He stayed and served loyally even when his teacher was passing through difficult circumstances. At the end of the academic period, the teacher, pleased with the pupil, blessed him and let him go. But Galava requested the teacher to state the fee (guru- dakshina) that he would accept. The teacher was content; but the pupil pressed on earnestly. Finally, with a little displeasure, as it were, Visvamitra asked Galava ‘present me with eight hundred white steeds of good pedigree; white as the rays of the radiant moon, and every one of it having one ear black in hue. Go Galava, delay not ’.
Ektaha shamkarna hayana chandravarchasam, Ashto shatani me dehi gaccha Galav ma Chiram- (Udog, 106;27)
1.2. Galava promptly sets out in search of such rare type of horses ; but,he was unable to find any. While he was brooding in desperation, his friend Suparna offered help; and, took him to many kings who might possibly possess horses of such rare description. After much wandering, the two reached the court of King Yayati of Prathistana. Suparna, on behalf of his friend, submitted the plea and requested the king to help Galava to be free from the burden of Guru-dakshina.
But, the King Yayati, whose wealth by then had depleted, had no horses that satisfied their specification. Nevertheless, he, as a king, would not disappoint a needy one who came seeking help. Therefore, he gifted, instead, his beautiful daughter Madhavi (also called Drishadvati); and, suggested that by setting her as price they could secure from any king/s who owned the horses of their required specifications. Yayati added; Madhavi was capable of promoting every virtue (mādhavī nāma tārkṣyeyaṃ sarva-dharma-pravādini); and , her beauty was so striking that any king would gladly give up his kingdom, if it were needed, to be with her even for a short while.
Now, that there appeared a ray of hope, Suparna wished his friend well and took leave of him.
2.1. Galava first thought of the best of the kings, Haryasva of Ikshvaku race who ruled at Ayodhya. He was famed for his valour, wealth and large army. Galava offered Madhavi in marriage to the childless king Haryasva, in exchange for ‘eight hundred steeds’ born in good country, of lunar whiteness, and each with one ear black in hue’, saying ‘this auspicious and large eyed maiden will become mother of thy sons’. The king is struck with the beauty of Madhavi (rājā haryaśvaḥ kāmamohitaḥ). He observes that the six parts of this girl’s body which ought to be high are high, seven parts which ought to be slender are slender, three parts which ought to be deep are deep and five which ought to be red are red. Upon her resides every auspicious sign.
Haryasva cried out “I most desire to have this beautiful maiden; but, sadly I have only two hundred steeds of the kind you wanted. He pleads with Galava – asyām etaṃ bhavān kāmaṃ saṃpādayatu me varam (Udyog; 114.9) – Let me fulfill my desire. I beg you; allow me to beget one son upon this damsel and you make take away all those two hundred steeds”.
2.2. Madhavi intervened and suggested to Galava “I am blessed by a sage with a special faculty that each time after childbirth I will regain my virginity. Accept the offer made by King Haryasva; take his two hundred excellent steeds and let him beget one son upon me. Thereafter you may collect me and take me to the next king and to another, in similar manner, until you obtain all your eight hundred steeds. And, that should set you free from the debt you owe to your teacher”.
mama datto varaḥ kaś cit kena cid brahmavādinā / prasūtyante prasūtyante kanyaiva tvaṃ bhaviṣyasi/sa tvaṃ dadasva māṃ rājñe pratigṛhya hayottamān / nṛpebhyo hi caturbhyas te pūrṇāny aṣṭau śatāni vai / bhaviṣyanti tathā putrā mama catvāra eva ca/kriyatāṃ mama saṃhāro gurvarthaṃ dvija sattama (Udyog; 114.11-13)
That idea seemed to be a workable arrangement; and, was acceptable both to Galava and the King. Galava became the owner of those two hundred steeds; but he let them continue in king’s care. In due time, Haryasva had a son by Madhavi. She thereafter, by the power of her wish, turned into a virgin again. The new born was as splendid as one of the Vasus; and was named Vasumanasa (also called Vasuprada – vasumanā nāma vasubhyo vasumattaraḥ; vasuprakhyo narapatiḥ sa babhūva vasupradaḥ). He later grew up to be one of the wealthiest and greatest of the benefactors among all the kings.
2.3. Galava next took Madhavi to Divodasa King of Kashi of great valor having a large army (mahāvīryo mahīpālaḥ kāśīnām īśvaraḥ prabhuḥ;divodāsa iti khyāto bhaimasenir narādhipaḥ). Divodasa had already heard of Madhavi’s extraordinary beauty as also of her story (śrutam etan mayā pūrvaṃ). He rejoiced greatly upon the fortune to be with her. But, he too had only two hundred such steeds that Galava required. He agreed to beget only one a son from Madhavi in exchange for those two hundred steeds. Madhavi lived with Divodasa till a son was born to her. He was named Pratardana , who later became a celebrated hero (mādhavī janayām āsa putram ekaṃ pratardanam) . Madhavi having regained her virginity left her second son with his father and returned to Galava.
2.4. The next was, King Ushinara of Bhojanagari (jagāma bhojanagaraṃ draṣṭum auśīnaraṃ nṛpam) , who also had only two hundred of such horses. He handed then over to Galava and lived with Madhavi till a son named Sibi was born (he later gained renown as the upholder of truth and justice – śibir nāmna ābhivikhyāto yaḥ sa pārthivasattamaḥ). Madhavi turned a virgin once again.
2.5. Thereafter Galava collected Madhavi back from King Ushinara. By then , Madhavi had three sons : pratardano vasumanāḥ śibir auśīnaro . But, Galava had so far gathered only six hundred horses, and still needed two hundred more to fulfil the commitment to his teacher. Then, his friend Suparna (Garuda) informs there were no more such horses; but makes a suggestion. As suggested by Suparna, Galava submits to his teacher the six hundred horses he had so far gathered, with a request to accept Madhavi in place of the remaining two hundred horses; and absolve him of the Guru-dakshina.
Visvamitra elated at the prospect of having Madhavi, accepts the offer gleefully and discharges the pupil of his obligation –
viśvāmitras tu taṃ dṛṣṭvā gālavaṃ saha pakṣiṇā/kanyāṃ ca tāṃ varārohām idam ity abravīd vacaḥ/kim iyaṃ pūrvam eveha na dattā mama gālava (Udog, 117;14-15) pratigṛhṇāmi te kanyām ekaputraphalāya vai/aśvāś cāśramam āsādya tiṣṭhantu mama sarvaśaḥ
Madhavi bore to Visvamitra a son named Ashtaka – ātmajaṃ janayām āsa mādhavīputram aṣṭakam (Ashtaka later gained fame as the king who performed grand Ashva-medha yajnas).
3.1. With his debt discharged, Galava retires into the forest. As he departs, he thanks Madhavi for saving him, as also her father and the three childless kings: ” Oh Madhavi, the beautiful maiden, You have borne one son who will be a lordly giver, a second a hero, another fond of truth and right; and yet another a great performer of Yajnas. Farewell to you, virgin of slim waist”.
jāto dānapatiḥ putras tvayā śūras tathāparaḥ/satyadharmarataś cānyo yajvā cāpi tathāparaḥ/tad āgaccha varārohe tāritas te pitā sutaiḥ/catvāraś caiva rājānas tathāhaṃ ca sumadhyame (Udyog; 117.22)
After sometime, Visvamitra retreats into the forest. He hands over the six hundred horses to his son Ashtaka; and , sends Madhavi back to her father Yayati.
Yayati tries to arrange for Madhavi’s wedding, as many suitors (including the three kings who had sons from her) were eager to marry her. But, Madhavi is no longer interested in marriage or childbearing. She refuses all offers and retires into the forest as a hermit.
3.2. The recurring virgin Madhavi is not sovereign herself; but sovereignty passes through her to her four sons who grow up to become great kings whose deeds are celebrated in the Puranas.
In the end, everyone except Madhavi had something to gain: Yayati had the satisfaction of helping a needy person; the three childless kings beget worthy sons and heirs; Visvamitra gained six hundred of rarest horses as also the pleasure of living with the beautiful Madhavi; and, Galava extolled for his guru-bhakthi was relieved of the obligation to his teacher.
Madhavi’s salvation lies in her silence and her retreat into the woods. She prefers to select forest as her consort – Varam Vrivati Vanam (Udog, 120;5). Madhavi entered the forest, lived a peaceful life of a celibate – ‘living in the woods after the manner of the deer ’ – carantī hariṇaiḥ sārdhaṃ mṛgīva vanacāriṇī/ cacāra vipulaṃ dharmaṃ brahmacaryeṇa saṃvṛtā (Udyog, 118; 11)
Question of antiquity
4.1. Though the story of the ‘salvation of the kings by a maiden’ is re-told in Mahabharata, its principle characters come from the distant Pre-Vedic or early Vedic times.
[ In the Tevijja-Sutta: The Threefold Knowledge (Digha-nikaya, I.No.13), the Buddha distinguishes between the later Brahmana-teachers and the earlier Vedic-sages. Among these sages, the Buddha regards just ten as the ancient; as the true authors and the Rishis of the Riks.
The ten Rishis mentioned by the Buddha are: Astaka; Vamaka; Vamadeva; Visvamitra; Jamadagni; Angirasa; Bharadvaja; Vashista; Kashyapa; and , Brighu.
Astaka, mentioned by the Buddha as one among the ancient Sages, is said to be one of the sons of Madhavi, the daughter of the King Yayathi. ]
Yayati, the son of the legendry King Nahusha, is a prominent figure in the early Indian mythological history. He is progenitor of a great dynasty – Chandravamsa – that ruled for countless generations stretching up to the Pandavas and far beyond.
4.2. Yayati marks a watershed in the ancient Indian history. He is credited with bringing together two rival factions of the Angirasas and the Brighus. Yayati, a follower of the Angirasa, married Devayani the daughter of Shukracharya of the Bhrigu clan; and also married Sharmishta the daughter of Vrisha Parvan, the King of Asuras, who also was a follower of the Bhrigus.
4.3. Turvasha and Yadu were sons of Yayati by Devayani of the Bhrigus; while Anu, Druhyu and Puru were his sons by Sharmishta of the Asuras. Yayati’s story indicates that the five great lines of Vedic rulers were born of an alliance of Deva and Asura kings, which also meant the coming together of the followers of the Angirasa and the Bhrigu seers. Yayti’s marriage with the Bhrigu women was perhaps an attempt to reconcile two warring clans.
Yayati divided his kingdom among his five sons: to Tuvasha he gave the south-east; to Druhyu the west; to Yadu the south and west in the Narmada – Godavari region; to Anu the north; and to Puru the centre . Purus ruled as the Supreme Kings of earth.
The ‘Battle of Ten Kings’ (Dasarajna) described in the seventh Mandala of the Rig Veda was fought between the Puru clan and the Turvasha/Druhyu/Anu clans. The Kings involved in the Battle: Puru, Turvasha, Druhyu and Anu were all sons of Yayati.
4.4. The episode of ‘the eight hundred horses’ which we are now discussing mentions the hitherto un-named daughter of Yayati – Madhavi (but, her mother’s name is not mentioned).
Further, the Sukta No. 179 having three verses in the Tenth Mandala of Rig Veda invoking Indra, is jointly ascribed to the three sons of Madhavi:
the first is Sibi the son of Ushinara (prathamo ushinarah Sibihi – शिबिरौशीनरः );
the second Pratardana King of Kashi (dwithiyo kasirajah Pratardanaha- प्रतर्दनः काशिराजः); and,
the third Vasumanasa son of Rauhidasva (thrithiyasha Rauhidashwo Vasumana rishihi – वसुमना रौहिदश्वः) .
In this Sukta, Haryasva is named as Rauhidasva.
Madhavi’s story surfaces in Mahabharata. But she belongs to the very far-away pre-Vedic period. That is the reason I regard her story as of very ancient times.
5.1. As regards Visvamitra, there were many kings and sages who went by that name. Visvamitra who appears in the Madhavi-story may not be the same as the one who figures in the third Mandala of Rig Veda who envisioned the celebrated Gayatri Mantra; or the Visvamitra of Aitareya Brahmana, the adopted father of Sunashepa; or the father of Shakuntala; or even the quick-tempered sage in the Harischandra story.
5.2. This Visvamitra of Kanyakubja in the Madhavi-story may not also be the Visvamitra of Ramayana epic. Because, in the linage of kings (according to Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas ; Vol 1 to Vol 5 by Swami Parameshwarananada ; page 187) Rama , son of Dasaratha comes almost fifty generations after Haryasva the King of Ayodhya , the father of Vasumanasa . Some names of the kings have either gone missing or are unclear.
[ Haryasva – Vasumanasa – Sudhanva – Tridhanva (Tirvashana ) – Satyavrata (Trisanku) – Harischandra – Rohitasva – Harita – Chanchu – Sudeva – Bharuka – Bahuka – Sagara – Asamanjasa – Amsuman – Bhagiratha – Srutanabha – Vedhasa – Para – Nabhaga – Ambarisha – Sindhudweepa – Ayutayus – Rtuparna – Sarvakama – Sudasa – Mitrasakha (Kalmasapada ) – Asmaka – Mulaka – Khatvariga – Dilipa (Dlrghabariu) – Raghu – Aja – Dasaratha – Rama ].
Please also see the chart at the bottom of this blog.
Question of feminism
6.1. The Madhavi episode is roundly criticized in the recent times as being insensitive to a woman’s feelings, depriving her of any inner space or desire, and wiping out her very individuality as a person. She is robbed of any control over her life. Horses, it appeared, were valued more than women. And women were given away to get hold of good horses, which is shocking. Madhavi is led just as a cow from one male to the other, traded for horses, impregnated and each time leaving behind her newborn. At the end, she is neither a wife nor a mother – despite having lived with four men and delivering to four boys.
That is a valid view, up to a point.
7.1. There is also an alternate view which is based in a field of study called Hermeneutics. It speaks of understanding a text by placing it in the context of its times and the society in which it was located; appreciating the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. Which is to say: before we impose our own set of perceptions or apply our the present-day standards of the rights and privileges accorded to women in our society, in order to judge Madhavi, lets pause and place her story in the context of her times and the norms that were evolved and accepted by that society in the environment of its own life patterns.
7.2. There is nothing lewd about the episode, by the manner it is depicted in the Epic. Everyone here is earnest, attempting to live honestly with a pious intent: Galava to fulfil his obligation to his teacher; Yayati to discharge his duty as the King providing for the needy who comes to him seeking help; and, Madhavi considers her filial duty to save her father from disgrace; and in the process to assist a dedicated student to fulfil his promise to his teacher, and to rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction. And, she herself, in all her earnestness, suggests the arrangement of her exchange for horses.
7.3. The kings who figure in her life did not consider their relation with Madhavi as scandalous. The society in which she lived treated her with great respect. Her sons who were aware of their birth antecedents proudly called themselves the sons of Madhavi. The fact that they were the sons of the common wife of four kings did not prevent them from succeeding to thrones of their fathers. In fact, Sibi and Ashtaka were made kings by preference over the sons of their fathers’ individual wives
7.4. When her sons met her again after they had grown into fine young men, they greeted their mother with great reverence: “those monarchs saluted her and bowed down to her ‘O the abode of asceticism (tapodhane) , instruct us all thy sons, what command of yours shall we obey’ ”.
mādhavīṃ prekṣya rājānas te ‘abhivādyedam abruvan/kim āgamanakṛtyaṃ te kiṃ kurvaḥ śāsanaṃ tava/ājñāpyā hi vayaṃ sarve tava putrās tapodhane / (Udyog, 119; 2)
Madhavi introduces herself to her father, at the hour of his need, as his daughter (duhitā ), a forest – dweller (mṛgacāriṇī) – ahaṃ te duhitā rājan Mādhavī mṛgacāriṇī . And, at her command, her four sons help their grandfather Yayati to ascend to heaven, again.
“It was thus that those daughter’s sons born in four royal lines, those multipliers of their races, by means of their virtues, sacrifices, and gifts, caused their maternal grandfather to ascend again to heaven. And those monarchs jointly said, ‘Endued with the attributes of royalty and possessed of every virtue, we are, O king, thy daughter’s sons! By virtue of our good deeds, ascend thou to heaven. ” (Mbh: Udyoga Parva; section 122)
7.5. Madhavi’s character, as I see it, is invested with a certain air of dignity. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner she found appropriate in the given circumstances. Her unsullied and detached attitude to her unique encounters with four men perhaps defines her ‘virgin’ status. At the end of the episode she exercises her choice without disgust, rancor or regret; and retires into the woods.
8.1. The social ethos, the concept of marriage, the status and the treatment of women reflected in the Madhavi-story belong to those very ancient pre-Vedic times (perhaps older than 2,500 BC).They pre-date the Mahabharata – event period by several centuries. The society did not remain static during those centuries. It went through a prolonged process of evolution. The Rig Veda period that followed Madhavi’s time marked a watershed; and its society was in transformation.
Further, the Mahabharata-society was far different from the Vedic society. The values, norms and idioms of social conduct changed not merely during those centuries but also during the course of the Mahabharata story. You find in the Epic, each stage evolving into its next phase.
That is the reason the social values as reflected in early parts of the Epic are far different from those at its end-parts. Which in turn, were indeed much different from the customs that came into vogue at later times.
Those differences should not be seen as contradictions or aberrations, but be understood as marking changes in the evolution or the flow of the Indian society.
It is interesting, how the perceptions and values change in a society over long periods. They are usually born out of interactions between responses and challenges or demands of the times
On certain issues, the Pre-Vedic and Vedic women enjoyed a kind of liberty and social approval which was not available to the subsequent generations of women. And, some of the liberties of the Madhavi-period are not available to the present-day Indian women.
8.2. Generally, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation or degeneration of what was once a cohesive society that cherished liberal values. The society in the early period of Mahabharata was more open than our present day society. But, as the Epic stepped into its later generations, the views and values got rigid. That downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries (we shall come back to this theme later).
Question of recurring virginity
9.1. Madhavi mentions that she is gifted with a boon by virtue of which she will regain her virginity each time after she gives birth to a child (kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi : Mbh.5.114.11).
Such wondrous instances of women retaining or regaining their maidenhood are found elsewhere in Mahabharata.
Satyavathi cajoled Sage Parashara into promising “when you have done me this favour you shall become a maiden again (garbham utsrijya mamakam . . . kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi; Mbh: 1.105.13)”. She again (punar) became a virgin after giving birth to Vyasa.
Kunti also became a maid each time after delivering to a son (punar eva tu kanyabhavam; Mbh: 15. 30.16).
Both Satyavathi and Kunti gained that unique faculty through boons conferred on them by the sages.
9.2. Draupadi too, despite having five husbands and bearing five sons, is regarded as a knaya – a maid or a virgin- emerging chaste like polestar after each encounter : the lovely one with glorious waist , the very mighty one , at the end of each day shall become a maid again’(Mbh: 1.197.14) .
Kunti describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarva-dharmopa-carinam (the one who promotes or cultivates all virtues), in the very term used by Yayati to describe Madhavi while gifting her to Galava.
10.1. Obviously, virginity was regarded very precious in the Epics .Only a few virtuous women were blessed with the faculty of retaining or regaining maidenhood. Similar notions of valuing virgin –status exist in other religions too.
For instance; virginity is a recurring theme in the Bible which looks upon the mother of Jesus as a virgin. In Judaism there is much discussion about the virgins in the temples.
And, Islam too believes that a man who enters paradise will be received by 72 virgins.
The Shakta-Tantra cult worships virgin as a complete person who has the ‘whole potential of the total-human being’ (combination of Shiva and Shakthi); and, as the untapped source of life-energy, the ‘holding back of the potential procreative power’.
10.2. The treatment of virginity in the older texts is again a much contested issue. Many have argued that such notions of continued or restored maidenhood were evidently moral or legal fictions invented, at a later period, merely to disguise the murky cases of promiscuity, free license or strange relations that were neither rape nor adultery. Or, at best, it might have been a self-deceiving, make-believe reflexes or opinions, reluctant to accept the stark fact.
10.3. The classic view of the scholars, however, converged on the understanding that virginity in those contexts does not refer to the state of their bodies but to the state of their being. It was said; virginity here does not refer to the physical condition but to the unsullied mind and attitude of those remarkable women. It is a state distinguished by purity, detachment and independence.
It is explained; when these women in Mahabharata, who knew more than one man and bore children, were respected by the ancients as kanyas, that was meant to suggest they were psychologically pure and untainted. Those women learnt to sublimate their ego. And yet, they were independent women enjoying an identity of their own.
Therefore, the status of Kanya also referred to the way they fiercely asserted their independence. Each one of those does whatever had to be done out of a sense of duty; and she is true to herself and to her nature. Each one’s life was authentic.
10.4. A common feature among the kanyas of Mahabharata is that they all had to endure countless difficulties. And, yet these ‘women of substance’ were not broken down by personal tragedies. Each went on to live with a certain pride around her. But, there was a sense of loneliness that surrounded them despite being placed amidst their men and offspring.
11.1. And, that is echoed by M. Esther Harding who writes in Woman’s Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125- 126]
“the woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependent; she is what she is because that is what she is … (she is) one-in-herself (and) does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked or to be approved even by herself but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional “.
M. Esther Harding again makes a telling observation:
“He does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhood…Only a woman can know that and speak of that. …She must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after every love she is a mother.”
She elsewhere while talking of purity of love says “Every Mother is a virgin. She is pure in love to her child. Every child comes out of pure love”.
11.2. How well this illustrates Madhavi’s life and her experiences with men. The disinterested series of marriages and childbearing came about as a necessity. She looked upon it as her filial duty to save her father from disgrace; as assistance to an earnest student to fulfil his promise to his teacher; and as rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction.
Question of Motherhood
12.1. In the Epic, Draupadi had to live with five men, while Kunti had to endure momentary involvements; and the case of Madhavi lies somewhere in between the two. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months. The significant difference among the three was their motherhood.
12.2. Kunti treated with much respect in the Epic is projected as heroic mother who protected and guided her children on the right path.
In the case of Draupadi the mother of five sons, sadly, there is not much discussion in the Epic about her motherhood. Her five sons are mere names of the boys who appear on the scene very late in the Epic, only to be slaughtered while asleep. They perhaps lived their childhood and brief adolescence in Panchala under the care of their maternal uncle and grandfather while Draupadi was in exile serving her five husbands. It is particularly sad that her husbands could neither protect her well nor offer her the honour and respect that a woman should have as a wife and a mother. All that they succeeded was in making her a Queen.
12.3. Madhavi could not be a wife and a mother, in true sense. She had to be a mother ‘technically’. Each tine after a childbirth, she is separated from the infant’s father; and she has also no opportunity to nurse the infant, to care for him and bring him up to manhood. The emphasis of her life seems to be elsewhere. Her detachment is not by choice; but forced upon her by circumstances.
13.1. There are instances in the Epic of women giving up their newborn, of their own freewill, as in the case of Ganga (Bhishma), Satyavati (Vyasa), Kunti (Karna) and the Apsaras: Urvashi (Ayu) and Menaka (Shakuntala).There are also instances of women who were denied motherhood because their offspring were snatched away from them.
The most well-known of such tragic cases is Devaki who was forced to surrender all her newborn. It is not Devaki but Yashodha the foster mother of Krishna that is celebrated in songs and legends as the very icon of loving motherhood.
In that sense, Madhavi is closer to Devaki than to the other women of Mahabharata.
14.1. Motherhood and mothering are seen as naturally related. Bringing forth a new life, its protection and nurturing are functions that only womankind can perform. The motherhood is essential for human survival and development. Motherhood is also of profound importance in family structure; that is to say in holding a family together, in building relations within and outside of the family, and in providing stability to life . And these functions are also central to female existence; it involves her body, mind and heart. She, often, regards motherhood as the fulfilment of her life. There is, naturally, enormous reverence, devotion and gratitude to Mother and motherhood.
14.2. Paradoxically, her maternal functions, her life-giving and life-sustaining responsibilities are taken for granted and often undervalued. And, these responsibilities have tied down the woman, excluded her from authority and role in public life. Added to these are the countless taboos on women during menstruation and pregnancy.
14.3. In the case of Madhavi, Devaki and others like them, being ‘mother’ is distinct from motherhood. Some regard that as tragic, because they were deprived of an essential and a most endearing aspect of woman’s life. There are also those who see no reason to be unhappy about such situation; because they view it as the sort of liberation that the women have been searching for.
Question of Many husbands
15.1. As said earlier, Kunti need not have to live with the gods who provided her with sons. But, Draupadi had to live with five husbands all her life. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months. Draupadi’s husbands were brothers; and that helped to maintain and strengthen fraternal unity among the Pandavas. While in the case of Madhavi, her men were unconnected and unrelated, excepting that all the four were kings.
15.2. The polyandrous relations that Madhavi and Draupadi had to endure have been much discussed. These two women lived in different eras and were separated by several centuries. In the Pre- Vedic times during which Madhavi lived, polyandry might not have been unusual. But, Draupadi’s polyandry wedding/s was definitely a strange and a startling feature of the then Mahabharata society.
In the long list of the Pandava- ancestors there was no instance of polyandry. Draupadi’s marriage with five brothers did not, therefore, take place in accordance with the then prevailing custom or its old tradition. But, it came about as an extraordinary and an exceptional event. Later in the Epic, her adversaries miss no opportunity to taunt, ridicule and humiliate her for being the wife of many men.
15.3. Yudhishtira’s proposal asking for Draupadi as the wife of all the five brothers came as rude shock to Drupada, Draupadi’s father; and it almost felled him. He cried out it in anguish: it is such an unheard of adharma and is totally against the normal the codes of behaviour (lokadharma viruddham).
Yet, Yudhishtira attempts to clear Drupada’s bewilderment by lamely citing Vedic instances of Marisha-Varkshi (vārkṣī hy eṣā varā kanyā: a girl raised by the trees) mother of Daksha married to the ten Prachetas brothers; and of Jatila (nee Gautami) the spouse of seven sages. Drupada is now more confused because those instances were ancient and not many had heard of those.
Then, sage Vyasa the biological father of Pandu (who was the de jure father of the Pandavas) steps in and convinces Drupada. Vyasa succeeds in his attempt, not by reason or logic, but by narrating events from Draupadi’s previous birth/s. Drupada nonplussed, gives in.
[In the same episode, Sage Vyasa, in an attempt to convince the beleaguered Drupada, narrates the story of the most beautiful and virtuous Bhaumāśvī, the daughter of King Sibi of great fame and immense valor. Bhaumāśvī, the best and most auspicious among women, gifted with a sweet voice, melodious as the notes of the Veena. At her Svayamvara, the five valorous sons of the great King Nitantu (Salveya, Srutasena, Surasena, Tindusara and Atisara), bulls among kings, endowed with all good qualities and famous wielders of the bow, all fell desperately in love with the most enchanting Bhaumāśvi.
Ultimately, the five brothers married her, And, Bhaumāśvi as their common wife bore five most heroic sons. And, their descendants gained fame as: Salveyaas, Surasenas, Srutasenas, Tindusaras and Atisaras
In this manner, listen Oh Great King, Bhaumasvi, celebrated on earth as the most virtuous woman became the common wife for five of Kings.
In the same manner, your daughter of divine form, the blameless Parshati, Krishnaa is destined to be the wife of five Pandavas.
etān naitantavān pañca śaibyā cātra svayaṃvare / avāpa sā patīn vīrān bhaumāśvī manujādhipān / vīṇeva madhurārāvā gāndhāra-svaramūrcchitā / uttamā sarva-nārīṇāṃ bhaumāśvī hy abhavat tadā / yasyā naitantavāḥ pañca patayaḥ kṣatriyar-ṣabhāḥ / babhūvuḥ pṛthivīpālāḥ sarvaiḥ samuditā guṇaiḥ – 01,189.049d@101_0008 -0013
16.1. It appears that polyandry was a relic of the Pre-Vedic era that was linked to ancient Sumer (c.2900 BCE). Rig Veda period, which represents an age of transition, was an open society which fully appreciated the virtues of marriage. The marriage was sanctified with due rituals and ceremony. There is no passage in Rig Veda clearly referring to the custom of polyandry. The practice was known; but mentioned mostly with reference to certain gods. Johann Jacob Meyer in his Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) remarks (page 108)
“As is well known the polygamy of the man in Aryan India is as old as the hills and does not form the slighted offence in the Brahmanic system, although since Vedic times, indeed, one wife is seen to be the usual, often the obvious thing. On the other hand, polyandry is utterly repugnant to Indian feelings, and in the Epic only one or two cases of it are found, and these are exclusively cases of a community of wives among brothers”.
16.2. The earliest known evidence of polyandry refers to the twins Aswins (Nasatya) who represent the pre-Vedic horsemen known for swiftness and ability to heal. Rig Veda also refers to Rodasi of disheveled hair as Sadharani the common wife of the Maruts: ‘The Maruts cling to their young and radiant wife who belongs to them all’ (RV.1.167.4); ‘ride upon their chariot with winged steeds; the youths have set the maiden wedded to glory’ (RV.1.167.6). The Aswins and the Maruts are gods or mythical figures; and not men of the living society. Such references are inoffensive not scandalous.
According to Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar (Some aspects of the earliest social history of India – pre Buddihistic ages; 1924) it is best understood as the relic of a gradually disused custom transformed into allegories. Dr Sarkar also observes “The practice of polyandry is generally supposed to be un-Vedic; and clear evidences are not found in the Vedic texts”. Yet, he feels such imagery of Aswins and the Maruts were evidently inspired by polyandric – traits that must have existed in the past.
Madhavi’s story has therefore to be placed in the context of pre-Vedic times.
17.1. The instances that Yudhishtira mentions, those of Jatila and Varksi are indeed very ancient; and not much is known about these women. They are very rare incidents. In Aitareya Brahmana , a post Vedic text, attached to Rig Veda , there is a distinct prohibition against a wife having more than one husband at a time (AB: 2.23) .
By the time of Mahabharata, the polyandry as a cultural trait had fallen into disuse and was largely discredited. It was also not in vogue at the time of the Buddha (600 BCE).
The Dharma-shastras too do not speak of polyandry. Thus, even in the earliest times of which we have evidence, polyandry had become rare and discredited. It was not considered ‘respectable’ in the Madyadesha, the heartland of Vedic and Buddhist religions.
17.2. According to Dr. Sarkar, the practice of polyandry lingered among the Tribal communities in the Western Sub-Himalaya belts and among as also among the Tibet-Burma tribes.
As regards Tibet, according to Melvyn C. Goldstein, professor of anthropology at Case Western University, in Natural History (vol. 96, no. 3, March 1987, pp. 39-48) , the practice is tied with limited tillable land, inadequate labor force and the skewed ratio of male -female. The custom of polyandry occurs in many different economic classes, but is especially common in peasant landowning families.
But, it has been on steady decline; though it is occasionally still practiced.
Question of Women
18.1. In the stories through which the Mahabharata speaks of life, women occupy a central position. It is the women who take decisions, direct the course of events and decide the fate of men and their generations to follow. The women are the true leaders of the Epic. The three women (Satyavathi, Kunti and Draupadi) in particular wielded power, in more ways than one. Mahabharata is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of power and leadership. They knew when and how to wield power; and more importantly, when not to slam it. These women demonstrated that the truly powerful do not have to cling to the seat of power, but can still influence the course of events.
[When you come to think of it ; the tragedy of the Kauravas was that their helpless mother Gandhari was unable to exert her influence upon her wayward children.]
18.2. One of the other ways of looking at Mahabharata is to view it as a reflection of the flow of woman’s life. The narrations in the early part of the Epic indicate that the women enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, were invested with authority to take decisions on crucial matters, and were accorded much respect. We have seen how Madhavi could preserve her independence; and exercise a measure of freedom of thought and action in a manner that was unique to her times.
Later, coming down to the core Epic, you find Ganga and Satyavati married on conditions they imposed and insisted upon. Satyavati the fisher-maid could upset the dynamics of the royalty. She prevailed upon her husband to ensure that only her progenies succeeded to the throne. Kunti and Madri could take their decisions independently on crucial matters. Kunti, in particular, exercised control and actively directed the lives of her sons. She could command a sort of respect and obedience that Gandhari the queen could not secure from sons.
18.3. As the Epic steps into its middle and later stages when Kunti recedes to background and Draupadi enters the lives of the Pandavas there is a noticeable erosion in the power and influence of women. The women in the Epic are no longer respected as they once were. The esteem of women plummeted to its nadir with the most brazen act of wagering Draupadi at a gambling game of dice, which led to insult and humiliation of her womanhood in a public place. Thereafter, the women cease to play any significant role; they are treated rather coarsely and almost reduced to objects of pity.
Draupadi as a woman and mother is dealt a most grievous and mortal blow when her sons are slaughtered while asleep alongside her. At the end, Draupadi the prime heroine of the Epic is left to die unattended as she stumbles and falls on mountain slopes while none of her five husbands cares to stay with her or to help her.
19.1. Thus, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation of woman’s status, erosion of her authority, and degeneration of her esteem. That worsening downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries. Let’s talk of this in bit more detail.
19.2. When Pandu attempted to force his wife Kunti to beget children for him by soliciting a worthy stranger, she recoiled in horror and flatly refused, screaming “not even in touch will I be embraced by another”. Pandu eventually succeeded in gaining her acceptance by cajoling and reasoning with her after narrating to her the sanctioned customs of the Uttara-kuru, Northern Kurus:
“Now will I make known to thee the true essence of dharma, listen unto me the ancient dharma perceived by the lofty-minded knowers of it (atha tv imaṃ pravakṣyāmi dharmaṃ tv etaṃ nibodha me – Adi Parva – 01,113.003). In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (anavrita)- anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane; O thou of the lovely face, going the way of their desires, in freedom they followed their own inclinations. (kāma cāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś cārulocane),
O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti nari- nara- naam); and, were free from fear, excessive attachment and anger. When they, from the years of maidenhood on, did trick their husbands; that was not seen as wrong. But, that was the right thing in former times.
This was the moral order laid down by the rule of conduct; it was honoured by the great Rishis through observance, and to-day is still honored among the Uttara-kurus –
purāṇadṛṣṭo dharmo ‘yaṃ pūjyate ca maharṣibhiḥ uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate / strīṇām anugraha-karaḥ sa hi dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ – Adi parva – 01,113.006.
For, this is the eternal law that shows favour to women. But, sadly, the barrier of to-day was set up in our world short while ago. Learn this now, O brightly-smiling one, from me “.
He then narrates the bizarre story of Svethakethu son of the Rishi Uddalaka; and, the circumstance that prompted Svethakethu to bring into effect the new moral order of conduct for woman and man, replacing the ancient law under which the women were unhindered (anavrita) .
“Until then, women were not restricted to the house, they were not dependent on family members; they moved about freely, they enjoyed themselves freely. Until then they were free; they could sleep with any men they liked from the age of puberty; they could be unfaithful to their husbands, and yet were not viewed sinful… the greatest rishis have praised the ancient tradition-based custom;… the Northern Kurus still practice it…the new custom is very recent.” (Mbh: Adi Parva; 113.4-8)
19.3. During the Vedic ages, the women were generally not discriminated against merely on the grounds of gender. They did have their say in matters of education; marriage; re-marriage; managing the household and the property. Many women engaged in intellectual pursuits, participation in public debate; and many were teachers. There were also few instances of women on the battlefield fighting along with their men folk.
I am not suggesting that the Vedic society was a perfect one. I wonder if there ever was a perfect society. Even Plato’s idealized Utopia was not perfect. Rig Vedic society too suffered from poverty, destitution, slavery and exploitation of the weak. But, the sorrows and suffering that the women of those times had to endure in their day- to-day living were not for the mere reason they were women. The depravity, social evil and injustice do exist in all societies – modern or otherwise- just as the strong, affluent, educated, enlightened, independent and liberated women do exist in all societies. The Vedic society was as good or bad as any other society of its time; but it appeared to be a tolerant and moderately unbiased society.
20.1. What happened after the Buddhist period, particularly after 300 BCE, was a totally different story. Woman lost the high status and some of her independence she once enjoyed in society. She became a piece of property, an object to be protected.
The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the Indian society. Fear and insecurity haunted common people and the householders. Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the need for more fighting males in order to survive waves of onslaughts. It was also imperative to protect women from abductors. It therefore became necessary to curtail women’s freedom and movements’; and confining them within limited spaces. Early marriage was employed as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority, as was her safety.
20.2. The Dharmashastras came into prominence at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered into an inward looking self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharmashastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its pet social order. The Shastras compromised social values by accepting early marriage as a substitute for Upanayanam and education of girls. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and paranoid sense of insecurity that gripped their lives had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women. The society in turn sank into depravity.
The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.
21.1. The long centuries stretching to almost 2000 years – from 300 B.C. to 1800 A.D. – are truly the dark ages of India. The development of woman steadily stuttered though she was affectionately nurtured by the parents, loved by the husband and cared by her children.
21.2. Now, it is the time of reawakening. Women of India are beginning to get opportunities to establish their identity and be recognized for their potential, talent and capabilities. This is a good re-beginning; though there is still a long way to go. The process must improve both in terms of its spread and quality. The ancient principles of equal opportunities for learning and development; equitable position in work-place; and the right to seek out her destiny with honor, must soon find place in all segments of the society. It might sound like asking for the moon. But, that is the only option India is left with, if it has to survive as a nation…and, if only the opportunities and freedom are utilized sensibly.
References and Sources
1.Some aspects of the earliest social history of India –pre Buddihistic ages (1924) by Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar.
2. Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) by Johann Jacob Meyer.
3. Polyandry in Ancient India (1988) by Dr. Sarva Daman Singh
4. A Social History of India (2009) by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya
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